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

Bystander Intervention and Social Media

Bystander Intervention and Social Media

So many times when we speak about Bystander Intervention we talk about how to stop something from happening at a bar or party, but Bystander Intervention is more dynamic and diverse than that.

Bystanders are the individuals who witness emergencies, criminal events, or situations that could lead to criminal activity or harm to another. They may have the opportunity to provide assistance, do nothing, or contribute to negative behavior. Bystander Intervention is the act of providing assistance, with tools and knowledge, to help in a stop a negative or criminal activity. Of course individuals should never put themselves in harm’s way, but there are skills that can make bystander intervention less scary and less harmful of a task.

First, one must notice that something is happening and recognize that something is wrong.  Second, they must take personal responsibility and know how they can help.

Know the 4D’s:

Distract– do something that will distract the perpetrator enough so the victim of the behavior can get away safely.

Delegate: If you don’t feel comfortable causing a distraction or confronting the person, find someone who can.

Direct: If it is safe, be direct with the perpetrator. Let them know what they are doing is not ok.

Delay: This tactic is often not talked about, but it’s still a really important strategy.  You check in with the victim of the incident after it has occurred to see if you can do anything to help them.

We may know how to take these tools and use them during in-person situations, but what about Social Media? Social media is becoming such a large part of our everyday lives. Social media can be a platform for connecting and providing positive communication, but just as everything, it can also be used in a negative way.

Recently, Chicago Police announced they had arrested a 14-year old boy in connection with a sexual assault of a 15-year old girl that had been live streamed on social media in March. Not only was this a horrendous crime, but it was said 40 people watched this assault live and never contacted the authorities. 40 people had an opportunity to be active bystanders, but chose not to be.

Although you may not be able to be direct or distract if you see a crime being live streamed on a social platform, you can delegate by stepping up and notify the authorities, including the management of the platform it is being streamed on. Bystander intervention is about taking personal responsibility in creating a community where everyone is supported and safe. It is about creating a culture of empathy and strength. As our communities change with the growth of social media, these platforms deserve our focus in creating safe and empowering places to connect.

Bystander intervention comes in many forms. If you see something you suspect to be a crime on live streams contact the appropriate authorities. If not you, then who?

Call the Sexual Assault Center for more information about how you can be an Active Bystander.  We can be reached at or by calling 615.259.9055. Let’s work together to end sexual violence in our community!

Be in the know about Grooming Techniques

Be in the know about Grooming Techniques

1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually assaulted before they turn 18.  When these children are exposed to sexual assault, nearly 90% of the time it is from someone they know.  That means sexual assault almost never occurs from the stranger lurking in the bushes at the park.

We are willingly giving predators access to our children.  These predators can be our family members, friends, parents of your child’s friends, teachers, youth leaders, and anyone else who has access to your child.  Never assume that a person is trustworthy based solely on their profession.  Far too often we hear stories of sexual abuse occurring in the news by people in a variety of professions.  Most recently, there is an Amber Alert issued for a 15 year old girl who is with a former teacher of hers.

However, there are things we can do to recognize the signs of predatory behavior.  By knowing grooming techniques, we can be more vigilant about who we are allowing to spend time with our children.

  1. A child will be made to feel special through extra attention.  A predator will know a child’s likes and dislikes very well.  A predator will try to win over the child by having similar likes.  “That’s your favorite restaurant?  Mine too.  We should go there and grab a bite to eat.”
  2. A child will be isolated in fun activities that require only the child and the predator.  Once the predator knows what a child likes, they can offer to do activities with that child.  A skilled predator will be able to manipulate the child into situations where they must change clothes or stay overnight.  “You wanted to see that movie?  Me too.  We should go Saturday night, but when it’s over it will be late.  You should just spend the night at my house.”
  3. The first touch is often nonsexual.  This is to desensitize the child and begin to breakdown his/her inhibitions.  It may begin as “accidental” bumping or rubbing, and arm around the shoulder, or brushing of the child’s hair.
  4. A sexual predator will touch a child with others around.  The types of touching in this case could be hugs to say hello or goodbye or an arm draped around the child’s shoulders.  The predator will do this to make the child feel that other adults are comfortable with the touching.  Watch how the child reacts to these types of touches.  Does the child look uncomfortable or stiffen their body?  Also, never force your child to show affection to another person if they do not feel comfortable in doing so.
  5. A predator will offer to play games or buy items that the child wants.  For younger children this can be special treats like candy or dessert, but for older children this may be drugs or alcohol.  After a while, the predator will want something in return.  This may be sexual acts or making the child watch pornography.  Make sure if your child is old enough to have internet access, that you are monitoring your child’s email and social networking correspondence.
  6. A sexual predator will be there for your child when they feel no one else is.  Predators will look for children who feel isolated or alone from their friends and family.  They will lend an ear and let the child know they are there for them.  These children seem to be vulnerable, and the sexual predator will be there to fill the void.

