Any parent can relate to the fear of a sexual predator lurking in the shadows near a playground, looking for the next victim. And while bad-intentioned strangers sometimes really do lurk in the shadows, the reality is that more than 90 percent of sexual-abuse victims know their perpetrator in some way.
Not only are perpetrators typically known by their victims, they usually hold a position of authority and trust over the unsuspecting child. Horrors like the Penn State scandal garner national media attention because of the repulsive and abhorrent acts involved. But when the roles are reversed and it is a woman who selfishly preys on a child’s innocence, it seems that too often society is willing to hold these predators to a different standard.
A recent novel would have us believe that the rules of sexual abuse are different when a woman molests a child. Alissa Nutting’s new novel, Tampa, describes the sexually explicit relationship an attractive female teacher has with one of her male middle-school students, in a way that some might say glorifies her. This storyline is reminiscent of Debra Lafave, the Florida teacher convicted of having sex with one of her 14-year-old students. It’s no coincidence that Nutting went to high school with Lafave and used her as a reference for the book’s main character.
This case — in which Lafave received a sentence of only three years of house arrest after her attorney essentially argued she was too pretty for prison — reinforces the grossly inaccurate idea that if a young boy is having sex with an attractive older woman, he should receive a high five rather than abuse counseling.
While I respect an author’s creative license, I am concerned that this story and others like it lead the public to a dangerous conclusion: that female pedophiles do not pose a serious threat. My personal experience — and my contact with many male survivors of sexual abuse by female perpetrators — tells a different story.
My story of abuse began at the hands of my female nanny when I was 11 years old. The shame and guilt I felt kept me from telling anyone about it for almost six years. I was afraid that people wouldn’t take my story seriously because it involved my trusted nanny, a seemingly sweet and affectionate woman who was a part of our family.
The trauma from that abuse is something I still deal with daily. Fortunately, I was able to make the transition from victim to survivor and started Lauren’s Kids, an organization dedicated to protecting others from child sexual abuse through awareness and education. But there are many children still suffering the ongoing tragedy of sexual abuse, including boys abused by women.
A male victim featured recently in Intimate Crimes, a television program we produced in partnership with the Department of Children & Families, describes the years of anger, relationship dysfunction and strain produced by his abuse by his female babysitter. And yet, many of the friends to whom he disclosed the abuse considered him privileged to receive the sexual attention.
In fact, the advocacy organization, Male Survivor, reports that boys often suffer significant and unique effects of abuse, aggravated by the perception that men are not supposed to be victims.
Child sexual abuse robs children of their innocence. It steals an important and irreplaceable part of their childhood, whether the victim is a boy or girl and whether the perpetrator is male or female.
Novels that glorify abusers, even inadvertently, or gloss over the real pain and damage caused by child sexual abuse, do a disservice and set us back.
It is imperative that we change the way society views this issue and stand up for policies, laws and attitudes that refuse to tolerate adults who prey on children. It is up to us to speak up for those who cannot.
Lauren Book is the founder and CEO of Lauren’s Kids, a nonprofit organization committed to preventing child abuse and healing survivors.