This is the flip side of my article Advice for pedophiles who don’t want to offend. A few days ago I did a Skype video interview with some wonderful young ladies who were very nice and easy to talk to. One of the questions they asked me was how to protect their children from sexual abuse. It took me aback, as I had never been asked this before and never expected for anyone to ask me this. I can’t remember what exactly I said, but I am sure my reply was woefully inadequate. But I’ve had a few days to think about it, so I decided to go ahead and formulate a post about it. To that end . . .
1) Remember that most offenders are not pedophiles – This is a difficult one for people to grasp. They’ve heard the word ‘pedophile’ conflated with sex offender so many times in the media and elsewhere that they genuinely believe that anyone who molests children is a pedophile. Ergo, when they are watching out for potential child molesters, they tend to look for people who fit some kind of pedophilic stereotype: they’re exceptionally nice to children, are awkward and ungainly around adults, etc. But the fact is, the majority of sex offenders against children (60-80%) are not pedophiles. They tend to be people who are very close to the child, often a family member. Fathers and stepfathers are the primary culprits, but they can be grandfathers, mothers, grandmothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, or close friends of the family too. This doesn’t mean that none of these people can be pedophiles, but generally they aren’t. Essentially, almost anyone can be a child molester.
The problem with the molesters-are-always-pedophiles viewpoint is that it tends to distract people from the more likely culprits: situational offenders who are closely related to the child. Parents really need to get out of this mindset, to keep their eyes and ears open and not be distracted by stereotypes. Also, despite the horrific sensational stories you see in the news, “stranger danger” is a greatly exaggerated problem. I’m not telling you to drop your guard entirely, but the reality is, of the million or so children who disappear every year, the vast majority of these are either runaways or parental abductions. Stranger abductions hover around one hundred per year, numbers that do not justify the extreme anxiety modern parents have about them. Moreover, when parents are spending all their time looking outward for potential dangers, they are often ignoring the real problematic area: their own home.
2) The ‘good touch, bad touch’ talk is counterproductive – At least for younger children, the concept of ‘good touch, bad touch’ generally fails to acknowledge an important reality: children are not inherently disgusted by sexual contact. Thus, when parents tell their children things like, “If someone touches you and it makes you feel uncomfortable, then that’s bad touch,” they are sending kids the wrong message. Small children have no inherent moral compass. It’s one of the things that makes them appealing to us. They don’t come with preconceived notions about reality, and that includes sex. Thus, if someone rubs their genitalia and it feels good (massages often feel good to kids, no matter where they are being massaged), then they aren’t going to automatically associate that with ‘bad touch’ and may even encourage it. Likewise, if the child initiates such contact, as they sometimes do, then they almost certainly aren’t going to consider that bad touch.
So, how do you get around this problem? After all, there may be times when a parent or doctor needs to touch a child’s genitalia in order to clean them, check for problems, etc., and you don’t want the child to think of that as abusive. The problem here is really one of proper communication, something small children often struggle with. Which leads to my third suggestion . . .
3) Children should know what’s appropriate for both adults and themselves – Many parents shudder at the idea of talking to young children about sex, but the fact is, the more the child knows, the better they will understand the motivations of those who might abuse them. ‘Good touch, bad touch’ is far too vague to be useful and, as I said earlier, it can actually confuse kids. They should understand that even if it feels good to them, having their genitalia touched by an adult is wrong if it isn’t for a specific purpose like cleaning and medical attention, and even then there are only a handful of people who should be allowed to do that. Likewise, it is never appropriate for a child to be touching an adult’s genitals for any reason, so if they are asked to do so, that is abuse.
On the flip side, children should be taught what is inappropriate for them to do to adults. Remember, a child may initiate such contact, but if the adult gives in, it is still abuse. Children therefore need to understand that there are certain things they are never to do with adults, like grabbing their penis or breasts, attempting to French kiss them, etc. If they do initiate these kinds of behaviors and the adult complies, then the adult is still responsible and the child should not be punished or blamed, but they still need to understand that there are certain things you just don’t do with adults. I came closest to acting on my attractions because of an aggrssively precocious child who did not understand these boundaries. I reckon a lot of abuse could be curtailed by just teaching kids about what is appropriate and not appropriate behavior with respect to adults.
4) Keep an open dialog with children – This is really the most important one. If children understand that they can come talk to you about anything, then they are less likely to keep secrets. Abusers thrive on exploiting children’s shame and fear, but if kids know they can talk to you and that you will give them a fair hearing on everything they tell you, even if they do something they know is wrong, then they are more likely to tell you if someone has abused them. I would say to them, “An adult should never ask you to keep a secret, and if they do, come tell me anyway.” I really can’t think of any occasion where an adult asking a child to keep a secret is appropriate. Children should not be burdened with adults’ secrets, no matter what they are.
More specifically, children should be able to approach you with questions about sex, and you should answer them honestly but in an age-appropriate manner, respecting their comprehension level and need-to-know. The younger the child, the more basic you should keep your answers. Talking to kids about abuse really should be part of any sex education discussion, but again, it should be at the level of a child’s understanding. And it should be ongoing. I know parents dread this discussion with their kids, usually reserving it until right before puberty, when they give their kids “the talk” one time and leave it at that. Well, this isn’t enough—not by a long shot. The more kids know you are comfortable talking about sex with them, the more likely they will be to tell you when there is something inappropriate happening (even if they don’t necessarily perceive it as inappropriate at the time). That means talking to them about sex every so often, and starting when they are very young. It’s time we got past our hangups about discussing sex openly, because it is this environment of secrecy and shame where sexual abuse thrives.
Bonus) If you know your child is being abused, react appropriately – Parents can react any number of ways when they discover their kid has been sexually abused, from denial to violence toward the abuser, neither of which is appropriate, but violence is the absolute worst way to react. You should understand that the child may have an emotional bond with their abuser, and if you react violently, that can be every bit as, if not more traumatic than, the abuse itself. Adults have a tendency to view child molesters through a particular lens, which may lead to confusion when things like this happen, but the child likely views it very differently. What you need to do is stay calm and rational. Violence is a bad lesson to teach victims of abuse anyway, regardless of their connection to their abuser. If the child has already been traumatized by their abuse, do you think reacting violently to the abuser is going to help them heal? And if the victim has an emotional bond with the abuser, what do you think hurting the adult is going to do to that child? Think before you react!