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Blog: Coping as a Community with Allegations of Sexual Offending

Issues of consensuality and predation—and helping our youth and community to cope.

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. 

Finally, I'd like to recommend the excellent youth sex-ed website, Scarleteen, as a resource for teens and parents. I particularly like this article.

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.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Harriet P September 28, 2012 at 05:00 AM
This is a terrific article. Thank you. I particularly appreciate the article to which you refer on the Scarleteen website. I think most teens, college students, and frankly adults would benefit from the communication issues it covers in a relatable way. Whatever the outcome of the current situation, every young person would benefit from frank discussions of this type.
Alex Molochko September 28, 2012 at 10:41 PM
"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." Quoted for truth. This is an incredible post, thank you for writing it.
AlbanyResident September 29, 2012 at 02:02 AM
Due to the fact that there are a lot of middle school students currently reading the Patch because of the unfortunate situation about the coach at AMS, I really do not think it's appropriate to have a link in this article to such a sexually explicit site as Scarleteen. This site goes into more details about sex than some middle schoolers may be ready for.
Amy Marsh September 29, 2012 at 05:02 PM
Thanks for your comments, folks. To AlbanyResident, I think we need to make a distinction between calling a website "sexually explicit" as opposed to "educationally explicit." Scarleteen is the latter and is highly regarding as a sex ed resource for youth. As for middle school students, if they have a computer, I can assure you, most of them have seen much more than you think. As evidence, I refer you to a certain textbook in the AMS Spanish class that contains student-added, sexually-themed graffiti that would give any parent a few additional grey hairs. My youngest kid, in 7th grade, brought it home and, well... my my. It's clear that "information" is being transmitted among the kids in numerous and rather creative ways. If you personally have concerns about Scarleteen, ask your child to refrain from accessing the site. However, in the long run, it will do them more good than harm. Kids need to know much more than we think they do.
SmokeyBlue September 29, 2012 at 05:49 PM
Thank you, Amy, for providing the link to Scarleteen. My 13 year old and I are very happy to have this resource! I've always tried to provide her with the cold hard facts whenever a question or situation arises - regardless of my own comfort level.
7thGradeParent September 30, 2012 at 04:59 AM
The Scarleteen web page has on it items such as "How Do You Feel About Lube for Solo or Partnered Sex? The site will inevitably make many middle schoolers whose parents direct them to it to feel that they need to keep up by engaging in activity that might otherwise not have occurred to them. It is wholly inappropriate for this age group.
Amy Marsh September 30, 2012 at 02:54 PM
Dear 7thGradeParent, I understand how you might feel worried by frank discussions of things that many kids - even middle schoolers - are starting to wonder about. I am happy to provide some other resources. Advocates for Youth has great resources for parents: http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/parents-sex-ed-center-home?task=view. You can also find fact sheets, reports, and statistics that support the notion that giving kids information actually empowers them to make informed decisions about what to do, when to do it, and who with. Otherwise, they make decisions based on emotions, heresay, peer pressure (as you point out), and sometimes can be coerced into harmful activities and relationships. Here are a couple of snippets from Advocates for Youth: <<Many adults are uncomfortable with the idea of teen sexuality, and prefer to remain in ignorance or denial. But in the United States, 46 percent of all high school age students, and 62 percent of high school seniors, have had sexual intercourse; almost nine million teens have already had sex.1,2 It is critically important for adults to address adolescent sexuality realistically and to recognize that many factors, including socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity, family structure, educational aspirations, and life experiences, affect young people's behavior.>> I didn't originally write this blog to debate comprehensive sex education, but since we're on the topic, I will continue to add some alternatives to Scarleteen.
Amy Marsh September 30, 2012 at 03:00 PM
The Albany Patch Blog Fairy called me "Tolstoy" so I had to break this response into segments. Here are more stats from Advocates for Youth: <<Thirty-nine percent of all sexually active U.S. high school students did not use a condom at last intercourse.1 Six percent of all U.S. high school students had sexual intercourse before age 13.1 Almost 14 percent of all U.S. high school students have had sexual intercourse with 4 or more partners over their lifetimes.1 Data are limited on sexual behaviors of middle school students. Based on an average of reports from 10 states and 6 large local school districts, 19.8 percent of middle schoolers have ever had sexual intercourse.1>> Planned Parenthood Info for Teens: http://www.plannedparenthood.org/info-for-teens/ More Resources: Planned Parenthood Tools for Parents: http://www.plannedparenthood.org/parents/
Amy Marsh September 30, 2012 at 03:18 PM
Now, with regard to the idea that the Scarleteen "lube" article (and others) has the capacity to influence our kids to "keep up by engaging in activity that might otherwise not have occurred to them" - do you think we ought to remove lube and condoms from drug store shelves, because if they see them, middle schoolers might feel compelled to use these products? Should we also scour all textbooks at AMS to purge them of kid graffiti that contains sexually explicit references that might encourage other kids to "keep up?" Frankly, I don't think so - those pubescent scrawls actually serve a purpose in the underground pipeline of adolescent communication. To quote the late Dr. Loretta Haroian, a specialist in childhood sexual development: Dr. Haroian said that “understanding the sexual components or meanings of heretofore nonsexual words and actual sexual vocabulary is a major task of the pubescent child. It is a rite of passage that separates childhood and adolescence.” (Source: http://www.ejhs.org/volume3/Haroian/body.htm) So if this is the case, why is it not a good idea to also supply kids with accurate information and the beginnings of a decent sexual and relational vocabulary? More in the next post.
Amy Marsh September 30, 2012 at 03:20 PM
