Double Take: Communication needed to help prevent children from being victimized

Wes: The presence of registered sex offenders in our neighborhoods has produced some anxiety lately. Unfortunately, a registry does not scratch the surface of actual offenders living among us, nor can it express any given registrant’s actual risk to our kids. This week, we’ll discuss better ways to protect young people from being victimized and from victimizing others. At the core of this discussion is open, frank and relaxed communication, good supervision for younger teens and children, and personal safety awareness for older teens. I’ll begin with some guidelines for communication:

  • Understand and convey the actual nature of the threat. In discussing sex abuse, it is vital to avoid conveying stereotypes or myths. There is no profile to pick an offender out of a crowd, and excess attention to lurking “dirty old men” distracts from more probable threats. Most offenders are the siblings, parents, stepparents, clergy persons, family friends, boyfriends, etc., of the victim and they are usually trusted implicitly. This is how they are able to offend, since most offenders lure victims rather than forcing or coercing them. This is called “grooming.” Men are not the only offenders, and girls are not the only victims, as the string of teacher/student sex abuse cases in the last few years has proven.
  • Explain sex abuse. Beginning at a young age, parents should clarify precisely what constitutes sexual mistreatment, what to do if one is mistreated and why victims are not to blame for the offense. This discussion should evolve as the child ages and has a better idea of what sex should and should not be about. Parents might read a “good-touch, bad-touch” book to younger kids and then continue with occasional more mature talks later.

Recent news stories offer more than enough stimulus for these discussions as we try to put such acts into context for our kids. Specify that any person — parents included — who touches the child in specific ways and without a valid purpose should be asked to stop. If they do not, the child should learn to make a commotion, state the intent to tell another adult and get out of the situation. Believe it or not, most of the cases I have seen would have benefited from this simple advice, which was never given.

  • Show a calm and conversational manner. One must help children protect themselves without creating paranoia. Being laid-back and non-anxious encourages the child to feel comfortable sharing with you or another adult if the need should ever arise. Kids have enough anxiety these days, so they must not believe that at any moment they will be snatched away and sexually abused. The threat must be presented as real but manageable through honest disclosure. Adults must be seen as safe, confident and comfortable with the topic. I like to end such conversations with an upbeat statement of support, such as, “Don’t worry. No matter what happens in life, we get through it together.”
  • Explain sex offending versus positive sexual conduct. I find parents are much more comfortable discussing how to avoid or respond to victimization than discussing what it means to be an offender. In fact, in most of the juvenile sex abuse cases I have seen in 13 years, no parents have thought to sit down with their teen or pre-teen and simply say, “You should never touch someone in this way, or say things like this to someone.”

Setting good sexual rules should also start at a very young age, without shaming or punishing a child engaged in normal but inappropriate sex play. As the child ages, both moral values of sexual propriety and legal requirements should be discussed. For example, having sex before 16 may be common and consensual, but it also can land an older boy or girl in legal jeopardy. A clear and emphatic explanation of what it means to “consent” to sex is vital as well. Children, early teens, drunk people of any age, people who are in a position of lesser power (like an employee), etc. cannot give consent, regardless of how willing they seem. When in doubt, don’t.

Jenny: I’d like to discuss the serious crime of date rape among teenagers. More rapes are committed by dates or acquaintances than by strangers. These are called acquaintance rapes. Even if you have had sex with someone before, it doesn’t mean it is OK for him to do anything that you don’t want to do. For the guys out there: NO MEANS NO. As soon as the girl says no, stop. Even if she starts kissing you again, that does not mean that she has changed her mind about having sex with you. If you get a girl drunk or high and then get together with her, she cannot consent to sex.

Many date rapes involve drugs such as alcohol; Rohypnol (roofies); gamma hydroxybutyrate, (GHB); and Ketamine. All four drugs create an altered state of mind by causing the victim to become unconscious, lose muscle control, slow their heart rate, feel sleepy and even impair memory. Rohypnol is a pill that dissolves in liquids. The new pills turn blue when added to liquid, but the old pills are still available and do not have any color or odor. GHB comes in three forms: a liquid with no color or odor, a pill or a powder. Ketamine comes in a white powder. I would urge teenagers who go out to watch what they are drinking. Don’t let your glass out of your sight, and if you are unsure about the place you are going, take your own bottled drink along and watch it at all times. Some date rape drugs wash out of your body in just 12 hours, so seek help as soon as possible after you believe you have been assaulted.

Trust your instincts. If you feel like you shouldn’t be in a certain situation, get out. If alcohol is involved, always have a sober friend with you. If you are with a boyfriend or a date, make sure you discuss with them the pace you want to take. Make sure you lay out the ground rules just in case.