In the flurry of fury surrounding Milo Yiannopoulos’s promotion of sex between adults and minors, it was easy to overlook what actually happened. More than a pregnant giraffe or the latest cute kitten video, a hyper partisan America united around a shared hatred of pedophiles.
Hatred of pedophiles seems like a good thing to unite around. Sexual abuse of children is an affront to both Conservative and Liberal values, but beyond that, it is something that no one wants to see happen to their children, their grandchildren, to any child they care about.
If we hate people who defend pedophila publically, it implies we have no tolerance for child sexual abuse. So one would assume that cases of child sexual abuse are prosecuted consistently and harshly.
Unfortunately, this isn’t true. If it was, there would be no statute of limitations on child sexual abuse. Parents would know how to protect their children.
News outlets would have no
hesitation covering the stories about cases, and tips about protecting children from sexual abuse would be as widely distributed as tips about protecting children from the flu.
At the end of the day, we like to hate pedophiles because we can do that in an abstract way. What we don’t like is holding them accountable. Because holding them accountable means we need to believe children. It means believing children over adults who we can relate to, who we like, socialize with, and trust.
A few weeks ago I was at a lunch meeting with an educated, progressive women. The discussion turned to Katelyn Nicole Davis’ suicide and the motives for it, and I said “she was sexually abused”. Everyone turned, looked at me, and said “that’s what she said”. And they are correct. Without specific knowledge of the case, I can’t say for certain that she was sexually abused. Knowing that children rarely fabricate allegations of abuse and that sexually abused children are much more likely to kill themselves than their non-abused peers doesn’t give me the authority to say “that’s what happened”. However, if any of these women had encountered the crumpled hull of a car on their way to the meeting they would have said “I drove past a car accident”, without any knowledge of the intent of the person responsible for the crash. People have been known to crash cars to hurt other people, to kill themselves, or to collect insurance money. But we all recognize this is rare. Hence our generic use of the term “car accident”.
Until we get to the point where we generically believe abuse victims, we can’t move from a society that blindly hates the people who sexually abuse children to one that holds them responsible. And hate rarely fixes social problems. Believing abuse victims, and believing the facts about child sexual abuse, is scary. It forces us to admit that all children are vulnerable and that there is no simple thing we can do to protect them. It forces us to recognize that statistically we all have a sex offender in our social circle who we work with, care about, or perhaps have a significant relationship with. It was easy for millions of people who had never met Milo Yiannopoulos to disavow what he said. It’s much harder to believe something horrible about someone you know.
Making sex offenders accountable means removing artificial barriers to bringing them to justice, like the statute of limitations for child sex abuse. It means incorporating child sexual abuse prevention into every decision people make about children. It means institutions and families recognizing that there may be sex offenders in their midst, establishing plans for keeping those offenders from hurting children, and establishing plans for what to do if a child discloses abuse. It means wrapping your mind around the fact you have likely dined with a sex offender at a holiday get-together. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you get yourself to a point where you are not dismissive of the danger they pose and the damage they may have done.
That’s hard! It’s much easier to pick on celebrities who say truly upsetting things. But until we can all wrap our mind around the fact that child sex abuse, and abusers, are common, nothing will change.