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.'”

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.”

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.


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