Content Warning: As you might imagine, this post contains references to childhood sexual abuse and sexual violence generally.
I haven’t seen the recently released HBO documentary Leaving Neverland that addressed the decades of child molestation allegations against the late Michael Jackson. As a child sex abuse (CSA) survivor, I have to carefully consider when and if I subject myself to hearing fellow survivors’ stories.
Unfortunately, Twitter has been abuzz with ALL CAPS hot takes claiming that preventing child sexual abuse is as simple as not letting your child spend 1:1 time with an adult man and that parents whose children are abused have nobody to blame but themselves.
When I challenged these armchair experts about their oversimplified, judgmental approach, many launched into long, tortured recountings of the IRREPARABLE DAMAGE and LIFELONG IMPACT of child sexual abuse – as if I didn’t know firsthand. (You can click the green “my story” box below to read more about what happened to me and how it impacted me. You can also feel free to skip that part and read on for the misconceptions.)
My story. (CW: sexual abuse, emotional neglect, suicide, reproductive coercion)
I know the lifelong impact of CSA because I have lived it. I was abused between the ages of two and four. I have suspicions about who abused me; but my therapist has advised me not to accuse them unless I am willing to face a backlash.
While the abuse was taking place, my relationship with my parents was not in good enough shape to process it. My parents are good people and might have been good enough parents if they’d ended up with a different kind of child; but they didn’t have the boundaries, self-awareness, and resilience necessary to parent a kid whose emotional experience of everyday situations was constantly dialed up to 11.
When they couldn’t help me manage the sensory overwhelm I experienced at the grocery store and became exasperated and invalidating when I insisted that my socks were on wrong, they sent me an implicit but crystal clear message that they couldn’t handle the truth of my experiences. When my father took it personally when I didn’t want him to hug and kiss me and did it anyway, he sent me the message that adults were allowed to touch my body even if I didn’t want them to.
Young nervous systems are too immature to process sexual abuse without help from a safe attachment figure. Since I did not have that safe figure, I repressed the memories and spent almost three decades in a dissociated fugue state. I was frequently depressed and flooded with self-loathing. I was nine the first time I considered suicide. I was 18 the first time I came close to attempting suicide, but couldn’t quite go through with it. I was 19 when my college boyfriend raped me. After that, I spent six more years with him because I didn’t know that my body belonged to me and that my consent mattered.
Then, when I was 31 years old, my abusive and unexpectedly pregnant housemate attempted to coerce me into getting pregnant as well so that our kids would be the same age. (Yes, really.) Her demand that my body serve her needs at the expense of my own toppled the house of cards I’d built to protect myself and my family, and the result was a devastating two-year flashback during which I demolished many friendships and nearly wrecked my marriage.
The only reason why I am not homeless, in prison, or dead right now is because I was born into a family with financial means and received a great education. I have been in the mental health system for years. After a lot of trial and error, I’ve found a therapist and psychiatrist who understand me and have been able to treat both the underlying bipolar and the complex post-traumatic stress that I live with.
I’m very glad that I’m still here. If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or memories of childhood abuse, please call the crisis line at 1-800-273-8255. And remember, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
The truth about how and why CSA happens and why it is so damaging is far more complicated than most people imagine. Addressing it in a way that doesn’t make the problem worse will require us to rethink our misconceptions, calm our justifiable discomfort, and apply common sense and compassion to a topic that is rightfully very upsetting to most people.
Before we get to the specifics, I’ll confess that I feel afraid that what I am about to say will be oversimplified and misrepresented because that’s what happens on the Internet.
So let me say unequivocally up front:
- Children are not able to consent to sex.
- No adult has the right to sexualize a child.
- Adults who sexualize children must be held accountable.
And now, to the misconceptions:
Misconception #1: Children are completely asexual and abuse is always an aversive experience.
Sexuality is life force energy at its purest, and kids are sexual beings. Children masturbate and they are capable of experiencing sexual pleasure. The innocence of childhood isn’t about being completely naive to sexual energy, it’s about kids being allowed to unselfconsciously explore their life force energy without being shamed or exploited by adults.
Predators exploit that life force energy, which means that kids sometimes experience pleasure during abuse and can have intense feelings of being bonded to perpetrators. Some survivors recount instances where they invited further abuse, which makes them confused about whether it was abuse and who is to blame.
They are, of course, blameless in all this. Child sexual abuse is about an adult putting a kid in the position of experiencing something age inappropriate that may nevertheless be engaging or even enjoyable. (If your kid has ever seen a preview for an R-rated movie and then asked when you can go see it, you know that kids are perfectly capable of being drawn to experiences they are not ready to process.)
Misconception #2: Sexual abuse is traumatic because the abuser has stolen a child’s purity or “virginity.”
In our sex-negative culture, we project an ideal of purity (sometimes called “virginity”) onto sexually inexperienced people. We treat that purity as an exhaustible resource that is eroded or consumed with every sexual experience until none remains.
Under this model, we assume that the primary trauma of sexual abuse is always the theft of a child’s purity; a stain upon the child’s soul that cannot be cleansed. This damaging assumption sets survivors up to feel not just the natural confusion that comes after such an experience, but also to absorb shame from perpetrators, parents, and society at large.
