Child Molestation: Who Does It? What Is The Harm? & The Need For Clarity

Until more recently it was widely assumed that a molester was a single man who could easily be identified by his unsavory looks and unshaven appearance. He would lurk in the shadows and grab children one-by-one. Many families believed they could protect their children by teaching them not to talk to strangers. Recent studies show, however, that molesters whom commit these heinous crimes are most often a person a child knows and not a stranger.

The age of the internet and social media has connected the country’s news cycle more than ever before. We are all now well aware that it is not only men who molest children, but just as many women partake in these crimes. Unfortunately, even in the twenty first century, societal attitudes towards women make disclosures about female molesters less likely. As noted by Dr. Carla van Dam:

“… boys prematurely sexualized by an older female are traditionally considered ‘lucky.'”

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Highline School District teacher Mary Kay Letourneau is seen in this Fall 1996 school photo. (ABC News)

Another bizarre molestation case involves Mary Kay Letourneau . Letourneau became a media sensation in the late 1990’s as the public grappled with the seeming puzzlement of an attractive, successful, married teacher and mother of four charged with the sexual assault of her student, Vili Fualaau, who was in sixth grade. But in a strange twist, Fualaau’s mother became Letourneau’s ally and advocate; she blessed the sexual relationship between her son and this adult more the three times his age. Her son was robbed of his childhood and prematurely became the father of two infant daughters.

Letourneau and Fualaau are now married. Some of you may be confused by this. Some of you may ask why Letourneau went to jail for numerous years if her and Fualaau were “in love”. The Letourneau story is about as bizarre as they come. Here is a relatively simple explanation about why her and Fualaau were never, and can never be, “in love”.

According to van Dam’s research:

“For true consent to occur, two conditions must prevail. A person must know what it is that her or she is consenting to, and a person must be free to say yes or no.”

Neither of these conditions applied when Letourneau started becoming sexually involved with Fualaau. Her grooming process started when the boy was in second grade. Consensual conditions can never occur between any child and an older, more knowledgeable and powerful adult. When adults consider sexual interactions with a child, they automatically enter into an exploitative relationship with the child, meeting their personal needs and agendas, rather than attending to the child’s best interests.

Another psychological explanation says:

“Sexual abuse is a violation of a trust relationship with unequal power and/or advanced knowledge (and) the need for secrecy (and) sexual activity.”

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Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau at their ABC interview with Barbara Walters, April 2105.

Fualaau became so brainwashed by Letourneau that he married the woman. That is how dangerous perpetrators such as Mary Kay Letourneau can be.

So, again, we come to the “need for clarity” when it comes to how to a). identify child molesters and b). educate and protect our children not to enter into potentially dangerous situations with these people. People’s views on what constitutes child sexual abuse often differ, which may prevent them from responding appropriately and with the necessary certainty.

There are many reasons for this thinking. Why?

  1. There are too many gray areas that implies nothing more should be done — this includes all parties involved.
  2. This is a crazy one: in no criminal case is an understanding of events primarily determined by soliciting explanations from the accused person.
  3. This ties in with number one: Doing nothing condones child sexual abuse, without even knowing so.

Dr. Diana Russell sums up the confusion perfectly:

“There is no consensus among researchers and practitioners about what sex acts constitute sexual abuse, what age defines children, nor even when the concept of child sexual abuse is preferable to others such as sexual victimization, sexual exploitation, sexual assault, sexual misuse, child molestation, sexual maltreatment, or child rape… Cases in which children are raped or otherwise sexually abused by their peers, younger children, or children less than five years older than themselves are often discounted as instances of child sexual abuse.”

And van Dam puts a bow on the confusion by saying:

“The failure to recognize each identified instance as, in all likelihood, representing a larger pattern is “the second largest societal blind spot,” which “sex offenders themselves have little reason to emphasize.”

Obviously, there is no clear definition so there needs to be a zero tolerance policy when it comes to potential molesters. Typically we respond to such uncertainty and discomfort by blocking it out altogether. It is imperative to remember that sexual abuse does not necessarily mean sexual intercourse.

