The ongoing story about former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley’s sexually explicit e-mails to congressional teenage pages prompted many queries from parents and the media. Most ask the questions I get in every crisis: “How can I explain this to my children?” “How can I protect my children from danger?” The answers are important, and easy to find online.
(Advice for different situations, such as how to talk to your kids about the recent school shootings, often overlaps. Topics are posted at the American Psychological Association’s Web site, www.apa.org).
Understandably our first instinct is to protect our children, and the second is to express disdain for the perpetrators. In the case of Foley, we want his head on a platter. After all, we always want people who sexually harass kids to be imprisoned for as long as possible. Then we treat them like pariahs when they get out, teach our children to be wary of strangers, and repeat the whole process with the next scandal.
Child sexual abuse is epidemic in American culture; most surveys find that one in three girls and one in seven boys has been sexually molested by age 13. Child abuse also is scary and hard to fathom; 90 percent of the time abusers are close relatives, friends or others we trust.
So our anxiety understandably propels us in the direction of protection and prosecution rather than protection through prevention. But most experts believe that child sexual abuse is preventable.
To do something about this epidemic, we must change the societal conversation about child sexual abuse. A different dialogue requires a change in attitude that many may find hard to make. We must be able to talk about sex and sexuality in a way that is open and honest.
For example, some surveys have found that as many as 30 percent of adults are sometimes attracted to children in puberty. (Fashion ads featuring models made to look 12 or 14 years old do strike a chord.)
Only a tiny percentage of those people are at risk of abusing children. For those who are, however, we know that silence and shame create even greater risk. If we lived in a culture where children were taught openly about all aspects of sexuality, youngsters who had experienced abuse would understand that they were not alone. If we all had such a mind-set, children could go to lots more people who would understand.
Very few child abusers want to abuse children. Yes, they are dangerous. Most are also tormented – a tangle of emotions that is beautifully illustrated by 2004’s The Woodsman (on DVD), in which Kevin Bacon plays a sex offender struggling to create a new life after prison.
Anyone in the field of child-abuse prevention would agree that perpetrators must be held criminally accountable. Yet according to Stop It Now!, a national nonprofit devoted to ending child abuse, the vast majority of those who have been punished by the criminal justice system will not commit another sexual offense. Specialized treatment may further improve the odds.
So what can we do? Besides teaching children about “good touch” and “bad touch,” we must talk honestly (with ourselves as well as with them) about healthy sexuality. As sexual shame and shunning are diminished, a whole range of inappropriate sexual behavior – from child molestation to sex addiction and even compulsive infidelity – will also decline.
We must get behind organizations such as Philadelphia’s Joseph J. Peters Institute (www.jjp.org), which works with both victims and perpetrators, and the affiliated Stop It Now! (www.stopitnow.org) of Northampton, Mass., whose community-based programs nationwide harness research and education to effect social change – largely by broadening the notion of personal responsibility on this issue to include everyone.
Like every other epidemic, child sexual abuse will diminish only when it is faced directly and unflinchingly, not hidden from view, whether in the halls of Congress or in the split-level at the end of the cul-de-sac.