The core violation of child sexual abuse is not theft of purity, it’s confusing children about who their life force energy really belongs to. Their sexuality goes from being something that is uniquely theirs, to enjoy and experiment with on their own terms, to something that a much more experienced and powerful person has used for their own ends.
Misconception #3: If parents are restrictive in just the right ways, they can prevent abuse.
Parents cannot be on 24/7 and sometimes humans end up trusting people we later wish we hadn’t. There’s simply no way for parents to build a foolproof screen around their kids.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything parents can do. In addition to exercising common sense about who your kids spend time with, you can build a relationship with your child that will help her be resilient to the grooming process and, if abuse does occur, help her to recover without internalizing shame or stigma.
The single most important thing you can do as a parent is to offer your children validation of their experiences and unconditional affirmation for exactly who they are. If your child is getting her emotional needs met at home, she will be less drawn to the positive regard from a predator that is the first step in the grooming process.
Part of that validation is helping your child understand that her body belongs to her. Never force her to be affectionate with someone when she doesn’t want to be, regardless of what the other person wants. If you do this, she will internalize that her consent, judgement, and instincts matter. That will make her less likely to allow anyone to push her boundaries when you’re not around.
Finally, absolve your child of any responsibility for your feelings. If you make your child responsible for managing you emotionally in everyday situations, you force her to make judgment calls about what she can talk to you about. Your goal is for your kid to feel comfortable coming to you with any problem, question, or confusion she is experiencing. That way, if she is molested in spite of your best efforts, you can help her process the experience and hold the perpetrator accountable.
Misconception #4: All pedophiles abuse children and all abusers are the same.
This is really more than one misconception, but they’re related topics so I’ve chosen to place them under the same header.
Misconception: All pedophiles abuse children .
It may surprise some people to know that there are pedophiles (people who are sexually attracted to children) who go out of their way to ensure that they are never alone with children so that they will never be tempted to act on their desires.
Sex writer Dan Savage has even coined a term for these people: “gold star pedophiles.” You can read some of his best work on the topic here and here.
Sadly, because this topic is so taboo, “gold star pedophiles” receive very little social or professional support; especially in the United States, where some therapists report clients who admit to being pedophiles to law enforcement without any evidence that abuse has taken place.
The bottom line is that sexual attraction to children occurs in nature and we lose a crucial avenue of prevention by shaming “gold star pedophiles” into isolation and silence. If we’re going to solve the problem of CSA, we have to stop demonizing decent people who have been afflicted with a sexual proclivity they did not choose and do not wish to act upon.
Misconception: All abusers are the same.
Leaving Neverland follows on the heels of the incredible activist success of dream hampton’s Surviving R. Kelly, and it strikes me that no two abusers could be more different than R. Kelly and Michael Jackson.
R. Kelly is a stone cold, sadistic predator. He is motivated is to humiliate and control his victims completely. He has abused hundreds of girls and young women in plain sight. He has used the overtly sexual content of his music as a way to draw in adolescent girls. Kelly doesn’t care about who he hurts and has no affection or concern for his victims.
By contrast Michael Jackson was motivated by a need for closeness, bonding, and re-experiencing the magic of childhood that was denied to him by his abusive father. He demonstrated genuine affection for his victims and was concerned about their well-being in his own twisted way. Of course, none of that excuses his exploitation of their life force energy for his own ends.
If we want to protect kids, we need to recognize that abusers don’t all look and act the same and they don’t have the same motivations.
Misconception #5: All close relationships between children and non-blood relatives are inappropriate.
We all had that special auntie or uncle growing up who wasn’t actually related to us, but whose visits we always looked forward to. Neither one of my parents was a performing artist, so when I had the chance to connect with family friends who were actors and singers, I was thrilled.
It’s good for kids to have relationships with adults who are neither blood relations nor primary caregivers. A family friend who can spend time with your child doing something they’re interested in can give kids a well-rounded perspective on life and a sense that the world is bigger than what they see and experience at home.
The red flag with Michael Jackson wasn’t his interest in or bonding with kids, it was that his interest extended to being alone with them in places and at times when their parents had no control over the environment and no way of being in contact with them.
After Leaving Neverland and Surviving R Kelly we don’t need panic and hand wringing. We need compassionate, sober consideration of what will actually move the needle on preventing CSA:
- Setting appropriate boundaries about who can be around kids.
- Building parent-child relationships that make kids resilient to grooming and help kids process abuse experiences if they occur.
- Creating structures for non-offending pedophiles to receive social support so they can avoid molesting children.
A shocking one in four American girls and one in six American boys has been molested before their 18th birthday. Clearly what we’ve been doing isn’t working.
The public health implications of CSA are staggering, so we can no longer afford to avoid this conversation out of shame and discomfort like previous generations have done. Today’s kids are counting on us to make it better for them than it was for us.
Thanks for this article, it gave me some things to think about.
Any column about CSA that down’t mention incest is lacking. That is the context of most CSA. The focus on celebrity perps and clergy allows us to look past what’s happening far too often in our homes. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but one survivors and the people who try to help them recover know all too well.
That is an excellent point. I plan to write future articles on this subject and will absolutely bring up the role of incest.