Browsing Google Scholar for topics to write about for the final paper of my Intro. to Women’s Studies class, I stumbled upon an article about the rise of childhood sexual innocence in the late 20th century, which led me to come up with this topic. I considered submitting this for publication in my school’s undergraduate journal, but seeing as I had many more months to wait and this is a topic that may even make a difference within that time period (and I will probably be writing many more papers I could submit), I have decided to publish this on here. Even when announcing on social media about the progress of writing this paper, people were grateful that I had decided to cover this topic. Whether or not this is a reality they have had to deal with, or one you, the reader, has gone through, it is my hope that shifting dialogue about child sexual abuse from the misleading “stranger danger” to where most of this abuse happens (in the home) leads to productive cultural shifts pertaining to sex education, our best means of prevention or intervention.

Introduction

Before the 1980s, viewing children as “seductive” and “flirtatious” was common, even in academic literature (Angelides, 2004a). It was not until the 1980s when “the confluence of feminist anti-rape and anti-pornography movements and the New Right blacklash against the sexual excesses of the sexual and gay revolutions (Angelides, 2004a, p. 89) influenced the views of childhood sexual innocence in the United States. Because of the rising awareness of child sexual abuse, the child protection lobby and feminists worked together to address the problem in the 1970s, although the “patriarchal ruse” of stranger danger took attention away from the fact that male perpetrators of child sexual assault are more likely to be male relatives and acquaintances (Angelides, 2004b).

In recent years, while there have been sensationalized accounts of parents neglecting their children by leaving them in parks and being criminally charged for doing so, etc., the Free-Range Kids movement has taken off, emphasizing that the fears of pedophiles and other dangerous people attacking and abducting children are of very low probability (Widdicombe, 2015). With free-range parents, it seems they have to worry more about getting in trouble with the police and Child Protective Services rather than having their child encounter a dangerous situation. Children’s television shows like Hey Arnold!, where the children roam around the city unsupervised, represent a nearly-forgotten past. By receiving guidance and instruction on how to behave in the real world, children are able to how to approach and react to different encounters, instead of being sheltered into believing certain risks do not exist. By diminishing the hysteria around children traveling unaccompanied, we can better focus on where child sexual assault actually happens and how we can teach people about responding to cases, whether they are witnesses, onlookers, or victims.

Pretending that children are nonsexual beings does not protect them from sexual assault. It may even allow for assault to happen because the child is not aware of what the perpetrator is doing. Children could sexually explore each other because they do not entirely know what they are engaging in. Just as we should not dismiss children as being sexually innocent, neither should we go back to where children were seen as “flirtatious” and “seductive” as a means of justifying sexual assault. Balanced sex education in the home and by professionals can see to that children, and into adulthood, can take it unto themselves to learn about sexual behavior so that they are able to circumvent hostile situations and practice healthy sexual conduct.

Analysis

I found myself interested in both sides of pedophilia within the last year. Because of the internet, accounts of what it is like to be a pedophile (both those who have never acted upon it and those who have) can be found in online articles and on forums. Most media attention around pedophiles seems to center on the criminalization of it and how to protect your child from being abducted or approached online. Within my own online circles, I have encountered stories from friends and acquaintances about how they came to find feminism – through wanting to educate themselves on why they had to experience sexual assault at a young age. Through pure luck, I had never been in that situation.

The problem with discussing pedophilia is that it is too specific a term to talk about child sexual abuse in general – people can be child molesters without being pedophiles, and without the older middle-class white man stereotype that comes to mind, such as when young women or even children become sexually abusive (Hall, 2007). Learning about this topic is akin to learning about serial killers and other topics most people do not encounter (or share) in their everyday lives. Instead of presenting the subject as exotic, strange, or unlikely to happen, it needs to be thoroughly studied and openly discussed. There are a number of ways to go about this, none of them being a small task. Approaching cultural interventions so that acknowledgement and education towards child sexuality becomes not just acceptable, but expected is one such way.

