As the Sandusky case unfolds, and after reading raw testimony for the past week from Sandusky’s alleged victims, I’m perplexed at how conscientious, early-teen kids were able to be the victims of molestation–some of them for years. Then I remember that they were targetted by a predator in every sense of the word: they were easy prey (in this case, these were boys whose fathers were not present, who did not have very much money or a strong family life); they were groomed and manipulated (these young boys enjoyed the perks of hanging out with an ‘important’ man like Sandusky who lavished them with gifts and special treatment), so when Sandusky began inappriate touching/rubbing/groping/hugging, the boys were confused and let it happen. Allegedly.
If someone were to touch me inapporpriately, I like to think I’d jump up and push them away immediately. Maybe me throw a punch or two. But I was once gropped on the subway and did just the opposite: I froze. By the time I realized what had actually happened, and processed it that it was not a mistake, the act was done and the guy had already gotten off. Another female friend of mine said the same thing happened to her. She fell asleep on the train, woke up to a man touching her leg with his hand. When she opened her eyes and shifted, his hands moved away. Like me she paused: did that really happen? Was it a mistake? And in confusion, she just moved seats.
I think this is a two-fold issue. How to avoid the unwelcome behavior and then how to stop it once it’s happened.
There are many ways to avoid unwelcome behavior. For example, when I was little I wasn’t allowed to sleep over friends’ houses if they had uncles or brothers living with them (I had a friend who lived in a gigantic house with her extended family: brothers and cousins and uncles and sisters…I was never allowed to spend the night.) Most kids are taught basic and somewhat obvious safety tips like, don’t accept candy from strangers, don’t go into their cars. But I wonder to what extent the mixed messages that we are sent as kids unteaches us those safety tips. For example:
- I was told not to talk to strangers. But I was also told not to be rude and in effect, talk to peopel who address me– strangers or not.
- I was told not to let people touch me. But I also had to give thank-you hugs to people (family or family friends) who gave me gifts.
- I was told that some people were ‘bad guys’. But I was also told to respect adults and always speak properly to them, especially if they were friends of the family.
This is why I particularly like this article by Katia Hetter. Hetter talks about the importance of teaching your child that their body is their own, and that they don’t have to touch anyone even if it means hurting someone’s feelings. And she stresses the importance of letting each child respect the subtle cues they pick up about “the music teacher down the street” or “Aunt Linda”. If your child shies away from somone, it’s okay. They’re allowed to.
“When we force children to submit to unwanted affection in order not to offend a relative or hurt a friend’s feelings, we teach them that their bodies do not really belong to them because they have to push aside their own feelings about what feels right to them,” said Irene van der Zande, co-founder and executive director of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International, a nonprofit specializing in teaching personal safety and violence prevention. “This leads to children getting sexually abused, teen girls submitting to sexual behavior so ‘he’ll like me’ and kids enduring bullying because everyone is ‘having fun.’ “