The Swimsuit Theory

The “swimsuit theory” is one of the most common ideas about how to approach children about sexual abuse. The idea is that if we tell them not to let anyone touch their “swimsuit areas” - the areas of their body that would be covered by a swimsuit - or if we tell them to tell someone if they are touched there - sexual abuse will magically end forever.

It’s a wacky little idea. It demonstrates a very common lack of understanding of the effects and causes of sexual abuse. It also demonstrates one of the effects of abuse: a disconnection between cause and effect. Telling children to tell on abusers doesn’t end abuse, and material that suggests this rarely (if ever) says what to do when the children tell. If children get support in healing the effects of the abuse, they will not go on to abuse others… but it seems harsh, abusive, and downright impractical to say “we plan to end the cycle of abuse by waiting until our children are abused and then helping them heal the resulting psychological issues.”

Of course, this begs the question “How can we talk to children about sexual abuse in a way that is helpful to them?” Let’s start out by looking at the most common ideas that people have about discussing sexual abuse with children:

1. That children who have been abused go through five stages. In 1983, Dr. Rolland Summitt suggested that these stages include secrecy, helplessness, entrapment, disclosure and retraction. Others use a different sequence: denial, reluctance, gradual disclosure, recantation and reaffirmation.

2. That therapists therefore need to ask them lots of times, educate themselves about the signs of child abuse and the ways children can express it in different stages.

3. That asking children repeatedly whether they have been sexually abused can lead to “accidentally convincing” children they have been sexually abused, misinterpreting their responses for a “false positive” of sexual abuse, or “implanting false memories” of sexual abuse.

    * That there are no such things as “false memories” or “accidentally” thinking things have happened to us, although we can be mistaken about the details of memories. (There are also lots of great guidelines now for people in the legal system who need to talk to children about sexual abuse in nonthreatening and noninvasive ways.)

4. That telling children to tell their parents or a trusted adult if someone “touches them in a way that makes them feel funny,” or not to let anyone touch their “swimsuit area,” et cetera, will somehow prevent them from being sexually abused. Or that children should learn that some adults have “touching problems” and need to be “told on” even if it seems like an accident or a secret.

    * That in fact, these ideas tell the child that it’s their job to protect themselves from sexual abuse, and to help those who abuse them.
    * That these ideas are useless because they overlook the fact that very few children are sexually abused by a stranger and most abuse occurs within the family
    * That these ideas are useless because they overlook the fact that most children cannot tell someone about the abuse because they are too afraid, because the abuser threatens to hurt them or someone they love if they tell, because the abuser tells them no one will believe them, because they believe it is their own fault and that they will “get in trouble” if they tell, because they are too young, because they are already caught up in the cycle of fear and shame from other experiences of abuse, or because they do not feel trust for or safety with any adults because of the abuse.
    * That many children find that when they do tell, or when adults find out on their own, about the abuse, the adults do not do anything - either because they do not believe it, do not want to believe it, or because they do not have any idea what to do.
    * That calling sexual abuse “touching” is so general and vague as to confuse children, and can make it even more difficult for them to report sexual abuse.
    * That telling children to say “No! My family doesn’t allow bad secrets!” may just result in them feeling more shame and guilt if they are sexually abused and too afraid to tell but know they are “supposed to.”
    * That talking to a child in this way after they have been abused is particularly unhelpful....

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