Yesterday, I - like thousands of other women around the world - shared my experience of sexual abuse on social media, under the #MeToo hashtag. This was in response to a tweet by actress Alyssa Milano, urging people to post the words 'me too' if they had ever been sexually harassed or assaulted.
In the UK, 31% of young women will experience sexual abuse in childhood, according to the NSPCC. But only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report it to the police. The riskiest years are 16-19, when women are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of these crimes.
I was 12 when I was first abused by a family friend; 16 when I was groped while stacking shelves in a supermarket; in my early 20s when a university professor offered to line me up with a job at a prestigious Think Tank in exchange for sexual favours; and close to 30 when a taxi driver felt it appropriate to show me hard-core porn while stopped at traffic lights.
And like many other women, I didn't tell anyone.
As an adult, my strategy was to remove myself from the situation as quickly as possible, and without confrontation. And where this wasn't possible as a young adolescent, I simply dropped hints. At home, at school, to friends. I hoped that someone would see what was happening to me, without me needing to say it out loud.
As parents, we drum into our children from an early age how they must tell us if anyone asks them to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. My parents did the same. I knew that I could tell them anything. And yet, somehow, I couldn't tell them this.
Parents need to understand that just because their daughter tells them about her first crush or her first kiss, it doesn't mean she will tell them about her first experience of being groped or pinned up against a wall against her will. Some children simply don't understand just how wrong what is happening to them truly is, while others worry about how their parents react to the discovery that one of their inner circle has committed such an act. Some just struggle to get the words out.
TV portrayals of sexual abuse often show men suggesting to their victim that the abuse be kept secret. But this is rarely the case. More than 8 out of 10 children who are sexually abused know their abuser. The flipside of this is that the abuser knows the child's temperament, and knows that the child will be unlikely to report the abuse, whether they ask them to keep it secret or not. I don't remember any of my abusers threatening me if I told on them. They just somehow knew that I wouldn't.
Given this, how on earth do we as parents pick up on the signs that our children are being abused?
Firstly, listen very closely to any hints your child might be dropping. Perhaps they keep asking if "Granddad" or "Uncle Tom" will be there. Or maybe they are suddenly talking about sexual issues in an attempt to provoke further discussion. Younger children might even start mimicking adult-like sexual behaviours with toys or stuffed animal. Other signs could include sudden bedwetting, difficulty sleeping, or a change in eating habits.
It is important that we encourage our children to tell us if their friends start acting differently or talking about anything confusing or upsetting, too. Shortly after posting about my experience on social media, an old school friend got in touch to apologise for not having spoken out about what was happening to me at the time. Of course, I don't blame her. We were young, and she didn't fully appreciate the severity of the situation. And like me, she didn't have the words to express her concerns.
Some schools have introduced worry boxes that pupils can post notes in, should they be concerned about something and feel the need to speak to a teacher. While this appears, on the surface, to be a good idea, if the "me too" campaign has taught us anything, it is just how difficult 40-something-year-old adults find it to discuss sexual abuse, let alone young girls.
This is what makes the "me too" campaign so powerful. The only way we are ever going to encourage more young women to speak out is by sharing our experiences with our children, in an open and age-appropriate way. We need to make them aware from an early age that there are men out there who do bad things, and encourage them to speak out, should they ever come into contact with one of these "bad" men.
Most kids are well aware that bullies and thugs exist, and that there are bad men who burgle our homes and try to steal things from us. Why not warn them that there are some people who try to touch others inappropriately too?
Ultimately, we need to find a way to normalise not the abuse itself, but rather the conversations surrounding it.
We need to tell our children about what happened to us, let them know that it's not acceptable, and that it's ok to speak out about it.
We need to teach the issue of consent from an early age, and explain that abuse is never something to feel ashamed about.
We need to make sure that they never feel the need to simply post "me too".
A version of this article previously appeared on Institute of Mums.
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