Adult-child sex: Is it abuse or misuse?

By Nancy Faulkner, Ph.D

"A Quick Fix to a Complex Problem"

In a New York Times article (11/09/97), Frank Bruni wrote about assigning child responsibility in adult-child sex. According to Bruni, experts believe that in some adult-child sex incidents "the victim helped foster the abusive relationship and allowed it to continue over time, apparently taking some comfort or pleasure in it."

There are child advocates and professionals who have replaced the term "sexual abuse" with "sexual misuse." The rational is that we may be overreacting and further damaging children. In a society of sexual freedom, are promiscuous children and teens initiating sex with adults? Should we revise the way we interpret and describe adult-child sex?

In his article "In an Age of Consent, Defining Abuse by Adults," Bruni reviews two highly publicized cases of adult-child sex cases. Bruni cites these cases as examples that a child might be responsible for sex with an adult, and as justification for replacing the term "sexual abuse."

One example by Bruni is the highly publicized case in which a teenage boy, Sam Manzi, was reportedly victimized by an adult who lured him through the Internet. Subsequently, young Manzi abused and murdered a younger neighbor. Did Sam Manzi take solace in a sexual "relationship" with an adult male as a result of their meeting on the Internet? Bruni suggests that might be the case, since Manzi "smashed the recording device" when the "authorities tried to get the teen-ager to gather evidence against the man."

Let's assume that Manzi was seeking "comfort." Is that what he ultimately received? Did Manzi's behavior suggest he had been the contented recipient of "comfort" when he subsequently abused and murdered his younger neighbor ? If Sam Manzi was safe and secure in "comfort," wouldn't he have been more likely to lovingly and openly pass on that "comfort" to someone else? Or, does Manzi's behavior sound more like that of someone violated and internally enraged, who turned his anger into destruction of the "recorded" reminders and "evidence" of the degrading betrayal? Was Manzi in a state of contentment from some kind of distorted "comfort" bestowed through adult-child sex when he killed his young neighbor? Or did Manzi ultimately, in self-defeat and total frustration, vent his rage through what he had learned, -- the exploitation and abuse of another young innocent?

The other case Bruni used as an example in his article was a 13-year-old male student who was reportedly sexually abused by his 35-year-old female teacher. The teacher pleaded guilty to sexual abuse; but the young student defended her in court when he said he initiated the adult-child sex.

Is the teacher blameless because her student assumed responsibility for feelings he had for his teacher? Taking a closer look at the student and teacher "relationship," are there any notable differences between a 13-year-old and a 35-year-old? If the young student was infatuated with his teacher (which happens), wasn't it the responsibility of the 35-year-old teacher to help guide the young person's emerging fantasies into more appropriate channels? Aren't teachers trained to do that -- develop and re-channel youthful exuberance? Did Sam Manzi and the student "allow it to continue over time," -- and are they thus responsible for what happened -- or at least for allowing it to continue? Are these two cases examples of children who promote and "foster" sex with adults? Child predators would quickly align with those who share this perspective.

If we, as mental health and juvenile justice professionals, diminish the term "abuse" and do not hold adults accountable, don't we send out the message to children that they are responsible? If we even casually suggest that a child is responsible for adult-child sex because of some "initiated" inappropriate behavior, are we not alleviating adults of the responsibility to be the guardians who guide children toward healthy development?

What about the references in Bruni's article to children receiving "pleasure" from adult-child sex? In many cases that is in fact true. The world population would not be exploding if pleasure were not a factor in reproduction. In other words, sexual touching generally feels good. Ironically, that same innate reaction of "pleasure" is also the cruel source of guilt for victims, -- and for adult survivors trying to overcome the aftermath of their victimization."Pleasure guilt" is best summarized in the self-condemning statement made by survivors (if not expressed aloud, then at least to themselves) -- "It felt good, so I must be bad."

Abuse survivors tell us that one of the problems that lingers into adulthood and that keeps the secret intact for years, is the child's feeling that they were somehow to blame, and as a result, they are "dirty" or "soiled." Sex offenders are smart. They know about the "pleasure guilt" and may even emphasize it to keep the sordid secret, -- "If you tell anyone about this, they'll think you're bad." In this light, did Sam Manzi smash the recording device because he was trying to protect the older man who lured him through the Internet? Or, like other victims, did Manzi feel the excruciatingly painful, misplaced, internal guilt? Guilt for feeling responsible. Guilt for experiencing some pleasure. Guilt for feeling dirty.

When Sam Manzi smashed the "recorders," could he have been trying to destroy and erase any remaining traces of what had happened to him? Is it possible that Manzi could not stand to have others hear the horrible details of the violations he was trying so hard to forget? Is it also possible that he could no longer bear to hear the continuing "recorded" reminders? Or, was Manzi feeling responsible for his own victimization because he, in Bruni's words, "allowed it to continue"?

Take a minute to think about it. You're a young child. An adult has engaged you in sex. If you tell, and if the adult is not responsible, -- then who is? It's bad enough to have to repeat and relive the heartbreaking details, -- but to feel responsible, because the adult was just a little irresponsible? Isn't that adding insult to injury -- literally? Sex offenders very cunningly weave the web of abuse and secrecy. The snare is cast ever so slowly under the guise of a "loving" relationship. By the time many children realize something is wrong, the violation has begun, and the stench of the self-deprecating feelings has already emerged into their terrified reality.

