• Miranda L. Galbreath, MA, MA, LPC

Our language is making us less safe

I recently attended a conference focused on issues of violence, abuse, and trauma, and listened to an impassioned speaker attempt to educate his listeners about the realities of child sexual abuse. This gentleman was himself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and very much wanted his audience to understand the truths of how childhood sexual abuse manifests in our society. He wanted his audience to understand that children are most at risk of sexual harm from those they trust and are closest to: Family, neighbors, caregivers and those who the child should expect to feel safe with. He wanted his audience to understand that they should listen and believe children when they describe abuse or possible abuse at the hands of these people. He also used words like “child molester” and “pedophile” and “deviant” and “sex offender” and “monster.”

I was struck by this, and asked him if he might consider making adjustments to his language in order to be more effective in helping both children and adults understand that the risk of sexual harm is coming primarily from those we love and trust. I noted that it seems unlikely that children or the adults who might protect them from abuse would be able to see their parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, teachers, coaches babysitters, neighbors, spiritual leaders, medical providers, etc. as “pedophiles” and “child molesters” and “deviants.”

His response was swift and decisive, and he moved on quickly, clearly not wishing to discuss this any further. His response was that he wouldn’t consider changing his language because he doesn’t want to “sugar coat” what these people are doing. I was disappointed, but not surprised by his answer. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard someone employ that argument for the use of othering, shaming, judging language for those who do sexual harm. I understand that folks’ reaction is often coming from a place of anger, pain, and fear. Often these folks have themselves experienced sexual harm (as this speaker had), and asking that they make this leap to humanizing those who do sexual harm is not a step they are ready to take. Or people believe that by using this kind of othering language, they are in fact keeping people safe by telling the “truth” about those who do sexual harm.

Well, folks, as this gentleman detailed in his impassioned presentation, the TRUTH is, we are at most risk for sexual harm in our own homes. We are at most risk for sexual harm in the places where we feel safe. We are at most risk from sexual harm at the hands of those we most trust. That’s a hard pill to swallow. Especially since most of us have been raised on the belief that the danger is outside. That “stranger danger” is what we must be most wary of. But that’s a big, fat lie. A lie that makes us FEEL safe, but doesn’t actually keep us safe. It’s a lie that keeps us from noticing when there is a risk within our own safe bubble, and a risk that can keep us from believing our loved one when they report harm at the hands of someone within our own carefully crafted bubble of safety.

If we are keeping our eye out for the dangers of the “criminal,” the “monster,” the “pervert,” the “child molester,” the “pedophile,” the “rapist,” the “sex offender,” we’re likely to have a picture in our minds of who those “monsters” are, and it’s not a picture of someone who is inside our bubble of safety. It’s a picture of a scary villain from a movie, tv show, or novel. After close to 20 years of working in the field of risk assessment and treatment for folks who have committed sexual offenses, I can tell you with great confidence that these folks are JUST REGULAR PEOPLE. You can’t tell by looking at them that they have done anyone sexual harm. You can’t tell by talking with them. They’re just like the rest of us. And they’re somebody’s son, husband, brother, father, grandfather, neighbor, co-worker, date, fellow parishioner, classmate, etc. They are someone’s boss, doctor, teacher, fellow volunteer, coach, Bible Study leader, etc. If anyone in their lives was looking out for a “pervert,” they wouldn’t have seen one. They would have just seen a regular guy.

And so I return to the idea that the kind of judging, shaming, othering language we typically use to describe folks who sexually harm is making us LESS SAFE. It is keeping us from seeing danger when it is right in front of us, in the form of someone we know, and may love and trust. I encourage you to think about that when you are choosing language to describe these folks. The language you choose can contribute to keeping you and your loved ones MORE or LESS safe.

P. S. In a future blog, I’ll talk more about how our use of this othering language can contribute to keeping us more or less safe in terms of the ability of these folks to benefit from treatment and support and integrate back into their communities. Because most of these folks ARE coming back to our communities. And the more we can understand them to be fellow human beings and help them feel supported and develop healthier relationships, the safer we all will be.

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