Hendersonville North Carolina— “When children won’t tell and adults don’t ask, tackling the issues of sexual assault within a community becomes impossible, but former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur Atler says there is still hope for healing and prevention.
As the keynote speaker for The Healing Place’s second sold-out Celebration of Courage Luncheon, Atler encouraged attendees to become advocates for victims of sexual assault and molestation in order to help them heal.
The Healing Place is a rape crisis center in Hendersonville that provides counseling and legal services to men, women and children following rape, sexual assault and child sexual abuse.
Atler spoke to a room of more than 200 community supporters of The Healing Place at Kenmure Country County Club, sharing her story as a victim of incest. From ages 5 to 18, Atler was assaulted at night by her father more than 600 times. She said that as a child, she believed she was truly living the American dream and had disassociated that part of her life from her daily life.
“I split into what I call a ‘day child’ and a ‘night child,’” Atler said. “As difficult as this is for most people to believe or understand, until I was 24, I — the day child — had no conscious knowledge of the night child. During the days, no angry or embarrassing glances ever passed between my father and me because I had no conscious knowledge of the traumas and the terrors of the night child.”
As the night child began to be hurt more and more, Atler said the day child felt the need to excel and outperform to make up for the pain the night child was feeling.
It took many years for Atler to fully uncover her abuse as a child. She struggled to accept what had happened to her and how to move forward. On top of her many successes in life, she has gone through bouts of panic attacks, and at one point her body entered paralysis.
She later realized the paralysis was triggered by her daughter’s 5th birthday — the same age she was when her abuse began.
Atler to this day said she cannot go to sleep without medication because of the fear of what happened to her when she would go to bed.
This shows that we cannot judge the personal condition of others based on their outward appearances. People often envy others, or think they are doing much better than they are in their healing journey -all based on appearances or their social place in the community.
Atler said there is hope, however. She said many would call what she went through from the ages of 45 and 50 as having a nervous breakdown, but she said it was her way of recovering.
She said victims must have the ability to recover and for that to happen, they need to be able to feel like they can speak about their assault and not be silenced by shame.
Atler said she will continue speaking out against sexual violence until the day she dies because of a statistic that says 14-year-olds comprise the largest number of sex offenders of any age group, and the age of their victims is usually 5 years old. She noted the significance of the victim’s age.
“Twelve-, 13-, 14-, 15-, 16-, 17-year-old boys and girls have a normal, natural sexual curiosity and there is nothing wrong with that, but there are long-term consequences if they are sexual with a younger or less powerful child,” Atler said. “But they don’t know that.”
Here, I must disagree with Marilyn.
I have always respected Marilyn and her work, but I do not agree with her if she feels teenagers don’t know that sexually abusing a younger child is wrong. A 13 year-old knows it is wrong to engage in sexual contact with a 5 year-old, and a 17 year-old certainly knows it too!
That’s why they do it in secret, and tell the child to keep the secret. Teenagers have the moral and psychological ability to know right from wrong. A teenager might not understand the full affects of the consequences of their actions, but they know it is wrong to engage in sexual acts with a much younger child.
I also don’t like abuse being called “getting sexual” with a child. Sexual abuse is not “getting sexual.”
Many children are profoundly impacted by older siblings having sexually abused them (or by abuse by a friend of the family, or babysitter, or a stranger).
Sexual abuse by an older teen who is the same sex as the child can have devastating affects on the younger child.
Teenagers who sexually abuse younger children might have been victimized themselves, and this is why they abuse a younger child, but once they sexually abuse a younger child, they are not victims anymore; they have become perpetrators.
This is different from children (not teens) sexually abusing other children. Children, younger than age twelve, who are sexually abusing other children, are less likely to understand that what they are doing is harmful. Children ages seven and younger are especially innocent of understanding that what they are doing is wrong.
I am writing another article on children and teenagers who sexually abuse children. It should be published later today.