As a clinical sexologist, I deal with the intricacies of intimate adult, consensual relationships. As a parent, I deal with the fear that someone will molest or abuse or otherwise harm one of my children. As a survivor of one incident of sexual abuse, which occurred when I was fourteen, I have traced the tendrils of its effects throughout my life. I am not the only person in my family with this history: my mother, a sibling, and—yes—a child of mine, my oldest—have all been raped.
So it is with tremendous concern and many complicated thoughts and emotions that I read about the latest incident in Albany—an allegation (not yet proven or convicted) of inappropriate sexual behavior on the part of a male teacher toward a student (gender undisclosed). There has been an arrest. There is now an investigation. The jury has not yet been selected. We must wait for discoveries of truth.
While it would be truly terrible if this were an unfounded accusation—it would also be truly terrible if it were true. In a scenario like this, nobody wins. A teacher falsely accused can seldom escape the taint of having been accused in the first place—this is a shattering blow to any innocent person. And a minor child who has been damaged in this way will live with the effects the rest of his or her life. Individuals, families, schools—the entire community—everyone loses and nobody benefits in a situation like this. People will often take sides and rigid positions from the outset. As a result, we lose precious trust in each other and in our institutions.
As the investigation continues, and our collective conversation swirls, the only thing we can redeem from a situation like this is our ability to learn from it. What is it we need to understand as individuals and as a community? What else could we be doing to prevent potential victims (of all ages) from succumbing to sexually predatory behavior? How do we let everyone know the array of devastating consequences that may result from deliberate predation, impulsive sexual overtures and actions, and even wrongful accusations?
I think we all need to be talking with our young people in the frankest possible way, to help them examine their thoughts and feelings about sexuality, sensuality, their strongest emotions, and the dynamics of consent and boundaries—both as minors and as future adults. While many of our children do get warned about "strangers," it is much harder to warn them about potential harm from people they know. We all want our kids to have great teachers, mentors, and positive role models in their lives. Unfortunately, sometimes those positions are occupied by people who are not as benign as they seem. Unless we discover a previous record of sexual offending, we usually cannot tell the difference in advance. Many of us grownups have known at least one instance of being taken in by a seemingly nice person who turns out to be toxic. So how do we help our kids to be smarter and wiser than we are?
One thing we can do as parents is to help our children understand the sovereignty of their own bodies and personal boundaries, and to help them understand about power dynamics and consent.
For example, I cringe when I see parents urging a small children to give some other grownup a hug, when the kid clearly has no affectionate urge of his or her own. With the best intentions, we can sometimes teach our kids to be compliant pleasers who override their own common sense boundaries of self. This is not a help if this child later encounters a manipulative, predatory, but seemingly benign adult. We need to encourage our children to trust their gut reactions, to insist on their physical sanctity, as well as give them the language and strategies of consent and the ability to recognize predatory power machinations - which is where sexual abuse can often begin.
In a saner and better funded educational setting, teachers could bring broader and generalized lessons of boundaries and consent into many parts of the curriculum. Teachers could be trained to notice their own abilities (or shortcomings) in the classroom setting with regard to use of language, gesture, classroom rules of behavior, power dynamics, relationships, etc. and model a noticing of these dynamics, explicitly assisting students to become aware of when they may be violated or violating some personal or community "boundaries." Kids need to be supported in developing strategic perception as well as strategic language. These general strategies can then be brought into specific focus during health and sex ed classes (and conversations with parents) as well. Dots connected.
None of my thoughts here are meant to cast any fault or blame on any person involved in current case that's the talk of the town. Remember, I have my own anguish and grief as a mother who was unable to effectively protect one of her children from sexual predation. That this rape happened when my kid was 18 hardly matters at all. I have just tried to understand these matters professionally and personally, and I conclude there's a lot more we could do, individually and collectively, to empower our kids and thereby make things a lot harder for predators to corner and manipulate their victims.
For adults who feel the need to learn more about sexual offenders, the online library at the California Coalition of Sexual Offending has many articles.
I like to think that whatever the outcome of the case, that we can become a better informed community as a result. And I dearly hope that whoever has been harmed in this instance receives the full support and care that he or she needs and deserves.