Trigger warning: this post contains discussion of abuse and pedophilia.
I got a great question from Formspring today. I keep thinking I need to kill that account. Its encouraged anonymity is not coincidental to being the only time I’ve received hatey-mail. Still, besides that one bit of spew (which was quite clarifying for me, actually), I’ve enjoyed what’s been put forth.
Free range kids (“Men and boys in the locker room”) got me thinking: pedophilia is at once real and the source of way too much fear. I know lots of adult pedophilia sufferers, but I don’t want that to justify paranoia inflicted around my kids. How do you navigate this?
(Note: I don’t feel qualified to direct advice to sexual abuse survivors. The question here asked is how I (and my husband) navigate this terrain; here I’m going to express some of the limitations that mainstream parenting culture purports and my response to the suppositions of “safety” afforded by these commonalities. Full disclosure: neither my husband nor myself were victims of sexual abuse as children, although I have experience of sexual abuse and coercion as a young adult.)
Thank you for your question!
What is “too much fear”? If you mean many parents/guardian adults/teachers have an inflated sense of Stranger Danger I’d agree with you. If you seek to quantify the suffering that abuse has wreaked on children and grown children, I don’t know if we can ever say “too much”. That said, our mainstream media certainly deals in many scarepieces and/or graphic (and repeated ad nauseam) true accounts of Misery Porn and Sadistic Pervert Fables and I do think this has tainted parenting culture and village child-rearing (because the rest of the village is participating, whether they want to admit it or not) in unhelpful and harmful ways.
Yet for those of us who are able, it is very possible to parent our hopes and not our fears with regard to keeping our children safe.
Most abuse of children is inflicted by those the child knows and trusts. That can help give us pause when we worry about the lurking fellow at the library or the one jumping out of an alley (these incidents happen, but are much rarer). Compounding the misery around this topic, many abuse victims are routinely silenced, blamed, second-guessed, minimized, and even vilified. Embarking on a discussion of the relative safety of Strangers often re-injures those who were abused by strangers. Any discussion is best served by sensitivity and acknowledgment: because it is true, many have been victimized.
A re-focus on the family, where most abuse occurs, might help us respond with more compassion and intelligence when stranger abuse/violence is inflicted on children or the very rare case of stranger abduction (about 110 cases a year in a nation of 40 – 45 million children). Ironically (and tragically) our cultural concepts that families are “safe” and we can keep our children unscathed by strangers through the right amounts of control and vigilance, means not only are we frightened and teach our children to fear but we are currently responding very poorly indeed to those families who are the victims of tragedies, mistakes that could happen to any of us, or a combination of these events.
Provided your children are currently safe, we can do much for our them while they are in our care. We can help them – or rather, not hinder them! – as they develop their personal intuition, inner strengths, knowledge of autonomy, and internal convictions of right and wrong. Sadly many mainstream parenting strategies actually serve to subvert these developments or seriously compromise them as to be nearly unworkable.
For example many parental/adult discussions about “safety” for kids involve measures of external control, “rules”, and lectures. Those kinds of external motivators in fact detract from our children’s inner strength and personal knowledge of righteous anger and/or violation (or “uh-oh” sense, as I’ve heard it called) and also subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) reinforce the idea they are second class citizens and grownups know best. Most kids spend their lives being told to do what grownups tell them. When someone comes along who wants to abuse them, if they have any skill and finesse at all, our children are easier marks than many would like to believe. Not to mention we are teaching future perpetrators if you’re big enough and strong enough (mentally, physically, etc.) it will be your dominion to do with others as you please.
I don’t have very nuanced advice for recognizing pedophiliac tendencies within a family or trusted friend – the lack of detailed and holistic discussion of this is sad indeed as these abuses are endemic (for instance, note the dismissive reviews and overall low ratings of a nuanced and disturbingly real, complex, and absolutely true case in the documentary Awful Normal, which I recently viewed). I do think familial abuse could almost be called commonplace – and yet it remains under-discussed. I am not very sophisticated at guessing as to WHY it’s so under-discussed. I have some theories. Culturally we undervalue women and their lived realities and the majority of sexually-exploited persons are female-bodied – but by no means all of course. Culturally we oppress children (even very loving adults/parents/carers do, because they don’t know better or are too scared to do anything but what is handed to them as “good parenting”) but we aren’t ready to admit that, of course, abuse is a tragic and inevitable result of this systemic oppression.
