June 9, 2016

My Fear of Being The Next News Headline

This is a post that is best read beginning to end, so to give context and avoid misunderstanding.

There’s been a lot of talk lately around the news headline of a terrible instance of rape at Stanford University. You can probably guess my thoughts on it (it’s terrible), so that’s not the purpose of what I’m writing today.

I represent the cause of child sexual abuse, which is very different than sexual assault of an adult… but, of course, also has an abundance of commonality. Both are awful and should never happen. And, in this case, both have a very common thread that I don’t like to see.

I’ve heard a lot of talk of outrage in regard to this news story. I think that’s perfectly relevant, justified, and very well intended. I’m glad people care about this and that they’re vocal. This problem/these problems must be discussed. I applaud anyone who is a voice for the voiceless.

However, there’s something else at play here that I haven’t heard anyone mention. It’s unfortunately an unintended consequence and it’s a big, big component – in my opinion – that feeds into the problem.

News headlines. I don’t want to be one.

I grew up, from age 6, with a story I was afraid to even tell my parents, for fear of devastating them. I certainly wasn’t going to share my story with anyone else. And every single time I heard a news story about a kid being molested… I had all the more reason to not tell anyone my story, because I was certain that it would be on the evening news.

That was simply not a risk I could take.

This may sound illogical, but keep in mind that I had 6-year old logic and maturity at my disposal.

Given the fact that I founded this organization, Speak Your Silence, and our mission is to conquer the stigma of child sexual abuse, I think this is an important point for me to raise. I just Googled the word “stigma” for more clarity in this discussion. This was the first result:

stig·ma

1. a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.

“the stigma of mental disorder”

synonyms: shame, disgrace, dishonor, ignominy, opprobrium, humiliation

We treat child sexual abuse (and, in this case, sexual assault) as if it’s the most outrageous thing and we simply can’t believe it when we hear about it in the news. And, yet, if you’re having dinner with a friend tonight, there’s roughly a 15-20% chance that they were sexually abused as a kid.

Where’s our outrage about that? How’s that different from this incident at Stanford?

This happens all the time. And it’s happened to people we know and love.

I’ve been thinking for a couple days on how to best articulate my thoughts and my frustration with this situation.

I guess it boils down to this: Child sexual abuse (and sexual assault) feels arm’s length to us – like it happens to other people, not to people we know. Therefore, we don’t feel personally invested to take action and change things. And then, when we hear a terrible story like this at Stanford, it puts a specific person and face to the problem and we go crazy and demand justice. However, it’s still an unfamiliar face for most of us, and therefore, the problem remains a distant one.

But, along with such outpouring of (very justified) anger from the public, the stories of so many (and I mean SO MANY) others are silenced… because they really don’t want to be the next news headline. They don’t want the most intimate details of their lives shared with the whole world.

Would you share your most intimate secret with someone if there was the slightest chance it’d be discussed by Matt Lauer on the Today Show tomorrow morning?

This case at Stanford is terrible and merits outrage. But, let’s pause for a moment and think about the statistics – one in 4 girls and one in 6 boys are sexually abused prior to age eighteen. Stanford’s student population is just north of 16,000, which means that, depending on the male/female split, going by statistics, somewhere around 2,400-3,200 of them were sexually abused before their 18th birthdays. And that’s not even counting the number of students who will be sexually assaulted during college.

Where’s our outrage about this?

This an unfair question because numbers don’t grab hold of our hearts. Real people, faces, and stories do.

And therein lies the struggle of this cause that we’ve taken on.

This news headline is a double-edged sword. This young woman deserves justice. I hope we all agree on that. And all of us who are vocal are so because we care, we know that she’s worth defending, and we want to set a precedent that this is simply not okay. It’s a powerful and important statement.

Being a voice for the voiceless is one of the most important things we could ever be.

But, there’s another side to this coin. There are thousands and millions of kids and adults with stories they’re terrified to share. This news headline gives them all the more reason to keep their stories secret and live with the impact it has on them, rather than being freed of that weight, able to heal and live the full lives they were meant to live.

This is why I’ve always believed that the issue of child sexual abuse is a conversation that needs to be normalized before things will truly change. And by “normalized”, I mean that we need to realize that this problem is so common, that it happens to people we love, and we need to take action to obliterate the stigma that surrounds it. Those who go through it need not carry shame, guilt, or fear.

The Stitch is a symbol intended to strip this issue of it’s weight, to give people a way to champion this cause in a way that will actually grow and encourage people to share. It gives a voice to the voiceless, and it shows a long-term investment in making a change that will certainly take a long time to make.

I’ve referenced outrage a number of times in this post, and I believe it certainly has its place. But, to be honest, when I was a kid with a secret I was afraid to share, I didn’t need people’s outrage. What I needed was to know that I was safe to share my story, that my story didn’t take away from my worth, and that I was worth defending. I needed the safety of knowing that I could share my story with as few or as many people as I wanted – but that it’d be at my discretion.

The fact of the matter is that action needs to be taken when there are no headlines in the news. The Stitch needs to be worn when there is no giant controversy at Stanford or at Penn State or at a church.

If the only time we discuss these issues and take action is when it’s a big news headline, an unintended consequence is that silence will be perpetuated by people’s fear of being the next headline on the evening news.

No thanks.

While the outrage continues, I’d encourage you to shift the focus of the discussion to creating an environment where people are safe to share their stories without the entire world hearing about it.

When you do this, you make real change and on a very real and personal level.

-Matt

You can learn more about Speak Your Silence and our symbol, #TheStitch, here.

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