Dr. Rosenzweig appears on Brian Ross investigates, discussing how predators like Jeff Epstein can operate in plain sight, and what parents can do to protect their kids.
Millions of people were glued to the HBO documentary, Leaving Neverland, but many turned away. Some turned away because they believe these were false allegations, but others – particularly parents – turned away because they just could not emotionally handle the words of the young men describing how easy it was for a predator to seduce a child in front of their parents and the world.
This is understandable. Healthy people are wired to not think of children in a sexual way. But please don’t look away – it’s this aversion that gives predators cover. Find the courage to work through your discomfort and make talking about sexual health and safety an important part of your family life.
Here are basics that adults need to know:
- As Oprah Winfrey helped make so clear in the special that aired after Leaving Neverland, sex abuse does not always hurt! In fact, for many kids, being singled out by a high-status adult, receiving special attention, affection and gifts may be a highlight in their lives.
- Predators seduce victims through a gradual process of benign touch, progressing to touching of genitals, then to sexual acts.
- Many acts of sexual abuse do not cause physical pain — it does not feel like abuse.
- Some acts of sexual abuse cause physical pleasure, which can be extraordinarily confusing for a victim
Here are some basics that children need to know:
- There is a difference between privacy and secrecy – as kids mature, they earn the right to privacy, but children should NEVER keep secrets from their parents for more than a very short time (like knowing about a surprise party).
- Their genitals will feel good when touched in certain ways. Most kids figure this out for themselves when they discover masturbation. This feeling just means that their body is working right — it is NEVER to be confused with love at any age!
- Their parents are always there to help or answer questions.
- A grownup might look uncomfortable occasionally talking about sex, because they are used to sex being private.
- If a parent can’t answer a question immediately, they’ll find an answer and communicate it to the child in an age-appropriate way.
The level of detail will vary by age. If parents provide an emotionally safe space for discussion, the questions of their children can guide the topics and detail.
The phrase, “sexual abuse” is certainly correct from a legal and moral standpoint, but too often it lacks accuracy and confuses children. As young boys, the men interviewed in Leaving Neverland did not feel abused until much later in life. I’ve experienced adult women speaking to me after a workshop telling me that until they learned that day that sexual arousal was an autonomic reflex, they had always felt complicit in their abuse.
Child and adolescent victims lack knowledge and language to understand; but this knowledge and language is a gift all parents can give. It may help prevent your child from being entrapped or from feeling responsible if lightning strikes.
Janet Rosenzweig, MS, PhD, MPA, is the executive director of The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and the author of The Sex-Wise Parent and The Parent’s Guide to Talking About Sex: A Complete Guide to Raising (Sexually) Safe, Smart, and Healthy Children. For more information, read her blog and follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter.
The news that more than 300 Pennsylvania priests may have sexually abused more than 1,000 identifiable children during the last 70 years is shocking for the enormity of the accusation, but by now there have been enough of these tragic accusations against so many of our institutions that parents should be neither unaware of the risks to their children nor unwilling to confront those risks before their own child might be abused.
The grand jury indictments accuse the Catholic Church of covering up the abuse with criminal conspiracies of silence. Healthy institutions – and the family is the most basic institution of our society — need to break the silence about sexual health and safety, and there is never a better time than the present to do that.
Let’s start with a few basic ideas:
- Children should have medically accurate, age-appropriate facts about sexual anatomy and physiology. Little kids should know all the external parts; as kids age they need to know the internal parts and all kids need to know that sexual arousal is an autonomic reflex. Too many predators entrap kids by convincing a child they were not a victim because they became aroused. Parents can neutralize the pedophile’s devastating, all too-common tool with medically accurate information.
- Parents can open a conversation by reminding children that many people will put their own interests above that of someone else. Children may have already experienced that by being bullied or lied to or experiencing someone taking something of theirs. Abusing someone sexually is but one of the many ways people put their own feelings above those of another, and it’s one that can leave most damaging scars. Especially if faith plays a role in your family, you will want to address the difference between a person who espouses or teaches the words of your faith, and the meaning of those words. Widespread allegations of abuse = can challenge the faith of both child and family, and this is a good chance to draw a defining line between the meaning of your religion and the actions of the accused priests and the people who protected them.
- Focus on trust. Damage can cut the deepest when abuse is in the context of a trusted relationship. Pedophile priests are in our news now, but other trusted adults including physicians, educators, parental figures and coaches have been there too. Parents can support their children to trust their own instincts when something doesn’t seem right, and to trust that their parents will listen to them and support them when they share those concerns. I’ve heard stories from peers growing up in the 1960s whose parents smacked them for speaking ill of a priest when the child tried to tell about sexual abuse. I hope those days are long gone –children deserve better, and parents can do better.
