By Charles M. Blow
Last month came the news that Josh Duggar, now-former executive director of the Family Research Council’s lobbying arm and eldest son on the TLC reality show “19 Kids and Counting,” had apologized and said he had “acted inexcusably.” As In Touch Weekly magazine put it: “Josh Duggar was investigated for multiple sex offenses — including forcible fondling — against five minors. Some of the alleged offenses investigated were felonies.” Those minors apparently included his sisters. Duggar was around 14 years old when the reported assaults took place.
Last week, The New York Times reported that “J. Dennis Hastert, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, was paying a man to not say publicly that Mr. Hastert had sexually abused him decades ago, according to two people briefed on the evidence uncovered in an F.B.I. investigation into the payments.”
The F.B.I. announced their indictment of Hastert on Thursday, and The Times reported: “The indictment said that in 2010, the man met with Mr. Hastert several times, and that at one of those meetings Mr. Hastert agreed to pay him $3.5 million ‘in order to compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct against’ the man.”
There were quick and clamorous reactions on social media and some mainstream media about the irony and even hypocrisy of these conservative icons being caught in unseemly, counter-their-apparent-convictions circumstances.
I understand this impulse. The contradiction is newsworthy. That dissimulation must be called out. But we shouldn’t stray far from focusing on, extending help to, and seeking to be sensitive to the survivors and using these cases educationally to better protect other children.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I can say with some authority that no one should take an ounce of joy in these revelations and accusations. This is not a political issue, even if people — including abusers themselves — have hypocritically used it as one.
This is not the time for giddiness or gloating. Child sexual abuse is tragic and traumatic for its survivors — and that is where the bulk of the focus should always be.
When a child is sexually abused, it breaks bonds of trust. It is a violation of the sovereignty of the self and one’s zone of physical intimacy. It is an action of developmental exploitation. It is a spiritual act of violence that attacks not only the body but also the mind.
It can take decades, or even a lifetime, to recover if recovery is even emotionally available for the survivor.
Indeed, precise statistics on just how large the universe of survivors is are not easy to come by, because many survivors never tell a soul about the abuse. And, if they never tell, obviously they are not at a place where they feel comfortable seeking professional help to deal with it. This only compounds the tragedy. Furthermore, the nature of the abuse, the duration of it, the circumstances around it and the child’s relationship to the abusers can all impact how the child processes the abuse and his or her ability to move beyond it.
All of this means that we have to better understand the very nature of abuse.
It is often an adult in authority — an adult family member, a teacher, a coach, a spiritual leader — but often it isn’t.
As a 2000 Bureau of Justice Statistics report makes clear, although 14 is the single age with the most childhood sex abuse victims reported to law enforcement, it is also the age with the most abuse offenders.
According to the report: “The detailed age profile of offenders in sexual assault crimes shows that the single age with the greatest number of offenders from the perspective of law enforcement was age 14.”
Furthermore, “more than half of all juvenile victims were under age 12” and of that group “4-year-olds were at greatest risk of being the victim of a sexual assault.”
And timing is critical. For very young victims, assaults spike around traditional mealtimes and 3 p.m., just after school.
Also, the greatest number of serious sexual assault charges were for “forcible fondling in 45 percent of all sexual assaults reported to law enforcement.” Forcible rape came in second at 42 percent.
Lastly, while most sexual assaults occur in a home, “Young victims were generally more likely to be victimized in a residence than were older victims.”
Overall, childhood sexual abuse is a crime of access. An abuser needs access to the child, often without suspicion, to conduct the assault with the hope of not being caught.
Once we soberly assess the contours of childhood sexual assaults we can better understand the need for early conversations with children about body safety and ensuring that they have safe spaces in which to express themselves.
And, we can see these two recent cases as more than just political point scorers, but much more importantly as educational and cautionary tales that we can use to protect more children.