The Problem with Labeling Pedophilia as a "Sickness"


*Trigger warning, sexual abuse described:*


Yitzi’s parents really thought they’d taught him enough:


“No one is allowed to touch you in parts of your body covered by a bathing suit. Most people are good and safe, but there are some other sick people out there who like to hurt children, and do bad things, so if they try to do that, you should run away and tell someone you trust.”


They checked off the sexual safety education box and thought he was now “safe.”


But when his bar mitzvah tutor, who was a trusted friend of the family, groomed and eventually abused him, it wasn’t anything like what he was prepared for. This guy didn’t seem to fit the bill of “sick ‘other’ who does bath things and likes to hurt children” and the abuse wasn’t as described either.


It began with him showing Yitzi extra attention, taking him out to celebrate portions of their accomplishments. There were seemingly innocent pats on the back, once a kiss on the forehead, a hug goodbye. The touch was always accompanied by compliments. Alone in the car, there was some petting, desensitizing, slowly breaching boundaries. The teacher let him watch some sports on his phone, as a reward, and then started teaching him “holy ideas about puberty that are good to know.” He eventually began showing him explicit material, showing Yitzi how “nice it feels” to think about things like this, that it feels even better to try, and, now that he’s “getting to be a man,” offered him the “privilege” of getting Yitzi to touch him, over his clothes. So when Yitzi had pictured a creepy, unfamiliar person, hurting him with violent, forced, skin to skin assault, this was not at all on his radar.


This all seemed “consensual” (note: an adult touching a minor in any sexual way is never consensual- even if it “is.”). It didn’t seem like a “sick, bad person”- it was a “normal” role model person. It wasn’t forced, it didn’t hurt; it was even sort of “pleasurable,” it wasn’t presented as a “bad thing,” and he was already with a trusted adult. And so it began, and so it continued. At some point, Yitzi had the vague sense that it was a little strange, but it came along with feeling special, and reassurances that this was just a new, exciting part of coming of age- a twisted version of sex education and bar mitzvah prep, coming from the wrongest possible source.


A “bad guy” would have been easier to run away from, or report to his parents.


The disturbing reality is that:


Most abuse occurs with known, trusted people in a child’s life.


Often the abuse is not as straightforward as “touching under bathing suit parts.” It can be over clothes, involve asking the victim to touch the abuser, using explicit language, and/ or viewing pornographic material.


Abuse is not always violent, sudden, painful or obvious- often it’s subtle at first, seductive, manipulated to seem enjoyable, and presented as a reward or privilege.


Pedophilia is so pandemically widespread, that it infiltrates everywhere- no community is totally safe, it’s not “other, sick, bad” characters, it’s not “crazy people out there,” it’s “regular, normal, good” ones that we see all the time, who’ve earned our trust, who we “least expect it from.”


Another excruciating reality is that not all abuse is premeditated or sinister. Tragically, many cases of abuse and molestation happen at the hands of older children and teens who have not been adequately educated about their sexuality, thoughts, feelings, desires, urges, safety, and body boundaries, and then act out their own sexual impulses on peers or younger children. Sometimes this happens as a one time experiment, other times it continues for multiple incidents and sometimes years, under the roof of otherwise loving, caring parents, who are completely unaware. In these cases, often both children are left traumatized. This is where “sheltering” kids can completely backfire and actually enable the exact issue the insulation is misguidedly meant to prevent.


Instead of painting potential abusers as predatory monsters, or people “out there” with a bizarre sickness, we need to face the nauseating fact that pedophilia is a rampant phenomenon, that child sexual abuse and use of child pornography are terrifyingly ubiquitous; they’re huge industries. That the face of an abuser can be, and often is, a warm, kind, familiar one.


Education needs to be ongoing, nuanced, unambiguous, comprehensive, and preemptive. Sexual safety is best taught incrementally, in the context of honest, clear conversations with parents, in ongoing, comprehensive, healthy sex ed, including information about psychosexual development, boundaries, different types of touch, relationships, and pleasure. Sexual education that is limited to only safety and danger can present a skewed picture of sexuality that creates only negative associations, shame, and fear, which can show up as sexual dysfunction in the teen and young adult years, and inhibit healthy sexual development and relationships.


Integrating both positive sexual education and safety as part of the parent-child dialogue can demystify, clarify, and reduce the likelihood of their being abused or abusing others. It can also increase the likelihood that they will be able to extricate themselves or come to parents if someone does try something, rather than allowing it to continue.


For those who worry about scaring kids with too much knowledge, please realize that the consequences of ignorance are significantly scarier. It’s specifically because pedophilia doesn’t usually present as an obvious “sickness” that it’s such a chilling threat.


Kids need to know that they can come to us with their concerns and we will believe and take them seriously. That if they tell us someone makes them uncomfortable, for any reason, we will see to it that they never need to be alone with them one on one. (Yes, even in school.) That they never have to listen to someone who tells them to keep secrets from parents, even and especially if they say bad things will happen if they’re told. Yes, we encourage “tattling.” That we will never shame or blame them for coming to us and telling us what’s on their minds.


*For more on how to teach kids healthy, balanced, safe sexuality see this: elishevaliss.com/sacrednotsecret







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