Too many parents still feel uncomfortable talking to their children about sexuality, yet research shows that parents consistently underestimate the importance children place on their thoughts. Parents may feel as if they don’t know to what say, but other professionals and I can provide resources to help you. Information from the American Academy of Pediatrics, The Sex-Wise Parent books and website are but two of the places where you can find help. If you’re’ really uncomfortable, practice roleplaying with a friend, or ask your school or faith-based organization to schedule a parent workshop.
Our children deserve the very best from all the institutions designed to help bring them to healthy, productive adulthood. Parents can focus on their own children now, when headlines can be causing fear and confusion, but in the long term parents can focus on the policies, procedures and sexual climate of the institutions that serve their children.
Support for your children’s sexual health and safety must start at home and spread out into the community. Use this current spate of tragic stories to ensure there is no conspiracy of silence around sex in your home.
Dr. Janet Rosenzweig is the Executive Director of The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and the author of The Sex-Wise Parent and The Parent’s Guide to Talking About Sex: A Complete Guide to Raising (Sexually) Safe, Smart, and Healthy Children. For more information, read her blog , follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter or contact DrRosenzweig@sexwiseparent.com to schedule a program for your school or community group
In her recent interview with Matt Sandusky, Oprah Winfrey hit one of the toughest issues associated with child sexual abuse head-on.
Her interview with the man both victimized and adopted by former Penn State assistant football coach and convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky drove home this point: people must rid themselves of the notion that all sexual abuse hurts physically.
“It is part of my mission to expose sexual abuse for what it really is” said Winfrey, and her questioning of Matt Sandusky was one more step on that path.
As she did with former child actor Todd Bridges in 2010, she directed her questioning of Sandusky to reveal that sexual arousal and climax were part of the abuse.
“It’s very confusing, it’s very confusing to you because you … have a reaction,” Sandusky said, tearfully stumbling over his words. “It’s something that you definitely don’t know what’s happening, but that’s just what it is, I guess, I don’t want to say that it’s pleasurable, but it’s not the most painful thing I guess.”
Winfrey firmly told Sandusky that it is OK to say it’s pleasurable, “because it is. You don’t have the language to even explain what’s happening,” she said.
And therein lies one of the most compelling arguments for sexual education for children. We can neutralize one of the most powerful tools used by predators when we raise kids who truly understand that genital arousal in response to stimulation is as uncontrollable as getting goose bumps when they are tickled. There is no shame or mystery – that’s just how the body works. Parents are the best people to share this information with their kids in age–appropriate doses as they develop, and I believe that so strongly that I developed resources to help them. With practice and tools like these, it can be easier than it seems.
Oprah Winfrey shares my dedication to ensuring that people understand that involuntary physical sexual arousal is often an aspect of sexual victimization, and ignorance of this fact traps victims into confusion, shame and silence.
In April 2010, she asked Todd Bridges to read the section from his autobiography “Killing Willis” where he described his awful confusion from climaxing when molested. That show inspired me to bring a sex educator’s perspective to child sexual abuse prevention, write the Sex-Wise Parent and put resources at SexWiseParent.com. In 2012, I heard boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard speak at a Penn State conference on child sexual abuse; he said that hearing Todd Bridges acknowledge this physical reaction on national TV gave him the courage to speak out about his own victimization.
Sexual abuse of children takes many forms, each of them painful in its own awful way. We know that the majority of abuse is initiated by a person known to the child. In many of these situations, the abuser uses so-called ‘grooming’ techniques to seduce a child into compliance before the child knows what’s happening. Accurate information, lovingly shared by informed parents, can provide children an extra means of defense against fear, guilt and shame and provide a robust defense against sexual a most common type of sexual predator; those who shun physical violence in favor of inducing a physical reaction.
I will always thank Oprah Winfrey for using her platform to continue to share this very important message. Let’s honor that by helping families and communities provide accurate and honest information about sexuality. To paraphrase a pedophile I interviewed when writing the Sex-Wise Parent: “kids want to talk about sex and if their parents won’t do it, I will”.
No matter how much discipline we try to exert over our bodies, in some ways they’re just going to do what they’re going to do. We breathe, we have reflexes, when we’re scared our bodies make ready to fight or flee. And anyone who has ever diapered a boy baby has probably seen a tiny erection, a reflexive physical reaction.
It is absurd to think that a baby’s genital feelings are sexual — babies have no concept of sexuality and just naturally respond to anything that feels good. Human bodies are wired to react to many types of stimulation without conscious decision — like getting goose bumps, or blinking. These types of bodily responses, including physical arousal of the genitalia, are called autonomic responses. They are governed by the autonomic nervous system and not conscious choice.
