Give the gift of knowledge to support your childs sexual health and safety

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 or in The Sex-Wise Parent.

Ever hear of an ephebophile? They are just like pedophiles, except they’re after teens!

The story of Brittni Colleps, a Texas school teacher charged with having sex with four students at her home, is a sickening example of a loss of discipline in the people and institutions to whom we entrust our children.

As upsetting as it is, this case can give parents the opportunity and motivation to make sure that their schools, and their children, are safe from type of sexual predator. And it is predation – even though the (alleged) victims were all over 18, they were students in Colleps’ school and we depend on that relationship to be friendly and professional, but not sexual.

Have a look at my checklist to determine if the ‘sexual climate’ in your child’s school might also allow this kind of behavior.

Sexual climate in this context is a variation of “school climate”, a concept used by scholars of educational administration to describe the “feel” of being is a specific school. While “school culture” refers to the rules, policies and procedures of a school district and is uniform throughout a school district, the climate can vary greatly from school to school, depending on the faculty, staff, students, or even factors like the design of a building. The sexual climate in a school where a teacher might be sexually involved with a number of students is clearly dangerous.

The Sandusky case and clergy scandals have placed a bright spotlight on pedophiles, adults who are sexually attracted to young children and eventually sexualize their trust and affection, generally leading to rape. The allegations against Brittny Colleps remind us that there is more than one type of sexual predator lusting after our kids.

Professionals use the term hebephile for someone with a preference for children just entering puberty and the term ephebophile to describe someone with an attraction to older adolescents. You don’t need to remember the names; you do need to understand that the need to know every adult who spends time with our kids does not end with elementary school.

An example of the destruction an ephebophile can leave in his path might be found in the story of Monica Lewinsky. Lewinsky was sexually involved with her high school drama teacher, a man described in a HBO special by other students in her school as a known predator. If kids know which teachers are predators, adults stand a chance of knowing as well. There are easy steps that any parent can take, including recognizing the prevalence of these relationships, maintaining open communication with a teen, and knowing every adult who spends alone-time with them. Then, consider talking with other parents to answer these questions.

Allegations like those against Brittni Colleps and the reports of convictions of teachers from schools all over the country remind us that sexual predators can be of any age or gender. If we read the report published by the US Department of Education — and I urge you to follow this link — Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature — you’ll see how common this behavior really is.

But if you’ll read my checklist you’ll see that there are steps a Sex-Wise Parent can take to ensure that the sexual climate of the schools serving their kids will promote sexual health and safety.


The Penn State endowment MUST create ‘real and permanent good’!

What’s the highest and best use of the fines being levied against Penn State?

Child serving agencies in the United States are in a tizzy anticipating the $60 million endowment from the Penn State fines. Public child welfare systems are notoriously underfunded in almost every state without a federal consent decree specifying how much the state must spend. Sadly, there is not a single state in this country with a child abuse prevention system serving every family and community who stands to benefit. There is sound reason for this anxious anticipation. But it must not drive the process.

Andrew Carnegie, a Pennsylvanian  widely credited as one of the fathers of American philanthropy spoke of philanthropy doing real and permanent good. Before Penn State obligates one dime, key stakeholders must engage in a rational strategic planning process and envision what ‘real and permanent good’ they might acheive.

The  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines strategic planning as a deliberate set of steps that:
•   assesses needs and resources;
•   defines a target audience and a set of goals and objectives;
•   plans and designs coordinated strategies with evidence of success;
•   logically connects these strategies to needs, assets, and desired outcomes; and
•   measures and evaluates the process and outcomes.

The second bullet point requires attention immediately. What basis will be used to determine how to distribute the resources among local and national organizations? Will the resources be split evenly among prevention, investigation, and treatment? Will resources be allocated for research into improving practices? Will a bona fide program evaluation be required for all grant recipients? What criteria will be used to determine if an agency has the administrative structure to administer the grant? What steps will be taken to ensure that these funds do not supplant an existing funding source?

