Stranger-Danger Message Puts Kids at Risk of Abuse: Lessons from the Penn State Scandal

“There are perverts out there,” said an attorney in town to our local newspaper addressing the issue of an age limit policy on “toplessness” at our city’s pool. In a culture with as warped views on human sexuality as ours, I actually don’t question that there are perverts around. It’s just that in 90% of all instances of child sexual abuse, the abuser knows the child. Child sex abusers are fathers, mothers, stepparents, grandparents, uncles, cousins, neighbors, babysitters, spiritual leaders, coaches. Like Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky who is finally facing charges after abusing eight young boys over a 15-year period. Caught 9 years ago by a witness in the locker room showers having anal sex with a 10-year-old boy, the abuse has been silenced for years by his supervisors who turned a blind eye to the abuse. Despite reports of inappropriate behavior on behalf of Sandusky since the late 90s.

People do that all the time. “He’s so good with the boys, we know and trust their coach.”

It’s exactly this kind of trust of which child abusers take advantage. Notes columnist Gail Rosenblum, "The grand jury report is a sickening synopsis of the methodical workings of a sexual predator." As the founder of the Second Mile, a group foster home to help troubled boys, Sandusky ingratiated himself with the boys and, often, their mothers, by giving them gifts and treating them to football games, and by inviting them to eat in the dining hall with Penn State athletes and to Sandusky family picnics and on walks with the family dog. "Soon it wasn't odd at all that the boys were left alone with Sandusky, in the locker-room showers, or sleeping overnight in his basement, according to the report."

The problem with the "stranger-danger" message is that "we cannot get our hands around the ugly truth, which is that, in so many cases, it is no stranger who harms them."


Honoring the victims

Adds Alison Feigh, a community safety specialist with the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, about the stranger-danger message:

"It does not work. Kids have a very vivid image in their minds of what a stranger looks like. He's lurking in an alley, wearing a trench coat. He smells." If he doesn't fit that image, they don't think he's a stranger.

Many kids are further confused by the message to avoid strangers when, on the first day of school, for example, "their school bus driver is a stranger. Their teacher is a stranger."


Joan Tabachnick, author of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s guide, Engaging Bystanders in Sexual Violence Prevention, and a board member of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, further comments on how the stranger-danger message prevents children from recognizing and reporting abuse when abusers are perceived as "these monsters, people who rape, murder and abduct strangers:"

So if the abuser is somebody you care about and respect, there’s a cognitive dissonance: “Can they really be doing this monstrous thing when they’re not a monster?” When I did some interviews with offenders in prison, I remember one minister saying that even when he was sexually abusing a child, he asked the child, “Is this good touch or bad touch?” and the child said, “Because it’s you and you’re a good man, it must be good touch.” ...  Because we have moved more and more toward monsterizing the offender, it’s actually limiting our ability to prevent child sexual abuse. The more we make sex offenders into monsters, the less likely we are able to see behaviors in people we love that give us concern.

 

But, "we SO want sex abuse to be about the creepy pervert, the stranger who abducts and molests our kids," notes Steve Brown, a psychologist and former Board chair of Stop It Now!, a leading national child sexual abuse prevention organization. The assumption is that we can "just put them all on sex offender registries, attach GPS devices to their ankles and we’ll be okay. We DON’T want to admit that 90 percent of sex abuse is committed by people known by the victim and the family – our brothers, uncles, fathers, stepdads, and…yes…coaches." We don't want to admit it and we don't want to face the issue. We don't want to "intrude"on "the privacy of the hallowed family."

We especially don't want to get involved when there are powerful people and institutions involved. When those institutions have “squeaky clean” images to uphold, we don’t want to be responsible for tarnishing that image. If we do raise our concerns, we risk social rejection. We also need to have some comfort with our feelings related to the shrouded area of sexuality and the language of sex to get involved and speak up.


Rather than speaking up, however, we delude ourselves into thinking pedophiles are "shadowy strangers" that must be incarcerated, excluded from our communities, and placed on public registries. When all of that appears to only make things worse. The threat of a long sentence is not going to prevent a pedophile from acting, notes James Cantor, a clinical psychologist and editor in chief of the scientific journal Sexual Abuse; group therapy might. In fact, treatment, particularly group approaches, has been shown to be highly effective. However, mandatory criminal reporting and public registries prevent people from seeking help:

There have been a series of follow-up studies that show that having open registries also fails to decrease recidivism. They also, as a side effect, create very, very difficult situations for the victim’s families. People often envision strangers who pull a kid from a park or a school playground, because of course that’s what appears in the media the most. But the predominant types of offenses actually happen within families. It’s often a step-parent and a step-child or an older sibling and a younger sibling. A side effect of having the registry public is that it actually makes public the entire family. So rather than the family being able to move past, heal, do whatever it needs, some of them feel victimized once again.

Moreover, if a parent discovers that one of their children is abusing one of their younger children, when there are very long sentences and very public labeling, it’s going to make parents think twice about calling the police and asking for help. So, though I more than appreciate the gut reaction that the public has, it’s very rarely the most scientifically sound reaction. This is one of those situations where we need to swallow our emotions and do our best to think rationally. It’s not just that the irrational arguments have no effect and are costing money, it’s that they’re also making the problem worse.


Residency restriction also appears to make things worse:

There’s no evidence that preventing people from returning to whatever neighborhoods they came from actually works, and there’s some evidence that indirectly suggests that might actually make the problem worse. Essentially, these are communities that are trying to kick out every sex offender and to make the living situation so intolerable that the sex offender leaves. Well, “leaves” really just means “goes to another community” — and then another community, until finally the offender, who’s already served their time and been released after treatment, is driven underground and nobody can supervise them. So instead of having a person that the police know about and that the parole officers can check up on, we have people who we can’t supervise at all.

So, although we have this gut reaction of punitive, punitive, punitive, we may be working backward and making it more difficult and more expensive to provide any kind of supervision.


For now, Steve Brown also emphasizes the importance in helping adult bystanders "recognize the signs of sexual abuse, talk with others about what they are seeing, and find the courage and words to speak up" even if it means that things might feel like they "get worse in the short term although hopefully better in the long term:"

Unlike Penn State, most often it is a wife speaking up about (or to) her husband whom she sees repeatedly coming out of their daughters’ bedroom in the middle of the night; a neighbor speaking up about (or to) a beloved neighbor who frequently has boys coming in and out of his house; an adult niece speaking up about (or to) a great uncle who always wants to play video games in the basement alone with a 10 year-old relative.

This is not an easy subject to raise when the abuser is the primary earner for the family; when he is well-loved, even by the son or daughter he is abusing; when he is the founder of organizations for vulnerable kids which do a lot of good; when speaking up means a crisis will ensue.

To prevent sexual abuse, we must ALL struggle with these questions. Perhaps the Penn State situation will move us a little closer to speaking up as ACTIVE bystanders, not passive ones, looking out for the well-being of our children and those who cannot speak for themselves.

 

Originally posted at LOVE, SEX, AND FAMILY.

Quizzical mama, aka Anne G. Sabo, PhD, is a former academic turned mama and sex blogger who recently founded LOVE, SEX, AND FAMILY, a site devoted to progressive human sexuality information. As a college professor, she taught numerous courses in women's and film studies. In her New porn by women blog she writes about sexual politics and re-visioned porn. Her Quizzical mama blog is an educated and personal approach to the politics and philosophies of parenting, often addressing controversial issues and reflecting on different cultural values and practices in the US and her native Norway. She lives in a small Minnesotan college town just south of the Twin Cities with her husband and their toddler daughter. (Photo: Agnete Brun)

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