A Lesson in Sexual Abuse Prevention from Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Matt Sandusky

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”.


Create a winning team for safety in youth sports — with parents!

Create a winning team for safety in youth sports — with parents!

Fall means soccer, winter brings basketball, and then finally we get to play baseball; so go the seasons of childhood. As parents, we idealize the gifts that youth sports can bring to kids such as improving physical fitness, learning about teamwork, and experiencing the thrill of victory. But the Sandusky tragedy reminds us that even people who seem to have our kids’ best interests at heart may not.

Parental involvement with kids’ sports has always been beneficial to family relationships and children’s self-esteem. Now we’re reminded that child safety is also enhanced by the presence of a parent or other observant adult at practices and games. A convicted pedophile that I interviewed for The Sex-Wise Parent told me that “nothing makes a child less attractive than having his parent around all the time.” Most of us can’t be around all the time, but we can take steps to ensure that there is always one adult with eyes on your child.

Many youth sports teams have specific volunteer or required roles to help the team operate like “snack parent” or “equipment parent.” As the next team season approaches, think about collaborating with other parents to develop a rotating schedule for a “stand parent”, an adult to attend each game or practice to watch over and cheer for each player.

The organization Safe for Athletes was founded by a former Olympian who endured sexual abuse and harassment during her career as an elite, youthful athlete. Safe for Athletes goes a step farther and encourages leagues to appoint an Athlete Welfare Advocate, a “designated adult any athlete can contact with concerns about any coach, volunteer, other athlete or anyone making them uncomfortable in their role as an athlete.”

 This type of advocate may have an important role in highly competitive sports organizations such as those preparing elite athletes for national competitions. Properly screened and trained, such advocates could be a lifeline for kids dealing with a coach who exhibits any harmful behavior, including sexual abuse. Less formal organizations should still consider a strategy to enhance parental involvement for child safety, and this should be on the agenda of a pre-season parent meeting.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the organization that brought missing children to the forefront of the American consciousness several decades ago, recently developed an initiative named Safe to Compete providing resources to help youth-sports organizations protect child athletes from sexual abuse. Their resource page contains links to sample policies and procedures for youth and athletic organizations, and I hope parents share this with other parents and league administrators. But policies are never foolproof, and there is no substitute for an adult with set of loving, watchful eyes.

When the schedule for the next season arrives in your email, switch right over to your calendar and block off time for a pre-season parent meeting and for as many games and practices as possible. The fresh air will be good for you and your presence can be a gift to all of the children on the team.


I recently  presented on this topic at the 2014 National Soccer Coaches Association of America/US Youth Soccer Convention  Philadelphia.


The benefit of Paterno’s hindsight: lessons for parents!

If you’ve been paying attention to the child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State, you know that a report commissioned by Joe Paterno’s family calls into question several elements of the Louis Freeh report of last year that implicated Paterno in failing to do anything about Sandusky.  Paterno’s widow, Sue, went on Katie Couric’s television show Monday and  when Couric asked her reaction to Joe’s statement that “he wished he’d done more”  Sue Paterno quickly reminded Katie  that the full quote was, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I’d done more.”

Now we all have the benefit of hindsight and no matter which report we favor, there’s one thing that’s certainly true — children were abused by a predator who knew how to seduce them  then hide in plain sight.

If you’re a parent, grandparent or anyone else responsible for young children, the benefit of hindsight lies in the action you can take now to prevent such a tragedy from  happening to your family. First and foremost, you need to get comfortable talking with children about sex, and giving them the tools to talk about it, in their own way, with you.

What? you say, “Talk to a 6-year-old about sex!?”  Actually, you can, and with a little practice it’s easy.  Any child who understands that they can get goose bumps from being tickled is ready to comprehend that sexual arousal is an autonomic response to stimulus. “Sometimes, a penis just does what it feels like whether we mean it to or not”. Once a boy understands this, we remove one of a pedophile’s most important weapons; a skilled pedophile in the process of seducing a young boy goes to great lengths to ensure that the child experiences physical arousal.  Any boy who does not know that his body is wired to respond to stimuli whether he wants it to or not is vulnerable to the lies of a predator.   Pedophiles I interviewed for The Sex-Wise Parent confirmed that they use a boy’s autonomic response as a tool to gain compliance.  “How can it be bad when it feels good?” they ask, and the uninformed child has no answer.  Girls are certainly not immune; while their physical response is less obvious, unexplained autonomic arousal leaves teenage girls who mistake lust for love vulnerable to predatory adult men.

Hindsight teaches us that almost as important as developing communication skills is developing the ability to suspend disbelief. There are some dangers we can’t anticipate; institutions we find almost impossible to distrust. A priest raping a child? Impossible! Rape in our shower? Beyond incomprehensible! Putting our children in the hands of a pedophile at a charity dedicated to improving the lives of kids? Can’t happen!

But it did, and it can, and it will again in places we can’t imagine. So remember that your best defense is your child’s ability to say, “Mommy, when my (teacher, coach, babysitter) touched my pee pee and it got big (warm, hard, tickly), he said that was our special game, is that Ok?”

No parent ever wants to be in the awful position that left Joe Paterno saying “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I’d done more”   Do it now!

Find help for parents at www.SexWiseParent.com

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.


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 http://bit.ly/LP4C4E.

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!