Mass media accounts of child sexual abuse tell stories of the deviant actions of individuals that run contrary to our moral sensibilities. That’s what makes news. These perversions are seen as crimes against the social structure of our culture and incite intolerance and outrage.
To protect child victims most accredited journalists do not release identifying information. We do not see the face of child sexual abuse. The spotlight turns on the perpetrator. We seek to understand the story: she made a mistake; it was just a phase; he was abused as a child. It is rationally effective to focus on the perpetrator; we can point to the problem, point to a solution. The world is turned upright again when there are explanations and solutions like mental health services, rehabilitation, or locking them up and throwing away the keys. Done. Finished. Focusing on the abuser gives us a sense of control, a problem identified and resolved.
When another case makes the headlines, we become outraged, call for justice and correction. We read statistics, acquaint ourselves with ways to minimize the risk, demand accountability from schools and sports teams and decry felonious behavior by public personalities. Our reactions may protect another child from harm. There is hope that “It Stops Here.” With some righteous indignation and mild sense of resolve we sleep at night.
But when we turn to the child who has been sexually assaulted, simple cause and effect has no meaning. We look into faces faded grey from unfathomable fatigue; eyes that have settled on some other plane of existence. This is not just sadness or injury, but a partial absence from this world, even years after the abuse has stopped. We cannot remove the wasteland from the child’s eyes, cannot give her back stolen trust or buy back moments of pure self-hood that is her right.
A world made small by media brings pain, frustration and hopelessness each time we turn on our computer, television or read the news in print. It is easier to microscope the crime and pass judgment than get too close to the result: primal fear and the instinct to flee. If we remember what it is like to be a child (in body and mind), owing our survival to adults, we must also admit that as children we had few means of escape from the authority figures in charge of our world. We remember what it feels like to be powerless and dependent, and it is in absolute contrast to the idea that we are in charge of our own reality.
All the while, the victim is content to huddle in the corner and scream “Don’t Look At Me!” Feelings of being bad/dirty/wrong have already buried her in self-incrimination. We don’t dare look into her eyes for fear we, too, will become lost in that wasteland, perhaps even feel a moment of the barren hell across which her mind struggles.The victim of sexual abuse is isolated in shame each time our own discomfort pivots our attention away from her pain and instantly toward remedies of justice.
Is there something between avoiding the victim and persecuting the perpetrator that is helpful for children recovering from sexual abuse? Yes. We can try to mitigate the effect of the crime on the child by making sure she is safe, that she feels heard, and that we believe what happened to her matters. It is never okay for an adult to assert a sexual act on a child.
We must demand that all journalists use reporting language that does not blame the victim and gives resources in support of other victims safely breaking their silence. And we need to hold those agencies accountable for disrespectful and demeaning behavior. We can declare to our family and peers that we will not tolerate, ever, blaming the victim of abuse.
We can participate in programs like Take Back the Night and National Child Abuse Prevention Month that educate the public and support the victims of sexual assault. Get to know survivors and really listen to their stories.
The eyes of children peer from adult faces in church, the grocery store, on the street. I see the same hollow pain when I look in the mirror at my own eyes. I know it is uncomfortable for some, inconceivable maybe. But my life matters, the lives of all the children matter. Please look at me.