Plenty of charismatic, respected people have been accused of sexually abusing children in the last few years. Larry Nassar, Catholic diocese across the world, the Southern Baptists, to name a few. And now that a documentary about Michael Jackson’s sexual abuse accusations is making the rounds, millions of people who loved Jackson’s music are conflicted.
I grew up in a family where everyone was either sexually abused, was an abuser, facilitated abuse, or some combination of the three. And I’m telling you, it’s OK to like Michael Jackson’s music. And the sooner that we, as a nation, can wrap our minds around that, the sooner we can take meaningful action to prevent child sexual abuse.
We all agree that child sexual abuse is bad, and we reserve raw hate for the people who victimize children. But if hating sex offenders protected kids, child sexual abuse wouldn’t be a problem.
Child sexual abuse is shockingly common. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study found slightly over 20% of adults who were born in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s experienced it. The study has been replicated many times over the last 20 years in younger demographics, and that same percentage is found. Even more shocking, a recent study found 10% of men and 4% of women said they would have sex with a child if they thought they could get away with it. Surely, not all the people attracted to children will actually abuse them, and we don’t know how many children are sexually abused by someone who wouldn’t admit to sexual attraction to a child. We also know that it takes survivors of sexual abuse, on average, about 21 years to disclose abuse*, and about 80% of the people who sexually abuse them will never see a day behind bars**
But statistics miss much of the story. They miss the part about victims not always hating their abusers. Abusers are usually people the child knows and trusts, and very often someone who forms a very significant relationship with the child. In the short term, the abuse may not leave the child with hatred, anger, or physical pain, but rather shock and confusion. And that shock and confusion are usually offset by huge dollops of attention, affection and possibly love. If you spend 100 waking hours a week with someone, and 98 of those hours consist of that emotional lucre, with sex taking up only two hours, it’s easy to diminish and dismiss the abuse. All of us need love to survive. For a child who feels love is scarce, abuse is a reasonable price to pay.
My mother was verbally abusive. Every interaction with her could be mocking, shaming, gushing with cold hate. Or she could be bellowing it in red-faced fury. In a 100-hour period, every single interaction would hurt.
Most interactions with a sexual abusers won’t. I developed deep relationships with both of mine. My first abuser only committed a single sexual assault against me; my second one went on to abuse me for four years. And for the first two years I cherished my relationship with him. He seemed to know everything a 13-year-old girl needed to hear, and he said it often. Like the two Jackson accusers who are the subject of Leaving Neverland, I would have lied to the police or anyone else to protect him.
We need to allow victims to hate their abusers as much, or as little, as they want. But as a society we don’t need the calls to execute, torture, rape or castrate sex offenders. These are abundant on social media and around water coolers, but sometimes work their way into our legislative process. Who wants to think about their parent, child, partner, friend or favorite musician being subjected to any of that? We need to stop referring to people who sexually abuse children as “monsters”, and we need to stop saying their victims lives are “ruined”. No one thinks they can love or befriend a monster, and if only monsters sexually abuse children, someone they love or befriend can’t possibly be an abuser. My abusers didn’t seem monsterous to me when I was a child; as an adult in recovery, yes, but not when I was being abused. They were exacting something they wanted in exchange for giving me something I wanted. It took a massive toll on me, but at no point did I ever feel “ruined”.
As a society, we need to hold offenders accountable, and we can’t let hate get in our way. Accountability means our default is believing survivors. It doesn’t mean taking away anyone’s right to due process or modern-day witch trials. It means that when we hear someone say “Someone sexually abused me” we don’t say “are you sure”, “that person never would do that” or “why didn’t you say something sooner?”. It means removing statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse, so victims have the time they need to heal until they can withstand trial. Or for those of those of us who were abused by family members, it grants us the time to have the financial and emotional security to face disownment and isolation. And accountability means becoming a society that is so knowledgeable about child sexual abuse, about how victims heal and hide and of how predators select and silence their prey that that judges and juries aren’t surprised by things like lack of physical evidence or delayed reporting.
Accountability doesn’t mean purging the earth of anything and everything an abuser did. Abusers don’t spend every waking moment abusing children. They do useful things in the workforce, in the neighborhood and in their families, in addition to the massively destructive things they do. We know there have been enough pedophiles to molest 20% of the nation’s children for at least 90 years. Who knows what these people contributed to society when they weren’t molesting children? If we were suddenly to undo all the work they did in their lives, there is no telling what contributions in the arts, sciences, medicine, business and simple workforce presence wouldn’t be here.
Do I feel good writing that last paragraph? Not at all. But I realize this is a conversation we need to have, because if we don’t, we’ll never be able to fully believe victims We’ll never be able to hold sex offenders accountable. And more children will be doomed to sexual abuse.
And that brings us back to Michael Jackson. I do not believe the “Michael Jackson truthers” are trolling and threatening people convinced of Jackson’s guilt because they think an evidentiary or legal principle is at stake.They feel conflicted liking the work produced by someone who sexually abused kids, in particular someone whose success was used to groom kids and whose pedophillic tendancies featured into his persona.
And this is why I’m saying, as someone who has both loved and been raped by pedophiles, it’s OK to like Michael Jackson’s music. It’s OK to like his flare. It’s OK to admit that you thought him charming and likable. It’s OK to admit this with any celebrity or public figure who was accused of sexually abusing kids. What’s not OK is trolling survivors. It’s not OK to invent partisan conspiracies as “proof” that your favorite accused public figure is innocent. These things can silence the survivor standing next to you. That survivor may be a middle-aged friend on facebook, or your own child.
If fans who never met Michael Jackson cannot accept that we have strong reason to believe he sexually abused children, what hope do we have that countless spouses, adult children, siblings, and parents can reach the same conclusion about someone in their family? Changing your mind about a celebrity you’ve never met won’t cost anyone a marriage, a job or make you into a virtual orphan. All of this, and worse, can happen when a relative is accused.
Years ago a friend of one of my abusers, who I met once, tracked me down and emailed me to say he had heard my side of the story about my childhood, believed me, and asked if it was OK for him to still be friends with my abuser. And my answer was “yes”. Depriving my abuser of all human companionship won’t make my life any better. And another set of knowing eyes can keep watch for signs that this abuser is around kids. I spent quite a bit of time telling this individual what to look out for and what to do if he saw him around kids. Statutes of limitation, a symptom of society’s reluctance to hold them accountable, protect my abuser and not children.
And in a microcosm, that’s how we need to live in a society full of survivors and abusers, none of whom wear labels. We need accountability, and compassion is a shorter road to that goal than hatred is. And accountability is what protects kids.
* “Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse Among Male Survivors” by Scott D. Easton, December of 2013 Clinical Social Work Journal”
** Robert Baker of the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board, Massachusetts Office of Public Safety. 2008.
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Executive Director, Stop Abuse Campaign
A survivor of incest, psychological abuse and a host of other childhood trauma, Melanie now uses her talents to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences. Melanie has over a decade of legislative advocacy regarding children’s issues, and she has been published in newspapers, magazines and blogs all across the country.