Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Jeffrey Epstein case and why language matters

 A statement from the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers

The country has understandably been shocked and appalled by the heinous actions, both confirmed and alleged, involving the sexual abuse and trafficking of children perpetrated by Jeffrey Epstein. However, high-profile cases such as Mr. Epstein’s also bring much-needed attention to a complex public health issue facing not only our country, but all communities worldwide – sexual abuse.

Sexual violence affects millions of people each year in the United States, with more than 1 in 3 women and nearly 1 in 4 men having experienced sexual violence involving physical contact at some point in their lives. International research focused on violence against women has estimated that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner (not including sexual harassment) at some point in their lives. The prevalence of child sexual abuse can be difficult to determine because it is often not reported, but it is estimated that one in four girls and one in six boys will be victims of sexual abuse before age 18.

Sexual abuse is a complex public health issue that requires accurate information in order to support prevention efforts, and the media plays an integral role in information dissemination. However, the media does a disservice to prevention efforts by using terminology such as “pedophile” and “child rapist” interchangeably, as seen in the many articles about Mr. Epstein.

Pedophilia is an attraction to children who have not yet reached puberty. A person with pedophilic interests may or may not act on those desires. In contrast, a child molester is a person who has chosen to sexually abuse a child. In the latter case, even though the abuse is sexual in nature, the motivations for the behavior may not be driven by sexual interest. Other motivations for sexual abuse include but are not limited to, a desire for power and control, general antisocial thinking/beliefs, and intimacy deficits and loneliness. Hence, not everyone who sexually abuses a child has pedophilic interests and not everyone with pedophilic interests will sexually abuse a child. Attraction is not action and action is not attraction.

Whatever Mr. Epstein’s motives may have been, he chose to act on those desires and abuse minors. Unfortunately, his personal wealth allowed him to act with relative impunity. This was exacerbated by those around him either not recognizing what they were seeing due to a lack of awareness about sexual abuse, supporting and benefiting from his behavior, being indifferent to it, or being afraid to report his actions. People who knew him may have minimized his behavior and dismissed their concerns because, with his status and prestige, Mr. Epstein couldn’t be “that guy.”

Mr. Epstein’s case, as well as the cases of Jerry Sandusky, Larry Nassar, and Bill Cosby, are stark reminders that anyone can be “that guy.” Those who commit sexual harm come from all walks of life. They can be people we admire, people we like, people we trust, or people we despise. They cross all socioeconomic, educational, gender, age, and cultural lines.

But another misuse of language – using terms such as “predator,” “monster,” “pedophile,” and “pervert” – to describe individuals who sexually abuse others artificially separates those who cause sexual harm from the rest of us, and does nothing to help the public understand who may perpetrate sexual abuse or develop effective strategies to prevent those actions. Instead, using this kind of language makes it harder to accept that even people we know and trust could be at risk to sexually abuse others.

We must embrace the harsh realities of who commits sexual harm:
·       -  93% of sexual abuse involving minors is perpetrated by someone known to the minor, not a stranger.
·        - 73% of rapes against females age 12 and older are perpetrated by someone known to the victim.

Those who commit sexual harm are those we know and even love, trust, and admire much more often than they are strangers. Effectively preventing sexual abuse requires we all learn about the complexities of sexual abuse, how to protect our children, and how to provide them with the necessary skills to protect themselves across their lifespan. It also requires us to recognize that sexual abuse is not perpetrated by the “monster” other, but by everyday people, famous people, and sometimes even those closest to us.

Accurate information and a shared approach to prevention are the keys to ending sexual abuse. Focusing on sexual abuse as a public health issue provides us with the correct lens to adequately tackle this pervasive issue by moving us beyond ensuring the health of individuals to the health and safety of an entire population. Through education, collaboration, and the involvement of everyone – community members, violence prevention professionals, victim advocates, law enforcement professionals, those who provide treatment to victims/survivors of sexual abuse, and those who provide treatment to persons who have perpetrated sexual abuse – the prevention of sexual abuse can become a reality.

Treatment is not only available to help prevent individuals at risk of abusing children from acting on their thoughts, it is also available to help individuals who have abused refrain from doing so again. The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers offers access to treatment providers who can help individuals receive the assistance they need to avoid sexually abusing children and others. If you are seeking help for yourself, a family member, or a friend, visit and click on “Referrals” to find a provider near you.

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