Guest post by Joelle Casteix
Not everyone is a predator—but anyone can be a predator. It’s a tough reality to accept, but as a parent you must accept it in order to keep your child safe.
This article is not about panic-mongering, however. It’s not about teaching you to look at every person with suspicion. So stop watching the news. Stop cruising the Internet. Get off the Megan’s Law websites and sex offender registries. Take a deep breath. The fact that you are reading this puts you in the top percentage of empowered and educated parents. Your child is already safer.
Chances are that your child will not be sexually abused by an adult in a position of power. But chances are that your child knows someone who already has been abused. And chances are that the person came from the most unlikely of places. That’s the key takeaway for this chapter: Most predators come from the places we least expect.
Uncovering abuse and the predators who commit abuse means breaking down assumptions and removing stereotypes. Keeping your child safe means understanding that abusers can take any shape or form—even that of a beloved friend, neighbor, or family member. In fact, even if you or someone you love is not a victim of abuse, you may face another heartbreaking problem: what to do when someone you know, love, or respect is accused of abuse.
The Opposite of Creepy: I have already told you who the predator most likely isn’t: the creepy guy in the trench coat. In fact, most often, we aren’t talking about anyone creepy at all. Children don’t like creepy people and will not spend time with them. We are talking about someone who attracts children and who knows exactly what they want and need to feel special. Predators want their victims to love them, and for that to happen, they must be lovable. Even if the predator isn’t the warm, fuzzy type, he or she needs to have ways to relate to kids. Because if a predator cannot attract and relate to children, a predator can’t find victims.
Think about the last time you heard about someone being accused of abuse, whether it was a celebrity, a sports figure, a community member, or a teacher. If the story was covered in the media, what was the most common quote you heard? Probably something like, Oh, Mr. So-and-so would never hurt a child. He is a wonderful man and very well-respected. Everyone loves him, and the children admire him. I would trust my children with him anytime. Anyone accusing him of abuse just wants attention and money.
It’s a familiar refrain that many victims hear when they come forward and report abuse. Charming and well-respected community members, celebrities, and sports heroes are exactly the kinds of people who can entice and groom children. And of course, when anticipating the kinds of reactions like the one I just outlined, these children are unlikely to come forward unless another victim leads the way.
Nobody wanted to believe that the beloved, iconic Cosby could commit such widespread abuse. But that is the case all too often— the predator turns out to be the “cool teacher,” the “awesome youth director,” the “engaging minister,” or the “best troop leader our boys have ever had.” That’s why it is so important not to allow yourself to be groomed into ignoring your gut. And that’s why you should never dismiss your child’s instincts, even when someone you really like makes your child feel odd or strange, or does things that your child does not like. If it took adult women decades to talk publicly about what happened to them by Cosby, think about how a child must feel when in the same position.
Women Who Abuse Children: Women are stereotypical caregivers and nurturers. They love and raise children, protect them from harm, and soothe them when they are sick or in pain. The idea of women hurting children is hard for many people to stomach. We want to believe that sexual abuse goes against a woman’s DNA.But we need to face it: Women can also abuse.
Stereotypes of the loving mother have allowed women predators to thrive—and even be celebrated—in popular culture. Unfortunately, their victims still suffer. Look at movies like Porky’s and songs like Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher,” which celebrate the young boy who is “broken in” by the hot, oversexed adult woman. What they don’t explore, however, is how damaging this abuse is to the male victims, who are isolated from their peers, thrust into adulthood, manipulated, groomed, and then left with nowhere to turn for help.
Abuse by women is hardly new, but only in recent years have reports been on the rise. This is probably due to a number of factors, including public outrage at the crimes of thirty-five-year-old wife and mother of four Mary Kay Letourneau. Her victim was not a thirty-year-old actor playing a seventeen-year-old boy looking to break into manhood, as in a movie like Porky’s. He was a sixth-grader who was repeatedly molested by his teacher. She was jailed twice for molesting the boy. Although the couple is now married with children, one can hardly view their relationship as healthy.Letourneau is a shining example of a predator masquerading as a trustworthy adult. Not only was she a teacher, but she was married with children who were close in age to the boy she was sexually molesting. We can only assume that she knew what she was doing was wrong, though she justified her actions—as all predators do—by calling it “love” or “fate.” In a 2011 interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters, Letourneau said she would not approve of her twelve-year-old daughters dating their teachers.
When you look at arrest statistics, the vast majority of predators are still men. But women are being arrested and punished at much higher rates as time passes. This is good news. Remember, women have been abusing all along—they didn’t just suddenly get the notion that abuse would be a good idea. But now that the police are taking victims seriously and victims feel empowered to come forward, these women are being punished at much higher rates.