What does this have to do with sexual health and safety?
Many popular sex abuse prevention programs focus on teaching kids about “good touch-bad touch”, but the words of one adult survivor of sexual abuse must be heard: “No one ever tells a child that a wrong touch might actually feel good!” In fact, molesters often count on a child not knowing this critical fact of life, and use a child’s physical response to convince him or her that they were a willing participant. Similarly, a young man who does not know that his arousal came directly from his own brain may choose to ‘blame’ his arousal on someone and attempt to coerce them to relieve it, an all too familiar story heard from sexually aggressive adolescents. Parents of young children have an opportunity to set a foundation for sexual health and safety by helping make sure their child understands how their genitals work.
Transmitting this message to kids can be as easy as doing nothing. Simply, a non-reaction to a baby handling their genitals gives the message that as parents we’ll treat all body parts equally. As babies become toddlers, we can set boundaries around genital play, focusing on privacy, much the same way as we present potty-training; there’s a time and place for everything. We can also begin to introduce the difference between privacy and secrecy; a child can learn that there are things she can do in private, but Mom and Dad need to know about them. Parents of toddlers can prepare to answer questions coming from a child who knows that he can ask his parents anything.
One mom interviewed for The Sex-wise Parent shared her total meltdown when her 3 1/2 year-old son asked, “Mommy, why does my winky get big sometimes?” Another expressed how hard she had to work not to reprimand her four-year-old daughter who loved to rub favorite toys on her genitals in the bath. Both of these parents were off to a good start by not punishing their child for talking about sex or pleasuring themselves, and both have an opportunity to do more.
A question about an erection can be answered with an age-appropriate version of this: “Sometimes our bodies do things all by themselves because of how they feel, like when you laugh if you’re tickled. Penises get bigger when they feel good, whether you told it to nor not.” The pre-school girl may be ready to hear, “I know it feels special when you rub your vagina, but don’t rub too hard; vaginas can get scratched too, like your knee did when you feel off your bike yesterday.”
Speaking like this to your child may feel odd at first; a great way to prepare is to practice with your spouse or a friend. Take turns thinking of the toughest question you fear hearing from a little one, then help each other craft short, clear answers. The more you say the words and phrases with a trusted friend or partner, the easier it will be to speak to your child with pleasant authority instead of discomfort.
Comfort, knowledge and language about the sexual parts of the body are crucial to the foundation of sexual health and safety for our kids. Children with knowledge and language are less appealing to molesters, who seek out kids lacking the tools to speak up. Children who know the fundamental difference between healthy privacy (“I can do it without Mom or Dad watching“) and secrecy (“Mom and Dad can’t know about this“) are less likely to be sworn to the silence that provides cover to people who sexually abuse children. And, if a child is touched inappropriately like thousands are each year, the knowledge that their body’s autonomic reaction doesn’t make them complicit and that there are no secrets from mom and dad will spare them the devastating confusion resulting from experiencing a physical response that they neither wanted nor expected.
Having those frank discussions about genitalia with your children while they’re still young enough to want your answers means they’ll be more likely to listen to you as they negotiate the turbulent teen years. Good luck!
This post was written for the Healthy Kids column at Philly.com, published 9/24/2013
A convicted child molester in Florida recently contacted a tv station to tell how he had succeeded in abusing two young girls in the same family over a two-year period, and several others in the same community.
It’s hard to say why he came forward now (you can read about it here), and it’s hard to know how much of his story is true, but I worked with pedophiles as a counselor early in my career and interviewed others researching my book for my book for parents, and his remarks certainly ring true to me.
He offers one lesson you can take to the bank: Earning the children’s trust was easy because “If they believe that you will listen to them they start asking you questions about the body and sex that they are afraid to talk to their parents and others about. That’s really how it got started.”
Most everybody is very careful about discussing body issues with their children, and why? Most parents would probably say they want to protect their kids from information that’s inappropriate or that they’re too young to handle. But these attempts to be careful are actually having the opposite effect.
I would argue that parents are really protecting themselves — needlessly — from starting a conversation that makes them uncomfortable to think about. But what we can see from this molester in Florida is that by protecting yourself you’re leaving a big open window through which a pedophile can grab your child. Or, as in this case, your children.
I don’t suggest you run around the house naked or make sex a part of every conversation. And you can’t do the job in one talk or in one day anymore than you can teach a child about love, respect and kindness in a week.
But if you don’t start the conversation, someone else might, and then your family could be in trouble.
