Conversations are a Necessity

I’m sure you are hearing all the reports of sexual assault and harassment that continue to happen in the work place and schools and any other places where people gather.  It is devastating that such a huge number of people are effected by sexual assault.  Unfortunately, we have known this for a long time, but it seems as a society, we did not want to have these conversations.  We wanted to turn our face the other way and pretend this evil doesn’t exist in our world, but as more and more stories come to light, we have to face facts and tackle sexual assault head on.

Sexual assault is never about sex, it is about power.  It is about one person being able to control another.  We see this when a person wants a job or a promotion, with a coach and an athlete, with a teacher and a student, with one student controlling another, and so many more scenarios.  That’s what so many of the stories that have come to light over the last few months have been about – power over another.  So, what should we do to change this dynamic that we have in our society?

First, it must begin with respect.  We must be able to respect ourselves as well as others.  This starts with conversations at home when our children are small.  We must teach them that their body belongs to them and no one has any right to do anything to it that they do not want unless they are keeping the child healthy and clean.  This gives that child respect for their body, and with that, we then teach them to respect others’ bodies.  Let them know that if someone doesn’t want to be touched to not touch them even if it is as simple as a hug.  We can have conversations about consent with children that are simple and easy for them to understand.  We can give children examples of questions to ask like “Can I give you a hug today?”  By doing this, we are teaching children to ask and check in with others to make sure everyone is respected.

As these children grow older into teens, we must continue these conversations.  We have to talk to teens about what healthy relationships are and what to do if they are not in one or has a friend in an unhealthy relationship.  We must talk about bystander intervention and teach skills about how to speak up if you see something you think is not ok.  We also have to teach our teens what harassment looks like.  If we are not giving this information to our children and teens, we will not stop the cycle of assault that we keep hearing about each time we turn on the news or look on social media.

The more conversations we have with each other, the more our society will shift from a rape culture to a culture of healthier relationships, love, and acceptance.  The Sexual Assault Center makes it easy to have these conversations with anyone at any age level.  We believe in taking a multifaceted approach to end sexual violence.  We are able to do this through our prevention programs we offer.  We have Safe@Last that is geared toward children in Kindergarten through sixth grades and Be Empowered for middle and high schoolers.  We also are facilitators for the Darkness to Light’s program Stewards of Children which is geared towards adults or anyone who cares about children.

If you want to learn more about our programs or find out other ways you can start these conversations at your school or organization, please let us know.  We can be reached at 615.258.5873 or  Conversations are the key to change!

Back to School: Students need an all-encompassing learning environment

Parents are gearing up to send their children back into the classrooms, but will they learn the skills to help them speak up about a silent epidemic affecting children across our country?  Thousands of children in Middle Tennessee are affected by childhood sexual abuse and, as adults, we must be willing to give our children the skills, tools, and knowledge to have a voice to speak up about this issue.  There seems to be a new sexual assault headline each day when we open the paper or turn on the news.  We no longer have to sit on the sidelines and hope this never happens to our children, and if it does, hope they know what to do.

This conversation must begin at home by teaching our children the anatomically correct names of their body parts.  We must also teach them that areas covered by a swimsuit are special and no one should ever touch those areas unless they are trying to keep you clean and healthy.  We need to make sure our children understand this difference between safe and unsafe touches, secrets versus surprises, and assertiveness skills.  Our children also need to know who to turn to if the unthinkable happens to them.  Children need to know at least 3 trusted adults they feel comfortable talking with whether they are at home, school, or any other place your child frequents.  Statistics show that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually assaulted by the time they turn 18. So, more than likely,  your child, a friend of your child, or a student in your child’s class has been sexually assaulted at some point and that is why it is important to have these conversations at school as well.  Tennessee passed Erin’s Law in 2014 recommending that all schools teach a primary prevention curriculum to students in grades K-12.

The Sexual Assault Center not only provides counseling to those affected by sexual assault, we also provide education opportunities to those in our community.  We have the Safe@Last curriculum that schools can use to teach students about safe and unsafe touches, assertiveness skills, disclosure skills, qualities of safe people and much more.  We have the Be Empowered! curriculum that can be used with our older students as well.  We can help them gain an understanding of healthy relationships, bystander intervention, sexual assault information, and technology safety skills.  We also provide training opportunities for school professionals and parents to learn more about childhood sexual abuse and how to respond appropriately.  We want to be able to arm our students with as much knowledge as possible as they head back into the classroom this fall.  We want to them to achieve academic success, but in order to do that, they must feel they are in a safe environment at school and at home.

Parents can engage with clarity and persistence to find out what their child’s school is doing to fulfill the Erin’s Law legislation.  Parents can develop a “why” message communicating your position and the value of teaching sexual abuse/assault prevention education to all children, teens, and adults in your school community.  Parents can be engaged in PTA meetings and school board meetings to request updates regarding implementation towards Erin’s Law.

As we begin to talk more about sexual abuse, we will begin to see a decrease in the numbers of children affected.  We will begin to see people who are more vigilant about who has access to children.  We will stop making excuses about this silent epidemic. Call the Education Department at the Sexual Assault Center for more information. We can be reached at or by calling 615.259.9055.  Let’s work together to end sexual violence in our community.

Child Sexual Abuse Tips for Summertime

When most people think about summer, they envision kids splashing in the pool, spending time outdoors, taking a break from school, an all around fun time of the year.  Unfortunately, rape and sexual assault victimization rates tend to be higher during the summer than during the fall and winter.  Children are not in their school environment but spending more time with caregivers where there are more opportunities to be sexually abused.  90% of the time when a child is sexually abused it is by someone they know and love; someone in their circle of trust.