As far as pedophilia goes, as long as our culture is invested in oppositional sexism, misogyny, and dominator culture, we will see a rich (if underground) environmental home for full-fledged pedophiles. Our culture supports many of the cornerstones of pedophilia – look around at images in our MSM and you will see the constant sexualization AND infantalization (meaning here enforced powerlessness) of women and girls – women turned into “girls” (or told they should try to achieve this through surgery, hair removal, “feminine” – as in docile and het-male-oriented – behavior, surgeries including labioplasty for a “young” vagina (a cosmetic procedure currently on the rise), a widespread disgust of, dismissal of, trivialization of or lack of respect afforded to women’s bodies including, notably, childbirth and breastfeeding, images of rape in television and film made “sexy” and provocative), and girls in turn given messages their sole functions are either (eventual) reproductive ones, roles of ornamentation, or to satisfy the normative heterosexual man’s tastes and preferences (this in turn gives our men poor scripts as well). The power dynamics reified in these cultural messages are staggering and speak to our complicity in the power dynamics inherent in sexual abuse. In other words Monsters don’t just hop out of closets and grab our little girls (and boys); we create them.
This all sounds very glum – but I hope any adult/parent/carer will take a few minutes to realize how vulnerable our children are and how they need our better care – and they need us to do better to change the world, not just for our children but for our children’s children and so on.
As for us and how we, Ralph and Kelly Hogaboom, have “handled it” – the answer would take many more pages for me to type. The subjects of sex, sexism, power, and bodily autonomy are ones we’ve invested in since before the children were born (because we are genuinely interested in them, not because we seek to “program” our children properly); we don’t hide these subjects from our kids but we also don’t frighten them. The in-tune parent/carer will usually see when a child is frightened or unsure or curious or playful. The in-tune parent/carer will respond when a child asks a question, then be a decent-enough conversationalist to pick up cues as to the child’s understanding level and willingness and interest to listen.
I ask my kids a lot of questions. I ask them if it’s okay to kiss someone if they don’t want you to. I listen to their responses and thoughts about marriage and procreation. I ask them if a man can be married to a man. I ask them if they know what “rape” is. I obviously don’t ask them all this at once! Rather I am condensing a series of amazing conversational moments (and much learning for all parties) over the years.
I play games with them. Some of my favorite involve asking them permission to touch them, or willingly giving them power over my body (to “control” me like a voice-activated robot, or to push me down, etc.). Sometimes I ask them permission to kiss them (and then wait). Sometimes I ask permission to PINCH them (never painfully – by the way, my son loves this game). They enjoy having power and they enjoy scaring themselves. I don’t hold them down and tickle them. I don’t make them submit to my desire for them physically (although sometimes I will beg for a hug). I come to them when they ask me to hug or cuddle them (they do this often). I let them decide how they want their bodies treated, including what medical care they’d like and what food they want to eat and what they want to wear (and no, I did not give them this much freedom from the moment they were born either… when children are babies it is very appropriate we decide what they wear and and that we lock up poisons they might try to drink and what medical care they receive – the latter is a responsibility that we often take for granted but is rather mind-blowing when I think about it).
On that note I also do not disrupt their bodily autonomy. MOST parents I know, my husband and myself included until relatively recently, are very poor at this – we disrupt children’s spiritual, emotional, physical, and bodily autonomy on a *regular basis*. Sometimes I think re-affording children that autonomy is the very, very best thing we can do to keep them safe (some amazing and wise parents/carers know to do this from the beginning). It also does wonders for the health and happiness and harmony of all family members.
How to do that, to begin to do it or learn or deprogram, is not something easily expressed and depends on individual factors. I am always happy to listen to specific family scenarios and respond. I’d like to think I’ve helped many families (and I’m told I have). You can email me at kelly AT hogaboom DOT org.
Good luck! You have an awesome, incredible, wonderful responsibility. Raising children has been the best, so far, adventure of my life.