Talking through complexities

Posted: June 25, 2012

As the child-sex-abuse trials involving Pennsylvania State University and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia progressed, revelations of abuse were surfacing regularly in cities across the country. As a parent, I want to protect my child, perhaps with constant surveillance, from the predators out there. But as a sociologist, I know at least two things:

First, constant surveillance is not possible, and not necessarily positive. Second, when this many people betray the trust of children, the problem probably has multiple causes, is structural, and deserves a public and thoughtful response beyond punishment only.

The problem of sexual abuse against children is made worse by the paradox that it is both invisible and hyper-visible: invisible because children are usually abused in the absence of other adults and with threats if they reveal their abusers; hyper-visible because the porn market, including child pornography, is robust and the sexualization of children is evident everywhere.

As a parent, I'm tempted to characterize abusers as monsters, but as a sociologist, I know that adults who abuse children have likely undergone a trauma themselves. I also know that the desire to act inappropriately is not always carried out, and that understanding where the desire comes from can be crucial to curbing it.

Observations from clinical psychology indicate that people who endure trauma are sometimes drawn to re-create it, hoping with each reenactment to resolve it or break free from its spell. Exploring the trauma through talk — from psychotherapy to co-counseling to 12-step programs — is a proven alternative to letting the trauma drive one's behavior. People battling these feelings need to know that it is better to seek help than to remain hidden. And the help works.

Although we have reached a legal consensus that adults should not have sex with children, we need to develop a social consensus. We must start by having conversations with one another. Put it on the agenda in the places where you spend time — your book club, community center, place of worship. Let your neighbors, coworkers, and parishioners know that we need to start talking about teaching children what their rights are so they can stand up for themselves or call for help. Let your state and federal representatives know we need programs and mental-health treatment for those who have been traumatized so they don't traumatize others.

These conversations will be difficult, not only because most of us are uncomfortable talking about sex, but because sex and power are fused in our culture. Many people find sexual excitement in either giving in to or conquering another. But abuse is not harmless fantasy: It is repeated, intimate, shameful, and nonconsensual. One participant has an advantage over the other, and it often feels inescapable.

What's the good news? Survivors of abuse who have loving family and friends, and good counseling, can and do emerge from abusive experiences emotionally intact and able to thrive in relationships.

Doing nothing is not an option. The best way to ensure that children do not remain silent when an adult in their midst transgresses boundaries is to make sure they learn about their bodies, their rights, and where to turn if they're in trouble or just need to talk.

Being a sociologist has taught me how complicated life is. Being a parent has given me the courage to face its complexity. If not now, when? If not us, who?

E-mail Sarah Willie-LeBreton at swillie1@swarthmore.edu.

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