A central plot-line in the disturbing but stunning 1999 film American Beauty involves sexual fantasies about a teen girl by the main character, a middle-aged suburban husband and father desperately living out a quiet nightmare version of the American Dream. In a discussion of the film with my then-boss, an older man, a strong Christian leader and educator, he told me, “Any man who says he hasn’t had such fantasies is a liar.” His candor was as rare as it was refreshing. But what he said wasn’t shocking.
Perhaps if the church dealt more honestly with sexual temptation, temptation would lead less frequently to acting out on it. Keeping talk of such temptations taboo leads naturally to imagining that one’s temptations are somehow unique, which leads, in turn, to imagining oneself as somehow unique and, therefore, entitled in one’s status as “special” to act on one’s temptations.
Imagine: for every child abused, the number of those who are tested and groomed as potential victims must be utterly staggering.That’s the sense I got from the now-removed post written by an anonymous sex offender and published last week at Leadership Journal. Yet, the truth is that the impulses that led to this former youth pastor’s sexual abuse of a child under his care and authority—pride, lust, covetousness, selfishness, and the elaborate mental apparatus to rationalize it all—are, ultimately, rather banal. They are as old as humankind. The editors’ well-intentioned decision to publish the piece as a cautionary tale betrays in them and their target audience an underlying naiveté in regarding the abuser’s rationalizations as insightful and revealing enough to give him a platform for voicing them.
Let us ever be horrified at every form of abuse—but let us stop being shocked.
In my own ordinary experience, encounters with adult sexual predators were a common—if not universal—part of growing up. I cannot even begin to count the friends and relatives who were pursued as minors—sometimes “successfully,” sometimes not—by adult predators: a friend pursued by her high school swimming coach, a 14-year-old-going-on-11 member of my family who eventually bore the child of her 26 year-old “boyfriend” (who we later learned was a convicted pedophile), a friend’s daughter molested by a man while her pastoring father was busy doing ministry, another friend’s father who was arrested for exposing himself to children, more than one friend who was molested as a child by a grandfather, a former student of mine who was raped over and over as a child by the men in her church. And then there’s me, whose story is nothing compared to those.
I was a junior in high school when I moved in the middle of the academic year from a tiny school in rural Maine to a sprawling public high school in suburban New York. I don’t know if it was being the new kid that made me stand out in a sea of 2,000 students or what. But, for some reason (or perhaps no reason at all), my health teacher started offering me extra, unsought attention during the chaos that constituted our class time. “I need a woman like you in my life,” he whispered in my ear while walking between the rows of distracted students. Another time, he walked over to where I was sitting on the window sill before class, put his hands on the tops of my thighs and ran them up and down my legs.
Those days were different from today. Then, such people were referred to as “dirty old men,” a phrase that bespoke their commonness but was unfortunately dismissive of the seriousness of their actions. I told my parents about my teacher. They told me if I needed their help in handling him to let them know. I didn’t. It ended. I don’t remember how. Fortunately, my parents had raised me to be strong and independent, and they succeeded. I see now that other girls—too many—were not so lucky.
I viewed the Leadership Journal post itself as less problematic than the blindness to the scope of the problem of abuse that its perceived novelty implied. In response, I shared a Twitter-sized version of my experience with one of the Leadership Journal’s editors. But lest my story be taken as some sort of anomaly, I followed that with a general question posed to the Twitterverse: How old were you when you were pursued sexually by an adult authority?
I knew in posing the question that it would prove right to cast it not as “if” but “when.” After all, 7% of girls in grades 5-8 and 12% of girls in grades 9-12 report having been sexually abused, along with 3% of boys grades 5-8 and 5% of boys in grades 9-12. Of course, my question was much broader: posed not only to those who had been abused but to potential victims, too, those who had been merely sought out by an adult predator, as I had been. Imagine: for every child abused, the number of those who are tested and groomed as potential victims must be utterly staggering.
My sense about the pervasiveness of the problem was, sadly, proven correct over the next several hours, as the Storify post created by Jeff Chu demonstrates. The responses on Twitter were—and continue days later to be—overwhelming.
Again, it’s time for the church to stop being shocked and face reality with open eyes.
Let me pause here to offer my own confession. I am situated doctrinally and culturally rather squarely within the conservative camp of evangelical Christianity. I need to acknowledge my disappointment at the overwhelming (although not total) silence from the leaders on my side of the church aisle, leaders for whom I have the deepest respect. It hurts not only me, but more importantly, the entire church body for these men not to be taking a greater lead in recognizing the scope of the problem and the suffering of the abused. It hurts the many that have been abused and should have every reason to hope the church would be where they would be most accepted, protected, and loved.
One expert estimates that between 1% and 5% of the population molest children. This means that if you know 100 adults, chances are good that at least one of them is a child molester. Maybe more. There is no evidence to suggest that the church population differs significantly in reflecting the general population.
Of course, accepting the commonness of the problem does not mean accepting the problem. It is with sexual abuse as it is with a dog’s jumping: it should be neither shocking nor tolerated.
Nor does opening our eyes to the problem mean we should establish a battery of fear-based rules and regulations for young people and for those that serve them. Rather, we must be fiercely communicative, open, vigilant, and wise. We need to understand the fact that abusers, potential abusers, and their victims are all around us. There is no need to adopt a culture of fear, suspecting anyone whose hand we shake at Sunday morning worship is a thief—but we don’t leave our wallets unattended in the robe room either.
How old were you when you were pursued sexually by an adult authority figure?