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Spring 2005
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Vol. XVII, No. 1
Winter 2005
Public Dialogues Put A Human Face On Child Sexual Abuse

Joan TabachnickStop It Now!, founded in 1992, is a national nonprofit organization that introduced a ground-breaking public health approach to prevent the perpetration of child sexual abuse. Our public policy, public education, and research programs have protected children by emphasizing adult and community responsibility in prevention. Through Stop It Now!’s research over the last t12 years, we have demonstrated that although the public is aware of child sexual abuse, most people simply do not know how to talk about the issue (Denny, et al, 1999).   Typical conversations about sexual abuse in the media or on the streets condemn child sexual abuse as a horrendous crime and misdeed, but that is where the discussion ends.  For example, “Child sexual abuse is a horrendous crime.  We all agree with that.  What else is there to talk about?”  Most people in today’s society have no other frame of reference for talking about child sexual abuse; nor do they have the skills or knowledge to recognize and respond to signs of abuse in a child or in an adult, teenager, or child at risk to abuse.   Recognizing the need for basic skills at the community level, Stop It Now! created a public Dialogue Project -- a format for a a deeper conversation at the community level about how to prevent child sexual abuse.  The Stop It Now! concept is to go straight to the people who have been most affected:  survivors, recovering sex offenders, and their family members, and let them model what it means to truly talk together about preventing the sexual abuse of a child.  As one survivor of child sexual abuse described her experience with the Stop It Now! Dialogue Project, having an authentic conversation about abuse requires the “courage to disturb the surface, to let go of appearances and to disrupt normal social relations.” 


Stop It Now!’s first public dialogue was held in 1997 in Burlington, Vermont between two  members of  Stop It Now!’s Board of Directors: one a survivor of child sexual abuse and the founder of Stop It Now!, Fran Henry; and the other, Wayne Bowers, a recovering sex offender and the Executive Director of the Sexual Abuse Treatment Alliance, a nonprofit organization created to support the treatment and recovery process of sex offenders who have completed their criminal obligations.  The meeting was facilitated by a Stop It Now! staff person and included a nationally recognized treatment provider to answer broader treatment questions if they arose.  The response to this initial test dialogue was overwhelmingly positive.  One attendee wrote, “Hearing the honest sharing of a survivor of sexual abuse along with the heartfelt words of a perpetrator in recovery was a powerful and inspiring convergence.  Stop It Now!’s dialogue was a courageous, groundbreaking step in the fight to end child sexual abuse.”  We learned that while the Dialogue Project helped to “break the silence” surrounding child sexual abuse, we also discovered that it was equally groundbreaking to develop the safety, the language, and the atmosphere to talk together about prevention.  One audience member who had struggled with her thoughts and feeling towards children was inspired to call Stop It Now! the next day for information about treatment programs in her area.  The excitement and motivation created by the event for everyone in the room and for that caller in particular, is what Stop It Now! sees as critical component of our prevention work. 


Through the overwhelmingly positive responses to the initial event, Stop It Now! recognized the need for more of this kind of authentic conversation.  But we also recognized how much more we needed to learn about the dynamics of talking about child sexual abuse, an issue that no one else wanted to talk about.  Stop It Now! followed this initial success with a two-day facilitated retreat between four recovering sex offenders and four survivors of child sexual abuse.  From this retreat, Stop It Now! developed the necessary tone of respect critical to an honest conversation about the deeply emotional issue of  child sexual abuse..  From these initial conversations, Stop It Now! expanded the Dialogue Project to include family members, including parents of youth with sexual behavior problems on the panel. 


