It feels like we have been inundated with a variety of sex scandals that seemed to start with Harvey Weinstein. The responses vary depending on political or financial interests and ignorance about sexism and misogyny. I can understand how many people might seek to minimize or deny true reports because I once shared many of these offensive beliefs. I have been blessed to learn about gender-based mistreatment by listening to so many amazing women who shared their knowledge with me. Anyone with a platform gets to express their opinions about the latest scandal, but it is the victims and those familiar with the research who can offer the most informed opinions.
Apologists focus on the delay in reporting his abuse, but experts understand we are discussing the most underreported crimes and there are serious risks discouraging reporting. We also live in a society where the myth of frequent false reports by women undermines reporting and protects abusers. In many of the cases including the Senate candidate in Alabama and the President, we see multiple reports that are supported by contemporaneous but private revelations. Do we really believe that many different women would tell family or friends decades ago so they could undermine a career or election today? Is it some liberal plot when on one day we see reports about the first President Bush, Senator Franken and Roy Moore?
Most reports are likely to be true because women rarely lie about abuse issues. In our sexist society women are often the ones blamed for the improper actions of men. When we have reports from multiple women and contemporaneous disclosures, the chances of the reports being wrong are close to zero. Some defenders have invoked the concept of innocent until proven guilty but this is misplaced. It applies to sending a defendant to jail and not the actions of civilians in response to credible reports. A responsible parent would never allow their child to play at the home of an accused pedophile based on innocent until proven guilty.
I am glad that some prominent examples of sexual abuse and harassment are being exposed. It is likely the publicity will send an important message to men we have never heard of that this kind of mistreatment is now more likely to come with consequences to the offender. This latest scandal(s) comes in the context of scandals that have exposed widespread sexual abuse in the military and on college campuses. Those scandals were exacerbated by scandals in the deeply flawed and even criminal lack of response by colleges and the military. These revelations led to important reforms and training. Unfortunately it also led to a backlash from male supremacists like Steven Bannon. This resulted in the Trump administration rolling back protections designed to prevent sexual assault on college campuses.
New and Worse Scandals Are Coming
Many politicians who are not usually strong leaders concerning protecting women from abuse have strongly condemned Roy Moore. This may partly be caused by the strong evidence and weak denials, but perhaps more important is the credible evidence that some of Moore’s abuse was directed at children. Pedophilia is all too common in our society but not in our media headlines. I hope this is about to change because every day I am sickened by our failure to protect children and practices that turn our collective heads from their suffering. Especially disturbing is the public policy and flawed practices that undermine efforts to safeguard children.
The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Research comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The original study involved a population of over 17,000. At least five additional studies have confirmed and expanded the findings. In other words this is medical research we can be completely confident of. One of the findings is that at least 22% of children in the United States will be sexually abused by the time they reach 18. The methodology is such as to eliminate any issue of false reports because there would be no reason for the participants to lie. There probably are some participants who have repressed the most painful experience of their lives or are still too embarrassed to reveal it even in a confidential questionnaire so it is likely about one-quarter of our children are sexually abused.
The societal culture that includes objectification and sexism certainly contributes to the frequent sexual exploitation of children, but so too do the flawed practices from professionals who are supposed to protect children. During the original Quincy Model that dramatically reduced domestic violence and child abuse, District Attorney Bill Delahunt created an office that focused on incest and child sexual abuse. He sought to combat the widespread lie that most incest claims are false. Forty years later many law enforcement, child protective and court professionals continue to be influenced by this lie. One of the victims in the Penn State sex abuse scandal explained he didn’t come forward earlier because he thought he would not be believed. Many child protective caseworkers discredit abuse allegations during contested custody cases. The response of family courts is so bad that they disbelieve 94% of child sexual abuse reports.
One of the standard practices that most undermines our ability to protect children is the difference in response to child sexual abuse based on the relationship with the alleged rapist. At least 90% of child sexual abuse is committed by someone the child knows but only when the alleged offender is a stranger is the investigation focused on bringing the perpetrator to justice. In cases where the offender is a close relative the investigation is often led by a social worker and the purpose is reconciliation rather than punishment. All of these flawed practices make it easier for rapists and molesters instead of for children.
