Child sexual predators are not just the “creepy guys in the trench coats”; 90 percent of children know their abusers.
Nobody loves a stereotype better than a child sex predator. Whether the stereotype is about the “creepy guy in the trench coat,” the “hot for teacher” fallacy, our collective denial of incest, or our emphasis on “stranger danger,” predators know that the more parents rely on stereotypes, the easier it is for those predators to gain easy access to vulnerable children.
Stereotype No. 1: Most abuse happens as a result of stranger abduction or by use of force.
This stereotype is one of the most widely believed and the most damaging. It has kept victims silent and children at risk for decades.
And it all boils down to our over-reliance on “stranger danger.”
Even now, when it comes to educating and empower our children about abuse, parents and educators continue to focus on abduction. The media is quick to follow along, continually covering stories about child kidnappings and attacks. And that’s exactly what the vast majority of child predators want us to focus on.
According to the California Attorney General’s office, approximately 90 percent of children who are sexually abused in the United States know their abuser.
While it is important to talk to your child about stranger danger, it is even more important to empower your child against the other 90 percent of predators—the ones you willingly invite into your home.
Stereotype No. 2: Incest only happens to other people.
That is simply not true. Incest happens everywhere. No matter who you are, where you come from, your socio-economic background, or your pedigree, you can have a family wracked by incest.
In fact, half of the 90 percent of abusers cited above by the California Attorney General are family members, including parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles. The recent sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Duggar family of reality TV fame is not unique. Incest does happen—even in the best of families. Often, the victims never come forward to report the abuse out of fear of hurting the sibling or other family member that the child still loves.
Stereotype No. 3: The abuser is the “creepy guy in the trench coat.”
You know who he is: he’s scary, dirty, and often frightens kids. And he is a figment of our collective imagination.
Child sexual predators love children. They love to be around children. They want children to love them in return. How do they accomplish this? By being charismatic, outgoing, loving, and caring. They do this by having jobs—paying and volunteer—that get them close to children and put the predator in a position of trust and power. Predators ingratiate themselves with adults and become important family and community members. This grants them everything that they want: access to children, trust from the community, and love from both the victim and the community.
They are often married with children. All of them lead double lives. They are charismatic and use their personality, power, charm, and position to find children who are easy targets for abuse.
Stereotype No. 4: Women can’t sexually abuse.
In the 1980s, VanHalen’s hit song “Hot for Teacher” capitalized on one of the most pernicious stereotypes about sexual offenders: that women can’t abuse.
Yes, women can and do abuse. They abuse both boys and girls. And while the numbers of female predators do not match those of men, female predators are being arrested and convicted at record rates. Why? Because we finally understand that women who abuse inflict as much damage on their victims as their male counterparts.
Our society has also come to recognize that when a boy is sexually abused by a woman, it is not a rite of passage. It is not “cool” and does not help turn a boy into a man. Instead, is it a gross abuse of power and a sexual violation that leaves victims isolated, ashamed, hurt, lost, and injured. Girls sexually abused by women suffer the same after-effects.
Stereotype No. 5: There is nothing we can do to stop abusers.
The power to stop abuse is in our hands. So what do we do? It’s all about communication and empowering our children about their bodies.
Child sexual predators want the “easy” victim. Grooming a child is hard work that can take months, so predators are far less likely to target the child who knows 1) that secrets between adults and children are wrong, 2) the proper biological names of their body parts and 3) no one is to touch or take pictures of their genitals (and they are not to touch other people’s).
A predator is not going to target the child who has a strong relationship with his or her parents, good communication skills, and who knows that it’s never okay for an adult to be sexual with a child or teen.
And a predator certainly won’t target the child whose parents openly talk about why sex abuse is wrong, the importance of reporting to law enforcement, and that the crime is never the fault of the child.
Joelle Casteix is a former journalist, educator, and public relations professional that 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 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. Her blog, The Worthy Adversary, is one of the leading sources for information and commentary on child sexual abuse prevention and exposure. She is the author of “The Well-Armored Child: A Parents Guile to Preventing Sexual Abuse.”