Community Dialogue, Public Conversations, and Civil Discourse

Although Stop It Now! is the only organization that we know of that conducts public conversations between survivors and offenders of child sexual abuse and their family members, we do know that community-based conversations about polarized issues have evolved from a variety of disciplines as diverse as family therapy (Herzig, 2001), the study of physics (Bohm, 1980), and democratic political practice (Saunders, 2004).   In often painful and polarized conversations, communities typically talk with certainty about our ideas and rarely listen to the each other.  Or if we do, it is to scan the argument of the other for flaws or holes which we can use to weaken what the other has to say..  Adding to this divisive atmosphere is the media, which in the interest of so-called objectivity, give a voice to the most polarized positions available (Herzig, 2001).    Yet, what each of these disciplines have in common in conducting community-based conversations, is an approach that encourages people to understand each others’ values, identities and experiences while creating openings for developing new and possibly more complex shared meaning and an ability to grapple with the situation that provoked the conversation in new, different, and more productive and effective ways..   By creating new form for public conversations, Stop It Now! introduces new stories of hope that are not typically heard in the media or in the community.  These stories challenge what we have been telling ourselves; in the case of child sexual abuse:that we are helpless in preventing it. A public dialogue can help to create a more empowered reality; one in which adults understand the ways that they can stop child sexual abuse before it is perpetrated..   Additionally, the stories change the person who is telling them while also changing all of us who are privileged to be a part of the unfolding process (Monk 1997).  The essential building block recognized by all who write of their dialogue experience is “respectful listening.”  ”Respectful listening" is listening and asking questions about what may challenge our feelings and thoughts rather than listening to what simply confirms our own point of view (Bailey, 2004).  


The Stop It Now! Dialogue Process

What makes the Stop It Now! dialogues both bold and challenging is the simple fact that all people involved in this issue, whether they be survivors of sexual abuse, offenders, or their family members choose to sit together and tell their stories publicly with the simple goal of helping to prevent further sexual abuse.   But for them to do so, Stop It Now! has developed a tightly orchestrated event that creates the safety necessary for the everyone, panelists and the audience, to fully participate in the dialogue.  Over the last six years, STOP IT NOW! has conducted these dialogues in over 50 settings, speaking to an average of 30-60 professionals, community activists, and family members at each event.  The Public Dialogues have been held successfully in setting as different as a national conference and as a community event in a church basement.  One element that makes them successful across settings is that the audience attending the event are choosing to attend – it is not a requirement for them. 


The format of the one and a half hour event is as follows:  To begin each session, the facilitator welcomes the community and sets clear ground rules, many of which were developed in the dialogue retreat.  The panel begins the dialogue with each of the participants telling their stories of abuse and healing/treatment in a straightforward and honest way.  Just the notion of them sitting together and talking models ways of breaking the silence and models how  people can talk together about child sexual abuse and its prevention.  For many members of the audience, this is the first time that they have heard a sex offender speak about  the crime s/he has committed.  For others, the dialogue is the first time they have heard a survivor talk in detail about how their childhood was taken away from them by the abuse and how they eventually learned to heal and live a healthy life as adults.   After these powerful stories are told, the audience is given the opportunity to ask questions of each of the participants so that  a dialogue with the audience is created.   The last component of the event is a period of time during which the audience is encouraged to speak publicly if they choose about their own reactions to the event and to the dialogue speakers.   This final feedback often serves to identify again the difficult emotions in the room that echo the message of the panel – that listening to the stories of the presenters has increased skills of audience members to listen and talk about sexual abuse.  The final feedback section also sends a clear message that the community will be stronger and eventually safer for having been exposed to these authentic stories.  Some people wonder how such a structured conversation can have value.  Like other dialogue processes, we have found that the structure forces the conversation into new avenues and encourages genuine exchanges between people who previous to the dialogue may have been viewed by audience members as stereotypes.  (Roth, S. et. al., 1995)


The critical elements necessary for the development of the Dialogue Project are the pre-screening of dialogue panelists, working with the panelists about “how” they tell their stories, the setting of clear ground-rules with the audience, and having a facilitator and treatment provider help the panelist and audience feel more secure in this conversation.   


The pre-screening is an opportunity to ensure that it is not damaging to the speaker, their family, or the community to be a part of the dialogue.  If a survivor will be re-traumatized through the dialogue then it is a joint decision to not be a part of a dialogue.  If an offender will not take full responsibility for his/her acts or if his/her family does not want him/her to “go public,” then it does not make sense to include him or her.  Finally, if a family member colludes with the denial of the offender in any way, then it is clear that this particular person is not appropriate for the dialogue project.   The pre-screening includes individual conversations between Stop It Now! and the potential speaker and may include a reference from a treatment provider or a check-in with the speaker’s family.  The pre-screening also allows Stop It Now! to coach dialogue panalists on the language they will use in their presentations and helps them to be clear in stating that sexually abusing a child is a behavior that can and must be stopped.  For example, many people initially talk in the passive voice about when child sexual abuse “happened in their family” rather than using more active language to convey that their child was sexually abused.  Use of the active voice places emphasis on the choice someone made to abuse a child and the behavior that must be stopped.  Offenders often fall into terms such as “my victim” rather than clearly taking responsibility for their actions and stating that this was a child that they chose to hurt.   Finally, Stop It Now! works with dialogue panelists to convey their message of hope : that child sexual abuse is something that we all can play a role in preventing before it is perpetrated and before any harm is done.  All of the speakers talk about how their lives were harmed and forever changed, but are now in a better place because of their willingness to confront child sexual abuse in a proactive way. 


