Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the average number of girls and boys who will be sexually abused by their 18th birthday. The correct statistics are below.
The lovable Sesame Street brand has been hit hard recently. First, Big Bird almost wound up on the chopping block. Now, Elmo — or more accurately, the muppet’s doppelganger, revered puppeteer Kevin Clash — is still reeling from a bogus child sexual abuse scandal. A former paramour alleged that Clash sexually abused him, but by the next news cycle, the accuser had recanted his claim.
Here’s the truth: Each year, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by their 18th birthday, according to the organization Darkness to Light, which aims to end child sexual abuse. For real victims, the reality of child sexual abuse is painful and life-altering. Most child victims suffer in silence well into adulthood because the stigma of this underreported crime, paradoxically, is often projected onto the victim. Further, pernicious stereotypes and homophobia make the sexual abuse of boys even less likely to be reported.
Imagine what this means for boys of color, trying to survive in a world where their gender and race make them walking targets of countless negative presumptions. So it’s all the more unconscionable to take up precious investigative resources and time with a false allegation when children need all the attention available to prevent and end child sexual abuse.
Many people of courage are waging the battle to make communities safer for children and to provide intervention, hope and healing to victims. The work is difficult because child sexual abuse is an utterly vile crime that exploits trust and robs kids of their innocence and hope. My colleagues at Safe Shores – The DC Children’s Advocacy Center serve on the front lines of the battle, where victims disclose the harms done to them and begin the long process of healing.
I can’t forget one young woman, a happy, thriving teenager until her pastor began sexually abusing her. D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency connected her with Safe Shores. We have provided her and her family with ongoing counseling services. Getting involved with our skilled therapists helped her press the reset button and put her life back on track. Today, she is an honor-roll student with plans to go to college.
Her reclaimed hope and success speak to her personal courage, undergirded by the support of a team of professionals, including police officers, social workers, physicians, prosecutors, victim advocates, therapists and interviewers, who specialize in providing a coordinated response to child sexual abuse cases.
But preventing child sexual abuse can’t be the province solely of professionals. Parents and other responsible adults must play a leading role in protecting kids, and there’s a lot we can do. We must talk openly and often with our kids about their bodies and boundaries; listen and watch for any behavior changes; make sure that the places where our kids learn, play and worship implement policies that minimize the risk of abuse; be aware when adults exhibit an unusual interest in our children and avidly court our trust — they could be grooming us to gain unfettered access to our children.
By now, America has had a wake-up call on the issue of child sexual abuse. Penn State, the Boy Scouts and the ongoing revelations of other shameful scandals warn us to take the crisis seriously. False allegations like the one leveled at Kevin Clash waste time and risk undermining the credibility of real victims. Unlike Elmo, child sexual abuse isn’t child’s play. There’s certainly no room in Elmo’s world or the real world to make a mockery of this crime.
Michele Booth Cole is executive director of Safe Shores — The DC Children's Advocacy Center. The nonprofit serves child victims of abuse in the District of Columbia.
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