Leaving Neverland opened my eyes in a way I did not expect

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

I, along with the rest of the world, have been reeling since hearing graphic details of the alleged assaults of Wade Robson and James Safechuck by Michael Jackson.

But the thing watching Leaving Neverland really opened my eyes to is the fact children have absolutely no understanding of what sexual abuse is. I have realised it is our, very important, job to teach them.   

The show was a shocking, albeit fascinating, in-depth insight into the pattern of sexual abuse against children and how it can all unfold. But what I can't get out of my head was the language that was used to excuse the alleged abuse to the kids: "this is how we show our love".

My eldest is just about to turn seven, which is the same age Wade Robson was when he alleges the sexual abuse began by Jackson. Seeing the innocence of my own son, I can totally understand how a young person who was told "this is how we show our love" could believe the behaviour is completely normal. They wouldn't question it or recognise it as "abuse".

As Oprah said in her follow up special "After Neverland", what we forget is that if a seven-year-old's penis is being touched, it will feel good to them. They don't recognise or have the understanding or language to label this as abuse. That only registers much later in life. If something that is happening to them feels good and they are told by someone they trust that it's a normal expression of love it is easy, and petrifying, to understand how easily the abuse could continue.

If the person they look up to uses scare tactics in order to keep the abuse a "a secret", saying things like "if anyone finds out we will both go to jail forever", kids who are trusting and take things so literally will believe their abuser. 

I also think there is a misconception about paedophiles. We imagine them as a stranger jumping out of a bush at a park and enforcing sexual acts in a violent way onto children, but let look at the stats. As many as 90 per cent of child sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator in some way. In 68 per cent of cases the child is abused by a family member. 

The scary thing is as parents we can't be with our kids all the time, it's just not possible. They go to school, daycare, extra-curricular activities, friend's houses, have babysitters and sleepovers. We can't guarantee they won't encounter a potential abuser. So what can we do to protect them?

From a very young age we can teach them the basics around consent - both giving and receiving it. They don't have to kiss or hug Aunty May or Uncle Greg at Christmas if they don't want to.

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I have introduced words like "inappropriate" from an early age with my kids. We talk about who can touch their penis and in what situation. When they are at the GP, if the doctor needs to touch their genitals,  I ask them "is it okay if the doctor touches your penis now? It's okay, and safe because mummy is standing right here". This might sound over the top but as someone who has grown up with someone close to them being sexually abused, I have always been hyper-aware and vigilant with my kids and the language I use around them. According to Victorian Centres Against Sexual Assault figures abuse will happen to one in five of our daughters and up to one in ten of our sons before the age of 16. So shouldn't we all be on alert?

I was given a really useful and thoughtful book by my mother-in-law to read with the kids called "Only For Me". There are so many available like it. It was written in consultation with child protection experts and adult survivors of child abuse. It is age appropriate and used rhymes and pictures to talk about the different parts of our bodies stressing the "only for me" message. It describes what isn't appropriate, teaches kids they can say no if something doesn't feel right and talks about the concept of "secrets".  At the end of the book it has a hand with five fingers and you ask the kids to tell you who are the five grown-ups they can trust and tell anything to.

We can't stop the monsters from charming their way into our kids' lives but as Oprah said "Leaving Neverland is bigger than Michael Jackson". Child sexual abuse has always been there, but now we know we need to be more vigilant in not only recognising grooming behaviours but also giving our kids the tools to recognise those behaviours themselves. To know what is appropriate and what isn't and who they can trust to talk to if they ever need help.

If this has raised issues for you, please seek professional help and contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800.

More resources:

https://www.onlyforme.com.au/

https://shop.rafikimwema.com/collections/all/products/a-secret-safe-to-tell

For more on relationships, motherhood and the sisterhood, catch PodcastOne series "The Queen Sesh Overshare" with Constance Hall and Annaliese Dent on iTunes. You can hear more from Annaliese Dent on Facebook or Instagram