“I feel … almost a sense of liberation,” she says. “It was [once] a topic you shouldn’t be speaking about. Seeing [the older generation] come out and talk about their experiences — if they can do it, then I can do it as well.”
While the #MeToo movement often feels like an adult conversation about the assault that grown women (and men) endure, particularly in the workplace, it’s clear that many children and young people are listening. The stories they hear on social media, through television, in school, and in conversations around their own dinner tables can feel empowering. Those stories can also traumatize, especially when young people feel they have no means to stop abuse or report it.
Historically, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys were victims of child sexual abuse by age 18. While that abuse has declined significantly over the past few decades, thanks in part to improved prevention, detection, and intervention efforts, 10 percent of all American children will still become victims of sexual violence by the time they reach adulthood. The perpetrator is most often someone in their social circle, a biological or nonbiological parent, or someone known to the child’s family.
While the taboo of discussing child sexual abuse still persists, Casey Gwinn, president of Alliance for HOPE International, says #MeToo marks a tipping point he’s never witnessed in his decades-long career advocating for survivors of sexual violence.
In the last year, Gwinn says campers and kids involved with Alliance for HOPE International have been increasingly interested in discussing their most painful experiences, their candor growing rapidly in the wake of #MeToo.
“I do think there is a cultural shift that is happening,” he says. “The more [young people] see high-profile people, or the victims of Nassar, or Olympians and celebrities talking about sexual harassment and assault, I do think it is creating a platform — almost an invitation for kids to be more open about what they’ve experienced.”
Gwinn says his staff has adapted its Camp HOPE America program, which is offered in 15 states to children between the ages of seven and 17. The weeklong retreat is designed to make kids “feel safe, seen, encouraged, and loved,” and uses curriculum to help foster their self-confidence.
Counselors are receiving additional training so they’re better prepared to respond to campers who want to discuss sexual violence and others types of trauma they’ve endured. In previous years, campers usually stayed silent about those experiences, focusing instead on activities like rock climbing, creative arts, campfire sing-alongs, and discussions about resilience and empowerment.
Chris Newlin, executive director of the National Children’s Advocacy Center, a nonprofit organization that trains law enforcement and child abuse professionals to prevent and respond to maltreatment with a coordinated approach, says that one teenager cited the Nassar case when she recently reported sexual abuse to the center’s forensic interview specialist.
“If they can talk about this, then so can I,” she said, referring to the young survivors of Nassar’s abuse.
Yet Newlin is skeptical of #MeToo’s impact on children. He associates the movement with efforts to stop workplace harassment and assault, as well as the Time’s Up campaign, which is focused on securing equal representation for women in American life.
Newlin believes it’s impossible to attribute a single cause to trends in the detection or reduction of child sexual abuse. Kids, he says, are constantly flooded with media, including the news, movies, and television shows, that might prompt them to reflect on and disclose their own trauma. What they see could be related to #MeToo, but it might have no relationship to the movement. Either way, Newlin welcomes the public conversation about sexual violence.
His chief concern is making sure that children who do report abuse aren’t re-traumatized by their experiences with law enforcement and frontline professionals. He’s also passionate about helping young people understand and come to terms with their experiences, rather than feeling defined by them for a lifetime.
“There is hope in moving forward,” Newlin says. “I would want [survivors] to know that they’re not alone. While they may feel alone, there are lots and lots of people who have gone through that.”
Staffers for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) hotline have seen signs of a shift among young people in the past six months. By January, overall usage of the hotline had risen nearly 50 percent compared to the previous January. The number of kids contacting the hotline similarly increased by 45 percent during the same timeframe, and by mid-February, Larry Nassar’s name overcame Bill Cosby’s to become the most cited name in the hotline’s history.
“One of the big evolutions we’ve seen, particularly in the wake of #MeToo, is a greater belief that if you come forward and talk about what happened, you’ll be believed,” says Scott Berkowitz, founder and president of RAINN. “That kind of message has trickled down to kids. There’s a greater understanding that it’s OK to ask for help.”
For children, seeking such help may begin with contacting a hotline, or confiding in a friend or trusted adult. Many professionals, such as hotline staff, school counselors, and physicians, are mandated by the government to report suspicion or evidence of child abuse to law enforcement or child protective services.
When the subject comes up on the RAINN hotline, whose staff is mandated by state law to report the abuse of a minor when given detailed information, many young people try to work through their options, weighing the perceived or real risk of involving the authorities against trying to stop the person abusing them. They may fear being removed from their home and placed in foster care, being blamed by others for the arrest of the family’s breadwinner, or making an accusation that’s not taken seriously and having no means to escape their abuser.
While these unique concerns aren’t reflected in the broader conversation about #MeToo, children may silently agonize over them while reading and hearing about the movement — and there are few places for them to share that burden with others.
Serrano is trying to provide such an outlet for a small group of teens that she mentors through the Alliance for HOPE program. She says that prior to #MeToo, their conversations were casual and meant to be fun. Participants rarely discussed what they’d endured. That began to change last fall. Of the 10 teens she mentors, a few of them started talking about their traumatic experiences. Now Serrano listens and comforts as they express feelings of empowerment and grief.
“I think what I hope for young people to get out of [#MeToo] is to be able to talk about their situation in an environment where nobody is judging them, and maybe even become community leaders,” she says.
“I would tell them not to be afraid,” Serrano adds, addressing young survivors who are grappling with their abuse in the age of #MeToo. “In the end, it was never their fault.”
If you have experienced sexual abuse, call the free, confidential National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or access the 24-7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org.