Understanding The Three “A’s” of Sexual Abuse

By SUE BOLDE, Executive Director

Before we can begin protecting our children from sexual predators, it’s important to educate ourselves and understand what factors enable predators to molest children. There are Three A’s that must exist in order for someone to perpetrate sexual abuse…

  1. Access
  2. Alone time
  3. Authority
#1. Access

Makes sense, huh? But what exactly is “access?” Many people think that most children are sexually abused by strangers lurking in dark corners or hiding in bushes. The fact is, over 90% of all sexually abused children know, love or trust the person abusing them. So, in the vast majority of cases, the perpetrator is someone known to the child… and often known to the parents and family. Given that most predators are people children already know, access can happen virtually anytime.. anywhere. At home. At school. On the playground. On the school bus. At after-school or club activities. At church. You name it.

The fact is, over 90% of all sexually abused children know, love or trust the person abusing them. So, in the vast majority of cases, the perpetrator is someone known to the child… and often known to the parents and family.

Think about the people in your life who have “access” to your children.

#2. Alone time

Now think about those people you either trust to be alone with your child or who are alone with your child and you don’t know it. As educated and caring parents or caregivers, our challenge is to limit the risk to our children by restricting time children spend alone with other people, both adults and other kids. You can guide how children are supervised in everyday situations at home, at childcare, swimming lessons, play dates, neighborhood play and sports. You have the power to assess risk, ask questions and shape the nature of time a child spends with others. Here are a few tips:

1. Set expectations with caregivers. This can actually be pretty easy! For example, post expectations in your home for babysitters, family members and friends who visit. Expectations can include things like:

  • All members of the family have rights to privacy in dressing, bathing, sleeping and other personal activities.
  • If you do not want to hug or kiss someone hello or goodbye, then you can shake hands instead.
  • We don’t keep secrets.

Ask organizations (day-care, school, clubs, churches, etc.) about their policies and practices regarding one-on-one time with children. TBCAC offers guidance to organizations about how to create these types of policies to protect children through our Stewards of Children child abuse prevention program.

If you see an adult or another child crossing the line or not respecting your child’s body boundaries, step in! This can be done in non-confrontational ways…

If you see an adult or another child crossing the line or not respecting your child’s body boundaries, step in! This can be done in non-confrontational ways by simply saying things like:

  • “We want Sara to know that she has control over her body and boundaries, so we respect her when she does not want to be touched by others, no matter how innocent. That way, if someone does have bad intentions, she is able to stand up for herself and immediately tell someone she trusts.” 
  • “When Liam asks you not to hug him, please stop and be respectful. We should always ask before giving any touch. Let’s try it together…‘Liam, may I give you a high-five?’”

2. Teach children what’s “okay”, what’s “NOT okay” and what to do “IF”… having conversations with your child about body safety and body boundaries can and should start EARLY! For more tips about talking with your child about this, see “Four Easy Ways to Teach Body Safety to Kids.

Teach children that if anyone asks to see or touch their private parts, or asks them to see or touch someone else’s private parts, the answer should always be “no” and to immediately find and tell the nearest adult. Create a safety circle that helps children identify at least two trusted adults in each of their networks; this helps them feel safe enough to say “no” and to report.

Talk with your children about the difference between “secrets” and “surprises”. Surprises are supposed to be ‘fun’ things like getting a sibling a birthday gift or surprising someone during the holidays with a visit. Secrets on the other hand should NEVER involve touches to or seeing private body parts – talk with your kids about being sure they tell you if someone asks them to keep a secret.

Talk with your children about the difference between “secrets” and “surprises”.

3. Model the behavior you want your children to see. I can’t emphasize this enough — children truly learn what they live and will act as they are taught to act. Show respect for other people’s body boundaries by doing simple things like asking for permission before giving someone a hug or kiss. Model protective behaviors when your children’s friends come to visit by letting their parents know who is at home and that no one will be spending any alone time with their child at your house. Seemingly simple statements such as this reaffirm with your children that no one should be alone with them either, when they visit other friends’ homes.

#3. Authority

At the core of sexual abuse is perpetrator ability to have power and control over their child victims. Authority can come in all shapes and sizes… and does. Parents. Step-parents. Boyfriends or girlfriends of parents. Family members including older or physically stronger siblings. Class mates. Friends. Coaches. Teachers. Instructors. Clergy.

At the core of sexual abuse is perpetrator ability to have power and control over their child victims. Authority can come in all shapes and sizes… and does.

Authority is projected to child victims through threats, promises or requests to keep secrets. When talking with children about staying safe, it’s important for you to be sure they understand that NO ONE, regardless of who that person is, how important that person’s relationship may be to the child, what kind of job that person may have or how big and strong that person is, that it is NOT OKAY for anyone to touch or ask to see a private body part of your child’s. Help your child understand that s/he should come to you if that ever happens… and have your child identify another adult or two s/he would be comfortable telling, as well.

Know that threats are often made to child victims — threats against them, you, their siblings or even their pets. Sadly, threats are often effective ways to keep children silent, as kids want to be brave and protect themselves and people they love. Have open conversations with your child that if anyone makes a threat against them or someone they love, they need to tell you (or one of the safe adults they have identified) right away! The same goes with keeping secrets or receiving excessive gifts or favors (other common tactics of sexual predators).

Educating yourself about The Three A’s of Sexual Abuse is the first step. Carry it forward and teach your children practical ways they can help stay safe, too. And always remember to trust your gut… if something doesn’t feel right, it often isn’t.


About Sue ♥

Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center Executive Director Sue Bolde has a BA in psychology from the University of California Santa Barbara and an MA in art therapy from the University of Illinois. Her professional career includes clinical work with children and teens at the University of Chicago, graduate-level instruction with students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and certification as a Montessori teacher and yoga instructor. She is currently a teacher in training with Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute as well as a Michigan ACE Initiative trainer.

About Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center ♥

The nationally accredited Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center brings help, hope, and healing to child victims of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and violence. Our mission is to protect children by supporting multidisciplinary investigations into alleged cases of child abuse by conducting child forensic interviews in an environment that is child-sensitive, supportive and safe. We help heal child victims and their families through our in-house therapeutic services and offer prevention education throughout the region via our Team Zero program. As the Grand Traverse regional response center for the investigation of child abuse, we collaborate with multidisciplinary teams in six counties – Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, and Wexford – in addition to the Sovereign Nation of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. More than 1,400 children have been referred to the Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center since our founding in 2010.