As Steven Angelides (2004ab) notes, there is no dismissing the fact that children possess sexual feelings of their own, whether it be exhibited through curiosity or exploration. In Sweden, Larssen (2001) reported studies on the “normal” sexual behaviors of children, from preschool age to young adults, with one that compared a preschooler sample to a sample in the United States. Despite some cultural differences that were observed with the Sweden-US samples, many observations in these studies could be applied to other countries, including the US. It is at least good to know that these potentials exist. Solitary experiences, mutual sexual activities, as well as non-consentual sexual activities were common before adolescence according to self-reports from students.

From a collection of literature dating from 1980 to 2011, research in sub-Saharan Africa provides some information on parent-to-child sexual communication (Bastien, Kajula, & Muhwezi, 2011). Despite a scanty amount of studies and reviews in this region, many inferences and theories can be gathered from what has been recorded. Sexual knowledge is generally important to be aware of, and HIV prevention, as prevalent as it is, is especially. The problems that were encountered were the lack of knowledge by educators, the “authoritarian” and “vague” warnings, as well as cultural taboos. Young people tended to learn more about sexual socialization through other influential family members, such as aunts. While more research needs to be conducted and more peer reviews on literature that already exists, from what was found, sexuality communication within families produced positive results. While more research has been conducted in the US than sub-Saharan Africa on this topic, learning from the studies in this region may help with further understanding and be applied to the variety of sub-cultures that exist in the US.

In a review of academic literature from 1980 to 2002, Dilorio, Pluhar, and Belcher (2003) found enough research to reasonably conclude that the communication between families and children shaped how children approached sexual decisions in adolescence, particularly in relation to HIV/AIDS risk behaviors. Parent-centric ecodevelopmental interventions, in particular, have been shown to be effective in adolescents developing safer sexual behaviors and diminishing HIV risk behaviors (Perrino, Gonzalez-Soldevilla, Pantin, & Szapocznik, 2000). Good family relations and open communication are a few factors that demonstrate such preventative measures.

What numerous studies on parent-to-child sexual communication have found is that women were more likely to talk with their daughters and men were more likely to talk with their sons, and parents tend to talk more with children about it as they grow older, although “age-appropriate” or developmental subjects were sometimes discussed with younger children (Pluhar, Dilorio, & McCarty, 2007). There are quite a few issues that stand out with these reported conversations. Even if communication happens at a young age, the preference for a parent, guardian, or other relative to speak with a child of the same gender can be problematic in that the child receives a gender-centric education, which could leave out important details in order to understand perspectives from other genders. For an example in contemporary times, a boy who does not communicate with a trusted female adult may not fully understand what underlies sexual consent and why it is important. Learning how a body develops, including sexually, is necessary for a child to understand, but that is not the only form of sex education that can be learned. Safe sex, consent, and sexual assault awareness are important matters that can and should be covered.

The majority of parents surveyed in a 2004 study (Thomas, Flaherty, & Binns) expressed approval in pediatricians discussing normal sexuality (98%) and sexual abuse prevention (96%) with their children. The parents had relayed that only 45% of their pediatricians had talked about normal sexuality and 29% discussed sexual abuse prevention. Pediatricians express not covering these topics as much for fear that they will come across badly to the parents. Estimations that 25% of females and 10% of males have been sexually abused as children create a greater need for communication about sexuality. The importances of having an increasing number of professionals (pediatricians, teachers, etc.) present sex education to children is that it reinforces the retaining of subject matter (especially if it is talked about in the home as well), the children can receive more formal knowledge, and since child sexual abuse is more likely to happen within the family, the realization of these circumstances can be communicated by the child to a trusted adult.

Conclusion

From wanting to protect children from sexual assault, the US established a culture in the 1980s that revolved around stranger danger and portraying the child as an innocent being, devoid of sexual behaviors. As a result, narrow to no sex education at a young age has been prevalent in the US, leaving most children with very little to no awareness of what sexual abuse is, or giving the misrepresented idea that it only happens outside of the family, with strangers, or when going about without parent supervision.

