April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. For the month of April, the light is turned on this dark and difficult crime.

The term “sexual assault” may conjure up images of date rape or crimes of passion — both with enormously painful and lasting consequences. What may be even more difficult to bring to mind is the crime of sexual assault or abuse of children.

And yet we know the statistics that — even by conservative measures — qualify as epidemic: One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday. These figures equate to approximately 40 million adult survivors in the United States and more than 375,000 survivors in King County alone.

Indeed, the numbers are staggering. More simply stated, one of every five adults in King County has been sexually violated in childhood. Next time you’re on the bus or at a Mariners game, do the math. No doubt, you will look at your fellow travelers or baseball fans in disbelief.

The price to pay
The telltale signs of the shame and pain of being sexually abused as a child have long been hidden vigilantly behind a façade of normalcy.

And yet, we know that the carefully crafted exterior belies a painful reality. It is difficult to envision the depth and breadth of suffering that adult survivors hide behind the mask. Survivors tentatively make their way through the world, alternately longing for safety and help to deal with the pain and terrified that their shameful secret will be revealed.

The pain and betrayal of sexual violation in childhood is not diminished or forgotten with time. The emotional scars of childhood abuse create suffering across a lifetime —compounding as life becomes more complex and adult responsibilities increase.

If you are lucky enough to find yourself among the majority who has had a childhood free of sexual abuse, you may read this wondering what this topic has to do with you. In reality, sexual abuse has an enormous effect on us all.

We all literally pay the price. As a taxpayer, you’ll be shocked to find out the economic impact of childhood sexual abuse. In the United States, reported cases of child sexual abuse represent the second-most-expensive victim crime behind murder, costing the United States $35 billion annually.

According to the U.S. Census, in King County alone, the immediate economic impact is estimated at $20,447,283, and the long-term economic impact is estimated at more than $210.6 million. However, despite the considerable financial cost we all pay, the human toll is immeasurably greater.

Ending the silence
As sexual abuse of children is allowed to continue, the safety of our families and communities is threatened. No one finds it easy to stand in the overwhelming and destabilizing reality of sexual abuse. And yet, it is the uneasy silence surrounding this difficult topic that allows abuse to continue, creating a stigma that is both pervasive and perilous.

This stigma not only creates barriers to victims seeking help, but — possibly even more damaging — urges the silence and discomfort around sexual violation to thrive. In the dark, quiet corners of our cultural awareness, the cycle of the sexual abuse is allowed to be repeated in the lives of vulnerable children who have no voice.

Awareness is the beginning of prevention. It’s time to end the silence, increase awareness and decrease tolerance for sexual abuse in any form, and most especially toward children.

We know that sexual abuse thrives in a climate of secrecy and silence and wanes in a society that dares to expose it and care for its victims. The many adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse in our community need and deserve your support.

By the statistics, it is highly likely that — whether you realize it or not — your neighbor, friend, co-worker or even family member has experienced sexual abuse. Your support for specialized resources to help survivors creates a safety net and reduces the stigma.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month is an opportunity to shine the light on both the prevalence of sexual abuse and the need for awareness of the human toll of childhood abuse. It is a time to care about the individuals in our community who live with the heavy burden of being sexually abused every minute of every day and every night.

Dare to speak up and end the silence around this topic. Bring attention to the epidemic problem of sexual abuse, and let others know that you do not tolerate any form or abuse or assault toward children in our culture.

By becoming informed about this topic, speaking up and supporting resources that provide avenues of healing, realized or not, you are helping someone you know, creating safety in your community and, most importantly, taking steps to end the destructive cycle of sexual abuse.

JANICE PALM is executive director of Shepherd’s Counseling Services (www.shepherdstherapy.org), which provides support for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.