Tom Reardon has worked with victims of sexual violence in the Phoenix area for more than two decades. After watching Leaving Neverland, the HBO documentary about Michael Jackson's alleged sexual relations with children, he was moved to write this series of stories for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention month. Today is the last of four lessons from the documentary.
There is a line in the Dead Kennedys song “Stars And Stripes Of Corruption” when lead singer Jello Biafra asks, “But what can just one of us do?”
The question is important, and others are there as well. How do we protect ourselves and our children from sexual violence? How do we help someone we love who is dealing with this crime, and most importantly, how can we help stop sexual violence from happening? Can just one person do something that will help make the kind of societal change that we all need?
Let’s tackle these questions one at a time.
During my career in sexual violence prevention, I have looked at these questions from a number of angles, and it almost always comes back to the idea of educating people to understand the skills needed to build a healthy relationship. In my current role at Casa, I spend the majority of my time working on social and emotional learning (SEL) programs. This primarily focuses on working with students to help them understand their feelings, how to build empathy, and what it takes to be a good friend.
This may seem like a huge departure from teaching kids specifically about sexual abuse prevention or sexual assault prevention, but it really isn’t. Consider this: If we all had healthy relationships in our lives, both with ourselves and with others, would sexual violence happen very often at all?
Being assertive when it comes to your boundaries, knowing how to communicate, build trust, and understanding what respect actually is constitutes the single best method of preventing date and acquaintance rape, which happens somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of the time in sexual assault cases according to most experts. The excellent website, RAINN.org, states that 80 percent of sexual assault victims know their attacker, and 93 percent of sexual abuse victims know the person who abuses them.
Teaching children relationship skill-building is a great first step in helping them protect themselves, since sexual predators are not looking for children who will speak up for themselves. A child who will say no to an adult (or another child) when put in an awkward, uncomfortable, or confusing situation is a child who will tell someone what happened. This is the last thing a perpetrator wants, and this is why the grooming process documented in Dan Reed’s film, Leaving Neverland, and Oprah Winfrey’s discussion afterward is so important to understand.
For Jackson, Wade Robson and James Safechuck were easy pickings if what the two men say is true about their respective relationships with the pop star. The boys grew to love Jackson easily as their friend and confidant before Jackson took their relationships to a sexual place. By the time each child shared a bed with Jackson, they were convinced the relationship was something special, important, and based in love.
As Robson mentioned in the Winfrey special, "From night one of the abuse, of the sexual stuff that Michael did to me, he told me it was love. He told me that he loved me and that God brought us together. I was this little boy from the other side of the world, in Australia, and Michael was a god to me. And now, who was God to me was telling me, 'I love you, God brought us together' and this, this sexual stuff, this was how we show our love. Before he said that, anything Michael was going to say to me was gospel to me. So when I testified when I was 11, from the first night on, (Jackson) started training me right away for what ended up happening when I was 11, when I was 22, at the trials."
Robson testified twice on Jackson's behalf during trials before coming to terms with his own experiences after becoming a father himself. To both Robson and Safechuck, they did not see their relationship with Jackson as wrong. They were in love with Jackson, as well as being constantly trained on how to react if any accusations came out, and felt powerless to stand with the other children who came forward prior to their own realizations about their relationship with the singer.
Safechuck shared this about his reasons for not coming forward earlier in his life: "Michael had just drilled in me, over and over since you were a kid, 'if you're caught, if we're caught, your life is over. My life is over.' It's repeated over and over and over again. It's just drilled into your nervous system. So it's (a) panic of being caught. It takes a lot of work to sort through that."
Perpetrators of sexual violence are looking for children and adults who will not say no and not stand up for themselves. We can protect our children (and ourselves) by helping them understand how to stand up for themselves and that whatever feelings they are having are valid. By combining SEL skill-building and talking with our kids about sexual violence specifically, we can greatly curb sexual violence from happening.
I still do sexual violence prevention programs, but not nearly as often as SEL programs. There are two main reasons for this. The first goes back to what I mentioned earlier: People who have healthy relationships are way less likely to be involved in any type of relationship violence than those who do not, so all social and emotional learning opportunities can curb sexual violence from happening. The second reason, at least at Casa, that we don’t do as many sexual violence prevention programs is that funding is almost nonexistent, and schools don’t have the funds to pay for it.
As a parent, though, or an ally for children you know and care about, you can have these conversations as well. What I do in the classroom is not rocket science, but it does take a carefully nuanced skill set and the capacity to talk about a subject that makes people, at best, uncomfortable.
If you care about the children in your life, you can get over this discomfort.
Even young children can understand basic safety rules and talking about how no one should touch the private parts of your body unless it is to keep you clean and healthy is pretty simple. I also share three other simple rules: No, Go, and Tell.
If someone puts you in a situation where something doesn’t feel right, look at the person who is making you uncomfortable in the eye and tell them, “No.” Then, as soon as it is safe to do so, get away from them (hence, “Go”). Once you are safely away from them, “Tell” someone what happened and keep telling until someone believes you. It’s always a good idea to practice these steps with your child and even talk about where you could safely go if you needed to get away from someone, even someone you love, and who you could tell.
This conversation may be hard to do, but if you have doubts, take a look at Leaving Neverland or one of the other films or television shows that directly address sexual abuse and see how harmful this crime is on the lives of children and adults. Which conversation would you rather have: one that prevents your child from experiencing sexual abuse or the conversation after it has happened?
As a dad, as well as something of an expert in this work, I know which one I’d rather have.
If sexual violence has happened to you, I want you to know that it is not your fault. No one chooses to be abused. You are also not alone. It has happened to me, as well, and many other people that I know and love. If you haven’t told anyone, please talk to someone you trust about what’s happened. There are some great resources here in Arizona, as well as nationwide, and awesome people working hard to help people every day. The number for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network is 800-656-4673 and their website is RAINN.org.
We can help a friend or family member by listening to them and encouraging them to report the crime to the police. If it is a child disclosing sexual violence to you, then call your local police immediately. We cannot allow perpetrators of sexual violence to get away with it any longer, even if we love the way they act, sing, make art, or play a sport, or if they are a member of our family. Easier said than done, I know, but if we want change to happen, we have to be the change we want to see.
Just one of us can make a difference, but it would be better if we worked as a team. I’m going to keep doing what I do and fighting against sexual violence through teaching, writing, parenting, being a friend, being an ally, and listening.
What you decide to do is up to you.
As this story has unfolded, there have been some discrepancies raised regarding the statements of James Safechuck and the timing of his abuse with regard to the completion of construction of Neverland Ranch’s train station. Safechuck said he was abused at the train station at a time when the station itself was not yet in existence. This has caused a great deal of criticism from detractors of Leaving Neverland, although documentary maker Dan Reed has defended the statements of Safechuck via multiple sources.
Regardless of the accuracy of Safechuck’s statements, the bottom line is that the film illustrates the grooming process in child sexual abuse better than anything ever created before. If it were a work of complete fiction, for example, it would be still be the most powerful statement put on film about how children are taken advantage by adults who are looking to exploit them sexually.