During the presentation of the Dialogue Project, the facilitator offers opening remarks and established ground-rules for the audience that set the tone for the event.  The tone is clear – this is a conversation where our primary focus is on listening.  Every question is welcome (whether it is answered or not) and considered necessary to break the silence surrounding child sexual abuse.  The pattern of speaking is also clear: everyone must listen and speak with respect for different points of view.   In order to create the necessary safety for the dialogue panelists and for the audience, the facilitator must also fully recognize in his or her opening remarks that the stories in the Public Dialogue do not replace the stories of others in the room or held by others who have been sexually abused.  But the stories of hope expressed on the panel are stories rarely told in the media or heard by the public. 


“How” the panelists tell their story is a more complex process to describe.  Stop It Now!’s goal is to break stereotypes of offenders, survivors and their family members by introducing new stories into our preconceived notions of sexual abuse.  General stereotypes of a victim/survivor of child sexual abuse is someone who is permanently and forever damaged by the abuse.  In telling his or her story, the survivor must first establish his/her current position as a survivor, someone who was deeply affected by child sexual abuse but has learned to live a strong and healthy life today.  After this sense of hope that a victim can be healed has been established, the survivor then tells his or her story of abuse and how s/he got to be the person s/he is today. 


Our stereotype of a sex offender is someone who is in deep denial, has few, if any, adult social skills, yet is adept at manipulating us while willfully hurting children.  The recovering offender must first establish that he or she holds him/herself fully responsible and accountable for the crimes that s/he has committed.  What must be made explicit by the recovering offender is that the victim had no responsibility in provoking the sexual abuse, and in any breakdown of the family or community within which the abuse was perpetrated.  To connect with the audience, the recovering offender must also let them know that he or she also understands the deep pain that s/he has caused in perpetrating the sexual abuse.  Then, and only then, can the recovering sex offender begin to tell his/her story and ask the audience to engage with him/her as a valid partner in the prevention of child sexual abuse.   


Our stereotype of a family member in a situation of child sexual abuse is someone who ignored what was obvious in their family or who weakly and knowingly stood by while a child was harmed. Family members, including parents of youth with sexual behavior problems, play a critical and very difficult role in the dialogue; primarily, they must deal with the challenging question of why they choose to stay in connection with the sex offender.  Family members must establish for the audience their full recognition of the harm that their offending child, spouse or other family member caused.  Then, while consistently asserting the accountability of their loved one who has offended, family members must establish and explain their reasoning about why they have continued to love and care for this adult or child who chose to cause such harm.  Having dialogue participants maintain this balance of accountability for the crime and for the harm done, together with compassion for the person they love who committed the harm illustrates and models the essential dilemma that we all face in our communities around the tragedy of child sexual abuse. 


After the initial stories have been shared, the discussion is opened to questions from the audience.  During the question and answer portion of the event, a further critical element begins to unfold.  The audience will begin to hear similar messages from the survivor, recovering sex offender, and family member. 

  • Each speaker will talk about how their lives were completely changed when someone in the family had the courage to confront this issue – and that their lives are better today for doing so.

  • All speakers convey a strong message of hope through their stories and through their answers to audience questions. 

  • Some survivors talk about how, like the sex offenders, they also acted out their abuse, but on themselves rather than on others. 

  • Every panel member talks about how they are more than the abuse that was perpetrated, they are now professionals, parents, community activists, etc. 


With the Dialogue Project, Stop It Now! has created a model that teaches audience members how to talk about the difficult issues surrounding child sexual abuse. The dialogues shed light on the shame that families face when dealing with sexual abuse, shift assumptions, and break the stereotypes that keep us from focusing on community-based prevention efforts.  The dialogues are able to truly touch people by putting a human face on the sexual abuse of children and by giving those who attend a sense of hope -- hope that when a community is faced with sexual abuse, it will be better prepared to handle it with a range of responses that will not only facilitate healing for everyone involved, but promote the future primary prevention of child sexual abuse before it is perpetrated.  [Back to Top]