“Don’t ask, don’t tell” didn’t work for the military, and it doesn’t work for the deeply troubling issue of sexual assault either.
Our culture’s longstanding fear of asking and telling about sexual assault has contributed to an epidemic rate of child sexual abuse (1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2005). As a survivor of child sexual abuse, I can attest to the deep shame surrounding this issue that keeps both survivors and everyone else silent.
We should consider an alternative approach: ask and tell. Raising awareness of the issue and sparking conversation are crucial components of sexual assault prevention. Ask and tell can help us make the transition to a world in which the norm—not the exception—is telling survivor stories and asking children if they are experiencing this trauma.
Why ask? Asking children, as part of routine care, if someone is assaulting them may prevent abuse and validate a child’s traumatic experience. To do this, we must first become more comfortable with asking children in age-appropriate ways if someone has made them feel uncomfortable with their touching or done something in the past to which a child has said no.
It’s important that the person inquiring is the right one to do so and is educated to handle disclosures and questions. It is not easy for anyone to do, but it is a necessary ingredient for prevention. Even when children deny sexual abuse because of shame or fear, these conversations let children know there are safe adults to tell and reinforces the message that sexual assault is never a child’s fault.
Throughout my childhood, several people suspected I was a victim, but no one ever asked me about it. Had they done so, it could have changed the course of my life. It was only when I found the courage to report at the age of 19 that intervention became possible and the abuser was held responsible.
We must continue to find creative ways to educate both child practitioners and parents on sexual abuse prevention methods and resources. But since parents are sometimes the abusers, it is crucial that others—such as educators, coaches, extended family, and other caregivers—assume responsibility for asking too. It truly does take a village to prevent these crimes.
Why tell? Telling our sexual abuse survivor stories helps those without our personal experiences to understand the trauma and feel compelled to act. Sharing, whether in person, by journaling, or anonymously through social media, empowers other survivors to begin their own journey to healing and be better prepared to share with others down the road. In my case, it has been the best medicine for self-healing.
The power of telling also lies in dismantling what some in this field call the sexual assault “code of silence.” The absence of survivor voices in popular culture signals that people shouldn’t talk openly about their personal experiences with abuse. This keeps survivors struggling to conceal a traumatic event, which only deepens the sense of shame.
I have told my story dozens of times to audiences throughout southern New England, and inevitably at least one person contacts me after each event to share their sexual assault story. When I tell, it gives others the green light to do the same, which is a powerful force for my own healing. The more I tell, the easier it becomes for others to tell, creating a new era of openness and empathy.
It is time to put the “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture to bed and make “ask and tell” our society’s approach to sexual abuse prevention. No one had the ability or training to ask me about this when I was a child, but our country is slowly progressing, and asking and telling is becoming easier. I have found the courage to share my experience and become a catalyst for change, and every day I encourage those around me to do the same. Small steps, when taken collectively, will bring us steadily closer to the elimination of sexual assault.
Click here for tips on talking about sexual abuse.
Suzanne Alden is a sexual assault prevention advocate and survivor. Drawing on her experiences and knowledge of powerful personal healing strategies, she writes on the topic of sexual violence and has given dozens of talks to audiences throughout New England about the potential for bystander intervention on sexual assault prevention. Suzanne has degrees in sociology, women’s studies, and accounting and works in higher education.