Trigger Warning: This post discusses child sexual abuse. Those sensitive to this topic need to exercise both caution and good self-care if they choose to read it.
Last week the internet exploded with the news that actor Stephen Collins had confessed to multiple incidents of child sexual molestation. Collins is best known for his role as the minister-father of the Camden family in the long running television show 7th Heaven. Since then he has had a recurring role in Scandal and was also in the process of filming for the Ted 2 movie.
Over forty years ago Collins allegedly exposed himself to three girls between the ages of 11 and 15. With at least one of those girls there was also touch involved. Apparently, Collins’ soon to be ex-wife taped the confession, without his knowledge, during a marriage counseling session in 2012. While the tape was made available to the New York Police Department at that time no charges were pursued due an expired Statute of Limitations.
As a result of these tapes being leaked to the press, by an as yet unknown source, criminal investigations have now been opened in both New York and California, the other location of one of the sexual assaults, Collins has been released or terminated from all of his acting jobs, networks have stopped broadcasting re-runs of 7th Heaven and his talent agent cut ties with him. He voluntarily resigned his position on the national board of the Screen Actors Guild.
As a Trauma Recovery Coach, I’ve been asked many times this week to comment about Collin’s confession and the resulting repercussions. As a survivor of years of childhood sexual assault myself I can’t deny that this makes my anger rise up. I know what it’s like to live with the after effects of that kind of trauma. So far, I’ve endured 25 years of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Depression. While I’m hopeful of reaching remission sometime in the future, I’m not holding my breath.
I don’t see a great deal of value in my dissecting the details of Collin’s case in order to give a well thought out opinion of whether he’s innocent or guilty. From a personal standpoint, it’s tempting! But I don’t know what greater good that would do for Survivors, whose voices I strive to represent and encourage every day.
However, I think there is tremendous merit in looking at what we can learn from the situation on a larger scale. Collins’ case has much to teach us about sexual assault perpetrator stereotypes, victim stigmatization and ways parents can protect their children from being victimized.
Many people were shocked to hear of the allegations against Collins. His role as the beloved father & minister in 7th Heaven and well respected position within the acting community definitely placed him in a “least to be suspected of being a sex offender” category. The reality though, is that no one can be removed from the potential offender list. No one.
Despite being confronted with the reality of who sexually offends over and over again, our culture continues to cling to the stereotype that they are scruffy, unkempt middle aged men who live in their mother’s basements subsisting on Hot Pockets, unable to hold a job, driving a cargo van and spending their days slouched on a bench in the local playground leering at children they don’t know.
But the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Ninety percent of children who are sexually assaulted know their perpetrator. Ninety percent! The typical sexual offender isn’t that mysterious stranger we teach our children to run away from. He/She is their teacher, soccer coach, family member, minister, relative or even the sweet lady who lives down the street and always has an open door and fresh cookies for the neighborhood children. We must ditch our stereotypes and expand our minds if we’re ever going to properly educate our children about who is a danger in their lives.
The Collins’ case also provides us with valuable information about how child victims respond to being sexually assaulted. I have heard people question, over and over this week, why the alleged victims in this case didn’t come forward immediately after their assault to report the crimes. As a society, we need to stop evaluating why a child does or doesn’t report sexual assault with an adult’s logic and reasoning. We cannot place adult expectations onto children whose emotional and cognitive processing capabilities have not yet fully developed.
Having worked with hundreds of survivors of childhood sexual assault, I can tell you why most children don’t report: shame, safety and confusion. I will never be able to explain the depth and breadth of shame a child feels when they are sexually assaulted to someone who hasn’t had the experience themselves. That shame gives rise to self-blame, self-loathing and emotional pain that shake a child to their very core. Demanding a child report their assault in the midst of that emotional tornado is a very difficult thing to ask.
For children who are assaulted by a family member on whom they are dependent for care, safety is a huge reason for why they don’t report. Children are dependent on adults for food, shelter and protection from life’s difficulties. They are incredibly vulnerable beings in a world filled with potential dangers. Fostering dependence on one’s caregiver is an innate, hard wired human characteristic. When one of the people who is supposed to keep them safe is in fact hurting them, a child will often choose denial over acceptance. We need to understand and respect this powerful dynamic rather than judging children for trying to preserve their sense of safety in the world.
The shame a child feels as a result of being sexually assaulted and their fears about their safety combine to create great confusion. Their brains are not yet fully developed, leaving them ill-equipped to deal with such significant and complex situations. We cannot expect them to be able to sift through the incredible vortex of emotions and consequences they fear will befall them in order to come to a logical conclusion. The best way to avoid a child having to face this situation is to help prevent it from ever occurring.
IMPORTANT ADVICE FOR PARENTS
I always give parents two pieces of advice to help protect their child from sexual assault:
- teach them to be 100% obedient to no one and
- always keep communication flowing and non-judgmental with their child.
I was raised in a generation where children were taught to obey their elders without question. We were expected to respond with immediate compliance when a teacher, minister, coach, relative or known neighbor gave us a directive. Doing otherwise earned sharp, and often physical, reprisals.
However, children who are taught this standard of 100% obedience to any adult with a position of authority in their lives, are vulnerable to having that expectation used against them. When 90% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone our child knows, we must teach them to have a healthy resistance to obeying any command that makes them feel uncomfortable.
To help protect our children even further we must keep lines of communication both open and non-judgmental. Our kids need to know that they can come to us at any time to discuss any topic and we will be open to listening and helping them. We should ask them, whenever they have engaged with a new situation or group of people, if they felt safe during their time there/with them. When we cultivate open communication, especially about issues of safety, we dramatically increase the chances that our children will report any discomfort with an individual before they are assaulted. And we’re also more likely to receive their report of an assault if one occurs.
I don’t know what will happen with the recent charges of sexual molestation against Stephen Collins. But what I’m certain of, is that if we take these lessons we can learn from his case and apply them in ourl lives, we will diminish the chances that other children will fall victim to sexual predators.
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