I am not detached from this issue. I hold two degrees from Penn State. I am saddened beyond words at the allegations against Graham Spanier whose course I took as an undergraduate when he was a new professor in the College of Human Development. I have friends and colleagues living in State College, PA  who will feel the pain as the local economy bears the brunt of the sanctions. And, I have devoted my career, which began at Penn State, to working in the field of child sexual abuse. I now work with several agencies who could stand to benefit from these funds. This is up-close and personal for me.

Penn State officials must be unbiased, professional, strategic and well informed as they determine how they turn these funds into an endowment that reflects the best of our state. The questions I pose above, and others like them, must be carefully considered to generate answers reflecting the desire to create real and permanent good. Hungry advocates, posturing politicians and charities with great PR offering services lacking a theoretical basis should not be factors in their planning.

Let’s do this right, Penn State.

Penn State may not be the exception when it comes to sexual culture and climate

As the shock of the contents of the Freeh report settles in, this is a good time to remember that no single school has cornered the market  on being a risk to the sexual health and safety of students.    A  report  published  by the U.S. Department of Education says that various studies show that as many as 5 percent of kids report a sexual contact with a school employee sometime during their school experience.  I’ve written about this before, and I’ll keep writing about this until every single parent is prepared to consider and understand the sexual climate of their child’s school and every other institution where the child spends time.

Section 5414 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended required a study of sexual abuse in U.S. schools and the United States Department of Education contracted with Dr. Charol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University to complete a literature review and analysis. You can — and should — read the entire report entitled Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature .

Shakeshaft reviewed and critiqued dozens of studies on sexual abuse in schools and no matter how we slice and dice her results — even if she is off by a factor of 10 (which I totally doubt) her findings should make any parent stand up and take notice. Parents of young, prepubescent children need to be aware of the way pedophiles can ingratiate themselves into the life of your child and family, gaining trust then violating it in the most unimaginably devastating manner. Actually, now that we’ve read the Sandusky indictment and the Freeh report, it’s tragically not so unimaginable anymore.

By the time our kids become teens, we are less worried about pedophiles and more worried about stupid, manipulative adults of either gender. Many adolescents, particularly girls, appear to be a sexually mature adult years before their social, emotional and intellectual development catch up to their bodies. While many of us know about school-girl crushes that teens develop on adults, it’s also true that adults develop crushes on kids. Whether it’s the male teacher living out his mid-life crisis with a crush on a young girl, or the young, plain-jane teacher responding to her first experience of male adoration, there is a surprisingly large number of possibilities for indiscretions. And too many teachers are completely unprepared for this experience.

I devote a great deal of time to this issue in The Sex-Wise Parent.  I use Monica Lewinsky as an example since her experience with a predatory teacher seems to have played a role in her being sentenced to life as the punch line of a joke.  Every person who enjoyed a laugh at her expense should know that Monica learned to trade sex for status from one of her high school teachers.  Further, interviews aired on national TV make it clear that many people knew this teacher was a predator!

Whether we’re talking about Jerry Sandusky operating with impunity at Penn State or Monica’s teacher having his pick of the graduating seniors, the sexual climate is way off balance in many of the institutions serving our kids.  Parents need the tools and skills to understand; to open the discussion, see my checklist and check this site often for more information.


The double-edged sword of forgiveness

If I ever doubted the number of people who were sexually abused as a child, 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 his or her story.  Many have a lesson that I feel compelled to share and last week’s lesson was about the double edged sword of forgiveness.

A woman approached me to speak after a small event.    I had noticed her in the crowd because she had maintained steady eye contact with me throughout my remarks, often nodding in agreement as I spoke.

She thanked me for my voice on the topic of sex abuse prevention, and shared that she had been victimized as a young child after parents moved her family far from their extended family and sent her back every summer for an extended visit with her relatives.

Between the ages of 6  and 12 a member of her summer household  did what I can only describe as repeatedly rape 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. I can only 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?


It’s time to ask your children if they understand what the Sandusky case was about.

Just ask that question and listen quietly to the reply.

An adolescent may challenge you by demanding to know why you want to know. Answer calmly, sharing that this case focused on the ugliest possible aspect of sex and you want to be sure they have the whole picture.