The Sex-Wise Parent walks parents through the steps of raising sexually safe and healthy children. Sure, it takes a little doing. But they’re your kids, and they deserve it.
And if you don’t teach them what every kid wants and needs to know about their bodies, you never can tell who will.
Myth or fact? Sexual abuse is less harmful to boys than girls.
When we teach adults how to protect children from child sexual abuse, we start with “Learn the facts.” Here’s the first fact: The long term consequences for victims of child sexual abuse are nearly identical regardless of gender, according to a number of recent studies.
Our societal perception frequently does not recognize this when it comes to women abusing boys. In this regard, a very important discussion was presented in a recent Statesman article between the Ada County prosecutor and the judge in a case regarding the abuse of eight teenage boys by a 35-year-old mother in Kuna.
According to the article, the judge disagreed with the prosecutor, who argued that female perpetrators are “treated more leniently than men and that boys (abused by women) are somehow considered ‘lucky.'” The judge concluded that “there is a difference” between boys abused by women and girls abused by men. “I have a problem articulating what the difference is,” he said.
Unfortunately, this perception that there is a difference can lead to irreparable harm for male victims. According to the authors of an authoritative study reported in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, sexual abuse significantly increases the risk of developing health and social problems – such as drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, and marital strife – in both men and women. A history of suicide attempts was more than twice as likely among both male and female victims as among non-victims.
For boys abused by women there is also much social stigma and confusion associated with telling anyone about the abuse. According to Dr. Janet Rosenzweig in her excellent book, “The Sex-Wise Parent,” “because sexual arousal is autonomic and a relatively easy response to elicit from an adolescent male, a boy may think he chose to engage in a sexual act, simply because of the physical response.” Lost to him is the idea that sex requires mutual consent that is both intellectual and emotional.
In the case reported in the Statesman, the perpetrator was punished and the boys were able to tell their stories. Too often that is not the case. Unrecognized and unexamined the effects of abuse will shape the adults they become in unhealthy ways and make it difficult for them to have healthy relationships and build strong families.
As Rosenzweig reports, “The earliest sexual experiences often form the foundation for lifelong associations with sexual behavior. These boys may now have sexuality strongly associated with emotions other than love, respect and affection which are the foundations of building a strong family.”
And here’s the last fact: We know that one in six boys is sexually abused by the time he is 18. It is up to adults to stop it now. We can start by recognizing that our boys are damaged when more powerful adults abuse their position for their own gratification.
Roger Sherman is the executive director of Idaho Children’s Trust Fund the state affiliate of Prevent Child Abuse America.
Parents are the strongest influence on their children’s decisions about sex and sexuality, yet most parents underestimate their own power. A major national survey reported in 2010 that 46 percent of teens continue to say that parents most influence their decisions about sex, while just 20 percent say friends most influence their decisions. At the same time, parents overestimate the influence media and friends have on their children’s decisions about sex and underestimate their own.
The same study tells us that 88 percent of parents agree with the statement that “parents believe they should talk to their kids about sex but often don’t know what to say, how to say it, or when to start.” (Albert 2010) It’s easy to see why:They were raised in the era I’ve dubbed “The Neutered Nineties”. That’s when we traded rational discussion about sexuality for Megan’s Laws and sex offender registries, in the name of ‘prevention.’ It’s when cash-strapped school districts had to teach abstinence-only topics or lose federal funding. And when answering a question about masturbation at an AIDS conference got the U.S. surgeon general fired. Too many adults stopped talking to kids about sex. Qualified professionals went quiet and left a vacuum too easily filled by people who sexually offend.
Accurate and age-appropriate information about sex all but disappeared from most professional work in child sexual abuse, and it’s time to put it back.
Where to start? With two critical messages for our children:
They need to know accurate names for all their body parts; and
They need to understand that physical sexual arousal is an autonomic response — like getting goosebumps when tickled.
One now-grown female victim of child sexual abuse I interviewed for The Sex-Wise Parent told me that good touch-bad touch programs can actually be dangerous to a victim because sometimes the touch actually feels good! Further, men who were victims of sexual abuse report that the confusion resulting from a climax is one of the most difficult issues resolve.
People who sexually offend exploit children’s guilt and their lack of knowledge related to sexuality often try to convince them that they must have actually enjoyed the abuse because of a physical response over which they have no control. Understanding sexual response is important for boys and girls — people who prey on teen-aged girls exploit the fact that very few girls understand that their physical response to a sexual thought, feeling or touch has absolutely nothing to do with love.
Language and knowledge that parents equip children with are a defense against abuse. Raising a child who knows the parts of his or her body, and knows that it’s safe to tell parents or a trusted adult if they have been touched, can prevent their victimization and probably other children’s, too. And, if abuse occurs, harm may be mitigated if the child understands their body’s response.
