Because I Looked Into the Dark

Have you ever watched a documentary and been inspired? Maybe to change your diet, live in a tiny house, or learn how to actually recycle the right way? It recently happened to me, but what I was inspired to do involved looking deep into a realm I thought I never wanted to visit: child sexual abuse.

One quiet evening after my kids had gone to bed, I turned on Leaving Neverland. It had just come out, and what I had heard about it made me hesitate. Still, I was compelled to see it — maybe it was the draw of Michael Jackson and finally finding out what really happened back then.

As I listened to James Safechuck and Wade Robson share their stories, their eyes stood out to me. I could see them as those innocent boys at 7 and 10 years old, reliving the years of sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of Jackson. It was extremely difficult to watch, and three quarters of the way through Part 1, I had to stop. I felt physically ill and emotionally drained. Two nights later when I finally mustered up enough courage to finish watching, it was late — around 2am. All I could think to do was go to my two sleeping children, squeeze them, and cry.

The next morning, the pain I felt turned into panic. I frantically paced around my house as I thought about this dark world of child sexual abuse that I’d been previously naive to. I’m well into my 30’s, approaching 40, and I’d gone through life generally unaware — and that was deliberate. It’s just been easier not to know. But now my eyes have been opened, and I felt compelled to help.

But how? Design has always been a way for me to help people, so I started there. I created an initiative called “Designed Out Of Love” along with pins and stickers in the shape of a blue pinwheel, which I found out is the national symbol for child abuse prevention. I am donating 100% of the profits to organizations working to protect kids from sexual abuse.

I realized this was also an opportunity to bring awareness to the issue — because if someone like me could open themselves up, maybe others could, too. I knew if I was going to try and do that, I needed to become more aware and educate myself. Watching one documentary is far from understanding the larger issue, and I wanted to share information that came from experts and those with experiences, not my own personal opinions or conclusions.

I saw the documentary in early March, and soon discovered April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. It was ambitious, but there was no better time to launch an awareness campaign. I began researching. I started with the support material HBO prepared for viewers and came across ChildUSA.org, whose child protection initiatives and compelling stats exposed me even further to the magnitude of the problem. I also discovered RAINN.org, who runs the National Sexual Assault Hotline and houses valuable support, prevention help, and awareness content. My sister told me about Thorn.org, the “digital defenders of children” who are doing innovative work using technology to help keep kids safe. These three organizations lead me to infinite amounts of information and additional resources. I was on my way to building a support and resources section for my website while gathering content for my “30 days of awareness” social media campaign.

Realizing again, I am no expert, I reached out to one of my dear friends who is a psychologist. She went through and legitimized my sources and offered even more. That’s when I was confronted with a question I wasn’t sure how to answer:

Do I include information and support material to those who have inappropriate thoughts or feelings towards children?

Before this project, my viewpoint was pedophile = perpetrator, and they deserved nothing. But when my psychologist friend sent these resources, I came across this public service announcement from Candice Christiansen, Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse and Founder of The Global Prevention Project. She explains:

“I spent a decade working on both sides of the criminal justice system, with both trauma survivors and convicted sex offenders. As a result, I grew really tired of working in systems that waited until AFTER another victim was created before providing therapeutic interventions. It seemed more logical to me to go to the source of potential harm by providing preventive treatment interventions instead of waiting until irreparable damage had been done.”

It’s worth pointing out that The Global Prevention Project only focuses on people “who experience risky sexual thoughts, fantasies, or who engage in non-contact illegal sexual behavior”.

In short, treating the source is one way to help prevent abuse. It makes sense, but with the complexity of pedophiles coupled with the general viewpoint of the average person, it made me nervous, hesitant, and I was still unsure how I even felt about it. But after more research and more thought, I decided to include organizations of this kind on my website. The message is that if this describes you, it’s your responsibility to get the help and support you need to protect children at all costs. It puts the importance to recognize a harmful situation on the adult and not only the child, as the child will always be in the more vulnerable position.

At this point in the process I’d spent every free moment researching and piecing together different stats and resources. I was feeling positive about how everything was coming together as well as the momentum I was building. And then, one particular evening I came across this:

“Child pornography refers to any content that depicts sexually explicit activities involving a child. Visual depictions include photographs, videos, digital or computer generated images indistinguishable from an actual minor. These images and videos that involve the documentation of an actual crime scene are then circulated for personal consumption. More recently, live-streaming sexual abuse has begun to surface. In these instances individuals pay to watch the live abuse of a child via a video streaming service. This type of abuse is incredibly difficult to detect, due to its real-time nature and the lack of digital evidence left behind following the crime.

Though child pornography is a global issue, the United States remains one of the largest producers and consumers of child abuse content in the world. It’s important to understand the true nature and pervasiveness of child pornography content to convey the urgent need to address this crime.” (Thorn.org)

And this:

“The statistical breakdown of the kind of abuse involved in the images submitted to NCMEC’s [National Center of Missing & Exploited Children] CVIP [Child Victim Identification Program] shows that 76% of the series collected contained images depicting penetration, while 44% of the series contained images depicting bondage and/or sado-masochism.” ( Thorn.org)

What do you even do with that. My progress came to a halt as I tried to make sense of what I just read. So this is the world we live in?! This was one of the worst actualities I came across, and I’ve had a really hard time dealing with it since. I know I’d been naive to the topic of child abuse… but damn. Just damn.

And this content is spreading and growing exponentially both in numbers and in severity. It’s important to know child sexual abuse material is “one of the most violent, horrific forms of child abuse possible.” Not only are unspeakable crimes being committed against children to create this material, but it also exploits and revictimizes the child every time it’s viewed or shared. Even if you never touch a child, if you view this content you are, in fact, abusing the child and committing a punishable crime.

This type of abuse [live-streaming sexual abuse] is incredibly difficult to detect, due to its real-time nature and the lack of digital evidence left behind following the crime.” My first thought was please, there’s got to be someone out there working on this?

The answer is yes, but we’re not there yet. Thorn, who created a remarkable tool to help victims of child sex trafficking, has a goal to “eliminate child sexual abuse material from the internet.” And there are increasing strides to remove content and keep it from spreading with efforts from Google, who’s stepped up to aid content moderators — people who search for and take down illicit content — a job with psychologically damaging effects in itself. Facebook, Intel, and Microsoft (to name a few), have also joined the initiative. There’s also the important responsibility to do something about it if you come across it.

Through this project I’ve discovered the issue of child sexual abuse is evolving, growing, and becoming more accessible than ever before. Online predators use multiple platforms to reach kids as they create, sell, buy, and share illegal content with ease. They are enabled to connect with each other and “normalize” their behavior through an increasing number of online communities. I’ve heard many people say they’d never let their child into a situation like Safechuck and Robson were enabled to be in, but with the sophisticated methods of luring, grooming, and abusing kids, it’s become so important to understand this new and modern threat, and how we can protect ourselves and those we love most.

Designed Out Of Love started because of the profound level of empathy I felt for two men who shared their story. It began as an idea to sell pins and stickers to raise donations, but through it all, it became much more for me. It’s been a unique experience to be confronted with a subject I truly used to fear to know and understand, and running headfirst into it instead of turning away. Everything about this project has put me out of my comfort zone, but I am thankful for this experience and for what’s to come. I hope it will help make a difference.

The more people who allow themselves to look into the dark, the brighter the light will shine on the issue and those who would hurt a child. #AwarenessIsPrevention

Lauren Okura

Written by

“Using design to try and do something good.” • Senior Brand Designer @Braintree • Creator of @DesignedOutOfLove

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