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   Date: 8/2/12 Bookmark and Share


An opinion piece by David L. Burton, associate professor, School for Social Work

David Burton will give a lecture, titled "Why do Male Adolescents and Adults Sexually Offend?: Facts for Clinicians Who Treat Sexual Abuse Victims," on Monday, Aug. 6, at 7:30 p.m. in Weinstein Auditorium, Wright Hall, as part of the School for Social Work Summer Lecture Series. The lecture is free and open to the public.

David Burton

What Can We Learn from Penn State?

I was once a guest in a college classroom, appearing with a man who had spent years in prison and treatment for his sexual aggression.

I was ill and quite tired at the time, and was dressed in an old sport jacket and blue jeans, and I had a patch over my left eye. My co-presenter was older, well coiffed, well spoken and well dressed.

The class topic was deceit. We decided that he would speak first and answer questions until the discussion turned to research. I looked downward, averting my gaze. After half a dozen questions, the students were calling him “Doc.”

When a student asked a question about survival curve analysis, I grabbed a piece of chalk and stepped in to in to answer. The shock in their eyes was amazing, the lesson of the day quite clear.

The Importance of Reporting

We know a lot about sexual assault, how to predict reoffense, and how to successfully treat it (in study after study, only 5 to 10 percent of sexual abusers reoffend after treatment). Yet the missing critical element is often a lack of reporting by bystanders. A victim may not want to report what happened due to shame, guilt, fear of not being believed or being harmed.

Why would a bystander not report their suspicions? Bystanders or those suspicious of sexual assault may not report because they think a person they know or care about could not be a sexual offender. This is obviously wrong. An amazing 80 percent of sexual offenders are well known to the victim. And as illustrated in my classroom anecdote, sexually abusive people do not look like monsters—they look like everyone else (only a very few are psychopathic).

A bystander could also be worried about what might happen to the person they report on. After 25 years of working with police I know they do a very careful job in investigations and we need to trust in their skills. Finally, some bystanders may fear repercussions from the accused, such as in instances in which an accused person holds power over the accuser. But is a child’s safety and wellbeing worth giving into those fears? What if it were your child? Are we not all responsible for our societies’ children?

I exhort everyone to push aside such fears and report all suspicions. We can help the survivors and may stop the offender from reoffending. If you need help on this, visit the Stop It Now web page for salient resources and links.

The Potential Benefits of Sports

Secondly, I wish to raise a point relating to coaches and parents. Researchers have reported how difficult middle school can be for about 85 percent of young women (grade drops in 7th grade are extremely common) and that involvement in sports is one of the best ways of maintaining healthy self-esteem. For young men, the difficult period is in early high school. Sports and other extracurricular activities also help boys emerge with self-esteem. In fact, researchers have reported the great social, emotional and physical benefits of sports involvement, facilitated by coaches, all the way into college. However they have also shown that both coaching and education work best when positive and frequent parental involvement is present.

Do you know your daughters’ coaches well? Do you supervise when your son goes on a trip with a traveling team? Do you allow your child and their coach to spend time alone together on a regular basis? Sexually abusive individuals target isolated youth who do not have much parental supervision and, as one client told me, “…who seem lonely.”

In my research and clinical work the motivations for sexual assault are many and the methods are clear—public awareness about this information is the best response to what has been called the major public health issue of our time.

We may never know the details of what happened at Penn State. Yet, we can all learn to report our suspicions and add to the benefits of sports and extracurricular activities by being positively and regularly involved in our children’s schools and lives. Both of these behaviors will reduce the chances of children being sexually assaulted. Finally, if a child tells you they have been abused, please bring them to a licensed therapist as soon as possible for an evaluation.

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