Expect a younger child to reply with a shockingly incorrect understanding of sexual abuse; offer a gentle correction and consider a simpler version of the same answer suggested for adolescents. Explain that grown – up bodies are made for a special kind of touching that feels wonderful when shared by loving people, and that it’s very wrong for a grown – up to do this with a child.

Kids of all ages deserve accurate information on sexual anatomy and physiology. Adolescents needs to hear you explain that sexual response is a reflexive, autonomic response that the body does all by itself in response to a touch, a thought, a memory — even from reading something or watching it on the screen. Molesters know this and use this as a weapon against a child by convincing them that their physical response meant they ‘enjoyed’ the act. Use the words erections and climax — now is the time to show your kids that their sexual health and safety is important enough that you’re willing to go way out on a limb.

Share that girls experience sexual arousal with less obvious physical signs; in fact, many girls don’t have a name for that warm feeling they get in their lower abdomen or genitals. Because the sexual response is less obvious in girls, boys are more at risk of being tricked this way.

Little ones might ask why the victims didn’t tell. Share that they were scared, and that the bad guy convinced them that he was more powerful than their parents. Remind them that this is how bullies operate, by making a victim feel powerless. Hug your child and say that they will never be powerless because you can and will protect them, no matter what anyone says or does to try to convince them otherwise.

Remember that a parent’s job is to provide the tools to alleviate fear and obliterate ignorance. Everyone has fears and questions about sexuality, and this case may bring them out in your child. Your pediatrician, other professionals, and books like The Sex-Wise Parent are great tools.

If you and your child have never talked about sexuality in general and sexual anatomy in particular, this conversation needs to be the first of many, and this is a good opportunity to start.

Honor the uncounted victims of sex abuse with action

Everyone knows someone whose life has been touched by sexual victimization. Look at the published numbers—different studies suggest 70,000 kids each year, others suggest 90,000 kids each year, some say one out of 4 kids; others, one out of 6. Regardless of the source, the number of affected children is huge. These findings have become the rallying cries of advocates, and many professionals remind us that these reports are only the tip of the iceberg.

Frankly, I can’t stand the statistics about child sexual abuse. Besides the obvious differences in definitions and counting methods that make statisticians cringe, statistics dehumanize the unbearable pain caused to children and those who love them. More meaningful than any statistic is the sad truth that almost everybody knows someone who was sexually abused—a sad friend remembered from childhood, a college friend who confided why they have lousy relationships, someone you dated, a friend of your child’s. Far from the statistics we find stories like Sugar Ray Leonard, who was sexually abused by a boxing coach, or  actor Todd Bridges, molested as a child  by a publicist. Maybe you shudder remembering the touchy-feely coach,  the school bus driver who  grabbed  kids  on their way off the bus, the “over-affectionate” step parent, aunt or uncle, or  the seductive baby-sitter who taught ‘grown up games’.

The vivid testimony offered by the indomitable victims in the Sandusky trial is causing long buried memories to surface for millions of people. Whether you’re chatting with a colleague over coffee, or a neighbor waiting at the school bus stop with you to pick up the kids, consider the fact that old, buried memories are surfacing for millions right now. We must be sensitive to their pain, and our own. If words fail you at thie sound of thier memories,  just listen with empathy, love and support.

Then, use your anger and rage to propel you into action to make your community one where this never happens again. To help get started, see

Lesson from day 2 of the Sandusky trial: One victim wept, the other deadly calm

The most cunning predators choose a victim who can’t speak up.  The drug dealer robs a junkie who can’t call the cops; the hooker robs the john who doesn’t want to be caught. These scenarios describe victims who put themselves in precarious positions; they took a risk and  lost.  The only risk a child victim of a pedophile took was to accept the friendship of an adult and they find themselves  forced into a devastating silence that leaves scars as deep as the actual abuse.

The vastly different reaction of first two victims to testify the Sandusky trial show how individualized the effect of victimization can be. Fear, anger, and shame take their toll on developing psyches.  The horrifyingly confusing double messages about right and wrong wreak havoc on a budding personality.  Some victims bury their horror so deeply that internal walls come crumbling down when the secret is revealed; others act out in ways that we’ve come to recognize as cries for help.

