When a Billings, Mont., judge justified his lax sentencing of a teacher who raped his 14-year-old student on the grounds that that the victim was “older than her chronological age” and "as much in control of the situation" as the teacher, he revealed the erroneous beliefs that continue to enable child sexual abuse in this country.
When the Washington Post, one of the nation’s most respected news sources, ran an opinion piece downplaying sexual relationships between high school students and their teachers, we saw a culture that fears a false accusation more than it fears ongoing sexual abuse. This is unacceptable.
Adults enable child sexual abuse when we excuse it. We do so out of fear or shame or even out of a kneejerk tendency to blame the victim. But a sitting U.S. judge should know better, and so should our capital’s paper of record. It’s time to end the culture of acceptance and create a culture of accountability that prevents sexual abuse in the first place.
Let me be clear: When an adult sexually abuses a child, it is never the child’s fault, and perpetrators must be held accountable for their actions. True justice for child sexual abuse victims requires all of us, and especially our public officials, to bring child sexual abuse out from behind closed doors. It requires us to worry more about a child suffering from sexual abuse than about our own embarrassment at looking into it. It requires us to make sure no victim of child sexual abuse is blamed for his or her own victimization. And it requires each and every adult to share in the collective responsibility to prevent abuse.
With each new case of child sexual abuse, we must ask ourselves how silence or inaction at a critical moment may have enabled the abuse. Instead of denying abuse, adults should try to preempt it: How can I ensure that the places where my children learn and play have put every precaution in place to protect the children in their care? How can I make sure that my workplace would not tolerate, excuse, or cover up child sexual abuse? How would I respond if I saw or suspected abuse? Once we develop and commit to policies and practices that prevent child sexual abuse, we can make our churches, schools, clubs, and sports fields safer places for children.
As adults, we must take the responsibility for proactively preventing child sexual abuse. In the Billings case, the offender had received a warning for touching or being alone with female students four years before he was convicted for the incident in question. Similarly, in Montgomery County, Md., a male teacher was convicted earlier this month of sexually abusing at least 14 students after fellow teachers had reported him for locking his classroom door with first-grade girls. Such prolonged inaction tells us already that adults have somehow become more afraid of wrongful accusations than they are of protecting a child from experiencing sexual abuse.
In her Aug. 30 Washington Post piece, Karasik argued that there is “a vast and extremely nuanced continuum of sexual interactions involving teachers and students, ranging from flirtation to mutual lust to harassment to predatory behavior.” This puts the responsibility on a 14-year-old girl to avoid—or accept—a grown man’s advances. We should not allow such gray-area thinking to confuse us about something that’s clearly black and white: We cannot and should not put on a 14-year-old girl the responsibility to avoid—or accept—the advances of an adult.
Of course, teaching children about “stranger danger” and appropriate boundaries are important lessons, but if we stop there we miss the fact that child sexual abuse is most often perpetrated by adults known and trusted by the child. We shouldn’t expect children to navigate these complex situations without support, and we must work to build a culture that stops putting that responsibility on children. Ultimately, the fault lies not with our children but with ourselves.
We must create solutions that focus on adult responsibility and that engage communities and institutions in ways that make real change possible. This means creating proactive—not reactive—programs that address societal taboos, help communities develop new policies and practices for keeping children safe, and empower every adult to help stop child sexual abuse before it starts. Facing our own complicity in child sexual abuse will require adult-sized courage, but I’m hopeful we will summon it on behalf of our children.
Natalie Sullivan is an Interim Program Officer, Safety for the Ms. Foundation for Women.