What the Nassar Scandal Can Teach Us
Yesterday, after a week of heart-wrenching victim impact statements, renowned sports physician Larry Nassar was sentenced up to 175 years for sexually abusing his patients — many of whom were just children or young teenagers when he first began assaulting them.
Not yet known are the full consequences to be faced by Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics, and all those who minimized or outright dismissed victims’ reports for two decades.
Complaints and red flags were eclipsed, in large measure, by the weight so many gave to one person’s reputation and the unquestioned trust placed in that authority. More than 150 victims lie in the wake.
Yet, Nassar is not an anomaly. Offenders wreak devastation on individual lives in every corner of every community, every day.
With more than 30 years of experience providing sexual abuse services and given the tremendous public attention on this issue, the YWCA is taking this opportunity to share our expertise in order to help adults understand how abuse happens and what you can do to prevent it.
We urge you to take some time to read through this information – it is lengthy … but our children are worth it.
What We Need To Know To Keep Children Safe
- Offenders are built, not born.
- It is critical to come to terms with the knowledge that the person most likely to target your child or teenager is someone you already know and trust.
- Sexual abuse is preventable. It is simple, if not comfortable, for each person reading this to stop offenders.
A short parable
Two monks were walking down a riverbank in silent meditation. One monk glanced over and spotted a baby floating down the river. He immediately jumped in, grabbed the infant and gently brought the baby to shore, where the other monk lifted the baby to safety. Just as the first monk stepped back onto shore, he glanced back and saw another baby floating with the current. He waded back out, collected the child and brought him to the second monk, who placed the baby in the warm sunshine to dry off. Again, just as he was climbing onto shore, he glanced back to see yet another baby floating down the river. He turned around, waded out, and retrieved the child. As he turned back toward the riverbank, he was surprised to see his brother running away, heading up river. The monk in the water called out —“Brother brother, where are you going? We are doing very important work here!” His brother called back, “I have to stop the person putting these babies in the river!”
We are developing wonderful technologies to help victims of child sexual abuse recover from their assault. Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness exercises, trauma-informed yoga, neuro-feedback, even dietary guidance to better manage stress symptoms, all aid victims in their recovery. However, none of this prevents sexual abuse from happening.
So let’s talk about sexual abuse in a different way. How does a sex offense happen? Once we, as a community, as parents, as siblings, as grandparents, as educators, mentors and co-workers are aware of all the things that need to go wrong before a sex offense can occur, the more empowered we are to stop the victimization before it occurs.
This is always a difficult topic to discuss, because it becomes very personal for some. Many have had child sexual abuse touch their lives in one way or another. Exploring the origins of sex offending behavior can sometimes sound like we are minimizing the pain that victims endure, trying to gain sympathy for offenders, or somehow excusing them of their responsibility. Please recognize that nothing is further from the truth. But, we firmly believe that most sex offenders are built, not born, and that we all have the power and responsibility to intervene, to keep the babies out of the river.
There must be emotional congruence between sexual behavior and the gratification of some need the offender has. Sexual assault is rarely motivated by sex. Rather, the offender is trying to satisfy some other need, and has learned, discovered, or been taught that sexual behavior is the most effective way to do so. The need could be for power, comfort, escape, dominance, a sense of competency, acceptance, bolstering self-image, or maybe to express anger or rage.
Important to this dynamic is that the offender usually has limited coping strategies and envisions sex as the only means of getting these needs met.
A benign example of emotional congruence is comfort food. Say that, as a child when you stayed home sick from school, your mom’s go-to lunch was a grilled cheese sandwich. Years later, as an adult, a grilled cheese sandwich evokes a sense of calmness and nurturance for you. Your brain has connected feeling cared for and grilled cheese. This is the same mechanism, although in a much more profound manner, that connects emotional needs and sexual behavior for offenders.