What kind of additional burden are we inflicting when we tell children they are responsible for allowing the abuse to continue? Do we leave it up to our children to identify and stop the abuse? If we do, we impose on an innocent child the responsibility to recognize their abuser's subtleties, and then with their small voice, -- try to make it stop.

To further argue for alternative terms for "abuse," Bruni appears to resort to black and white, all or nothing logic when he says, "parents and legal authorities frequently (assign) ironclad roles of villain and victim."

Perhaps it really is as simple as Bruni suggests -- villain and victim. Villain -- "trickster, deceiver, criminal." The adult who presumes sex on a child is "deceiving" the child into believing that it's okay, "tricking" the child into trusting that it's a loving relationship, and engaging in "illegal criminal" behavior.

Whether the adult is a parent who gives birth to and raises a child, a teacher who has the admiration of a child, a coach who has the respect of a child, or a priest who has the confidence of a child, -- it is still illegal. Bruni contends that, "At times this simplification of the truth can actually worsen wounds caused by the imbalance of power and betrayal of trust inherent in a sexual relationship between an older adult and a much younger child." Bruni suggests that placing full blame on the adult "negates a teen-ager's own perception of events, sowing further confusion about what happened."

Who is confused? The offenders? No. They know it's wrong; that's why they keep it a secret. The children? Yes. They are confused; and we contribute to their confusion by continually trying to rename, redefine, and patch it up with magic solutions. Children don't always know when they are being abused; they sometimes don't know what to call it. To add to their confusion, like inconsistent parents we keep sending them more and more conflicting messages.

We can't have it both ways -- "misuse" and a crime. Do we want to de-criminalize sexual abuse? Would that make it easier for children to come forward? Maybe. Then what? We give sex offenders a slap on the wrist for "misusing" children? Something equivalent to a parking ticket?

What are the real issues here? This seems like just another attempt to find an oversimplified, single-factor solution to a complex problem. Too often we want a quick-fix. A single golden key that unlocks the door. People in search of a magic key with a hyped-up name, who are chasing the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Prevention programs haven't been the solution. Megan's Law and sex offender registers haven't been the solutions. Better investigations haven't been the solution. Public awareness hasn't been the solution. Research, a better understanding of the issues, and improved therapeutic approaches haven't been the solutions. But they have all contributed to working toward solutions.

So maybe it's black and white, -- and maybe it isn't. Is adult-child sex a crime? Yes. Should it be a crime? Yes. Does adult-child sex damage children? Yes. Does it damage all children the same way and to the same severity? No. Is "abuse" the same in every case? No. Should every victim be treated the same in therapy? No. Is every offender the same? No. Should every offender be treated the same in the court system? No. Bruni hits on the stereotyping mindset when he degrades the intelligence of the reader by saying that at the thought of child sexual abuse, "the kind of image that creeps to mind is a depraved adult taking muscular advantage of an 8-year-old's rag-doll frailty, strangling an incipient cry of protest with threats or promises." Have we only traveled that far from the dark ages? Do we still believe that child molesters wear trench coats and live in the gutters?

It only takes a quick scan of the headlines to see that sex offenders come in a variety of shapes and sizes -- principals, coaches, doctors, lawyers, scout leaders, ministers, priests, neighbors, relatives -- the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker.

Long ago debunked is the concept of sex offenders as primarily strong armed monsters who overcome their victims with sheer brute force. Convicted sex offenders have been telling us for years about their patient and devious selection and grooming of their prey, sometimes for more than a year prior to the actual abuse -- and sometimes grooming the prey's family in the abuse preparation process.

Bruni casually refers to adult-child sex as "relationships." Is Bruni correct in assigning the term "relationships" to incidences of adult-child sex? I'm not sure what Webster would say, but "relationship" seems to suggest something that two people engage in willingly, -- and with well-informed intent. By definition, there are "bad relationships," and "poor relationships," so adult-child sex could be loosely construed as a "relationship." But it just sounds like one more way to avoid saying what it is, -- "abuse."

Bruni quotes a noted psychiatrist as saying, "It makes a lot more sense to say that somebody cared about you and loved you but didn't do it in the right way." If this is true, why is the adult so careful to keep the "loving relationship" a secret? If the person having sex with a child truly believed it to be a "loving relationship," why would it be so cautiously guarded?

Certainly describing adult-child sex as a "relationship" and depicting it as "loving," or "misuse," would make it so much easier for the offender. But what will it do for the victim? Do we truly add "further confusion" by acknowledging that abuse was "abuse"? If we were to start telling children who have been the objects of adult-child sex that they were simply unintentionally misused, would they feel better? Would children then believe that the secrets behind closed doors were simply a mistake of loving intent, -- and instantly the questions of trust, guilt, self-blame, and betrayal would disappear?

We know from survivors that the aftermath and effects of sexual victimization can last well in adulthood, and frequently a lifetime. Is that because we call it "abuse"? Or is it because it is "abuse"? When the people of the Midwest were devastated by floods in '96, were they distressed because we called it "floods"? Or were they troubled because they were under water? If we had called the floods "misdirected moisture," would they have been less damaged by the raging water? How would they have felt about having their ordeal diminished and defined as some kind of unintentional precipitation?

By suggesting that innocent children not place the blame squarely where it belongs, -- on the adult, -- are we turning the clock back to the days of telling rape victims that they "asked for it"? If we don't place the responsibility where it belongs -- on the adults -- aren't we confirming what child victims are already saying to themselves, -- "It's must be my fault." If we dismiss "abuse" as "misuse", and tell children that they were simply a part of misguided love, aren't we sending more confusing messages? Will we then drive the secrets further into the night?