This is a response to a friend’s discussion thread on the merits of executing child molesters on the grounds that this is a crime that, once proven, the molester is never forgiven for it by society, giving them an effective life sentence, and that execution is more honest and humane than this. Having pointed to problems with this as a matter of policy, I was asked what my solution would be to the problem of molesters. This is what I said:
Solutions — It is a wicked and adulterous generation that thinks it can find solutions for every problem. Hubristic as well. We have found solutions for practically no criminal behavior which prevent them from happening, but we are supposed to be able to solve one of the most repugnant crimes perfectly without taking the time to really understand it? Let me rain on that little parade here and now — it won’t happen. No matter what we do with the law, we can not stop people from choosing to do wrong in whatever way they decide to preemptively. It is a power God has not chosen to exercise, so why we think we can escapes me completely.
Which is not to say there aren’t preventative steps we can and should take — there certainly are. Those steps aren’t terribly sexy, but neither are they all that hard. The first is to stop doing what obviously isn’t working: chest-thumping and fantasizing about excessive punishment for SOs in front of others, so as to distance ourselves from those SOs being first and foremost. In its stead, we can and should educate ourselves about the realities of the issue further, so we are better able to understand where it comes from and how the various attempts to address it in the past have worked and not worked. This will require us to explore and take responsibility for our own contributions to the problem, through both action and inaction. The part of the problem we individually have the most control over is the part which comes from us individually — work in the mirror is going to be far more effective than trying to fix someone who is not us. And, until we have cleaned our own side of the proverbial street, we are not in a position to look down our noses at others for how they have maintained their own side of the street (and, when we have done so, we are less likely to feel the superiority necessary to look down our noses very much).
Next, we can reduce the number of easy targets for predators by making them harder targets. Setting up procedures in our families when our children are small so they know whether a person claiming to be sent by parents to pick them up are for real or not (code words work quite well) is one step. Tell them that any time an adult tries to take them without using a code word, or offers them a reward to be alone with them, they should immediately run, yelling, to any available adult and tell them what’s going on — the probability that they will run from one threat to another is miniscule. Tell them that, if they find themselves being abused, whether they followed procedures or not, being abused isn’t their fault, and that they should go as quickly as possible to a safe adult and report what happened, and that it’s okay to lie to someone hurting you and tell them you promise not to tell anybody if it helps them get away and safe. Tell them that such people will threaten to hurt them, family members or pets, but that that’s just to try to scare them, and they should tell a safe adult immediately, no matter what. This can be done in an age appropriate fashion that will empower children without scaring the hell out of them. And we should tell them that, chances are, the person doing this is going to be someone trusted and liked — a family member, family friend, or someone from church, school, or otherwise trusted to be alone with them, which can make it hard to report, because we don’t want to get this person into trouble for what they’ve done, but the best thing for this person is to report them so they can be helped to stop doing this.
Children who are molested are often comparably traumatized by the aftermath of being molested as they are in the act itself, so we can also learn how to handle a report that a child we care about has been molested in ways that avoid retraumatizing them. First, we can show them that we believe what they are saying, and not challenge them with “I know your father/mother/sister/brother/cousin/pastor/teacher/leader/buddy/etc., and they wouldn’t do something like that. Maybe you just misunderstood what happened, or you’re just over-reacting to an innocent mistake.” Undermining their credibility because the truth they are telling you is ugly attacks them at a time that they are quite vulnerable, and doing so because you can’t handle the truth is not only destructive, but selfish.
But don’t expect that their first report to be the whole truth, either. Especially traumatic events are often repressed in part or whole in the memory, and, sometimes, survivors are not able to remember both the event and who the person doing it was, so they can get names wrong, or other details. So don’t respond to a report by becoming violent with the person they name — this needs to be handled by trained professionals who aren’t closely associated with any of the parties to the incident. And don’t think you need to be the one to handle this — even if you are trained, you’re not in a position to see the whole situation rationally and respond entirely appropriately if this is a child you are close to in particular. Turn the information over to police and child protective services, and don’t expect them to handle this exactly the way you want them to. They will know how to gather evidence to see about prosecuting the case, and if such prosecution is worth the effort and trauma it will subject the child to.
These steps give the best chance that a molester will be caught and stopped, and that your children will be best supported in healing should it happen to them. Predators target the apparently vulnerable, and a child who is warned of the danger and given tools to respond to it will be empowered, and not appear vulnerable.
We can talk about the wide-spread problem of sexualizing children and images of them another time.