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Don't Ask, Don't Tell: The Rules of a Molested Child

Janet WeinbergBy Janet Weinberg
Frank Spinelli, MD, a GMHC Board member, recently came to speak to the entire staff. His topic -- Pee Shy, his latest book. I will admit, I was skeptical about what the presentation was going to be like. Well, let me tell you -- it opened up our staff in a way that I have not seen in a very long time. Staff approached Frank, person after person, to thank him for telling his own personal story.

Frank did not just write a book, he wrote a movement. The movement is about a very difficult topic: child molestation. Frank is brave enough to talk about his own childhood struggles after he was molested by none other than his Boy Scout leader who was also a cop. After Frank disclosed his truth, clusters of people gathered. Two staff members stated to me, "Frank told my story, how did he know?" So what were the commonalities?

- Frank and the staff members, as well as the molesters, were connected to a church.
- Their molesters were people in authority.
- Their parents would not report the abuse to the police once they learned of the incidence.
- They were ashamed of being a target of the molesters.

One in six boys and one in four girls are molested by age 18. And why exactly do we not talk about it? We do not ask about it when a child's behavior changes, when we are taking medical histories or even during psychological interventions. There are signs. Yet parents do not speak to their children about sexual abuse. Children do not hear about it from their educators. "Don't ask, don't tell" did not work for the military and it certainly does not work for children who are not empowered to protect themselves from an adult. 

There are similarities that often happen after abuse has occurred. Sexually abused children are prone to risk-taking behavior including unprotected sex, substance abuse, isolation, addictions and obesity, which are all telling signs. From Frank we learn that not all pedophiles are child molesters but all child molesters are pedophiles -- as some pedophiles do not act on their sexual desire of children. We must look for signs of abuse in the child and behavior patterns of the molester. Yet somehow we fail to do both. This puts us at double risk.

Why does an HIV/AIDS organization care so deeply about this issue? Some of the behaviors that can occur years after molestation can increase the risk of the child to become exposed to HIV as an adult. Substance use and other addictions can put a person at higher risk. Depression and a sense of self-worthlessness can also be risks for HIV. We know firsthand this is a critical issue for both our HIV-positive and HIV-negative clients who have experienced abuse in their childhoods.

The movement that can come out of the book, Pee Shy makes way for these courses of action:

1. The public can be made aware of the frequency of molestation.
2. Parents can learn the profile of molesters.
3. Parents can learn what signs to look for if their child is molested.
4. Educators can learn the necessity to teach about this problem.
5. Victims can learn they are not alone.
6. Victims of molestation can learn that there is help and mental health treatment that can assist with the after effects of abuse.
7. Health care professionals can learn to screen for abuse and begin the healing process.
8. The impact of the abuse, especially if not addressed, can last for years leading to potential risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Frank is a brave man for exposing a taboo topic, a topic that has plagued children since the beginning of time, a topic that parents and children are ashamed of when they are prey to a predator. We can all do a better job at addressing molestation before it happens and to help the victim recover after it happens. Our collective involvement in this movement can help decrease new HIV infections.

Janet Weinberg is GMHC's interim Chief Executive Officer.


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