The young men providing testimony are heroes.   They should be hailed as trailblazers, lighting the way for other victims to come forward and helping everyone to see the predators hiding in plain sight.     Lance Armstrong couldn’t have been thrilled at the thought of the entire world discussing his testicles;  he moved millions to action with his frank disclosure of testicular cancer.  We can and must show these brave young men taking the witness stand  the same admiration we show for celebrities who shed light on deadly diseases, paving the way for predators to be caught and other victims to rid themselves of the undeserved shame.

Today’s lesson from the Sandusky trial: How to ‘groom’ an entire community

Last night, I joined a community of adult survivors of abuse as a guest on Bill Murrays blog talk radio show   sponsored by the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse.  After presenting the point of view of the Sex-Wise Parent , I turned the tables and asked the panel of experts to share how the current and constant coverage of the Sandusky trail was affecting them.

” Watching the Sandusky case on the news is very triggering for me, many of the things he’s accused of doing to the boys was done  to me” replied one man who had been a long term victim of a pedophile as a child.  “His story is my story”.    “Do they have an instruction manual?”  asked another man only half  joking  “It’s as if they’ve studied the art of seducing a child and share the secrets of the trade with each other — the stories are just so similar!”

By now, only the most  sheltered among us have not heard about ‘grooming’ the term applied to the seduction process a pedophile uses to get close to a child, gradually moving from friendship, to affection, to physical affection to sex.  Thankfully, parents are learning to be vigilant for signs of grooming behavior from an adult directed towards their child; a special friendship, extra attention, excessive time alone without the parents or other adults present and other activities more appropriately  shared among peers rather than between adult and child.

Then, one of adult survivors made a comment that left me breathless:

“He not only groomed the kids, he groomed the whole community”

What an important insight!  How does one seduce an entire community?  Think of the attributes Americans typically apply to an upstanding citizen, and how they were allegedly bastardized by Sandusky;  charity (The Second Mile) and professional status (his position at Penn State) to name the two most obvious.  His good deeds brought  citations from a President and a US senator and  seem to have bought him enough good will that initial allegations were brushed off as impossible.

We’re all going to learn a lot of lessons as this trial progresses, and this is an important one to consider:  How does a pedophile groom an entire community?  Would we recognize the signs if we saw them?  Weigh in!

Use the news!

Imagine the drive to soccer practice; no sooner do you get your child to remove the earphones which seem permanently implanted in their ears then the radio announces the latest development in the clergy scandal or Sandusky case. Great, just what you had in mind!

But please, resist the urge to pretend you didn’t the newscaster. Take a deep breath, turn off the radio and ask your child their thoughts about what you just heard.

“That’s gross” is a likely reply. “I think so too” you could answer. “How much do you understand about what happened to the victims?”

Then listen to your child’s reply carefully. Depending on their age, they may understand exactly what sex abuse is, or have a terrible misconception. I recall one family I counseled years ago where the younger sibling of a victim mistook the word ‘rape’ for ‘rake’. She thought all of the family trauma was because someone hit her sister with a rake! Prompt your child with an age-appropriate version of a question such as “what do you think the bad guy did to the child?” Explain your questioning with an (also age-appropriate) version of a statement like “I want to make sure you understand so we can be a team working together to keep our family and friends safe.” That’s a little less threatening than saying “I want to keep you safe” but parents know their own kids and can judge  what they can be comfortable hearing.

Use this as an opportunity to tell your kids that people who sexually abuse children put their own  pleasure above the pain they cause children. Remind them that sometimes they dress it up like a friendship or a love relationship to confuse the child (or teen!). Remind them that anyone who wants to be sexual with a young person is selfish at best and a criminal at worse. And if your child protests the conversation, take the opportunity to remind them that being able to speak  with you about sex helps keep them healthy and being able to speak with you about sex abuse can help keep them safe.

Abusers count on the fact that kids don’t like to speak to their parents about sex, and you don’t want that to be true on your family.

So use the news —with the Sandusky trial starting in a few weeks and on-going clergy trials in many major media markets,  there will be plenty of opportunity!