Have trust in yourself! How sexual violence can be recognised and what can be done to prevent it

By Ingrid Ruhrmann, July 2015

Violence can lie in a look, the voice, a touch. Ingrid Ruhrmann, an expert in the prevention of violence, describes how boundaries are breached and violence appears in everyday life and gives some suggestions as to how we can protect children and young people, as well as ourselves, against such assaults.

Photo: © ladival25 / photocase.de

We keep cherishing the illusion that perpetrators only exist in other schools, not among our friends and on no account in our family. We should have the confidence to face the truth that there have been and are also perpetrators in our college of teachers, among our friends and in our family. Perpetrators are nice, helpful, charismatic – we would never have thought it! Whenever a perpetrator is discovered, everyone is shocked that this respected person could have done something like that. Yet such violence exists everywhere, it is just that we do not yet see it. 

We should also trust ourselves – despite the fear of no longer being accepted and liked – to protect ourselves, the children in our care and our colleagues against behaviour which breaches boundaries. Courage is when I am frightened but take action nevertheless. An adult always has an alternative course of action. They can courageously stand up for someone who needs protection, can have the presence of mind to omit to do something which would threaten someone else. We cannot delegate the prevention of violence to children. Drama-based prevention such as “Say no” and “Your body belongs to you” or “Tell me your bad secrets” does not have the desired effect that children can protect themselves better against molestation. The only thing it does is to enable them to talk better about their body, writes Günther Deegener in his book Kindesmissbrauch (Child Abuse). That is not surprising because the molesting adults are beloved authorities. The child knows them well and trusts them, he or she does not understand for a long time the kind of evil game that is being played with them. Only in about 0.5 percent of cases of physical molestation is the perpetrator an unknown person. Prevention can only be successful if every adult who observes irritating behaviour in children and confusing behaviour in adults around them takes their confusion seriously and records the unusual behaviour factually with weekday, date and time and continues to observe what happens.

Violence has many faces

We can observe violence at several levels when we learn what to look out for. Lack of clarity in management, decision-making and responsibility structures in school, as much as in leading a class or group, can initially appear to be “relaxed”. But if the person who experiences such unclear structures then themselves behaves in a relaxed way and takes the floor and the initiative, they are criticised, put down or punished. Since there are no clear and valid “rules” for all, they never know what is expected of them. Arbitrariness and chaos rule. Violence is also inflicted when responsibility is shifted. If a teacher becomes angry, the child might have triggered the feeling but the older, more self-aware adult alone is responsible for their feelings, words and actions. Another subtle form of the use of violence occurs when roles are unclear. Adults complain in front of their children about their partner, colleagues, financial problems. The child gets the feeling they have to support the adult but they are much too little to be a friend or partner for their parent or teacher. They are out of their depth and lose the secure space of a careless childhood.

The withdrawal of love through silence is another way of using violence. The child feels deeply guilty, cannot understand the terrible thing they have done so that the beloved adult feels so hurt that they no longer have the words to say something. But looks can also demean or destroy us, or give us the feeling of being undressed and desired. Both of these things are experienced by children and young people as a clear violation of boundaries.

The voice can also have a boundary-breaching and violent effect. Shrill screeching penetrates deeply to our bones; loud voluminous shouting has the effect of steamrollering the children. They no longer feel safe in their skin.

Another field in which violence occurs is bullying and cyber bullying. The child or adolescent lose their space first on the way to school and then in the playground. The Internet means that such attacks can penetrate into their room and bed. Adults mostly react when it is too late. Only when two boys give a girl knockout drops, undress her, film everything that happens and put it on the Internet is everyone suddenly shocked. All of these things are violence which, apart perhaps from the last example, happens continuously and is hardly noticed in our everyday life.

What is a criminal offence?

Derogatory remarks are deemed to be a criminal offence in the education laws of the German federal states which must be notified and lead to disciplinary proceedings. It is not permitted to tell a pupil “You are too stupid for that”, “You won’t get over that hurdle with your fat bottom”, “Well, with your inheritance you won’t need to achieve anything in any case”, or “You’re rotten through and through”. All of us can remember such or similar words from our years at school. They stick.

Grabbing someone too firmly, a slap in the face, beating and shaking are also criminal offences. The feeling of being safe within the boundary of our body is dented. The victim and everyone who cannot help them in time experiences a feeling of powerlessness. Witnessing physical assault and not being able to help or oneself being the subject of physical assault is equally bad. As the children experience it, they have all received a slap in the face not just the single one, all the children have lost their trust in the beloved authority. Sexualised violence through looks, taking photos of the bottom or cleavage, sexist remarks or jokes, apparently accidental sexualised touching, showing porn films or sexual organs, as well as sexual acts in front of, on or with children are assaults which have mostly been planned a long time in advance. The perpetrator initiates an apparently accidental test assault. If the child can resist or run away, they will seek another victim.

In sexual violence, the perpetrator creeps completely under the skin of their victim, they live there like a parasite. Since they are older and more aware, they manipulate the child. The feelings and will of the perpetrator prevail in the victim. The victim no longer experiences themselves as an independent being.

What to do on suspicion?

• Take the irritations you observe in the victim and perpetrator seriously.

• Record everything that confuses you with weekday, date and time.

• Speak to an advice centre for sexual violence. Its staff know about all the kinds of violence, the advice is free and is subject to confidentiality.

• Take the steps you have planned jointly with the advisor.

• Adopt a protective attitude towards the child or adolescent.

• Ensure that the affected child can experience a safe space again as quickly as possible.

What not to do:

• Talk with colleagues. Experience shows that they will react either by dramatising the event or claiming that it cannot be. This does not help the victim but you might ruin the reputation of someone who has been wrongly suspected through the rapidly spreading gossip.

• Talk with perpetrators. They will deny everything, make you look ridiculous and quickly destroy any material that might incriminate them in order to avoid punishment.

• Question perpetrator and victim together. The perpetrator will humiliate the victim a further time to enjoy one more kick from his position of power.

What to do if you yourself have overstepped the boundaries of the child?

• Phone the parents on the same day, tell what happened factually and say you are sorry and will seek help. Enquire how the child is.

• Talk with your mentor and/or the management.

• Your honesty will protect you from overstepping the boundaries further.

• Ask colleagues to give you clear feedback how perhaps you overstep boundaries unconsciously in other ways as well.

• Obtain help from an advice centre. Test ways of maintaining discipline other than shouting, gripping someone too hard or saying something derogatory.

• If children and young people arouse you erotically, seek expert help (www.kein-taeter-werden.de).

Factors which attract perpetrator personalities

• Institutions built on a particular philosophy with high ideals. Here the behaviour of the perpetrator is separated from the collective memory so that the ideal remains unsullied and/or the violence may even be ideologically justified.

• Institutions with unclear and untransparent management, responsibility and decision-making structures and without clearly formulated “rules” which apply to all.

• Institutions with authoritarian management.

• “Closed” institutions which want to regulate everything on their own and reject competent process support over a longer period of transformation and consider supervision to be superfluous. (The link to the film about the Odenwald School, Geschlossene Gesellschaft (Closed Society), can be found in the media library of the broadcasters ARD, SWR and HR.)

What can you do about abuse if you work in such an institution or you children go there?

You can contact the management board, it has the legal resources. You can turn to the Association of Waldorf Schools and ask for support there. In criminal acts you are obliged to contact the youth welfare office or the schools authority or other authorities, depending on the situation in your country.

About the author: Ingrid Ruhrmann is co-founder of the Bernard Lievegoe