Custody Court Scandal
The failure of custody courts to take child sexual abuse seriously is so bad that attorneys actively discourage their clients from even mentioning sexual abuse. In many cases protective mothers are punished (which means the children are punished) for trying to save their children. Courts rely on evaluators who rarely have specialized training in child sexual abuse or domestic violence. A recent pilot study found the courts treat a theory concocted by a pro-pedophile author as if it were more important than studies from the CDC and US Justice Department that show domestic violence and child abuse are more harmful than previously recognized and court professionals do not have the specific knowledge they need to recognize and respond to abuse cases.
The Center for Judicial Excellence has found over 600 children involved in contested custody cases have been murdered by one of the parents, usually the father in the last ten years. A related study by Dr. Dianne Bartlow asked judges in the communities where these tragedies occurred what the courts have done in response to the murder. The shocking answer was nothing because even good judges assumed the local tragedy was an exception. Although deliberate false reports by mothers occur less than two percent of the time, family courts are ruling for alleged abusers over 70% of the time. This means custody courts are forcing children to live with dangerous abusers in a large majority of contested cases. A study for the Leadership Council estimated that every year, 58,000 children are sent for custody or unprotected visitation with dangerous abusers. Next year the National Institute of Justice is expected to release a study by Professor Joan Meier that I believe will definitively establish the frequency that custody courts place children in jeopardy.
Expensive and Painful Consequences
While an individual report of sexual misconduct could be wrong, we know a very large majority of the reports are true and there are many more that are never reported. Abusers seek to attribute the reports to a variety of improper motives but the simple truth is that women make these reports because they want the abuse and mistreatment to stop. The reports are uncomfortable for the offenders and their friends and for a society that for too long looked the other way. Now that the dirty secret has been exposed our society must never return to the denial and tolerance that ruined so many lives.
The arc of history is inevitably headed in one direction that promotes decency and fairness. The long reign of oppressions like male supremacy and white supremacy is not over, but it is on the downside of its lurid career. The Steve Bannons of the world that seek to promote a backlash to the inevitable progress can cause tremendous harm but can never change the arc of history.
Therefore it is important for good people to learn the truth and to lend their voices in support of decency and fairness. The direct victims and those who love them pay the greatest price for the tolerance of gender based abuse. The public rarely hears about the many cases that destroy lives and deny victims the opportunity to reach their full potential. The full cost to society is hidden because we have always lived in a society undermined by sexism and misogyny.
The United States spends $750 billion every year for health costs caused by domestic violence. The public pays for this in the form of higher taxes and insurance premiums. Still more resources are lost from the consequences of these crimes; including the fact that children who witness domestic violence are more likely to commit crimes and make other bad choices when they grow up. The tolerance for domestic violence, sexual assault, harassment and other gender based crimes and misbehavior severely undermine our economy because many victims fail to reach their economic potential. The human costs are, of course, even worse.
The men in my batterer classes are often surprised when I teach a class based on a baseball song. The song is “Now They’re Writing Songs” by Terry Cashman. The song tells the story of Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball. For me the song is about lost opportunities as a result of the racism that denied black men their opportunity to play in the major leagues. Cashman says there might have been more Willie Mays’s. What might the victims of Roy Moore or Harvey Weinstein or millions of other abusive men have accomplished if not impacted by sexual assault and harassment? At the end of the song Cashman says he wishes there was something he could do to change it. This is the sad part of the song because the player’s lives are gone and we can never go back and return their lost opportunities. Let us make sure that no one has to write a song in twenty years about our failure to respond effectively to the latest round of gender-based scandals.
The spate of credible reports against powerful men who used their power to hurt girls and women has shined a light on a dark subject and provided an opportunity for a national conversation leading to needed reforms. I wish we had a leader who recognized the importance of this issue and could provide leadership to create the needed reforms. Many people were galvanized against Roy Moore because some of his reported crimes were committed against children. For some people this was the line that should never be crossed. But tomorrow and every day millions of our children will continue to live with pedophiles. Domestic violence abusers will successfully manipulate family courts to undermine domestic violence laws and regain control over victims trying to leave them. And 94% of child sexual abuse reports, most of which are true will be disbelieved by court professionals lacking expertise about the exploitation of children.
The arc of history is moving in a good direction but it is time for good and decent people to give it a shove because too many more victims will suffer until we overcome the long history of sexism and misogyny and the backlash evil people are using to slow the needed reforms.
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Domestic Violence Writer, Speaker, and Advocate
Barry Goldstein is one of the leading domestic violence authors, speakers, advocates, and a frequent expert witness.