In favor of accurate, educationally explicit information: http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/storage/advfy/documents/adolescent_sexual_health_in_europe_and_the_united_states.pdf From the report: <<...regarding adolescent sexual health in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Each of the three nations has an unwritten social contract with youth: “We’ll respect your right to act responsibly and give you the tools you need to avoid unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.” In France, Germany, and the Netherlands, two things create greater, easier access to sexual health information and services for all people, including teens. They are: 1) societal openness and comfort in dealing with sexuality, including teen sexuality; and 2) pragmatic governmental policies. The result – better sexual health outcomes for French, German, and Dutch teens when compared to U.S. teens.>>
AlbanyResident October 01, 2012 at 12:55 AM
Six percent of all U.S. high school students had sexual intercourse before age 13." This is quoted from above. So, should we be pointing the other 94% of students who are younger than age 13, who might have no interest or burning questions about sex to Scarleteen? Scarleteen has discussion boards that 22 year olds are participating on. Middle schoolers can be as young as 11 years old. The emotional and psychological maturity levels of these two age groups are at are so different. Common Sense Media http://www.commonsensemedia.org/ rates Scarleteen for 15 years and up. Again, middle schoolers can be as young as 11 years old if in sixth grade, and they are the ones who will be following any articles on the Patch about the very popular sixth grade teacher and coach at AMS. Yes, sex ed. is important. I agree wholeheartedly with that. We cannot keep kids ignorant forever. However, there is an appropriate level of detail each age group is ready to digest, and parents should try to have input about what their child can handle. Just wanted to let parents know that this link contains sexually explicit material. It is educationally explicit too, but that's not all it is. Amy, we know you meant it all for the good, and that you want kids to know the boundaries they need to set, but parents should be aware of what else is on Scarleteen so they can follow up.
7thGradeParent October 01, 2012 at 01:22 AM
"How Do You Feel About Lube for Solo or Partnered Sex?" is not educational. It titillates and implies that the reader should be sexually active. My problem is not with frank discussion, or with preteens gaining information about sexuality, It is with adults who encourage kids to engage in sexual acts before they are ready, under the guise of being understanding. As for the purported six percent of children who have had sexual intercourse before age 13... I would prefer my seventh grader not be not part of the 6 percent. Scarleteen's titillation is not going to help me.
Amy Marsh October 01, 2012 at 03:11 AM
Albany Resident: your points are well taken about the age differences. If you wish the Scarleteen link removed from Albany Patch, please write to Emile with your concerns. I don't have any way to modify the blog at this point. With regard to parents being aware - of course! And as you can see, I have offered links for parent resources as well. 7th GradeParent: I am not an adult trying to encourage kids to do anything other than learn how to protect themselves by acquiring an understanding of their personal boundaries and how to protect themselves from people who might choose to violate them. In my mind, that would add up to possibly less activity, rather than more. But I do understand your desire to protect your child from material you consider titillating. I presume you have installed parental control software on your family computers to block access to websites that might be problematic and that you closely monitor your child's use of computers, cell phones, IPads and the like? For those who not considered parental control software, here are links to a couple of articles about this: http://windows.microsoft.com/is-IS/windows7/Keeping-tabs-on-my-teens http://www.parentsguidetomyspace.com/report/usingfilteringsoftware.shtml Here's an interesting report on teen social network use: http://www.truste.com/pdf/TRUSTe_SNS_fulldeck.pdf
AlbanyResident October 01, 2012 at 03:42 PM
These are indeed helpful articles about children's online safety. Thank you for referencing them. Someone at the Patch is probably reading these posts since they have to be approved before they are posted, so will let them decide what to do. For now, the fact that these posts are here will help caution readers.
Annamarie Torpey October 02, 2012 at 06:11 PM
Just a note to parents concerned with what their children are seeing on the Scarletteen website - I personally am far more concerned right now with what a middle-school-aged child might be reading (and writing) in the comments sections of these articles about recent events in Albany. There is an astonishing lack of empathy for whatever it was these kids went through that led them to come forward (whether it was at the hands of the accused or not, something has clearly gone wrong in their lives - it is incredibly difficult to report this kind of thing & I'm shocked everyone's main concern isn't for the health & safety of these children). I have no idea if the accused was guilty, but bashing potential victims, error-riddled and profanity-filled comments from children about how "cool" the accused was, and adults attacking the Patch reporter for even publishing the article are NOT a healthy response to potential sexual abuse of a child from this community. I would be horrified for my child to read these comments alone, and it would make it all the more important to me that my child DOES read articles about healthy boundaries, respecting their changing bodies & feelings, the prevalence of "rape culture" and victim shaming... If kids (even 11-year olds) are left alone at the computer, I can guarantee they aren't reading "educational" websites to answer their sex questions. I for one am very glad for the resource and thankful for this excellent blog post.
Alex Molochko October 02, 2012 at 06:19 PM
Amen.
Amy Marsh October 02, 2012 at 08:01 PM
Thank you both, Annamarie and Alex!
Just FYI October 03, 2012 at 02:46 AM
As an educator myself, I like Scarleteen for high school level and above. Kidshealth.org is a great website that differentiates between kids, teens and parent articles.
Amy Marsh October 04, 2012 at 03:00 PM
Thanks for the note about Kidshealth.org.
Linda Baker October 05, 2012 at 07:06 AM
Thank you, Annamarie, for your well-written comment! I agree wholeheartedly. And Amy, thank you for the post. I was particularly interested in the mention of not urging children to hug or kiss people when they don't want to. This is something I've always felt strongly about and never made my (now grown) children do.

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