April 3, 2023
Since the first Sexual Assault Awareness Month was declared in 2001, April has become the month to bring attention to the sad fact that is true every month of the year - the prevalence of sexual assault continues to occur at epidemic levels. In fact, the CDC recently calculated a nearly 20% increase in reported incidences of sexual assault among teen girls in the past few years. These statistics are based on reported incidences - merely the tip of the iceberg as we know the majority of sexual abuse is never reported.
Although the CDC report highlights sexual assault to teen girls, we know that sexual violence happens to people of all ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, religions, abilities, professions, incomes, and ethnicities. Sexual abuse is far, far more prevalent than we choose to acknowledge. It happens in your community and in my community every day.
Awareness around the issue of sexual abuse and especially the lasting effect of the abuse is critical. Sexual assault is the one criminal act in which the victims blame themselves and hide away in fear and shame. Victims do not bring attention to themselves or to the issue. It is up to us to bring the issue out into the open - to acknowledge both the prevalence and the harm. In fact, I do not believe that the incidences of sexual abuse will decrease until we, as a community, pull back the curtain on this terrible act that happens in secret.
I have long said that the words, child sexual abuse, bring up a picture that no one wants to see. It is extremely uncomfortable to picture, for instance, the careful seduction (grooming) of a willing and eager child by their esteemed coach. It is even more uncomfortable to picture that child being coerced into performing sexual acts that are far beyond what that young child could possibly tolerate or begin to understand. Acts that will likely change that child’s life forever.
I recognize that these words are difficult and uncomfortable to read. No one finds it easy to stand in the overwhelming and destabilizing realty of sexual abuse. The picture of a child’s sexual abuse is so uncomfortable that we want to turn away. While it is in our reflexive nature to turn away from painful and uncomfortable images, when it comes to the sexual abuse of a child (or adult), the cost of turning away is simply too high. This cost is born out in the life of every survivor of sexual abuse who dares not speak of their abuse.
While it is true that no action takes place without awareness, the concept of awareness most often conjures up a kind of passive knowing that does not necessarily indicate action. I propose that an issue as urgent and profoundly life-altering as the sexual abuse of our fellow human beings demands that our awareness allows us to become unsettled and uncomfortable enough to take meaningful action.
Sexual Assault Awareness month must be the catalyst to stand up and speak up for survivors. It takes courage to speak to this unspeakable act, but this act of courage can begin to end the stigma and silence that surrounds this issue and most importantly, can let survivors know that there is a strong and caring community that stands with them. Awareness that leads to action is enough!
Janice Palm, Executive Director