Also within this first step is the belief that a child could be a viable target for this behavior. Sometimes when the offender is another (older) child, there are minimum age boundaries to begin with. When the offender is an adult we look at their overall beliefs about the value of children, but we also recognize that a child, as a victim, probably more effectively meets the emotional need that the offender is trying to satisfy. Children are more accepting, more easily dominated, more easily terrified, and less likely to report.
The first step just sets the stage for abuse — meaning the potential offender is just thinking about it, nothing has happened yet. The potential offender still must circumvent their internal inhibitors. These are the internal competencies we all have that keep us from hurting others or endangering ourselves. These include our moral and spiritual beliefs, sense of empathy, sense of self-preservation, notion of justice, the value we hold for others.
Many times, these capacities are not yet well developed, as in the case of youth who offend. Sometimes the use of drugs or alcohol dull a capacity that is there. The motivation to offend — to have that emotional need met — can be so powerful it overwhelms the internal inhibitors. Other times messages about the importance of sex and male entitlement, the link of dominance and power to masculinity, can run counter to healthy decision making, leading the potential offender to dismiss what sense of right and wrong that they may have.
Again, a benign example: You really like chocolate. You might snack on chocolate all day, every day. But, internally, you know consuming so much sugar is unhealthy. You know it kills your appetite for healthy food. You know once you start, it’s hard to stop. You might be disappointed in yourself if you break your own commitment to avoid junk food. Sometimes those internal inhibitors work; sometimes it’s possible to rationalize them away; sometimes you can act quickly and avoid the internal argument; sometimes you succumb to peer pressure when encouraged to “just try one caramel cream.”
Again, being motivated to offend, and now being inclined to offend, does not mean that a sexual assault ever actually occurs. There are external inhibitors that can stop abuse. External inhibitors are those things that occur outside of the person that can stop a sex offense from ever happening. They include things like: the Law, criminal consequences, screening protocols for those working with children, surveillance and supervision of situations where older and younger children are in contact, adults who are vigilant about activities involving children and other adults, children having a trusting relationship with an adult that involves candid conversations about safety from abuse, and an environment that actively monitors for safety.
In short, all of us are the external inhibitors. The potential offender must circumvent our efforts to have communities, families, or school settings that are safe from abuse.
Offenders sidestep external inhibitors sometimes by isolating a family or a child from outside influences. Sometimes domestic violence becomes pivotal in breaking down alliances between children and non-offending parents or other safe adults. Some offenders, much like Nassar, go to great lengths to create a public image that would seem to place them above reproach. And sometimes, we, as the major element of external inhibitors, aren’t doing everything we can.
So the stage is set. The potential offender wants to be sexual with a child to meet some emotional need; they don’t have the wherewithal or the motivation to stop themselves; and they have managed to dismiss people and rules, external to them that would stop abuse. Now they must overcome resistance by the child.
It is a common misperception that the responsibility for protecting children from child sexual abuse lies with children themselves. It is great to develop protective language with our children, it is admirable to teach them to identify good touch and uncomfortable touch and know what to do when they experience it. But, they are still just children. They are little, powerless, easily manipulated, easily tricked, easily frightened.
There are some children, who, by their very nature, are bold, sassy, and speak their minds. These aren’t the kids often targeted by offenders. The child who is insecure, lonely, or not part of the crowd. The child who is developmentally at a stage where they are eager to please adults or the child who wants to belong. The child who is taught to never question authority figures. The child who is naïve about relationships and their role within them. These are the kids that are targeted by sex offenders.
Prevention education, like any form of education or skill development, has greatest value if it is provided repeatedly, integrated into school curriculum and rehearsed at home. The resources needed to enable this level of effort are very limited.
To move the needle on prevention of child sexual abuse, providing quality services for victims is simply not enough. True prevention means we are acting to make sure the threat is well contained, or better yet, doesn’t exist at all.
Nothing suggested here is complex; it really just entails wearing our commitment on our shirtsleeves wherever we go. Sometimes that means not being a passive bystander, more often it means announcing ourselves as protectors and appreciating the powerful role we have in interrupting that path toward offending behavior.It can be a little awkward, but our children are worth it.
