Why speak out, especially now?
This question has been posed to me more times than I care to count since my interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which I disclosed publicly for the first time the extent of the sexual abuse I suffered as a child.
Child sexual abuse is a problem that has remained hidden for too long. One in four girls and one in six boys in the United States will be sexually abused by the time they turn 18, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 300,000 children are sexually abused in the United States every year. And yet much of the population has little awareness of it.
How can the discrepancy be so drastic between what the numbers show and what most of us are willing to accept? I believe one of the reasons, and perhaps the main reason, is that so few survivors feel it's safe to speak about the abuses they have endured.
Over the first 33 years of my life, I have been told constantly how to feel, what to do or not do, and what to say or not say. The interview, along with Peaceful Hearts Foundation, was my way of taking back control of my life while empowering others to do the same.
Speaking is more powerful than we realize. For survivors, it can lead to healing when a caring and supportive ear receives it. And by speaking, we deny the perpetrators a place to hide.
When we remain silent about child sexual abuse, we are helping the perpetrators victimize more children. We must be examples for the victims and survivors. By lifting our voices against this silent epidemic, we can show them that it is safe to speak the truth and seek the help they need to heal.
It's also important to understand that the effects of sexual abuse are not limited to the abused. In my case, my wife, Kim, and children were affected, too. Kim, who has been amazing through everything, helped me understand that the loved ones of survivors also need love and support.
The mission of Peaceful Hearts Foundation, which Kim and I founded, is to increase awareness of sexual abuse through the media and community events, as well as educational and informational campaigns that empower survivors and communities to work collaboratively to make disclosure easier for survivors. We want to raise survivors' voices as a step toward recognizing, acknowledging, and addressing their traumatic experiences. We believe all survivors deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
We also believe it's going to take a broad-based movement to end child sexual abuse. If we are serious about tackling this epidemic, we must pay more attention to the ways abusers operate and to where abuse happens. We can't be afraid to report it whenever and wherever we see it.
And we all must begin the tough process of speaking about child sexual abuse. We can no longer revictimize and shame survivors due to our inability to face the traumatic experiences they've been through.
Nor can it continue to be acceptable to attack survivors' character. We cannot end sexual abuse without the voices of survivors, and we will not have those voices if that type of destructive behavior persists. When survivors are attacked, it adds to the complex problems they are already experiencing.
Victims of childhood sexual abuse often resort to self-destructive behavior as a way to cope with their internal pain. They may act out aggressively, abuse drugs, develop eating disorders, and hurt themselves. I used to burn my arm as a way to release the pain. I would heat a metal object until it became red-hot and then place it on my arm. It was the only way to release what I was feeling. The scars I have on my arms are daily reminders of what I have been through.
I have made mistakes in my life, but that does not mean I was not sexually abused. When we look at such behaviors more closely, we can see that they are in fact evidence of abuse.
To take steps toward the goal of eliminating child sexual abuse, there are some things that we all can do: Support victims and survivors; get involved in prevention and education efforts; report any and all suspected abuse. For more information on how to be part of the solution, see Peaceful Hearts' website, peacefulheartsfoundation.org.
We all hold within us more power than we realize, and we can use it collaboratively to end child sexual abuse. It is not acceptable for even one child to suffer what so many of us already have. It is time to destroy the silence that surrounds this epidemic. So I ask you: Why not now?