During my many years as an academic, roughly half my time was devoted to research and clinical work with convicted sex offenders, many of whom had sexually abused children. The experience was harrowing. And my decision to eventually shift research areas accompanied the realization that I had numbed myself emotionally as a coping mechanism.
Thankfully, everything I learned from those days stayed with me. I say “thankfully” because, while I don’t miss the negative emotional effects, the knowledge I gained allowed me to understand the truth about child sex abuse with a clarity that I wish every parent could be afforded. The sexual abuse of boys, in particular, is much more prevalent than many realize.
I wasn’t terribly shocked to learn that the Boy Scouts of America recently declared bankruptcy as the result of hundreds of sex-abuse lawsuits. The Scouts have spent over $150 million on legal costs and settlements to date. The abuse allegations span a century. According to Boy Scout documents disclosed during litigation, more than 12,000 boys have been abused by at least 7,800 individuals since the 1920s.
The #MeToo movement brought increased awareness of the abuse and assault endured by girls and women. But boys and men who’ve been abused still often lack support. In some cases, they can even endure negative stigma when they go public with their trauma. Authors of a 2011 meta-analysis, drawn from more than 200 global sources published between 1980 and 2008, estimated that 7.6 percent of surveyed males had self-reported an experience of childhood sexual abuse (compared with 18 percent of surveyed females).
The widespread belief that those who abuse children were themselves child sex-abuse victims should be taken with a grain of salt, as some sex offenders have been known to exploit this correlation to gain sympathy. In fact, the underlying root causes differ widely among abusers. Some are clinically identified pedophiles—men who experience sexual attraction to prepubescent children. (In the case of female perpetrators, the abuse has less to do with sexual attraction and is typically at the request of a male partner.) Not all child molesters are pedophilic. In some cases, the abusers are unable to find a consenting adult partner, or act under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or have antisocial personality disorder.
It should also be noted that not all pedophiles act on their desires. But sex offenders who are pedophilic tend to have a greater number of child victims, and are more likely to victimize individuals outside their family.
Sexual abuse rarely takes the stereotypical form of lecherous old men luring children to their homes or vehicles. What stood out among the abusers I studied was how young many were, and how outwardly well-adjusted they seemed. They were usually connected to their victims in some pre-existing way, and were trusted by the child’s family. Usually, there had been clear warning signs regarding their motivations—for those who knew how to identify them. In many cases, I learned, parents exhibit willful blindness, because they don’t want to believe that such a horrible thing can be true.
Parents tend to be more protective of their daughters than their sons. They are more vigilant about where their girls spend their time, and whom they’re with. Boys often can become easier targets for sexual predators because parents simply don’t equip their sons with the same level of understanding about what sexual abuse looks like, and what they should do if they find themselves in an unwanted situation. Early identification of such predators is particularly important because studies show that offenders who abuse boys are more likely to commit further sexual offenses than those who abuse girls.
Potential abusers will go to great lengths to be friendly and relatable to children. They will invest time in becoming part of a child’s life, so as to gain parents’ trust and lay the groundwork for future abuse. Another common tactic is to lavish a child with money or gifts, and make the child welcome opportunities to be in the abuser’s company.
Other signs of grooming include non-sexual physical contact with the child in front of other adults, as a way of conveying to the child that being touched by the abuser is acceptable. An abuser also will encourage a child to share secrets, which later can be used as blackmail to prevent the child from reporting abuse. Male predators often seek out single mothers who might be looking for a father figure for their children, or who are simply happy to have someone help with child care.
If a child you know describes an experience of being abused, you should believe them. Emphasize that the abuse was not their fault. Actively take steps to ensure that the child isn’t abused again, and that the abuser doesn’t victimize others. Don’t assume that simply notifying the parents is where this task ends. When I was a researcher, I frequently encountered parents who took an alleged abuser’s side over the account provided by their own child.
Children frequently internalize sexual abuse as shameful, blaming themselves for what happened. Boys, in particular, will question what the abuse says about their own strength and masculinity. Many will act out by becoming physically aggressive, hypersexual or turning to drugs and alcohol as a means of coping.
Parents should have age-appropriate conversations with their children beginning early in life, in private, away from any potential victimizer. Teach children that their body is theirs alone, and they should tell a parent if anyone touches them inappropriately. Child predators sometimes will threaten to harm a child’s parents as a way to keep them quiet. Children should know that nobody can hurt their parents and there should never be any secrets.
The Boy Scouts of America’s bankruptcy represents not only the decline of one organization, but also symbolizes the larger failure of a tragically negligent approach to dealing with child sex abuse in churches, schools, sports leagues, and countless other institutions. Even now, in fact, many of us still don’t know how to talk honestly and constructively about the realities of sexual abuse. Until we do, many victims will continue to needlessly suffer in silence.
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