Monday, August 27, 2007

Sexual Predators & The "Othering" of Men

A billboard targeting sexual predators of children in Virginia (story ABC) has stirred controversy, in that it seems to target men. Ah, but isn't it true that sexual abuse of children is overwhelmingly perpetrated by males? Yes. But it is also true that the vast majority of men neither desire nor have perpetrated any such crime. The critics of the billboards say its depiction of a male holding a child's hand -- and provocative radio ads which further underscore the male involvement with sexual abuse -- may well create in children a fear of men in general.

For me, who as a man has often experienced the pain of seeing my gender's connection to sexual abuse, including that of both children and adults, I can't help but resonate some with these critics' worries. Yet as a Christian with pro-feminist leanings I also can't help believing that as men, we best serve our own gender and humanity in general by wholeheartedly becoming involved with those protecting children and targeting pedophiles.

I try, when viewing a story about yet another child molestation case or rape of an adult woman (the latter being a crime I take very personally as a blow against all men as well as women), to get past that feeling of guilt/defensiveness a sensitive male can hardly escape in such matters. Women do view men with suspicion, and my feminist sensibilities tell me we often give them more than adequate reasons to do so. Rather than complain that we are being discriminated against (which as a white male I feel is singularly disengenuous), I suggest we men find ways of standing beside women and children against predators, most of whom are in fact male.

I would hope that in an instance where we experience discrimination due to being male (a mother's apparent nervousness at our presence, a woman's sudden outburst in the office or a social situation about how men are all dogs, that "all men want the same thing" and so on), we allow that feeling of unfairness and anger and sadness at such accusations against us to remind us of how much more often such things happen to minorities and women. Let our small bit of suffering teach us to empathize with the greater suffering of others.

The terrible truth is that regarding sexual violence, the male is implicated. We personally may not feel that we are, but our manhood is for far too many women a sign of their own, and their children's, lack of safety.

For the Christian male, this is especially problematic. Our history, and our present (see the Southern Baptist leadership's continual war on women as an example), prove that we are not living the Word we claim as authoritative. The first favor we can do women is to de-Patriarchalize the Church and our understanding of God. Calling Him Father is one thing... but claiming that women may not teach or preach, must submit to their husbands unilaterally, and so forth is to create a culture in which violence against women and children is more likely to occur.

If we are tired of being "othered" and seemingly implicated in crimes we personally are not part of, perhaps we need to help create a Church and a culture where sexual predators have nowhere to hide, either doctrinally or in practice. It isn't enough to merely say "I'm not responsible for rape and/or child abuse." We must make war on the systems which perpetuate such abuse, whether it be systems of theology in the Church or the hideous virus of internet pornography feeding child molesters and other peretrators of sexual violence.

We are part of the problem as men... or part of the solution.

For more suggested reading, see Christians for Biblical Equality.


@bdul muHib said...

Really good thoughts here, Jon. I reasonate with all of them.

As someone who's been the victim of women using their sexuality in a predatory manner (though I think for an adult male this is a different situation than what is experienced by an adult female, or a child), I also feel like too short shrift is paid attention to what women in our society do in these lines. And on the other side, as you point out, I feel sad that my ability to care for children and truly love them is limited by societal norms and expectations- that men are dangerous, and therefore should not be near children.

Lainie Petersen said...

I am all for making people aware of sexual preditors.
But the fact remains that in most cases, the sexual preditor that is of greatest danger to children is the person that s/he knows. Billboards warning parents of "monsters" out to take their children's virtue miss the point entirely.

I believe that it is very important for children to be able to relate to adult men in a natural, unencumbered way. There has got to be a better way to approach this.

Jon Trott said...

Good point, Lainie. Though there are those cases of stranger abduction by child molesters (often including the murder of the victim afterward), much if not most child abuse is indeed coming from those who know the children involved.

I am not aware at present, though surely suspect such a thing exists, of a list of ways a male can (and even should) safely interact with children to both teach the children that men are often "safe" and trustworthy and even fun to know, yet also safeguard both children (from exploitation) and men (from false accusations) by being wise.

Hugging a child, for instance, seems safe enough in a public setting. Placing a child in one's lap for any length of time, however, is something which these days I would discourage. Someone close to me was sexually fondled as a child while in a room full of people oblivious to what was going on, and it happened via the abuser holding the child in his lap and doing what he wanted.

Another such practice would be uncritically allowing men (or women in this case) to take a child off somewhere alone. Not universally applicable, perhaps, but certainly something that I wouldn't encourage in many cases.

The whole business of sexual abuse of children is one we can barely stand to have to discuss or deal with, yet if we do not, we become in some small way part of the problem rather than helping solve it. Children do need men in their lives, but also need protection from sexual abuse, and balancing that unsolvable reality is something we must never despair in doing.

Finally, I again acknowledge that women, too, can abuse. As a male, however, I look most intensely at my own gender's greater involvement in sexual crimes, perhaps not least because I feel most wounded by that reality.

