Content Warning – sexual abuse, discussion of HOW to prevent abuse esp within a Samoan/Pasifika context.
When I was twenty, I told my husband Darren, something I’d never told anybody else. I told him that when I was little, somebody over time, had done bad things to me. Then they threatened me. They said, ‘don’t tell anyone or you’ll be in big trouble.‘
I was scared, sore and ashamed. I was seven. I believed him.
That first moment of telling is one I’ll never forget. It was a winter night in Wellington with the wild wind outside of our second storey flat. I’d woken up crying from a nightmare filled with murky half-remembered things and ended up telling Darren stuff I’d tried to forget. He stopped me midway through my tale to ask, “Why are you whispering?” I said, “Shhh, he might hear us.” Darren was bewildered. “What do you mean? We’re on the second floor of the building. What, do you think he’s outside hiding in the bushes watching you?”
I said, yes.
Its ridiculous I know, but I truly believed I was being watched, that my abuser followed me everywhere and would somehow know the moment I opened that locked box of memory. Inside, my 7yro self was always afraid of faceless, menacing male threats. He was in every shadow of every dark street I walked down, waiting for the chance to jump out and rape me. He was in isolated stairwells, public restrooms, and hiding in the back seat of every car I parked in enclosed parking buildings. He was every strange man who walked behind me when I went for a run and every unexplained noise outside my house at night.
It wasn’t just fear of a physical assault. I carried the burden of guilt and shame for what had happened. Because I believed it was my fault and there was something wrong with me. He was in every public social setting – waiting to tell everyone my dirty secret and shame me if I talked with too much fiapoto confidence, if I laughed too loud, if I expressed opinions that were too controversial or dressed too attractively. I did a book signing in Brisbane where several hundred people lined up to chat with me and get books – which should have been a super awesome experience but I was freaking out inside, because I thought I didn’t deserve it, because that leftover yuck voice inside was saying, “If they all knew how disgusting you are they wouldn’t even want to shake your hand.” Worst of all, my abuser left unseen scars that affected my intimate relationship with the man who loves me more than anybody else.
The pathetic reality is of course, that my abuser probably hasn’t given me a second thought since then. He probably doesn’t even remember what he did to me 33yrs ago, or think that it was a big deal. In fact, I know he doesn’t because I’ve seen him a couple of times since and he acts like everything’s fine.
I tell you these things because I want to emphasize that the effects of childhood sexual abuse go far beyond the physical – especially when that abuse is suppressed, hidden by fear, shame, guilt and ignorance. Even though I whispered a few details to Darren on that windy winter night, it took me another twenty years before I could talk to anybody else and get professional counselling for my abuse and for my screwed up feelings towards intimacy, love, trust and body confidence. When I blogged about my abuse and did media interviews highlighting this issue in Pacific Island communities everywhere/anywhere – it was terrifying and incredibly liberating. It was me giving my abuser the finger and saying, ‘I won’t live in fear anymore.‘
The sad fact is that my experience is not an isolated one. I am just one of many in Samoa with a survivor story – and mine is pretty tame compared to others. Studies in overseas countries state that one in ten children are sexually abused. I’m going to take a wild guess and say those figures are higher here in Samoa. Indeed, I would say Samoa is a paedophile’s paradise – because of the way children are so often unsupervised and treated as voiceless second class citizens who must always honor and obey their elders regardless if that elder behaves worthy of respect. We see six year olds walking to school by themselves and being sent to the store to buy things for their parents. Young children outside nightclubs late at night, selling lei’s. Justice Vui Clarence Nelson called the sexual abuse of children in this country – “an epidemic” – and with good reason. Every week there are reports of more cases and our Samoa Victim Support Center that offers refuge to survivors is struggling to cope.
So, what can we do about it? We can’t lock our kids in a tower to keep them safe from all the dangers out there, but as parents, teachers, caregivers we can give children the skills and tools they need to be able to seek help when someone does try to hurt them. When you empower a child to say “no” to unwanted touch and teach them that they can come to you with questions and concerns, you take critical steps to preventing child sexual abuse. And its never too early or too late to start giving them those tools. There’s a ton of great information available online about this and I encourage you to research and find resources that will suit you and your personal family situation.
The following are six things I think are essential.
1.Know and understand what sexual abuse is. What is Child Sexual Abuse? Any sexual act between an adult and a minor. This may seem a little obvious, but I’ve heard people say, “the problem is these young girls today are so cheeky. They chase after men, even their own relatives…Do you see the clothes they wear?” There are mothers berating their ten year old daughters for ‘tempting’ their fathers to have sex. Grandmothers punishing their thirteen year old grand-daughters and banishing them from the family for having sex with their uncles and getting pregnant.
