As I look back on my career, I can’t help but marvel at the power of dreams. My own dream — to be an Olympic champion — got me up each morning and fueled me to train and compete. But it didn’t include the worst hardships I faced.
Now, as I listen to kids talk about their hopes and aspirations, I feel conflicted. On the one hand, I want more than anything to encourage them to pursue their dreams, and to tell them that with hard work they can turn them into a reality. But on the other hand, I also feel the urge to caution them about the challenges they may face along the way. I feel the desire to be positive and encourage them to pursue their dreams, but also the responsibility to warn them of the dangers and uncertainties they may confront along the way. There is no road map that guarantees safe passage; and there is no roadmap that shows the way from hardship to healing.
Truth is, I am still hurting from the sexual abuse I suffered as a young athlete, and I know there are a lot of others out there who are suffering in silence. Sexual abuse is one of the most prevalent health issues facing children today. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. These statistics are unacceptable and horrifying. Abuse impacts more people than we may ever know. Whether or not someone you know has come forward or you can relate yourself, I believe we should all care and do our part to help children. Education needs to change — in gymnastics, in youth sports, and in all activities and communities where adults interact with children.
We need to expand messaging beyond “Stranger Danger” and recognize that the problem exists and thrives much closer to home. Ninety percent of abused children suffer at the hands of someone they know and trust. I know firsthand, this can be difficult to comprehend. Perpetrators know this and count on our silence. Child sexual abuse isn’t a kid problem, it’s an adult problem.
I believe one of the biggest hurdles in addressing abuse is the breadth and depth of stigma associated with child sexual abuse. Prevention is stigmatized, disclosure is stigmatized, reporting is stigmatized, prosecuting is stigmatized, talking publicly is stigmatized. No wonder it’s a silent epidemic. Why does society make survivors feel so afraid to share our stories? Abusers should be the ones to feel shame and guilt and be judged, not survivors. It is completely backwards, and we need to flip the switch.
Earlier this year, I partnered with Darkness to Light, the nation’s leading advocate for adult-focused child sexual abuse prevention training. The partnership was inspired by the many people who had expressed concern to me about the inadequate focus on sexual abuse within gymnastics, especially at the grass-roots level. I took the program and was impressed with how informative it was and decided I wanted to do what I could to encourage all adults involved in youth sports to complete the training as well. We brainstormed a few ideas of how we could engage adults involved with gymnastics to take Darkness to Light’s training, Stewards of Children, a two-hour course (offered online and in-person) that teaches adults how to recognize, prevent, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse.
In order to help effectuate change, it is important to minimize any barriers that may prevent people from taking the course, so we created the #FlipTheSwitch campaign, whereby I volunteered to pay for the training myself and committed to personally signing everyone’s certification of completion as an added incentive. Anyone can take the online course for free using the code FLIPTHESWITCH.
I am proud to say that more than 2,500 adults have completed Stewards of Children to date. However, prevention is a collective journey and requires our ongoing commitment to encourage individuals and organizations to engage in this epidemic. We must recommit to the idea that every child has the right to a safe and healthy childhood, prioritizing this right over our personal comfort or professional reputations. Then and only then will public and transparent reports — of abuse by individuals, universities, governing bodies, religious institutions, and youth-serving organizations — be seen as courageous, and not treasonous.
We need more proactive action from corporations like Eastern Bank, which has shown the courage to push past the sensitivity of this topic and has taken bold stances on protecting children and educating adults. Eastern Bank has now enrolled their company in the #FlipTheSwitch campaign and has committed to training its employees under their corporate wellness initiative. Eastern Bank is showing the way, by demonstrating to the Boston community, my community, that the welfare of children comes first. It is my hope that their commitment to educate their staff extends to their customers, our community, and beyond.
I encourage you to take the course as well. Together, we can make a difference and be the voice for the voiceless. The ripple effect of our actions — or inactions — can be enormous, and span generations. So let’s set in motion our own wave of change, by smashing the stigma, ending the silence, and clearing the way for kids to realize their own dreams.
Aly Raisman is an advocate for the prevention of sexual abuse.