Friday, February 7, 2014

Child Molestation: What We Can Do With All This Talking

So I've been absorbing all the Woody Allen, Dylan Farrow- and Mia- back and forth, like most of you. I have been a fan of Woody Allen since I was a little girl, and over the years use his quotes often. I've always had a tremendous admiration and brain love for the way he uses words, a quirky intelligent voice that Lena Dunham reminds me of. 

Woody has now released his NYT response to Dylan's letter of accusation. I have no idea if Woody Allen molested Dylan, and neither do you. It is none of our business to pretend that in we- strangers- could take this terribly dysfunctional family and discern the truth, but what we can do is simply make room for two things: Make room to acknowledge that it is not our place to stamp YES or NO on this situation either way, and Make room to acknowledge that whatever did or did not happen, child molestation happens all the time, to all kinds of people, and most importantly, BY all kinds of people. 

We cannot identify child molesters- this is part of the fear. A child molester is deeply aware of their position in society and often filled with enormous pain and self loathing that they will go to almost any lengths to conceal. You can be best friends for thirty years with someone who is a wonderful person in all other aspects of their life, and who is a child molester. Until we understand that, face it, and believe it, people who have been molested will continue to feel that no one will believe them, because often the perpetrator is a lovely, charming and kind person who is great with kids. Somehow we hear all the time how child molesters are teachers, police officers, church goers and family members, yet we do not really believe it. We underestimate the human capacity for compartmentalizing one part of themselves in order to survive. 

When confronted with floodgates opening on an issue, opinions abounding, I often come back to the question: 'what can we do'? For Woody and Mia and Dylan, nothing. We can do less harm, perhaps. But we CAN do something to help child molestation prevention. What we can do is acknowledge that the intense, unholy secrecy that cocoons victims of child molestation has also engulfed the perpetrator. It has to be OK for people to seek help in order to reduce the enormous, unacceptable numbers of perpetrators and victims. In order for people to be able to get help, they have to believe that they can tell people that they need help. It is up to professionals to be the first wave of responders here: child psychologists at schools, especially high schools and colleges, have to be ready to respond without horror or shaming when told this disturbing news, and to direct the person to help. People who are attracted to young children know at young ages themselves that they are geared this way, and often only realize it is a problem as they get older in high school but are still attracted to kids. 

In high school sexual education classes, kids need to be taught about pedophilia, explained what it is and that a person- especially a young person, who probably has not offended yet- who gets help can have a healthy life without hurting innocent children. Pedophiles are of course notoriously hard to treat, but this is not the same thing as impossible, and again, the younger a person gets help, the more likely they can be helped. 

General knowledge and understanding of pedophilia is sorely lacking in a real profile- most people have a foggy, movie of the week kind of understanding of what it is, and a generic and unrealistic idea of what pedophiles 'look like' or who they are. Most pedophiles do not radiate menacing sexual energy or stand and stare at small children in parks. Here are some important points to take in:

1. Teenagers can often be just realizing that they are pedophiles. This is when the age of who they are attracted to stops matching their own age, and they sense a problem. If you notice a teenager who seems strangely drawn toward being physical with little kids, who is always finding reasons to touch them- tickling, playing rough, tackling, wrestling, sitting on lap- pay more attention. See if your gut tells you anything. We often have a sense that something is wrong but repeatedly tell ourselves in our mind that we are being silly, dramatic or ridiculous. Trust. Your. Gut. Even if this person is the kid of the year, football star and straight A student who is a tutor, they can still be a child molester. Trust. Your. Gut.

2. If you feel like there might be a problem, set needed boundaries for any children that you can, and then talk to another adult who you deeply trust and respect. Discuss what you might do next. Consult a therapist who specializes in sexual disorders or teenagers.

3. Child molesters are often completely and totally normal in every single other way. They watch the same movies, like the same music and people, have political opinions like anyone else, tell funny jokes, make people smile, give great hugs, buy coffee for the person next in line, say just the right thing when you were sad, devote their lives to Christ, are famous for their breakfast burritos at family gatherings, are loved by many people, are generous to a fault, teach swimming for free every summer, save wild birds and never let you down. They are also deeply, overwhelmingly attracted to small children and would do almost anything to hide that fact from every single person they know, including themselves. No recounting of a person's good qualities ( or movies ) can make it impossible for them to also, devastatingly, be a child molester.

4. Realize that many offenders are people who themselves were molested as small children. I cannot tell you how many kids I knew in high school who told me they were sexually abused. I was that kind of person who people told their secrets to, and that was a top most told secret. Girls, and boys. I can recall stories of being molested by high school tutors, Girl Scout leaders, grandfathers, parents, a parent's best friend, cousins and teachers. I knew more than a few girls who were sexually assaulted as little girls by older teenage boys. All of these children, floating as psychologically alone as if they had been dropped off into outer space, coping internally with a pain so deep and awful that the pressure would come out- now if, simply how- and sadly, sometimes that pressure warps the boiling pot, and it spills over into another cycle of molestation. If we can allow ourselves to understand that connection, we can begin to consider being more careful in our conversations when we talk about child molestation. Calling people animals, saying that they should be killed- those kinds of reactions, while perfectly understandable, create a social environment that allows zero chance that a pedophile or abuser will seek help. Why bother to seek help when everyone you know thinks you are a monster, irredeemable? This is asking a lot of people, and many are not ready to rise to this. But some of us are, and it is up to us to remain conscious, painful as it is, and make the path that will create a place where less people are harmed.

5. If a child or adult tells you that they have been sexually touched or assaulted in any way, by any person, your absolute first reaction should be to respond as if you believe them. Most of the time, they are telling the truth, first of all- especially with children- if a child tells you this, you can almost guarantee that they are telling the truth. It is your moral obligation to proceed as if they are telling the truth. The shame that comes with being molested or sexually assaulted is so enormous that telling anyone is incredibly painful and brave- sometimes so painful that people tell, and then recant, because they cannot stand to have to relive it out loud, or because they cannot cope with the consequences in their family or circle of friends. And even if that person happens to be making something up, they are in dire need of help. And that help can clarify what is happening, and what kind of help they need. So if you  have done nothing else, you have led a person to getting the right kind of help. 

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