Such attitudes sicken me. By definition, a child cannot give consent for sexual activity and so cannot be held responsible for any sexual acts. A favourite quote of mine is,
Sexual abuse can also happen between two minors when one exerts power over the other. This is very relevant to our Samoan culture with our extended family living conditions. Children are often left in the care of an older sibling or cousin or other relative and we assume ‘everything will be fine because “we are aiga…they’re all just kids…” This is not true. Lets be clear, we’re not talking about two 5yro showing each other their bits. “Look what I got, what have you got? Whoo!” No, that’s a natural healthy curiosity and exploration that many children engage in and shouldn’t be shamed for. That’s very different from a 5yro and a 10yro where you’ve got the older child telling the younger to come touch me here, come do this, show me that and don’t tell anybody. Sexual abuse is forcing, coercing or persuading a child to engage in any type of sexual act. It also includes non-contact acts such as exhibitionism, exposure to pornography, voyeurism, and communicating in a sexual manner by phone or Internet. It’s a crime punishable by law. We shouldn’t ever excuse these or rationalize them away when we discover them.
2.Talk openly and directly with children about our bodies, sex and boundaries. Then they are less vulnerable to people who would violate their boundaries, and are more likely to tell you if abuse occurs.Teach children the names of their body parts so that they have the language to ask questions and express concerns. Encourage their questions without imparting any shame or guilt or fear. When I became a parent, this was my mantra: NO SHAME, NO GUILT, NO FEAR
It sounds easy on paper but was a huge challenge for a woman who couldn’t even say the word ‘sex’ without whispering it! We have three daughters and two sons. I had to not only know all the right names for their ‘bits’, but I also had to be able to refer to them without cringing and showing a yuck face. (I mean how many of us walk around casually referring to our vagina’s and penises in casual conversation?! I don’t know any Samoans who do…) But I was determined and I tried right from the start when they were toddlers. This led to some memorable conversations!
3.Teach children that some parts of their body are private/ special /sacred and that they have personal autonomy. They should know that if someone tries to touch those areas or wants to look at them, OR if someone tries to show the child their own private parts, they should tell a trusted adult as soon as possible. I don’t like the word ‘private‘ because for me its too close to the word secret and when we’re talking about sexuality, secret usually means shameful and even dangerous. I tell my children, “Your body is sacred and it belongs to YOU. Some parts of your body are even more special than others and we keep them covered and take good care of them, and nobody else is allowed to touch them, just you.” When my daughter started preschool, it was my daily reminder to her. “Remember don’t let anybody touch your special place. Your vulva belongs to you.” Which led to my four year old yelling out to her father as he left for work one day, “Dada don’t let anybody touch your vulva okay!? Its special and it belongs to you!”
The key foundation for this is the idea that a child has personal autonomy. A child needs to know they are the boss of their body and no-one is allowed to make them do things with it that they don’t agree to. It doesn’t matter if that person is older, bigger, stronger, or an authority figure. And likewise, they should never try to force another younger/weaker/smaller person to do things with their body. We do a bad job with this in our Samoan culture. We are big on fa’aaloalo, respect for authority and elders to the point of blind obedience sometimes. Which can cross over to exploitation and abuse. We need to find that balance. I want my children to be respectful, yes, but I want them to also have the strength and confidence to state their boundaries and speak up for them.
We are very affectionate in our family and not a day goes by that we don’t hug or kiss our children and tell them we love them. But I always ask my children’s permission before I hug or kiss them. When they’re little it’s a game, “Bella can I have a hug please?” If she says no, I’m like ‘Fine I’m going to hug this pillow then.’ And she laughs and comes to hug me, “But only one, okay!” It’s playful and fun, but it’s reinforcing from a young age that she is in charge of her body and it doesn’t matter that I’m older or that I’m her mother authority figure – I must still respect her autonomy.
Likewise, I never tell my children to hug or kiss a relative. We visit family and I ask them, “ would you like to say goodbye to grampa with a hug? No? Ok, say goodbye and thank you for the nice visit.” We never get angry at them if they don’t want physical affection. Yes it means sometimes extended family may get offended that a child doesn’t want to kiss or hug them, but that’s a small price to pay for teaching my child that she has boundaries for her personal space and we her parents will always support and honor those boundaries.
It’s even more important as they get older that children understand what consent is. With our teenagers, we share with them stories about when we were young and mistakes we made. We talk about how its difficult to be the boss of your body if you’re wasted or high. With my son in particular, I talk to him often about how he should show respect to the young women he’s friends with. What matters even more than words though, are our examples as their parents and also the examples of other couples and relationships they observe around them.
4.Strive for open, honest non-judgemental communication with children. About anything and everything. If your child can’t talk to you about the good stuff, then how can you expect them to come tell you the bad stuff? It’s not enough to just tell a child once, “Tell me if anyone tries to touch you ok?” When one of my children came to tell us that she likes a boy in her class at school and she thinks he likes her too and what should she do? – Her friends freaked when she told them she’d asked us for advice. ‘You told your Dad! And he didn’t yell at you? Ohmigosh! You told your mother?! And she didn’t beat you up or punish you?’ How many of us Pasifika women (or men) can remember EVER talking to our parents about a boy/girl we liked at school? Or asking their advice for our youthful relationships? I sure didn’t!
