It was a four-letter word I had not read before. I was only about 9 or 10 years old the first time I saw it in the newspaper. I clearly remember it was in a small headline on the bottom of the front page.
The headline read "Man Charged in Rape." I had no idea what it meant and no one wanted to explain it to me other than to say a man hurt a lady. You just didn't talk of such things around kids in those days.
Curiosity got the best of me so I went to the old dictionary on our family's tall bookcase and looked up the word. That just got me looking up other words such as "sexual assault" and "ravish" that I did not understand very well.
Rape was a dirty word then and still is today. Because we as parents, teachers and law enforcement are doing a better job at explaining such things to children at younger ages, sexual abuse is being reported at a greater rate than during those days of a "polite society" that kept its mouth shut. We also hope that broader education will result in prevention of such acts. We hope...
It's not an easy subject to broach at any age, yet it happens to 2-year-olds as well as 92-year-olds. It's not a gender specific crime and its victims include more than just the person assaulted. Entire families bear scars as the ripple effects of these crimes cause anger and depression, helplessness and guilt.
When children are involved, unsuspecting parents experience overwhelming guilt because, despite even their best efforts, their child was harmed by someone they usually trusted. And the most horrific sexual assault cases involving children have been appearing in greater numbers than ever before as the Internet has opened the door to child predators at an alarming rate and scale.
It's not just the creepy guy sitting in his car near the school yard or playground that worries parents today. It's the caregivers - male and female - when both parents work. It's the coaches and Scout leaders you don't know very well. Even teachers, doctors, firefighters - people we are taught to revere and trust have committed these crimes.
In our local area, the word rape has been in the headlines daily as communities up and down the Ohio River sit on the sidelines of a disturbing and growing case of alleged sexual assault involving underage high school students.
The case has all the elements - sex, videos, text messages, threats, mysterious vigilantes and high school athletes - that bring national media to a small town called Steubenville, Ohio.
It makes us clamor for the days when the national media would come to town to do a special report on the dying steel industry.
That is a subject we could understand. But nothing about this case of alleged rape makes much sense to those of us who try to protect our kids and teach them right from wrong.
Maybe a lot more people need to go to the dictionary to realize rape is not just a word in a headline. It hurts everybody.
Heather Ziegler can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.