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Transcript: Jill Tolles on Finding Courage to Talk About Child Sexual Abuse

Jill Tolles at TEDxUniversityofNevada

Here is the full transcript of Jill Tolles’ TEDx Talk titled “Finding Courage to Talk About Child Sexual Abuse” at TEDxUniversityofNevada.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Finding Courage to Talk About Child Sexual Abuse by Jill Tolles at TEDxUniversityofNevada


I believe there are heroes in this room. And in fact, I believe that every single one of us can be a hero, and we don’t even need a cape. We just need to have courage — the courage to have an uncomfortable conversation.

But first, I have a confession to make. I hate uncomfortable conversations. I have spent the better part of the last 20 years studying or teaching communication, in part, honestly, because I want to avoid that uncomfortable feeling in a conversation.

But I’ve also learned, over the years, that often time any real change for an individual, for an organization, or for a culture, starts with an uncomfortable conversation. So, today I’d like to invite you into a conversation about child sexual abuse.

The CDC estimates that one in four girls, and one in six boys, will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. Can you think of four girls that you know? Are they on a soccer team, or in your neighborhood? Can you think of six boys in your extended family or in a classroom?

Child sexual abuse is a silent epidemic, and as one of my friends so aptly put it, “If this were Ebola, the whole world would shut down, and yet we’re not talking about this.”

Where are the bracelets, where are the ribbons, where’s the race to the cure for this disease? There’s one woman, I will even call her a hero. Her name is Erin Merryn, and she made it her personal mission to ensure that every child across America would learn about personal body safety, that they have a right to be safe, and that if someone is harming them who to go to for help. As a result of what’s been aptly named “Erin’s Law”, I was appointed to a task force to study this issue in our state.

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Over the course of eight months we learned some uncomfortable truths. We learned that 93% of the time the child knows their abuser, oftentimes a close family member or friend. We learned that 90% of the time the child does not report, and that statistic is even higher for boys where the stigma still stands that this doesn’t happen to them, or that only males can be abusers. When the truth is that predators can come in any shape or size, gender, age, or socioeconomic background.

We learned about grooming strategies that predators use to lure a child away into private, to get them to trust them, and to keep secrets. We learned about the difference between a safe surprise and an unsafe secret.

A safe surprise is when you bake a cake for mom, and, “Shh! We’re not going to tell her until she gets home!”

An unsafe secret is, “Why don’t you come over after school and I’ll let you play that game. You know, the one that your parents won’t let you play, and it’ll be our little secret.”

But, we also learned about some courageous heroes. We learned about teachers, and counselors, neighbors, and family members, who saw the signs of abuse, who reported and helped to save that child. We learned about organizations that teach personal safety to kids. We learned about hotlines where a child can call and find help in their area. We learned about organizations that help to spread awareness about this issue, online forums, and support groups for survivors to begin to heal.

We got a chance to hear from one particularly courageous young woman who happened to be a student of mine at the university where I teach. And as she sat there and she testified to our task force, and she told us her story, I couldn’t help but admire her courage. And I also couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable.

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Because you see, I was appointed to this task force because I’m an active member of the community, and a citizen, stakeholder, a parent. And what most members of the task force didn’t know was that I too was one of the one in four.

When I was six years old, I was staying at my grandparent’s house, when my step-grandfather came in while I was taking a bath and did unspeakable things. And when it was over, he asked why I was crying, because he said I was supposed to enjoy it, and that if I told anyone I would get in trouble. It was my first, and by far my worst experience with an abuser, but it was not my last encounter.

When I was 11, I went to one of my best friend’s birthday parties and I kept noticing her uncle taking pictures of me in my bathing suit. After we ate cake and opened presents, he asked me to take a walk with him in this wooded area next to their house. And he held my hand and told me how pretty and mature I was, and he told me that he hoped I would stay good friends with his niece, so that in three or four years he could have me for himself. I was 11.

This time, although it took me two weeks, I did tell because every night I was scared. I was afraid of what that meant, and what he might do. Do you know how his family responded? They told me that you can’t take anything he says seriously, he’s always had just an “odd sense of humor.”

When I was 13, we had a crazy eighth grade science teacher. He was known for getting chalk on his hands and slapping girls on the butt so he could leave a hand-print. He would sing songs in class about, “Asbestos, asbestos, I’ve always loved ass-bestos.” He even had a sign in his classroom that said, “I’m not a dirty old man, I’m a sexy senior citizen.”

One day, when all the kids had filtered out of the class, I stayed behind to put some supplies away in the closet, and he walked in and approached me, presumably to give me a hug, and, before I knew it, he had pushed me against the shelves, and was starting to put his hands down my backside. And I shoved him away, and I ran out, and as I ran away, I remember hearing him yell that he was, “Just kidding”. At this point, I didn’t tell anyone, because by then I figured, “What’s the point?”

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