The message matters

Keeping kids safe is everyone's responsibility.

It's common knowledge in the circles I travel that I do not have any children. However, it is also known that I care deeply for other people's children everyday. That begins with my own family and stems to the hundreds of children I have worked with over the years in my career. I have made it my purpose to further the social/emotional growth of those children whose set of life circumstances is not ideal for any number of reasons. There are so many factors that have a profound impact on young children. It starts with the environment of pregnancy and never stops. Children are truly like sponges. They absorb everything around them. Much of it is great and many children are set up for success by the environment in which they grow up. But we know that is not true for all of them. I have spent the majority of my career working with children whose lives are affected by complex trauma. That means constant exposure, over time, to various traumatic experiences often in an interpersonal context rather than one specific event (acute trauma). And far too many of these cases of complex trauma include sexual abuse.

For those with less exposure to this world of trauma, here are some facts and figures to put things into perspective:

  • Studies by David Finkelhor, Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, show that:
  • 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse;
  • Self-report studies show that 20% of adult females and 5-10% of adult males recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident;
  • During a one-year period in the U.S., 16% of youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
  • Over the course of their lifetime, 28% of U.S. youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;

U.S. Department of Human Services data indicates that 9.3% of cases of maltreatment of children in 2012 were classified as sexual abuse. So, yes, it does happen. And considering even one instance would be too many, it happens a lot. The topic has gained some extra attention in recent times following the discovery of the scandals in prominent programs such as Penn State Football and the U.S. Gymnastics team. There should be no one left asking if this is something we ought to be concerned about. But I am here to tell you that is not enough.

We still live in a culture where children do not come forward because the perpetrator is able to convince them that this is normal or even special treatment. And we have adults who don't believe children when they tell or who do not know how to process the information they have been given and do nothing as a result. Therefore, we need to be doing everything we can to teach our children to understand their bodies, how they work, who can touch them and why and how to say no and report it if someone touches them in a way that makes them feel even the slightest uncomfortable. Yes, that means using the words penis and vagina. Yes, that means telling them that only parents/caregivers and doctors can touch them there. Yes, that means choosing safe adults to tell if anyone else touches them. AND, YES, IT NOW MEANS NOT TAKING YOUR CHILD TO SEE THE MOVIE SHOW DOGS.

I cannot believe I even had to type that last sentence, much less in all caps. I will admit that I have not seen the movie. I do not intend to. I have checked enough sources feel confident in what I am about to say. It is my understanding that as part of the dog show story line, dogs must have their private parts inspected. Now, I am pretty sure that is a regular practice in dog shows. However, the manner in which it is presented is where the problem lies. It is not just about the content. The context and messaging that exists beyond matters even more. The dog being examined feels uncomfortable and is told, "Focus on not reacting. The inspection of the private parts is the hardest part about being a show dog. Go in your mind to your happy place, then nothing can stop you." I don't believe this was intentional, but it is as if this movie took a line from the Larry Nassar (the U.S. Gymnastics team doctor now convicted of decades of sexual abuse) playbook. Like I said, I do not think anyone involved in this movie planned to paint a picture of grooming, sexual abuse, or the like. But certainly someone on this creative team (which likely includes hundreds of people and millions of dollars) could have made this connection?

Well, they didn't. But plenty of movie-goers are. As a career Clinical Social Worker who knows all too well the realities of sexual abuse, I recommend buying a ticket for another movie or choosing a different activity. Show Dogs, even if by accident, is contributing to a dangerous culture for our children and I care way too deeply about children not to say so.

Karen Wolf is a licensed clinical social worker in Colorado and the Early Childhood Mental Health Liaison with Clayton Early Learning.

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Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline
1-844-CO-4-KIDS (1‑844‑264‑5437)
Available 24 hours a day, every day. Don't hesitate to call and get help. 
Anyone witnessing a child in a life-threatening situation should call 911 immediately.