For parents who need support as they heed the advice to ‘talk early-talk often,’ I suggest practicing with friends and getting used to using sexual terms without discomfort. Take turns role-playing, asking each other the kinds of questions you fear getting from your children. Watch this video for ideas and encouragement. This may not be easy at first, but the reward can be lifelong — a sexually safe and healthy child!
Pubished by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center at http://www.nsvrc.org/blogs/saam/sex-wise-parents-can-raise-sexually-safer-and-healthier-kids
If I ever doubted the number of people who were sexually abused as a child, my current work promoting my book, The Sex-Wise Parent has brought me right back to sad reality. I have yet to leave an event without at least one survivor sharing their story. Many have a lesson that I feel compelled to share and last week’s lesson was about the double edged sword of forgiveness.
After one event a woman approached me to speak. I had noticed her in the crowd; the entire time I while I had been speaking, she the maintained steady eye contact, often nodding in agreement with my statements.
She thanked me for my voice on the topic of sex abuse prevention, and shared that she had been victimized as a young child. Her parents moved her family far from their family of origin and sent her back every summer for an extended visit with her relatives.
Between the ages of 6 to 12 a member of her summer household raped her at his convenience. She quietly and calmly described her terror of using the bathroom or bathing, because she knew that being undressed made her more vulnerable. She had no one to tell in her summer home, and no words to tell her parents when she returned home.
The abuse ended decades ago when the rapist got old enough to leave the household. My informant shared that she was much loved by her parents and found solace in her religion. She shared that through grace and hard work with a therapist she forgave the abuser and went on with her life. She told me that if they were both at the same family event, no one would know what he’d done to her. She seemed calm and at peace with her ability to move on and maintain the peace within her extended family.
Until I asked how she knew that other children were safe.
She was taken off guard by my question, thought for a minute then replied that he only did it to her. I tried to be gentle with my reminder that most predators have multiple victims and she just said “no, no.”
It is highly unlikely that I will ever see this woman again and I don’t know the decision she will make, but I hope she was able to take some steps to make sure a predator is not terrorizing children. If this were your friend, would you ask them to trade their family’s peace for the potential of saving a child?
A few weeks ago I heard Sherri Sheppard, one of the hosts on The View, wondering out loud what to tell her very young son who had apparently just discovered that rubbing lotion on his genitals felt good.
What an opportunity this presented! Parents can use age-appropriate words to tell a child that their genitals are special places that bring special feelings. These special feelings are for the child to have all by him/herself, and enjoy in private. The conversation can end with “do you have any questions about that?” and the parent can smile, knowing that they’d just cemented one brick into the foundation of sexual health and safety.
There is no more important ‘fact of life’ for a child or teen to understand that this one: Just because their body responds in a reflexive way to stimulation of some kind — even when that response feels good in a lot of ways — does not mean that they ‘wanted’ the act to occur. Nor does it mean they have any emotional tie to another person who may have shared or initiated the act; predators bank on your child not knowing that. Too many adults recall guilt and shame from their own innocent touch, a totally unnecessary roadblock on the road the sexual health and safety.
Here’s a sample of the protection you and your child receive from this simple shared understanding:
• Protection from the pedophile who believes that once he gets a child to orgasm, the child will be hooked into the relationship.
• Protection from the predatory high school teacher counting on the fact that adolescents can’t distinguish lust from love.
• Protection from the fear and self-doubt that comes from thinking your body is abnormal.
After decades working with child sexual abuse there is no question in my mind that sexual predators prey on a child’s innocence and ignorance. And, from working with parents, I know that many parents think these words are synonymous, that is, when we replace ignorance with knowledge we somehow threaten our child’s innocence. It’s time to get over that misconception.
When you provide accurate information in a loving and age-appropriate way, you create a foundation for your child’s sexual health and safety. Among the most urgent things that a parent must teach their child is the medical fact that sexual arousal is an autonomic, reflexive physical response to stimulation.
Ignorance about sexual health and development can lead to many painful experiences; the girl who thinks she is dying of cancer when her genitals start to bleed, or the boy who believes his penis is malfunctioning because he has nocturnal emissions. We can and must alleviate this pain. Knowledge about sexual health and development can bring safety, confidence and ultimately joy.
I urge parents to become sex-wise, find the courage to be uncomfortable, and step up not only to protect your child from danger but to make it possible for him or her to ultimately grow into healthy, fulfilling relationships. Give your child the gift of knowledge. Find help at www.SexWiseParent.com or in The Sex-Wise Parent. http://www.amazon.com/dp/1616085096