Family Members Who Abuse Children: A family is supposed to provide a safe haven for its members, but sometimes home is the last place a child feels secure about turning to. It’s sad but true that a great amount of sexual abuse happens in the family. In some instances, a custody battle leads to parents throwing around abuse accusations for the sake of revenge. Nevertheless, incest is a real threat and a real crisis for many children. Don’t dismiss your child’s concerns when he or she says that your favorite uncle in the whole world makes your child sit on his lap far too long. Even if it’s not abuse, you need to give your child permission to set his or her own body boundaries. And if it is abuse, you’re better off facing the double tragedy of incest sooner rather than later.
The community often experiences both confusion and betrayal. A child who is carefully groomed—especially a teen—will support and defend an abuser, even while knowing that something terrible has been happening. For some victims, the abuse is tantamount to love, and to betray the abuser would be to betray the only person left in the victim’s life. But peers don’t understand this concept. As result, they too are left hurt, victimized by a predatory adult who may not have abused them, but who hoodwinked and exploited them to sexually molest other children.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) addresses this issue head-on through an excellent handout that can help some communities. Although titled “What to Do When Your Priest Is Accused of Abuse,”6 it can apply to abuse in any situation. Here are some of the relevant points, adapted for this discussion:
- Be Open-Minded: It’s human nature to recoil in horror when hearing about abuse. It’s even natural to assume (and hope) that the allegations are false. Since child sex abuse is grossly underreported, however, it’s more than likely that the allegations are true, even if they can’t lead to an arrest due to the statute of limitations. Don’t jump to conclusions or be quick to judge. Wait until you have all the information.
- Allow Yourself to Feel Emotional: If someone you respect, admire, or love is accused of abuse, it’s okay to feel hurt, angry, or betrayed. It’s also healthy to allow those emotions to surface, so don’t stuff them away. Just don’t get carried away by emotions or do something drastic in the heat of the moment. In fact, if you think it will be helpful, go and talk to a professional who can help you try to sort through your feelings and respond in a healthy way.
- Don’t Try to Guess Who the Accuser Is: Crime victims are allowed to remain anonymous in the justice system. This is especially true for victims of sex abuse, who feel ashamed and isolated. Don’t go on a witch hunt.
- Understand That Abuse Victims Have Troubled Backgrounds: We know that predators target vulnerable and troubled children. As child sex abuse victims grow into adults, many suffer from addiction and anger issues. Criminal histories, depression, drug addiction, and mental illness are not uncommon. Don’t judge a victim because they were horribly damaged by the abuse.
- Don’t Discredit a Victim Who Comes Forward Years Later: The survivors I have worked with seldom, if ever, came forward at the time of the abuse. Studies by the US Department of Justice and my own experience show that it takes many sex abuse victims decades to come forward, if they come forward at all. That should not excuse a predator, who has more than likely spent the intervening years abusing other children.
- Don’t Allow Friends or Family to Make Disparaging Remarks about the Victim: Critical comments further victimize the abused and only discourage other victims from reaching out for help. Show compassion, and ask others in the community not to make hurtful comments. A six-year old incest victim who is told that she’s the “bad cousin” will only learn to be ashamed of her abuse. She will also (wrongly) blame herself for hurting the family by reporting a molesting grandfather.
- If You Support the Accused, Do So Privately: If people in the community—other abused children, in particular— see that adults they love and respect are publicly supporting accused perpetrators, they will be less likely to report their own victimization. So if you really must stand behind the accused, do so privately.
- Talk to Your Friends and Family about Abuse: Be frank. Encourage victims to come forward and get help—no matter who the abuser is.
- Don’t Be Blinded by Anger: Accusations of abuse lead to anger in the community, whether toward the perpetrator or the victim. Don’t allow your anger to take over. Instead, channel your emotions into action or talk to a therapist. The rage you feel is valid, but acting on it is not.
I hope you are never in this situation, with a predator who tears your community apart by committing child sex abuse. But if you are affected by child sexual abuse, or if you know someone who is, therapists and support groups are available to help you through the crisis without causing additional pain to yourself, the victims, or the community.
As a society, we have come to accept that church and community leaders are capable of committing terrible abuse. It is perhaps even more difficult to acknowledge that women and even our own family members can be predators. But there’s no need to be paranoid. Just look out for the warning signs and follow your gut. Of all the people you know, 99.9 percent are not predators. The key is learning to protect yourself, your child, your family, and your community from the one tenth of one percent who are.
A former journalist, educator, and public relations professional, Joelle Casteix has taken her own experience as a victim of child sex crimes and devoted her career to exposing abuse, advocating on behalf of survivors, and spreading abuse prevention strategies for parents and communities. She has presented to hundreds of audiences all over the world, including on the TEDx stage, on subjects such as abuse prevention, victim outreach, victims’ rights in the civil justice system, and parenting safer children. She is a regular speaker for the National Center for Victims of Crime, the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma and The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Casteix’s blog, The Worthy Adversary, is one of the leading sources for information and commentary on child sexual abuse prevention and exposure. She graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and completed graduate work in education at the University of Colorado, Denver. A wanna-be ski bum, she lives in southern California with her husband and young son.