• Mary O'Sullivan

"Creepy Guys in Vans"




“Mom would say, ‘if some creepy old man grabs you, scream and yell and throw yourself on the ground.’ But no one ever said if your uncle touches your penis or aunt puts her finger up your butt, scream, run, come tell somebody. No one ever said that. Never ever. The only people you ever worried about molesting you were creep guys in vans.”

This quote from Dr. Kelli Palfy’s book, Men Too, illustrates the difficulty faced by eighty percent of child abuse victims. Their abusers aren’t “creepy guys in vans.” Their abusers are family friends, pastors, teachers, relatives, siblings, or even their own parents. And our system of protecting them from abuse is not addressing this reality.

Most children don’t get sufficient information to know what abuse is. Think back to your own childhood. Your family was your frame of reference for what was normal. It’s the same in incestuous families. Many children have no idea that what is happening with a parent or sibling isn’t what happens with everyone else’s family. It is still damaging to them, but there is no basis for them to question it.

Young children may not have a vocabulary to explain what is happening. Parents tend to use euphemisms for the parts that would be involved in abuse, and that can be confusing when the child tries to tell. One little girl reportedly told a teacher that her uncle kept licking her cookie. It was months before the teacher found out that “cookie” was what the child had learned to call her genitals.

Most children don’t discuss sex with adults. I had one talk with my mom about sex. I’d just started my first period. She gave me a pad, showed me where to put the used pads so nobody saw them, and that was it. The only sex education I got in school was the famous “separate the girls from the boys” assembly done by the school nurse. Thank God for it, though – at least I knew what a period was.

Many abused children reported that they couldn’t talk to their parents about what had happened to them. They were too ashamed, and in some cases blamed themselves for the abuse. They also felt that they would get in trouble for what had happened, that their parents disapproved of sex and would be mad at them. Others worried that the parents would be hurt or upset, and kept quiet to protect them. And the children actually being abused by parents would pretty much be limited in who they could tell.

Many adults won’t get involved. In another section of Men Too, a survivor remembers telling a teacher at the school where the coach was molesting him. The teacher downplayed it and told him not to mention it to anyone else. As it turned out, the teacher (at a Catholic school) was also abusing children; and the coach had been moved around to thirteen different schools to avoid abuse allegations.

Even in less shady circumstances, children have less credibility than adults. Almost all survivors have stories of trying to tell adults, or suspecting that other adults knew and were ignoring the situation. And molestors, instead of driving around in vans looking creepy, tend to make themselves trusted members of the community, above suspicion. They often make friends with the parents before approaching the victim, to reduce the chances of the child either telling or being believed.

So, let us say that these three issues are the main roadblocks to children reporting sexual abuse. Using this information, we should be able to design a model to:

1) Educate children about personal boundaries, and what is and isn’t acceptable behavior.

2) Provide a space where the child can discuss concerns in confidence.

3) Ensure that the adult who has received the report will take appropriate action.

And I have some ideas about what that would look like. I’ll discuss them in the next blog.