This kind of communication doesn’t happen overnight. It starts when they’re little and you create an atmosphere of trust. Talking about sexuality and sexual abuse should be routine conversations and complement their age and understanding. When my daughter was three – it was as simple as, ‘No-ones allowed to touch your special place but you.’ When she was six it was a bit more detailed. Often, their questions will guide us to know what they are ready for.When she was nine, my daughter asked “What’s rape?”
Too many of us are having only a one-off, one-sided awkward lecture, where you impart the biological facts with some religious commandments thrown in for good measure. It needs to be an ongoing conversation. About girlfriends and boyfriends, about teen crushes and dating, about alcohol and how it can affect your decision making, about date rape, about young people at school who are having sex and what does that mean for your child who’s hearing them talk about having sex? It’s conversations about gender and how there are different kinds of sexuality – and that’s okay. And don’t forget topics of self-care especially for a girl – things like hygiene, menstruation, thrush, urinary tract infections.
Knowledge is power – and the more knowledge you give your child, the more empowered she will be.
5. Be sex positive. Teach children that sex is a natural, positive part of life and a beautiful experience to look forward to at the right age, the right time of their lives. Be body positive. This is probably the most difficult for many Samoan and other Pacific Islander families. Within our Christianized cultures there are taboos about talking about sex and when it IS mentioned, it’s often in a negative and dire threatening context. (ie Sex is a SIN. Lust will be your downfall etc.) There are very few words in the Samoan language that reference sex, intimacy or sex organs. There’s crude Samoan slang but no words that are respectful or empowering. How can we talk about sex with our children when there are literally NO words?!
Teach children their bodies are capable of feeling some amazing fabulous things/sensations and they can look forward to sharing those experiences with someone they care about – when they grow up, at the right time, right place. When a 3yr old touches herself in the bath you don’t smack her hand away and tell her “dirty! Bad!” Talking openly about sexuality teaches children that these things don’t need to be “secret.” Abusers will often tell a child that the abuse is a secret. Let your children know that if someone is touching them or talking to them in ways that make them uncomfortable that it shouldn’t stay a secret. Neither should your teenager feel they must hide their crush or boyfriend/girlfriend from you. Because sex (or romance or sexual feelings) should not be a guilty shameful thing that is kept hidden from the people who love you.
As a survivor, I wanted my children, daughters especially, to love their bodies and treasure all the feelings that come with them. In this I’m grateful for the teachings of our church which emphasize that sex is a sacred beautiful thing, best shared with two people who care about each other, hopefully when they’re married. This is the ideal that I have taught my children since they were little. But I accept that won’t always be what they choose and I respect that. I talk to my son and his girlfriend about contraceptives and I bought him a box of condoms when he started university. I will do the same thing with my daughters when they start dating and when they go away to school.
6.Be calm and supportive if someone tells you about their abuse. It means that child/youth has chosen you as the person he or she trusts enough to tell. It is the moment when children learn whether others can be trusted to stand up for them.
As a survivor, I cannot emphasize enough that even if you don’t follow all these tips, even if you mess up – there is one thing that we need above all else. One thing that makes a world of difference. Is for a child to know and believe that you will love them and accept them no matter what. Knowing you will help them and stand by them through anything and everything – that surety of unconditional love and acceptance means that if/when something bad does happen to a child, you will be the first person they turn to for help. They will not keep silent and suffer alone, drowning in guilt, shame and fear.
Since writing publicly about my abuse, I have received countless messages from other adult survivors in many countries – most of them Samoan and Pacific Islander – who have written to thank me for voicing that which has been a shameful and taboo subject, and to share their personal stories. For many, it was the first time they had spoken of their experiences outside of their family. The majority of them spoke of how their parents and relatives had either ignored their abuse, silenced them, or even held them accountable and punished them. In our Samoan cultural context, too often, the voice and pain of a child is sacrificed in the interests of preserving a family’s pride and reputation. Too often, the adults in families will engage in traditional methods for dealing with wrongdoing (like talanoaga and ifoga) and “make restitution” and “resolve” a case of child abuse – and yet the needs of the child, the victim, will be ignored.
This is unacceptable.
A child needs to know that their well-being, safety and happiness – is more important than family pride or prestige. And abusers (and potential abusers) need to know that the family, the church, the community will NOT excuse or rationalize their behaviour. Until then, we have no hope of stemming this epidemic that scars so many of our children.
May we all be better advocates for the children and youth we have stewardship over.
From the text of a keynote given by Lani Wendt Young at a fundraiser for Samoa Victim Support, Apia Samoa in July 2014. Later published by the Samoa Observer newspaper where she is a (sometimes) guest columnist. Lani is a Samoan writer who blogs at Sleepless in Samoa. She’s the author of nine books and her writing often encompasses feminism, religion, culture, parenting and everything in between. Her columns on child sexual abuse and domestic violence in Samoan / Pasifika communities have generated dialogue in many forums worldwide.