Beyond the Bogeyman: We Need to Develop a More Mature Perspective on the Child Molester

By Butler, Katy | Psychotherapy Networker, November/December 2003 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Bogeyman: We Need to Develop a More Mature Perspective on the Child Molester


Butler, Katy, Psychotherapy Networker


Beyond the Bogeyman

We need to develop a more mature perspective on the child molester

By KATY BUTLER

Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders

By Anna C. Salter

Basic Books. 272 pp. ISBN: 0-4650-7172-4

The imposition of adult sexual desire on the bodies of children respects no boundaries of class or time, of country or color. Before the French Revolution, a contemporaneous writer indulgently described how Louis XIV's nurse played openly with his penis. Virginia Woolf (whose later marriage was sexless) was secretly fingered in childhood, much to her revulsion, by both of her older, upper-class stepbrothers. Marilyn Monroe (who later committed suicide) was "interfered with" by a caretaker in a cheap Los Angeles apartment when she was a neglected child named Norma Jean. Oprah Winfrey was molested by a relative, and Maya Angelou by her mother's boyfriend.

Fifty years of demographic studies and quiet kitchen-table conversations confirm that this happens not only to the famous but to millions of the obscure. A quarter of Alfred Kinsey's 4,000 female informants told the Indiana sex researcher that they'd either had sex with adult men when they were children, or had been approached by them.

The Social Organization of Sexuality --the landmark 1994 study of American sexual practices spearheaded by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) and University of Chicago professor Edward Laumann--found that 17 percent of its adult female informants and 12 percent of its male informants said they'd been touched sexually (90 percent genitally) by at least one adult before they turned 14.

Extrapolating from the study's 3,500 respondents to the U.S. population as a whole--using NORC's stringent and narrow definition of abuse--this suggests that at least 23.8 million adult American women and 16.7 million men were sexually abused as children.

The sexual misuse of children, in other words, is ordinary as well as horrifying. It will touch, in some way, every sixth or seventh house in which children live. Yet many Americans continue to perceive these acts as outside the realm of normal human experience--known only to the monster and his victim, neither of whom does anyone actually know. The details of their interactions stay secret, leaving the rest of us to rely on images distorted by cliche and caricature, denial and fear.

Despite two decades of confessional memoirs and talk-show appearances by victims, the stigma that sociologist Erving Goffman called a "spoiled identity" still clings, not only to offenders but to the children involved. Blinded by what we don't want to know as well as what we imagine, our sympathies swing wildly from decade to decade. Sometimes we demonize the accused adult and sometimes the child. We don't see people, but flip-flopping archetypes of evil and innocence--the sexual predator, the false accuser, the railroaded man, the innocent and violated child.

These swings trace an arc between two cultural and political viewpoints--"better safe than sorry," which sees the world as a dangerous place and would rather risk harshly misjudging an adult than endangering a child, and "therapeutic empathy," which is slow to judge, suspicious of "repressive" institutions like the criminal justice system, reflexively optimistic about people and their ability to change, and hesitant to label anyone. Two recent works, a book and a movie, represent the clash between these viewpoints.

The book is the chilling Predators, by psychologist Anna Salter, an international trainer and Harvard-educated psychologist who's spent 25 years interviewing, filming, and treating convicted sex offenders, most recently as a consultant for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. Her book is an attempt to break what she sees as a culturewide denial.

Salter details the tactics, psychology, and modus operandi of men who maintained secret lives as rapists, child molesters, serial murderers, and sadistic beaters of women and children. …

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