Knowing we have embarked on this time of year, what key information do we need to know to protect our children?  Clear communication is a cornerstone of effective prevention.  We know that children need accurate, age-appropriate information about child sexual abuse and confidence that adults they know will support them.  Children cannot stop sexual abuse on their own, but if we equip them with the knowledge to speak up, the likelihood of it continuing will decrease.

So, what do we need to say to our children?

We must give them concrete examples to understand what we are saying to them. When talking to children about child sexual abuse, use examples and situations that make the reality clear.  Talk to your child about how no one should touch or look at their private body parts unless that person is trying to keep them healthy or clean.  Use examples where you can discuss changing a baby’s diaper, a doctor checking their private body parts during a check up, or a care giver helping with a bath.  By using these concrete examples, children know what is appropriate and have a clear understanding.

If we want our children to understand healthy boundaries, we must model these ourselves.  We need to make sure our children understand what healthy boundaries look like.  As parents and caregivers, we need to help our children set boundaries as well as modeling having healthy boundaries.  We need to also model saying “no” for our children so they understand it’s ok for them to say “no” too.  Then, when a child uses their “no,” in a respectful way, we need to let them know it will be made to be important to adults.

We have to talk to our kids about different types of touches. We need to have conversations with children about the difference between safe and unsafe touches.  Sexual touching can be very confusing for children.  If we use the terms “good touch” and “bad touch” and the touch makes the child feel good, they may believe it is ok or that they wanted that type of touch.  Children need to know that their body belongs to them and no one else, and they have the right to say no to someone.

We must explain to our children about the tricks groomers will use to get them alone.  Some people who sexually abuse children use tricks and bribes to keep kids from telling.  The abuser may allow the child to do something they previously had been told they could not or promise special gifts or privileges.  The abuser may also try to confuse the child by telling him or her this is something the child wants or that no one will believe them if they tell. We must tell our children that if anyone touches them in an inappropriate way they need to tell a trusted adult and let that person handle the situation.

We need to make sure to involve other adults so our children always have someone no matter where they are.  Sometimes it is hard to always tell their mom or dad when something like sexual abuse is happening, and the perpetrator will reinforce that fear.  We need to make sure our children have someone they can confide in at school, camp, church, the park, or where ever they may be.  We can ask our children, “If you don’t feel comfortable talking to me about something, who else can you talk to?” or “If something happens when you are away from me, like at school or the park, who could you talk to?”

By having these conversations with our children, we are giving them the tools to know what to do if sexual abuse happens to them or to a friend.  They understand the when something may be inappropriate, and they already have the language to disclose as well as a trusted adult to talk with.

Call the Sexual Assault Center for more information about how you can talk to your child about these important topics.  We can be reached at or by calling 615.259.9055. Let’s work together to end sexual violence in our community!

Survivors of Sexual Assault Negatively Affected by AHCA

Survivors of Sexual Assault Negatively Affected by AHCA

Like many of you all, I have spent a great deal of time this last week considering the American Health Care Act (AHCA). In fact, I might have spent a bit too much time up in my head doing some calculations, calculations that went something like this: 24 million Americans are expected to be negatively impacted if the Senate moves forward with this Act as it stands. If we consider that at least half of these millions of folks are women, and that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, we are looking at a staggering 2.4 million survivors that risk paying higher premiums or losing coverage all together. This number does not even begin to include family members impacted by their abuse. It also does not include the hundreds of thousands of male survivors or those impacted by child sexual abuse. And the impact of the abuse is vast.

The CDC reports that more than 32,000 pregnancies result from rape each year. Other long-term physical consequences include sexually transmitted diseases, cervical cancer, gynecological complications, gastrointestinal disorders, chronic pain, and migraines. Psychological conditions include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, suicidality, substance abuse, and other mental health symptoms. All of these conditions may not be covered by your health insurance if the AHCA passes.

So, when we read that rape or sexual abuse are not pre-existing conditions as per the AHCA, we can nod our heads and agree with caution. Rape and sexual abuse may not be pre-existing conditions; however, survivors of sexual abuse are more likely to suffer physical and psychological symptoms that could result in higher premiums under this Act.

I have the privilege to work as a therapist at the Sexual Assault Center (SAC). On a typical day I see six survivors of sexual assault, most often women, and sometimes men. My colleagues do the same. My clients range in age and come from all backgrounds. At our Center we are fortunate. We can see clients regardless of their ability to pay and are able to do this is in large part because we have generous donors and federal grant funding. We also see many clients who have insurance. We could not continue to do the work that we do without this diversity of funding. This is our reality. It is not a typical reality, as it is difficult for many people to access specialized care without insurance.

If the AHCA continues to gain traction and manages to remain intact once it visits the Senate, it will not be American survivors of sexual abuse who are protected. Survivors should not be re-victimized at the hands of insurance companies who are further legitimized by the Federal Government. All people deserve a just health care system that is truly for all Americans.

The Sexual Assault Center offers a wide array of services surrounding the topic of sexual assault.  We have a prevention and education team that trains children and adults to speak up about sexual abuse.  We have an advocacy team that offers resources to empower sexual assault survivors and their families, and we have a clinical team that offers therapy and support to survivors and families so the healing can begin.  For more information regarding any services at the Sexual Assault Center, visit our website at or call 615.259.9055.

—Barbara Valdes Hessel