Just as this stranger danger mindset needs to die out, emphasis needs to be placed on proper sex education, which includes learning about sexual abuse. Without the abandonment of paranoid helicopter-parenting for a child capable of acting on their own without supervision, attention will continue to be drawn away from where the majority of sexual abuse happens – in the home. If adults, including parents and pediatricians, are able to have open communication with children about sexuality – understanding consent, how bodies develop, and when to recognize sexual abuse – perpetrators (including unknowing), witnesses, and victims can prevent and report instances of child sexual abuse, and practice healthy sexual behaviors.

 

References

1) Angelides, Steven (2004). “Historicizing Affect, Psychoanalyzing History.” Journal of Homosexuality, 46. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1300/J082v46n01_02

2) Angelides, Steven (2004). Feminism, Child Sexual Abuse, and the Erasure of Child Sexuality. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 10(2). Retrieved from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_lesbian_and_gay_studies/v010/10.2angelides.html

3) Widdicombe (2015). “Mother May I?” The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1300/J082v46n01_02

4) Hall, Ryan C.W., and Richard C.W. Hall (2007). A Profile of Pedophilia: Definition, Characteristics of Offenders, Recidivism, Treatment Outcomes, and Forensic Issues. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 82(4). Retrieved from: http://www.drryanhall.com/Articles/pedophiles.pdf

5) Larsson, Ingbeth (2001). Children and sexuality: “Normal” sexual behavior and experiences in childhood [Abstract]. Linkoping University Medical Dissertations, 689. Retrieved from http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf;jsessionid=zPykuHdp-A219r4RBUTgXbgtClGK134vm9tNoo2f.diva2-search7-vm?pid=diva2%3A249406&dswid=7447

6) Bastien, S. LJ Kajula, and WW Muhwezi (2011). A review of studies of parent-child communication about sexuality and HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Reproductive Health, 8(25). Retrieved from http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1742-4755-8-25.pdf

7) Dilorio, Colleen, Erika Pluhar, and Lisa Belcher (2003). Parent-Child Communication About Sexuality [Abstract]. Journal of HIV/AIDS Prevention & Education for Adolescents & Children, 5(3-4). Retrieved from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J129v05n03_02#.Vb5GS87zS6Q

8) Perrino, Tatiana, Alina Gonzalez-Soldevilla, Hilda Pantin, and Jose Szapocznik (2000). The Role of Families in Adolescent HIV Prevention: A Review. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 3(2). Retrieved from http://download.springer.com/static/pdf/731/art%253A10.1023%252FA%253A1009571518900.pdf?originUrl=http%3A%2F%2Flink.springer.com%2Farticle%2F10.1023%2FA%3A1009571518900&token2=exp=1438533448~acl=%2Fstatic%2Fpdf%2F731%2Fart%25253A10.1023%25252FA%25253A1009571518900.pdf%3ForiginUrl%3Dhttp%253A%252F%252Flink.springer.com%252Farticle%252F10.1023%252FA%253A1009571518900*~hmac=1d9798034bf5e1c584a73dee1f11b35a9be5a83d8cb4f1037c9c12766650cdeb

9) Pluhar, E.I., C.K. Dilorio, and F. McCarty (2007). “Correlates of sexuality communication among mothers and 6-12-year-old children.” Child: Care, Health, & Development, 34 (3). Retrieved from http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=8649bcdd-942b-4e62-853a-d52b9a7547a4%40sessionmgr115&vid=1&hid=125

10) Thomas, Danny, Emalee Flaherty, Helen Binns (2004). Parent Expectations and Comfort With Discussion of Normal Childhood Sexuality and Sexual Abuse Prevention During Office Visits. Ambulatory Pediatrics, 4(3). Retrieved from http://ac.els-cdn.com/S1530156705603000/1-s2.0-S1530156705603000-main.pdf?_tid=ae5d0186-3933-11e5-aef7-00000aacb35f&acdnat=1438533163_2cc293c985e416c58eafc44875586c9c