One More Woman by Michelle Tellez

I recently met yet another woman who from afar seemed like your ordinary, well-adjusted, middle class mother of two. Because our kids go to the same elementary school, after dropping them off, we started chatting. She told me she had just finished writing a book about her life. She giggled and confessed, "I was a slut!" I laughed and said, "Me too! We're going to be great friends." The conversation progressed quickly, and within a few minutes, we realized that what was making us laugh hysterically was rooted in the fact that we were both survivors of child sexual abuse. We were simply coping with old scars.
Like most of the women I've exchanged stories with, Carol, my new friend, did not have a chance to put an end to the abuse she was experiencing as a teenager. It ended circumstantially, because she graduated from high school and moved away. No one actively stopped it. Now, twenty years later, she is bravely beginning to deal with it by writing her story, telling people, and laughing about it all.
I wasn't shocked by anything she told me. My experiences were just as crazy-making. However, it was upsetting to hear how differently our years of abuse ended and how the closure had clearly impacted our lives in contrasting ways. I was able to put a triumphant end to the abusive situation I was in, while she was never able to get any vindication or even dialogue.
My stepfather sexually abused me from the ages of 6 to 11. After getting my period and realizing I could get pregnant, I asked him to stop coming into my room in the middle of the night. He didn't listen. I tried telling my mother, but she was in complete denial. So I took my mother's address book and ran away to a friend's house. From there, I called all my uncles, aunts, and grandparents. I told my story to anyone who answered the phone. Within hours, I had mobilized my whole family. My mother was then forced to listen and take action.
As Carol and I sat at our neighborhood cafe, listening to each other's stories, I could not stop wondering why our experiences were so different. How in the world was I able to defend myself at age 11, while she could not at 18? What tools did I have that she didn't?
A few days later, I realized that although I was younger than Carol, I had three great things working for me: I was a confident kid, I had a supportive extended family, and most importantly, I was exposed to excellent sex education. I remember the classroom and the desk I was sitting at when I learned about "teen development," as they called it: menstruation, breasts, and erections. We also learned about "adult human sexuality," which included conception, childbirth, condoms, "the pill," and some horrible-looking pictures of venereal diseases. The message was simple: "Here are the facts about sex, however sex is for adults. If you want to talk about it, we are open to it."
That week of sex education transformed me. A light bulb went off in my head. What was going on at my home was wrong! I had always felt that it was wrong, but now I had the proof. A few months passed before I gathered enough courage and anger to overcome my fear and tell.
Now, as a mother of two daughters who are beginning to ask questions about sex, as a nurse, and as a woman who has heard so many sad stories, I have come to realize the importance of being able take the initiative to protect yourself. The experience of speaking out, especially in such a formative period, instills resilience and self-confidence that lasts a lifetime. I still feel empowered by the way I overcame the abuse, and long ago felt absolved of all guilt related to this issue.
Unfortunately, a large percentage of victims of child sexual abuse don't feel the same way. For far too many of us, those years are all about secrets, betrayals, and powerlessness, which in turn become a huge part of our self-image.
In Carol's upbringing sex was taboo, not to be talked about. Questions were welcomed by a "Why do you want to know?" Masturbation was said to be disgusting, and sex outside of marriage was just for sluts. (That's how we got our name!) Unfortunately, this lack of dialogue and openness about sexuality enables abusers, like her schoolteacher, my stepfather, and the priests we've been hearing about in the news. If adults in positions of authority, such as parents and teachers, don't talk to children about sex, how do we expect to find out when children need help?
The benefits of sex education go far beyond avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. One recent study found that kids who were not exposed to prevention programs were twice as likely to experience abuse. Other experts estimate that survivors (here we are again: the sluts) are ten times more likely to be arrested for prostitution, and have much higher rates of teen pregnancy, alcohol abuse, and suicide than the general population. In addition, men who are sexually abused as children are more likely to become abusers themselves.
The experts haven't determined exactly why sex education helps deter sexual abuse. But they do know that about 90% of the abusers are known by the children and their families. Knowing that children have been given the means to identify and speak out against malicious sexual behavior may in itself be enough to prevent some would-be abuser from taking the terrible step in the first place.
Either by offering age-appropriate school-based sex education or by seizing those "teachable moments," it is essential to let kids know what we think about the norms of sexual behavior. Kids having sex with kids is for each family to decide, but adults having sex with kids is absolutely wrong. If we don't tell kids that, they won't be clear about this extremely pervasive issue. Sex education opens this difficult subject up for discussion and empowers young people to take charge. In the meantime, I am looking forward to meeting a few sluts who are sluts just because they like sex, not because they were made to be sluts at a young age. I can't wait to hear your stories.
Michelle Tellez is a Brazilian immigrant, mother of two girls, and a graduate student in Nursing Health Policy at the University of California San Francisco interested in health promotion and education as a means of empowerment.