The next time you find yourself dealing with an individual who has nonverbal mannerisms or gimmicks, or has dramatic hand movements, and so on, and they tend to overwhelm you, close your eyes or look away. But do not stop there. Start to carefully listen to what the person is saying. For it is there that you might find a clue that will lead you to better identify danger right in front of you.

Why Adults Cannot Identify Child Molesters

There are many obstacles  when it comes to accurately identifying child molesters, but the obstacles begin with adults. Children rely on their elders for guidance and protection. When an adult is fooled by an abuser then the child is rendered defenseless.

It is, obviously, not entirely adults who are at fault. Monsters who molest children follow no particular pattern in regards to their age, sex, and occupation, although they seem to choose lifestyles giving them access to children. It is extremely difficult to identify a child molester. However, it is the adults responsibility to be aware of emerging signs and patterns of a potential child molester.

This is all easier said than done. Take for example the case of a man who was voted “Citizen of the Year” before being convicted on a number of molestation charges. This individual was in charge of running the annual community fair and he used young students to run the booths. Despite the eventual convictions against the man, the community whose children he molested appealed to the courts for a temporarily release to run the fair again.

Bizarre, but it points mainly to confusion and denial amongst the adult population.

In another case, a Canadian teacher was accused of molesting children at numerous schools during the 1970’s-1980’s. How did this man get away with molesting for so long and at so many different places?  Because the police departments involved decided to treat each case as an isolated incident. This teacher was essentially getting a glowing letter of recommendation to facilitate a move to another district. In every community, therapists working with him knew about his sexual activities, but kept quiet despite legal obligations to report their knowledge. School district personnel also failed to report what they knew to the police, as each complaint they heard was also handled separately.

To recap: Every single time someone encountered indications of sexual abuse involving the teacher, they assumed the information reflected only an isolated instance, encouraged everyone involved to keep quiet, and feared a libel suit from the teacher should they discuss his tendencies.

That is some extreme negligence.

Here is an amazing quote from a mother who had a child abused. These cases can get so twisted that at one point she thought she was being unreasonably crazy, saying:

“Maybe I’m making a big deal about it. I don’t feel that we’ve been taken seriously. In some peoples minds we’ve made a big deal about nothing. They tell us, “It was just little boys,” and “It only happened for four months.” You get the feeling, not from what is said, but from what is not said, that, one, your son did something wrong, and, two, you’re making a big deal of it. You get this not only from the school system, but when you talk to other parents, or your doctor, and you begin to believe, ” Maybe I should shut up. Maybe it’s not a big deal.” Then you think, “Damn it. My kid did not do anything to have this happen to him (van Dam).”

As a child I would not have known how to handle a situation involving molestation. Nobody ever talked about it to me growing up. Not my parents, not my teachers, not my coaches — nobody with an authority figure ever addressed this issue to me. I knew not to talk to strangers, get in their car, take candy, etc. But that was about the extent of it. I am grateful I never encountered a situation that remotely felt like molestation on any level.

Some kids are not so lucky.

Before I began advocating, I’m not sure I knew enough about molesters to say I could have, hypothetically, as a father, been able to educate my own kids on how to identify molesters and what to do if they were ever encountered a situation of molestation with another adult. That is a scary thought because I feel like there are a lot of actual parents out there who feel the exact same way. Their biggest fear is their child(ren) being taken advantage of by an adult. They fear for a number of reasons, but maybe the biggest reason is because they themselves do not know how to even begin to go about diving into the topic of molestation.

side-bannerThere are ways to end molestation in our communities. The education starts with the adults. They cannot be confused or in denial when it comes to the safety of so many children. They cannot accept to live like past generations. This needs to be an issue that is addressed as soon as a child is competent enough to realize the implications involved.

Remember that sexual abuse, for the abuser, is not about sex. Instead, it is an expression of the need for power and control taken out in a sexual manner. That should be our basis for identification. If we remember that, then we can more accurately begin to identify molesters.