Lilada Gee was 6 years old the first time an adult family member sexually abused her. Throughout the ensuing years, she struggled with issues including clinical depression, post-traumatic stress and low self-esteem. Now, as an adult, Gee is committed to helping girls and women who are victims of child sexual abuse.
"Empowerment is the key to help women love themselves and to know their body is precious," says Gee, 44. "No one has the right to touch your body without your permission."
Gee is the founder of Lilada's Livingroom, a Madison-based nonprofit devoted to helping create safe environments for women and girls, and to empowering children to make better choices for themselves to avoid becoming victims. She writes a blog on her website and does presentations, workshops and one-on-one life coaching in Wisconsin and throughout the world.
"I want to wrap my arms around the vulnerable people in society," Gee says. The group's services are provided free of charge; she welcomes donations to help defray costs and continue her mission.
An ordained minister, with experience in education and social services, Gee and a small group of volunteers run Lilada's Living Room out of an office at the Fountain of Life Family Worship Center on Badger Road, where her brother Alex Gee Jr. is the minister. She is co-founder with her brother of the Nehemiah Community Development Corporation, which offers faith-based services to families. It was at Fountain of Life that she first shared her own history of sexual abuse.
"As I told my story more often, the healing began," she recalls. "What I have found to be amazing is the number of women who have approached me to tell me that my honesty was freeing for them."
In April, Gee received the Unsung Hero Award from the Investigation Discovery Channel and the National Network to End Domestic Violence for her work to stop violence against women. Her daughter, whom she is training to be an advocate against sexual abuse, accompanied her to the ceremony in Washington, D.C.
"The award," says Gee, "was very affirming and made me realize that this is the work I was born to do."
Her efforts have also been noticed and lauded within the Madison community.
"Lilada's Living Room is a great example of the resources available for sexual abuse survivors in Madison," says Kelly Anderson, executive director of the local Rape Crisis Center. "Because Lilada is a survivor herself, victims relate to her and feel comfortable sharing their experiences with her."
Anderson says about half of the 300 to 360 calls her group receives annually on its crisis response line (608-251-7273) involve a child under the age of 18, and a third involve a child under 12. "Sadly, there's more than enough need for the Rape Crisis Center and Lilada's Living Room to work with child sexual abuse victims."
A recent fundraiser for Lilada's Living Room featured 9-year-old Hailey as the keynote speaker. The young girl bravely told of being molested by a family member beginning at the age of 2. When Hailey shared her story at another event, Gee says, other kids came forward to disclose similar experiences in their own lives.
Today, Gee's work goes beyond the borders of Dane County. She's worked with women on Skid Row in Los Angeles to help them get out of abusive sexual relationships. And she facilitates online writing groups that help sexual abuse survivors voice their pain.
In January 2009, Gee spent two weeks in Bangkok, Thailand, on a mission with the NightLight Foundation to help women and girls victimized by the sex trafficking and prostitution that are rampant there. She hopes to one day travel to Brazil, a country with a high rate of sex trafficking, to help victims.
Gee estimates that she has helped hundreds of survivors, but she's barely scratched the surface: "If every child who has been sexually abused came forward to tell their story, the social care system would be overwhelmed."
Child sexual abuse is defined as any sexual act between an adult and a minor or between two minors when one exerts power over the other. It includes any type of sexual act as well as non-contact acts like exhibitionism, exposure to pornography, voyeurism and sexually explicit communications by phone or the Internet. It is a crime punishable by law.
The impact on society is far-reaching. Victims often have post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and problems in school. Young girls are more likely to develop eating disorders as teenagers. Up to 80% of child sexual abuse survivors report excessive drug and alcohol use. Almost 50% of women in prison were sexually abused as children.
Gee never knew her biological father and yearned for a man to call "daddy." She was 2 years old when her mother, Verline, brought a man we'll call "g" into the family. He was well mannered, helped out around the home, paid the bills and took good care of Lilada and her brother. Gee adored "g" and followed him around everywhere.
Gee says the sexual abuse began when she was about 5. "I remember thinking, 'No, grownups are not supposed to touch you down there, are they?'"
The abuse grew worse over time, and continued for five agonizing years. The experience gave her a lifetime basis for understanding how abusers think.
"They try to justify their sick actions by convincing themselves that you want it just as much as they do," she says.
As part of her healing, Gee relates her life story with edgy inspiration in I Can't Live Like This Anymore!, a book she published in 2006. She tells how her unhappy childhood led into an unhealthy marriage that produced two children, Alexandra, now 15, and Christian, now 13.
In the fall, Gee will launch RISE UP - Resources, Inspiration, Support & Empowerment for Underaged Parents, a support group for teen mothers. She wants to reach out to this vulnerable group, citing statistics that show nationally 70% of teens are impregnated by adults.
Gee is also working to build a program of support groups for elementary through high school age children. The message: to encourage children to disclose if they've been sexually abused and to spread the word that help is available.
Childhood sexual abuse stats
- One in four girls is sexually abused before the age of 18.
- One in six boys is sexually abused before the age of 18.
- One in five children is solicited sexually while on the Internet.
- Nearly 70% of all reported sexual assaults (including assaults on adults) happen to children ages 17 and under.
- An estimated 39 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse exist in America today.
- About a third of all victims are abused by a family member.
- Half are abused by someone outside of the family whom they know and trust.
- Forty percent are abused by older or bigger children whom they know.
- Just 10% are abused by strangers.
- More than 20% of children are sexually abused before the age of 8.
- The median age for reported abuse is 9 years old.
- Extrapolated from www.darkness2light.org.