This post is in response to numerous reader questions regarding children, sexual violence and transgender bathroom rights.
As the parent of two young children, and a professional working in the anti-sexual violence movement, I spend a great deal of time thinking about the prevention of child sexual abuse. Recent national headlines have discussed legislative efforts to codify the use of public restrooms by people who identify as transgender. A highly problematic fallacy used by legislators and advocates for these discriminatory bills is that it will prevent sexual abuse of children.
These tactics provide inaccurate information about the risks and realities of sexual violence and child sexual abuse. Misleading rhetoric like this can cause parents to overlook real risks to their children, which is why it’s important for parents to arm themselves with accurate information.
Heartbreakingly, children are most often sexually abused by people they know and trust. People who commit child sexual abuse often work hard to cultivate the trust of the child and the family through an on-going process often referred to as “grooming”. Family members perpetrate sexual abuse against minors in 34% of reported cases.
While sexual violence committed by a stranger in a public place happens, it is rare and represents a small percentage of sexual violence cases. People are much more likely to experience sexual violence that is perpetrated by a friend, acquaintance or partner in a familiar place, like the victim or perpetrator’s home. What’s more, states, cities and schools that have given bathroom rights to transgender people report no increase in assaults in bathrooms.
What laws like the ones currently proposed in North Carolina ignore, are the protection of transgendered youth. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) opposes North Carolina’s HB2 as it would discriminate against and stigmatize transgender children and teens. Laws like this claim to protect children, however, they actually have the unintended consequence of putting trans children at risk.
The reality is that transgender people, including transgender youth, themselves are at increased risk for experiencing physical, sexual and verbal assault in public restrooms. This is especially true when their rights are not protected by law. At least 50 percent of transgender people have experienced some form of sexual violence.
What that tells me is that parents of young children need to worry less about transgender people harming their children, and more about building a society that will be safer for transgender children. If your child identifies as transgender or gender-non-conforming, they are more likely to experience sexual violence, sexual harassment, unemployment, and homelessness.
There are many things that parents and other caring adults can do to prevent sexual abuse of children. According to over 250 anti-violence organizations across the United States, anti-transgender legislation isn’t one of them.
So, what can you do to prevent sexual abuse of children?
- Talk safely and openly with your child about sexuality and healthy development. Creating the kinds of opportunities for conversation about even difficult or embarrassing topics send the message to children that you will be there to support them, no matter what.
- Start conversations about sex, safety, and boundaries early, and talk often. Talking early and often about healthy sexuality makes it much easier to continue having those conversations as children grow into teens.
- Model healthy boundaries with your children. Send your children the clear message that their bodies are theirs, and that no adult has the right to force them to do anything they are uncomfortable with. Do not force your child to have unwanted physical contact with others (i.e. you have to kiss grandma).
- Learn about warning signs of abuse and act appropriately on this knowledge. Local sexual assault centers often provide community education on recognizing the warning signs and how to respond to a disclosure of sexual abuse.
- Recognize problematic behavior in others and hold them accountable for changing their behavior to be more appropriate. This means making changes in organizations, churches, and community groups that promote the safest possible environment for children.
Information on all of these prevention approaches, and much more, are available through the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. If you would like to learn more, check out the information packet on Preventing Child Sexual Abuse.