A few months ago, I had the opportunity to connect with an amazing woman after she stepped forward to share about being re-traumatized by her former church after reporting being sexually abused as a minor. What amazed me about Natalie Greenfield is that she did not back down or succumb to silence when her former church leaders attempted to publicly malign, demean, and intimidate her. Instead, she continued to speak and boldly expose the ugly truth, knowing that her actions would attract the continued ire of a religious institution attempting to save face. Natalie's words and her life have become a source of great hope and inspiration to many watching abuse survivors around the country who still suffer in silence, shame, and fear. I am very grateful that our paths have crossed and am privileged to call Natalie Greenfield a friend and a hero. - Boz
When I was a little girl, I dreamed of growing up to be all kinds of different things. I wanted to be a ballerina, a veterinarian, a cowgirl, a famous singer. I wanted to fall in love and get married when I was thirty and have a couple of kids, but first I wanted to do everything else. As I got older I realized more than anything I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to write songs and travel the world singing them. I wanted the world to know who I was; I’m a born performer and being on stage felt like home to me.
All of that changed when I was thirteen years old and met the man who targeted me, groomed me for months and then sexually abused me for almost 2 years, destroying the remaining years of my childhood. I lived in the prison this man built around me, I cut myself off from friends and family and I wore a smile to disguise my pain. The abuse finally ended when I was sixteen years old. I hid the abuse for almost 2 more years before speaking out about it, and when I did speak up I was abandoned by my church community and burdened with even more shame. Healing from longterm childhood sexual abuse and the subsequent shaming I experienced has been a life consuming challenge.
I’m now twenty eight years old and married to my best friend, we have three incredible children together and a fourth on the way and life is full and joyful like I never knew was possible. Still, I know what the child sex abuse statistics are and I can’t help but worry my own children might be hurt the way I was. The truth is, most abuse happens at the hands of friends or family members - people who are already in positions of trust and familiarity. It’s also true that most parents of abuse victims will tell you they never saw it coming.
From the moment I saw my first positive pregnancy test I knew I had to be equipped and educated to protect my children. I also knew I needed to equip my children so they could protect themselves when I wouldn’t be able to shield them from the dangers of the world. Honestly, the task felt downright overwhelming until I realized I’m not the only parent who cares deeply about this very thing. Granted, not many people I had access to eight years ago were talking openly about sexual abuse, I longed for conversations that would help me normalize my own healing process as well as educate me for my future as a parent, but I discovered that when I began to speak openly about what happened to me and what I was experiencing as a result, some of the stigma began to fade just a little. Since breaking the ice and beginning to talk about my abuse and shaming, I’ve spoken frequently and openly about the topic and it’s been hugely helpful for me not only when it comes to processing my thoughts about the abuse but also in teaching me how I can help protect and educate others.
Prevention begins with awareness, and awareness can’t happen unless communities and churches are willing to talk about sexual abuse; admittedly not the most comfortable conversations to have. They’re unpleasant and often awkward but that should never matter when it means we could prevent another child or woman from suffering the trauma of abuse. When our children are taught that certain subjects are taboo and should never be brought up, an environment is fostered in which children feel ashamed to speak up if that “taboo” happens to them. If they’re ashamed to speak up about their bodies or their sexuality, can you imagine the shame they’d feel if they were sexually abused? I felt that shame and I never wanted anyone to know about it because I was afraid they’d see me the same way I saw myself.
So how do we begin having these difficult conversations? They should start in our families and should include practical ways to protect our little ones. Here are just a few of the bigger preventative measures that our family has implemented that I want to share with you with the hope that they may help your family as you seek to keep your children safe.
- Make sure our children feel safe talking to us. It’s vital that children feel comfortable and safe speaking to their parents about anything that might be on their minds, even the heavy stuff, even the embarrassing stuff. Oftentimes these conversations need to be instigated by mom and dad. This article has popped up in my Facebook feed a handful of times in the last few months. I really appreciate the insights it offers about questions we can ask our children to help them feel safe about speaking to us when something doesn’t feel right. My husband and I have started practicing this advice religiously and it’s been the beginning of some great conversations with our little ones.
- Teach our children to understand and respect their bodies. My husband and I feel strongly about teaching our children to be familiar with the functions of their own bodies. From a young age we’ve spoken very openly in our household about anatomy, and simultaneously, about how important it is to respect each other’s bodies and privacy. For example, this means when someone asks not to be tickled or touched, that request is honored.
- No sleepovers. We don’t allow our children to have sleepovers unless it’s with a grandma or an auntie and we’re aware of everyone who is or might be in the home. Alone time with uncles or male friends of the family isn’t allowed, not because we’re paranoid or judgmental but because in order to protect our children it’s important that we have ground rules without exceptions. Our extended family are aware of these rules and know not to take them personally; we’ve had open conversations with them about why we feel this way and why it’s important to respect our rules.
Some of these rules may seem rigid or you may think we live in constant fear of something terrible happening to our children. On the contrary, speaking frequently about these issues and having ground rules for our family eases much of that worry. Do our rules offer a guarantee that our children won’t be hurt by abuse? Sadly, no. But as parents our responsibility is to protect our children and to prepare them for their future, and though the method of doing so may widely vary from one family to another it’s important that we learn to listen; to our children, to the lessons from our own pasts, and to the experiences of those around us.
When they’re old enough to hear it, my daughters and my son will know my story. It will be hard to tell them, hard to see that loss of innocence when they hear about the pain in their mother’s childhood. But by trusting them with my own suffering I hope they will also trust me with theirs. Because when we lead with an example of vulnerability and a willingness to share, when we create an environment where trust and love overshadow guilt and shame, we give the next generation a healing power that the world desperately needs.
Natalie Greenfield is a mother, wife, business owner, musician, and sexual abuse advocate. Through her personal blog she shares stories of the longterm sexual abuse she suffered as a young teen. Natalie is blessed to be years down her road of healing and enjoys a full life in beautiful Northern Idaho with her husband, Wesley, their 3 young children and a chocolate lab. You can follow Natalie at @NatalieGfield.