Sex is a notoriously difficult subject for parents to discuss with their children, but in light of recent developments within the Marshalltown Community School District (MCSD), it’s become more important to talk about than ever.
During an event held at the high school on Thursday night, three local experts — Child Abuse Prevention Services (CAPS) Adolescent Sexual Health Educator Taylor Woebbeking, Center Associates Clinical Director Kim Hagen and Marshalltown Police Department Lt. Tricia Thein — presented on warning signs of sexual abuse and grooming, the definition of consent, age of consent laws and a host of other topics.
Although a swim meet, a basketball game and an orchestra concert were all being held at the same time, about 20 people attended the discussion, which was also recorded and has since been posted to the school district’s social media pages.
Citing the high rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in Marshall County, Woebbeking stressed the importance of ongoing conversations about sex between parents and children, as teens become more and more likely to base their decisions on friends’ opinions the older they get. She also encouraged parents to keep an open mind and be respectful even if they may disagree with what their children are saying.
Hagen summed up her own experiences as a mental health professional who has worked with victims.
“Unfortunately, by the time they come to me, most of the time we’re talking about some very difficult conversations, mainly related to sexual abuse and sexual assault,” she said. “If you think talking about sexual abuse is hard, try living with it for a lifetime.”
She presented statistics showing that one in 10 children is sexually abused before the age of 18, and one out of five children are sexually solicited on the internet. In addition, 90 percent of child victims are abused by a family member or trusted adult, and 60 percent of victims never tell anyone about it.
“We need these kids to talk. We need them to start telling. We need to start having these conversations so that they feel comfortable talking about these issues,” Hagen said. “We know that if they harbor this into adulthood, it leads to a lot of different issues — unhealthy relationships, higher rates of substance abuse, higher rates of alcohol abuse, mental health issues and suicide.”
Hagen implored parents to check their kids’ online activity and be aware of the signs of grooming, which include secretive social media and cell phone usage, unexplained money and gifts, emotional or behavioral changes, spending less time at home and special attention being offered by an adult. She said she has seen cases of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideations skyrocket locally in the last few years, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thein, who specializes in investigating sex crimes and human trafficking at the MPD, gave a basic primer on both age of consent and general sexual abuse laws in Iowa. Victims who are 13 or younger cannot give consent under any circumstances, and individuals who are 14 and 15 can only legally consent to sexual activity with another person who is between the age of 14 and 17. Once an individual is 16, they can consent to sexual activity with anyone who is older than them.
Anyone who is intoxicated cannot legally give consent under Iowa law, and individuals cannot consent with another person who is in a position of authority or coercion over them. Consent, she added, is always revocable.
According to Thein, sexting has become a problem for students as young as fifth and sixth grade at Lenihan Intermediate School, and she detailed how explicit photos and videos sent through applications like Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok can be used to humiliate and harass the individuals who send them after a relationship ends — or even much later on in their lives. Predators can also search for potential victims through seemingly innocuous posts that indicate their age and/or location.
“Any communication app is going to be potentially problematic if not used responsibly,” she said.
Above all else, Thein hoped those in the audience would believe children who report abuse and take steps to reverse a culture that too often blames victims for incidents of sexual harassment and assault. Young men, particularly, are also beginning to come forward although they are still less likely to do so than women.
“Having been party to these types of investigations, there is no benefit to a victim of sexual assault to report something falsely. Their life is turned upside down,” Thein said. “Believe the reporter. (It’s) hugely important.”
In an interview at the conclusion of the event, Hagen said more of her clients have spoken out since the revelation that three MCSD staff members had been criminally charged with inappropriate sexual conduct toward students over the summer. Two of them — William Terry and Adam Edgington — took their own lives following the allegations, and Mark Esquivel is currently scheduled to stand trial in January.
“We have seen more children come forward and divulge sexual abuse. We’ve had more parents asking questions about grooming behaviors and different things that are related to sexual abuse,” Hagen said. “I think the goal is to normalize these kinds of conversations so that our youth are coming to us and talking to us about these concerns and issues.”