Lainie Petersen said...

I guess my problem with the notion of a "list" of ways that men can interact "safely" with children is that it is still predicated on the notion that most men are molesters and/or are tempted to molest. I do not believe this to be the case. While any
instance of abuse is tragic, I'd argue that it is far more tragic to foster a culture in which men are further alienated from children. As such, I see no reason why men should not engage in appropriate contact (including physical affection) with children that they know and care about.

My biological father, a criminal defense attorney who, in his later career, worked on a lot of phony abuse cases, was very upset about this cultural change. He told me the story of when, back in the late sixties, a single mother friend of his lamented that her young son kept "missing" the toilet. Bio-dad told her not to worry, took the boy into the bathroom and showed him how to "make bubbles" in the toilet while urinating. The kid never "missed" again, and the mom kept thanking bio-dad for years afterward.

Bio-dad lamented that he would NEVER engage in this sort of behavior today: Heaven knows what sort of accusations can be made. He told everyone he knew (male and female) to NOT take a job working with children, to NOT be alone with a child, to NOT take in foster children, etc. He felt that the hysteria was so bad that nobody was safe from having their lives destroyed by a false accusation. Single moms are just going to have to get used to scrubbing yellow stains from their toilet rims and bathroom tile.

Kids should be taught that their bodies belong to them (and to God) and that nobody has a right to touch them in an inappropriate way or in a way that makes them uncomfortable (i.e. parents should stop making kids hug and kiss relatives/family friends if they don't want to.) Kids should be taught (by both word and example) that their parents love them and that they will support and protect them if they (the children) tell them that they have been molested or that someone is making them uncomfortable. Parents should use common sense in supervising their children and regulating who their children come into contact with. Sadly, our culture of demonizing and perverting male sexuality doesn't foster common sense, it just makes matters worse.

-B said...


I resonate sooo much with these feelings. But I can't shake what you call "defensiveness." As women would not tolerate male stereotypes, why on earth should I tolerate it when women stereotype me in the manner you described? Sure. Jump on board with practical ways of empathizing with the greater suffering of others (i.e. children viewing healthy relationships between their parents, de-patriarchalize the church, etc), but it doesn't help matters that I should not be straight forward, if not outright blunt with women who judge a book by it's cover. As a matter of fact, I become quite annoyed at it. I feel as if I'm having to make excuses for my gender. For my being male. Stereotyping anyone seems to perpetuate (albeit one factor) this gender war or war between the sexes. And it seems that that is what this billboard has successfully done.

Jon Trott said...

Re-reading these comments, I have a few questions...

@bdul, wish you could share more about what happened to you... names excluded of course, and no need for graphic detail which would make things a lure for other molesters out there. But rather more about what and how you felt as a child after enduring this. Did it have any religious dimensions (abusers often use God-talk to rationalize to the victim what they are doing...)

Lainie, you wrote: "Sadly, our culture of demonizing and perverting male sexuality doesn't foster common sense, it just makes matters worse." I agree... BUT...
isn't it true that our culture really speaks from both sides of its mouth? That is, males are over and over again told that objectifying women (and these days, other men as well) by viewing them as potential sexual conquests. I recall Jay Leno -- on Oprah, who did not challenge him in the slightest -- saying he looks at porn all the time and that there are two kinds of men regarding pornography: those who look at it all the time and those who lie and say they don't. I've not watched Leno since!

So, male sexuality is in fact attacked continually... but not only or even primarily by feminist critiques that may sometimes go too far. I continue to believe that those controlling the American consumerist system that porn remain as nastily soulless and devouringly focused upon the feminine as target as is possible. When women and children are victimized via sexualized violence by men, loud self-righteous sounds of horror emanate from the same media outlets who are owned by corporations selling the hard drug of porn that produces such distortions of male sexuality in men.

An informed "faithful feminist" approach to this should target social hypocrisy by men -- and women such as Christy Hefner -- before targeting the victims/victimizers whose acts in part are fed by the addictive drug, pornography.

And finally, -B, I agree with you that for a woman to islike me simply because of what exists between my legs is not only wrong morally and ethically, it is silly. But... my balance to that comment is that for many women, that which lies between men's legs is as much or more a weapon than it is a God-given gift with which to caress one's wife with and by...

Sigh. It all goes in the end back to relationship, back to the vulnerability necessitated by love and the reality that, being broken ourselves and loving broken others, despite Christ at work in us we will hurt one another relationally and there will have to be a whole lot of forgiveness. As a man, who socially is allowed more power (even today!) than my female counterpart, I am trying to learn to all but ignore defensiveness (deserved or not) in favor of vulnerability in favor of the less-culturally favored other.

Probably sounds like double-speak, and in my life it sometimes is rank hypocrisy. Just ask my dearling Carol. But nonetheless, it is my hope and my goal to make one human contribution to mutuality in love via my words and more importantly my life.