Sexual predators typically target children who are vulnerable.  These vulnerabilities may include a child who is unpopular, lacks self esteem, spends time alone, or is experiencing family problems.  The predators will present themselves positively to the child by giving compliments and pretending to share interests and experiences.

Pay attention to the people in your child’s life.  Make a habit of unannounced visits when your child is alone with others.  Last, it is critical that you have conversations with your child.  Make sure they understand the difference between safe and unsafe touches, secrets and surprises, and the qualities of safe people.

Call the Education Department at the Sexual Assault Center for more information about training for parents, coaches, or other adults that work with youth.  We can be reached at or by calling 615.259.9055.  Let’s work together to end sexual violence in our community.

Who is Coaching YOUR Child?

Who is Coaching YOUR Child?

The flowers are beginning to bloom and the days are getting warmer, and that means one thing, spring sports are starting soon. Far too often we hear horror stories of children being sexually abused by their coaches.  We think back to Penn State or most recently the gymnasts accusing sexual abuse by the USA coach.  Sexual abuse can happen to anyone no matter race, gender, or socio-economic status.  But, we can do something about this by having conversations about child sexual abuse.

First, let’s talk to our kids.  

  • Teach anatomically correct names for body parts.  We need to teach children the correct names for their body parts like we would an ear, elbow, or nose.  By teaching this, there is no shame or stigma associated with those parts of their body.  Also, if a child discloses abuse to a trusted adult and uses the correct body part name, that trusted adult can understand exactly what the child is saying.
  • Private body parts are special. Let your children know that anything that is covered by a swimsuit is their private area.  This area is special and no one should be touching or looking at this area except to keep them clean or healthy.  Give them concrete examples about when this is ok.  Some examples may include when an adult needs to change a baby’s diaper, when a parent helps them take a bath, or when a doctor needs to check their private parts.
  • Understand the difference between safe and unsafe touches.  Let children know that there are different types of touches they can receive.  Safe touch examples can include high fives, hugs, and handshakes.  Unsafe touch examples are a pinch, kick, or someone touching their private body parts.  Children need to know their body belongs to them, and to speak up if they receive an unsafe touch.
  • Don’t keep secrets.  Teach your children the difference between secrets and surprises.  Secrets are something that a person wants another person to keep forever, and they could potentially hurt someone.  Surprises, however, are short term and will not hurt anyone.  Give children examples of when surprises are ok.  If daddy buys mommy a necklace for her birthday, that is a surprise we should keep.  If their friend’s mom is throwing a surprise birthday party for their friend, that is something we should not tell either.  Make sure children understand the difference.
  • Know some trusted adults.  Children also need trusted adults to turn to if something happens to them.  Make sure your child has 3-4 people in their trusted adult circle.  Talk to them about who those trusted adults can be and have a trusted adult everywhere your child goes.  Make sure they have someone at home, school, sports, church, and anywhere else they frequent so they always have somewhere to turn.

Next, talk to your child’s coach, school, and league.

  • Ask about background checks.  Most youth serving organizations will conduct background checks before letting adults work with children, but they may not always screen for child abuse.  Encourage them to do so and check fingerprints and references.  Also, ask what kind of training do the coaches receive regarding child sexual abuse prevention.  The Stewards of Children training can be facilitated in person or online.
  • Meet EVERYONE your child will be working with.  Many times we meet the head coach or other person in charge of our child’s extra-curricular activity, but we may not meet the others who assist. Make it a point to ask who all your child will be spending time with and ask to be introduced.  By getting to know everyone, you are sending the message that you are involved and a parent that pays attention.  Perpetrators typically do not choose children who have parents that are actively engaged in their child’s activities.
  • Minimizing Opportunities. Most of the time when a team practices, they are out on a field or court where it is observable and interruptible.  What about that time when they may be in a locker room or have one-on-one instruction from the coach?  Ask the coach how many adults are in the locker rooms with the children observing what takes place.  Ask the coach how they handle one-on-one instruction with a child.  Where does that instruction take place?  Do they ask permission to touch a child before showing mechanical moves.

Speak Up

  • Act quickly.  If you suspect something, stop all contact between your child and that adult. Call the Department of Children’s Services and report the abuse, even if it is just a suspicion.  If it is an emergency situation, call 911.  Do not confront the perpetrator, let the professionals deal with the situation.  And always, err on the side of protecting your child.  Many times we do not want to slander a person, especially if we like them, but we must be diligent about protecting our children.

As we begin to talk more about sexual abuse, we will begin to see a decrease in the numbers of children effected.  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 about training for parents, coaches, or other adults that work with youth.  We can be reached at or by calling 615.259.9055.  Let’s work together to end sexual violence in our community.