Now, let’s talk about what we can do.
- Acknowledge that child abuse can happen, and that it may be perpetrated by someone you know. Ninety percent of sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone already known to the child. Odds are good that you already know the person who might target your child as a victim. Consciously accept that, and be prepared to deal with the notion that someone you already know, and probably trust, can be a sex offender. This is a huge burden, and an uncomfortable one. It changes how we view the safety of our children in their everyday world and causes us anxiety. As humans, we try to avoid stressful things, but here, our denial and avoidance can keep us from acting protectively.
- Make your role as an active protector known to those who have contact with your child — teachers, coaches, day care providers, scout leaders, field trip chaperones, parents of your children’s friends etc. In particular, parents and grandparents who are identified by potential perpetrators as active allies to their children are one of the most powerful external inhibitors we have. Take it a step further, and let that adult know you and your child regularly talk about body safety. Yes, this topic is hard to work into a conversation with the ballet teacher or Uncle Bob, but the conversations you will be having if your child is abused are far more difficult. It can be relatively painless. “My husband and I have been talking with Jessica about body safety. She really is taking an interest in the topic, and sometimes likes to talk to other kids about it. Just wanted to give you a heads up before the field trip.”
- Have active and ongoing conversation with your children about body safety. Make sure they have the language to tell you when they are worried. Having a language in your household that allows your children to bring to you uncomfortable or suspicious behavior by the adults or older kids in their lives may alert you to danger before an actual assault ever occurs.
- Help children exercise their empathy skills. The ability to understand how others are affected by our behavior is a powerful internal inhibitor. But this skill needs exercise. In our age of communicating through text messages and digital screens, there is even less opportunity for children to learn how to understand and value the perspective of others. The more we as adults teach our children to think in these terms, the more we are reinforcing a powerful internal inhibitor. In simple discussions of daily events, help your children see things through the eyes of others. This may include asking them to imagine how other children in the classroom may have felt about a particular event, not just getting your child’s perspective. Ask your child to imagine what the characters on TV or in books might be thinking about or feeling.
- Help teens have healthy resources to manage the stressors of adolescence. This may include a trusted adult other than you. Recognize that the lives of teens are indeed stressful. As an artifact of their stage of psychosexual development, teens can easily sexualize problem solving and need gratification. Recognize this is natural, and help your child find effective ways to address loneliness, frustration, school fears, needing to feel accepted, and even their own developing sexual awareness. For example, help them identify ways to feel accepted and loved that don’t involve an expectation of sex. Or help them appreciate that failures in life are normal and do not have to be balanced with an act of re-empowerment to feel competent again. Teens may not readily accept this guidance from a parent, so you may need to find a trusted mentor with whom you can coordinate.
- Young men need guidance in defining masculinity. Competency as a man needs to be based on qualities other than power, dominance, victory, and acquisition. When children only have this lens to understand sexuality, the stage begins to be set for offending behavior. Helping youth to value kindness, understanding, respect, altruism, and protection greatly expands their options for self-definition. For a teen boy to equate competency and physical strength with his responsibility to protect others is a much healthier version of masculinity than he will learn from a video game.
- Children will be inundated with sexualized messages during their adolescence, including pornography. To counter this, help them to understand the healthy role that sexuality plays in relationships. This includes some candid discussion about the pornography they will encounter —how these images are not reflective of real relationships and how they are designed to manipulate folks into being consumers of this material by the pornography industry. Knowing there is an industry in place trying to entice them and trick them may cast pornography in a whole different light for a teen who believes he is an independent thinker and decision maker.
- Advocate for protective policies in all places that serve children. Within child-serving venues important to your family — schools, clubs, scouts, churches, camps — ask about their policies and procedures to safeguard children from abuse and screen for possible offenders. Merely asking the question heightens awareness. If the policies don’t exist, ask how you can be a part of their development.
Thank you to the YWCA counseling staff for their expertise provided in this resource. We encourage you to share this information in the ongoing effort to increase prevention of sexual abuse.