Volume 1, Number 7 Autumn 2001
the Sound Barrier:
As adults, none of us want to see girls victimized by unhealthy relationships or sexual abuse. We'd like to think that our families, schools, and communities offer safe, healthy places for girls to interact and grow. Unfortunately, for many girls these havens are far from safe. Too often, unhealthy relationships lead to sexual and /or physical abuse. As mothers, mentors, and friends, our job lies in teaching girls how to have healthy relationships, and how to recognize and avoid unhealthy ones. On a national level, incidences of sexual abuse are overwhelming. Consider the following information:
In some cases, adults are the perpetrators. The ugly realities are these:
According to Girls' Health: A Maine Profile compiled for the Maine Women's Health Campaign and funded by the Maine Department of Human Services, Bureau of Health, "Physical and sexual abuse during childhood and dating violence and rape during adolescence can have enormous immediate and lasting effects on the health and well-being of girls. Girls' first sexual experience often takes the form of victimization by adults or peers...." Nationwide, "current estimates suggest that 25 - 33% of girls are sexually victimized by the time they are 18 years old or in the 12th grade." Sexual abuse, however, is not just an issue in other states. In the last month alone two Maine high school seniors told me they had both been sexually abused. This past week, another group of Maine girls discussed their desire to have an afterschool program on "healthy and unhealthy relationships." They want to know how to help themselves and their friends. Consider these facts involving Maine girls:
For the most part these girls, whose sense of selves and personal safety in the world have been violated, abide by the "Don't ask - don't tell" rule. Often they manifest their resulting humiliation, pain, disillusionment and despair in depression, suicide, anorexia or bulimia, serious drug and alcohol abuse, dropping out of school, or running away. It's appalling but not surprising to learn that 85% of incarcerated girls had been sexually abused prior to their commitment. The severe problems girls manifest can often be traced to harassment and abuse. What can we do in a positive, pro-active manner to protect our girls and young women and create a safe, healthy environment for them? We need to speak up, break the sound barrier, ask and tell.
1) Break the Sound Barrier - We must talk with girls before anything happens - state the reality, share our own experiences, however frightening they may have been, tell girls what we know about one's vulnerability at parties, tell them how alcohol and drug use increases violence and abuse, explain that people who can hurt them are not just strangers, teach themhow to be safe, where it's not safe, and to trust their own instincts and act on them. We all know these things, but the invincibility of youth means that young people must hear them directly and frequently.
2) Do Ask, Do Tell - especially when you notice big changes in behavior: ask why, and don't stop asking until you have answers. Know that girls often choose to confide in men or boys about the abuse or harassment they have experienced.
3) Do Unto Others - Teach girls to be understanding and supportive of others who have been harassed or abused. Frequently victims are blamed and ostracized, adding to their already deep pain.
4) Speak Up and Out - Teach boys and girls that violence and abuse are wrong, whether at home, at school, or in the community. (Cathy Plourde, author of "The Thin Line," is currently working on a one-man play tentatively called, "Hey, Dude!" which will be available to be performed at high schools sometime early in 2002.)
5) Model Behavior - Recognize that unhealthy family relationships teach girls that violence and abuse are acceptable. Make your home a safe place for everyone.
Books That Can Help
Laurie Halse Anderson's book Speak, winner of numerous awards, was recommended to me by Mary Holt, a college freshman. This young adult novel is about Melinda Sordino's freshman year in high school, and her response to the sexual abuse she experienced the previous summer. As the book jacket claims, "Anderson perfectly captures the harsh conformity of high-school cliques and one teen's struggle to find acceptance from her peers. Melinda's sarcastic wit, honesty, and courage make her a memorable character whose ultimate triumph will inspire and empower." Booklist, starred review. I highly recommend this to girls and everyone who works with them.
Deal With It! A Whole New Approach to Your Body, Brain, and Life as a GURL by Esther Drill, Heather McDonald and Rebecca Odes, published by Pocket Books. As the cover claims, this national bestseller, first out in 1999, contains mature content including a large section on sexuality. The use of colorful graphics, teen slang, and easy to read format make it a reference book girls want to consult. For younger or less mature girls, I'd recommend, It's A Girl Thing, but for girls who are facing head-on the urgent and complex issues girls have to contend with today, this book will definitely help them Deal With It!
Dating Violence: Young Women in Danger, edited by Barrie Levy, a prevention specialist in the movement to end violence against women and children. As she writes, "The aim of this book is to give readers an understanding of the phenomenon of adolescent dating violence and to stimulate readers to be creative in reaching out to young women to prevent, identify and assist their extrication and healing from dating violence." Published in 1991, this book remains unrivaled.