Kids are mostly sexually solicited online by classmates, peers, teens

The respected Crimes Against Children Research Center reports that one in seven children is sexually exploited online. This figure is both credible and alarming. But the context is vital: as danah boyd writes, the average predator isn't a twisted older man trawling for kids; rather, "most children are sexually solicited by their classmates, peers, or young adults just a few years older than they are."

Now, it's absolutely possible for a child to sexually exploit another child, so this isn't to minimize the potential harm to kids. But for so long as we model the threat to kids as being weird, strange grownups, rather than the young people they know and see every day, we will fail to prepare them to comport themselves wisely and safely.

The same phenomenal research group, led by David Finkelhor, went on to analyze the recorded cases of sexual victimization linked to the internet and identified a disturbing pattern. These encounters weren’t random. Rather, those who were victimized were significantly more likely to be from abusive homes, grappling with addiction or mental health issues, and/or struggling with sexual identity. Furthermore, the recorded incidents showed a more upsetting dynamic. By and large, these youth portrayed themselves as older online, sought out interactions with older men, talked about sex online with these men, met up knowing that sex was in the cards, and did so repeatedly because they believed that they were in love. These teenagers are being victimized, but the go-to solutions of empowering parents, educating youth about strangers, or verifying the age of adults won’t put a dent into the issue. These youth need professional help. We need to think about how to identify and support those at-risk, not build another an ad campaign.

What makes our national obsession with sexual predation destructive is that it is used to justify systematically excluding young people from public life, both online and off. Stopping children from connecting to strangers is seen as critical for their own protection, even though learning to navigate strangers is a key part of growing up. Youth are discouraged from lingering in public parks or navigating malls without parental supervision. They don’t learn how to respectfully and conscientiously navigate new people because they are taught to fear all who are unknown.

The other problem with our obsession with sexual predators is that it distracts parents and educators. Everyone rallies to teach children to look out for and fear rare dangers without giving them the tools for managing more common forms of harm that they might encounter. Far too many young people are raped and sexually victimized in this country. Only a minuscule number of them are harmed at the hands of strangers, online or off. Most who will be abused will suffer at the hands of their classmates and peers.

What if the sexual predator image you have in your mind is wrong? [danah boyd]

Notable Replies

  1. This mirrors the sharks/mosquitos apparent-danger paradox. Likewise, most people are injured in car crashes near their homes.

    It's a shame that headlines don't reflect reality, but that's because headlines by nature seek out the rare and ignore the mundane.

  2. My theory is that more than protecting children, people get a thrill from hunting the bad guy. Even if kids are mostly victimizedby peers, that's not going to change people's desire to ensnare the devient. Looking for adolescent abusers just isn't as much fun, and adults feel weird about confronting kids with anything having to do with sex. Like looking for your keys under the streetlamp, it's not about actually getting results, but staying comfortable.

  3. KarlS says:

    Whenever you face a problem that can't really be solved anyway, you might as well focus on "doing something about it" and racking up karma for undirected effort. See also the war on [terror|drugs].

    Then there is also the issue that the real dangers can be so unpleasant. Like people in general, kids are most likely to be harmed by those close to them, but who wants to think about that? Surely preparing them for more comfortable dangers instead has to count for something.

  4. I think you're strawmanning the actual argument here. I've never seen anyone argue that women shouldn't learn to defend themselves.

    I have seen people argue that it's not women's moral responsibility to learn to defend themselves but it is men's moral responsibility not to go around raping women. Which seems about right to me. (Reversing the genders works fine for me too, just sticking with @Shane_Simmons's gender conventions for now.)

    Also, "teach men to rape" is a bit of a slogan and a naive interpretation misses out on what it actually signifies. What it's really about is not putting up with rapey behavior in your social circle. If a friend or acquaintance is acting rapey, confront him or her and let that person know that behavior is not acceptable. The reason a slogan is needed for this is that it's much more common for people to apologize for rapey friends and acquaintances and to try to make excuses for their aberrant behavior. Social pressure does affect people's sense of morality hence: "teach men not to rape."

    If something seems incredibly naive to you one approach is to ask yourself if you're missing or misunderstanding something about it.

    Edit: Also, "thou shalt not kill" seems to be working pretty well if Stephen Pinker's research has anything to it.

  5. There's nothing in this article that says women shouldn't learn to defend themselves if they choose to. What it says is exactly what I said:

    Maxwell made the apt point that the onus should not be on women to have to arm themselves but on men not to rape them:

    I don’t think that we should be telling women anything. I think we should be telling men not to rape women and start the conversation there…You’re talking about this as if it’s some faceless, nameless criminal, when a lot of times it’s someone you know and trust…If you train men not to grow up to become rapists, you prevent rape.

    Also an astute observation from the linked article:

    The truth is that focusing on ways women can prevent rape will always backfire. Not only because it’s ineffective—what a woman wears or what she drinks has nothing to do with whether or not she’ll be attacked—but because it creates a culture in which women are responsible for men’s actions. Because when you say there are things women can do to prevent someone from raping them—owning a gun, not walking in a certain neighborhood—you are ensuring that rape victims who don’t take these steps will be blamed.

    This article is a perfect example of what I described: making the moral argument that the onus is on people not to rape, not for their victims to learn to defend themselves. This does not imply that the victims or potential victims should not so learn, only that they do not have a moral obligation to do so and that the discussion should not involve implicit acceptance of such a moral responsibility on the part of the potential victim.

    If someone wants to learn to defend themselves that's great. I don't see anything in this article saying otherwise. The article does say that telling women to learn to defend themselves is not necessarily a good working strategy; and I agree! If you want to discuss the reasons why martial arts and guns won't do anything to prevent the massive majority of rapes we can discuss that too but I think first you need to acknowledge the actual argument being made.

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