• Tara L Mitchell

Teaching Bodily Autonomy vs “Private Parts” in Stopping Child Sexual Abuse

Updated: Sep 12

In the research project Mary Byler and I are conducting, we asked participants to define child sexual abuse in their own words. The answers, as was expected, ranged widely. Some participants simply defined it as evil; others gave detailed definitions, including grooming, exposing children to pornography, and inappropriate touching. In fact, inappropriate touching came up A LOT in people’s definitions. 

On the surface, this seems like a good thing. Most people explained, at least, that child abuse involves inappropriate touching. But what is inappropriate touching? Is it touching done by a certain type of person? Is it touching a certain part of the body?  Is it someone touching the child, the child being told to touch someone else, or both? For most of our participants that tried to clarify “inappropriate touching” in their definitions, the answer was that it was someone else touching a child’s “private parts”; there was very little consideration of touching other parts of the body or forcing the child to touch the abuser. Because children cannot consent to sexual activity, any touching on the part of the child should be considered forced, even if they “agree” to do so. There are so many different ways that an abuser can threaten, coerce, manipulate, cajole, or bribe a child into doing the touching that we need to ensure we are teaching our children that “inappropriate touching” goes both ways – no one should touch them inappropriately and no one should expect them to do the inappropriate touching either.

But what makes the touching inappropriate?

Is there ever a time when someone can touch a child’s “private parts” appropriately? Most of us answer that instinctively with “Of course not!” That answer, by the way, is simple; it is just easy to say no, not ever. However, what if a doctor needs to give a medical exam? What if a family member needs to give a young child a bath? Children need to be taught the importance of giving consent when there is a good reason for the touch. This is a little harder than a blanket “no, not ever”, of course, but it is important for children to learn nuance. Every child is going to wind up having an exam at some point, and the child needs to understand that they can give permission if there is a good reason for it. 

But, more importantly, perhaps it is time for us to move beyond a focus on “private parts”. Most of the time, children who are abused are groomed for it. The abuser does not touch them in the genital area the first time they are alone. In fact, the abuser may not touch them at all. The touch may come gradually. Maybe the abuser hugs them, touching them only on the back, in greeting or farewell. Maybe the abuser offers to brush their hair, touching them only on the head or shoulders. By the time the abuser begins to touch the child in ways that our participants defined as inappropriate, the child may have come to believe that this is the way it is supposed to be, that the abuser can be trusted not to do anything “inappropriate”. Or maybe the child believes that it is their fault, because the abuser convinces them that all of those touches before – on the head, on the back – were a way that the child teased the abuser and seduced them (which is, again, not possible).

We may be better served by beginning to focus on the body as a whole. The child’s whole body belongs to them; the child’s bodily autonomy means that they have to consent to all touch, not just touch in the genital area. Child sexual abusers get sexual gratification from all sorts of things, not just a child’s genital area, and teaching children that they have bodily autonomy, not just “private part” autonomy, gives them the ability to speak out against other things that are likely to occur at the early stages – the grooming stages – of child sexual abuse. It won’t necessarily be easy to teach a child the concept of bodily autonomy. I mean, there are times any child is going to not want you to give them a bath at night, and teaching the concept of bodily autonomy means you are going to have to stop and explain why they need one (that idea of nuance in explaining consent). However, taking the time to teach and model bodily autonomy to your child may also be what is necessary to help reduce the odds of your child being groomed for sexual abuse.

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