Sociologist Sarah Willie-LeBreton Calls for "Difficult Conversations" on Child Sex Abuse

Philadelphia Inquirer: Talking Through Complexities

By Sarah Willie-LeBreton, chair of the department of sociology and anthropology at Swarthmore College

As the child-sex-abuse trials involving Pennsylvania State University and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia progressed, revelations of abuse were surfacing regularly in cities across the country. As a parent, I want to protect my child, perhaps with constant surveillance, from the predators out there. But as a sociologist, I know at least two things:

First, constant surveillance is not possible, and not necessarily positive. Second, when this many people betray the trust of children, the problem probably has multiple causes, is structural, and deserves a public and thoughtful response beyond punishment only.

The problem of sexual abuse against children is made worse by the paradox that it is both invisible and hyper-visible: invisible because children are usually abused in the absence of other adults and with threats if they reveal their abusers; hyper-visible because the porn market, including child pornography, is robust and the sexualization of children is evident everywhere. ...

Although we have reached a legal consensus that adults should not have sex with children, we need to develop a social consensus. We must start by having conversations with one another. Put it on the agenda in the places where you spend time - your book club, community center, place of worship. Let your neighbors, coworkers, and parishioners know that we need to start talking about teaching children what their rights are so they can stand up for themselves or call for help. Let your state and federal representatives know we need programs and mental-health treatment for those who have been traumatized so they don't traumatize others. These conversations will be difficult, not only because most of us are uncomfortable talking about sex, but because sex and power are fused in our culture. ...

What's the good news? Survivors of abuse who have loving family and friends, and good counseling, can and do emerge from abusive experiences emotionally intact and able to thrive in relationships.

Doing nothing is not an option. The best way to ensure that children do not remain silent when an adult in their midst transgresses boundaries is to make sure they learn about their bodies, their rights, and where to turn if they're in trouble or just need to talk.

Being a sociologist has taught me how complicated life is. Being a parent has given me the courage to face its complexity. If not now, when? If not us, who?

Associate Professor of Sociology Sarah Willie-LeBreton studies higher education and work and teaches about race, racism, and social inequality. Since joining Swarthmore's faculty in 1997, she has also served as associate provost and coordinator of the Black Studies Program.