An Open Letter to the Michigan House of Representatives:
I write to you today wearing several hats — I am a health educator and an attorney. I am also the mother of a four-year-old son, and tremendously fortunate to be expecting another son in August. Over the past few weeks, I have had the distinct displeasure of following the criminal trial of former Penn State Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky. He stands accused of over 50 separate counts of sexually abusing ten children over a 15-year period. One witness testified that Sandusky anally raped him repeatedly, causing tearing and bleeding from his rectum. Another testified that Sandusky forced him to perform oral sex. A third witness testified he screamed for help while being raped in Sandusky’s basement.
You may ask — what does your silencing Representative Lisa Brown for her use of the word “vagina” have to do with these horrendous allegations?
According to the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 44 percent of victims of sexual violence are under age 18, and for 93 percent of them, their attackers are trusted adults. Their attackers are family members or acquaintances. These children remain silent. In fact, most instances of sexual violence still go unreported. These children have every incentive to keep silent about their abuse. They may be deeply ashamed. They may blame themselves. They may be confused. Their safety or the safety of their loved ones may have been threatened. They may not have words to express the horrible things that are happening to them. In this silence, they remain vulnerable to continued abuse. And in this silence, they suffer. The World Health Organization reports these children are more likely to experience depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, and to consider suicide.
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Yet here you stand — in your position of tremendous authority — raising the volume of that silence to a deafening roar.
My husband and I raise our son to be proud of his body, and to know and understand how it works. He has also watched my body grow and change as I progress through this pregnancy, and we use these teachable moments to help him understand the miraculous things our bodies can do. He knows to call his penis a “penis,” and his testicles “testicles” (although at first it sounded more like “bicycles” to the great amusement of his grandparents). Had we been blessed with a daughter, we would have taught her about her “vulva” and “vagina” so that she could know and appreciate her body. Our son knows nobody should touch his body in a way that he doesn’t like, and that he is the one person who gets to make that decision. I pray that he never experiences unwanted touching. But if he does, I pray that he would reach out to his father and me for help, using his voice and the words we have taught him to tell us what happened.
What does it say to him and the other sons and daughters of this world that grown men find the use of the word “vagina” — the medically accurate term for a part of the human body — to constitute a lack of decorum? “Vagina” is not a slur. “Vagina” is not slang. It is, in fact, the only appropriate word to be used when referring to this body part, which I suspect is why it was repeatedly used in the legislation being debated at the time.
Your actions say that the human body is inherently shameful. Your actions say that talking about our bodies makes other people — grown adults — uncomfortable. Your actions tell us all to remain silent.
Your discomfort and your inability to engage in discourse regarding matters of biology using medically accurate terminology perpetuate an environment in which silence thrives, and predators serially offend for years uninterrupted.
That is truly shameful.
Claudia Trevor-Wright, MA, JD