My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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What if the sexual predator image you have in your mind is wrong?

(I wrote the following piece for Psychology Today under the title “Sexual Predators: The Imagined and the Real.”)

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably seen the creepy portraits of online sexual predators constructed by media: The twisted older man, lurking online, ready to abduct a naive and innocent child and do horrible things. If you’re like most parents, the mere mention of online sexual predators sends shivers down your spine. Perhaps it prompts you to hover over your child’s shoulder or rally your school to host online safety assemblies.

But what if the sexual predator image you have in your mind is wrong? And what if that inaccurate portrait is actually destructive?

When it comes to child safety, the real statistics don’t stop parental worry. Exceptions dominate the mind. The facts highlight how we fail to protect those teenagers who are most at-risk for sexual exploitation online.

If you poke around, you may learn that 1 in 7 children are sexually exploited online. This data comes from the very reputable Crimes Against Children Research Center, however, very few take the time to read the report carefully. Most children are sexually solicited by their classmates, peers, or young adults just a few years older than they are. And most of these sexual solicitations don’t upset teens. Alarm bells should go off over the tiny percentage of youth who are upsettingly solicited by people who are much older than them. No victimization is acceptable, but we need to drill into understanding who is at risk and why if we want to intervene.

The same phenomenal research group, led by David Finkelhor, went on to analyze the recorded cases of sexual victimization linked to the internet and identified a disturbing pattern. These encounters weren’t random. Rather, those who were victimized were significantly more likely to be from abusive homes, grappling with addiction or mental health issues, and/or struggling with sexual identity. Furthermore, the recorded incidents showed a more upsetting dynamic. By and large, these youth portrayed themselves as older online, sought out interactions with older men, talked about sex online with these men, met up knowing that sex was in the cards, and did so repeatedly because they believed that they were in love. These teenagers are being victimized, but the go-to solutions of empowering parents, educating youth about strangers, or verifying the age of adults won’t put a dent into the issue. These youth need professional help. We need to think about how to identify and support those at-risk, not build another an ad campaign.

What makes our national obsession with sexual predation destructive is that it is used to justify systematically excluding young people from public life, both online and off. Stopping children from connecting to strangers is seen as critical for their own protection, even though learning to navigate strangers is a key part of growing up. Youth are discouraged from lingering in public parks or navigating malls without parental supervision. They don’t learn how to respectfully and conscientiously navigate new people because they are taught to fear all who are unknown.

The other problem with our obsession with sexual predators is that it distracts parents and educators. Everyone rallies to teach children to look out for and fear rare dangers without giving them the tools for managing more common forms of harm that they might encounter. Far too many young people are raped and sexually victimized in this country. Only a minuscule number of them are harmed at the hands of strangers, online or off. Most who will be abused will suffer at the hands of their classmates and peers.

In a culture of abstinence-only education, schools don’t want to address any aspect of sexual and reproductive health for fear of upsetting parents. As a result, we fail to give young people the tools to handle sexual victimization. When the message is “just say no,” we shame young people who were sexually abused or violated.

It’s high time that we walk away from our nightmare scenarios and focus on addressing the serious injustices that exist. The world we live in isn’t fair and many youth who are most at-risk do not have concerned parents looking out for them. Because we have stopped raising children as a community, adults are often too afraid to step on other parents’ toes. Yet, we need adults who are looking out for more than just their children. Furthermore, our children need us to talk candidly about sexual victimization without resorting to boogeymen.

While it’s important to protect youth from dangers, a society based on fear-mongering is not healthy. Let’s instead talk about how we can help teenagers be passionate, engaged, constructive members of society rather than how we can protect them from statistically anomalous dangers. Let’s understand those teens who are truly at risk; these teens often have the least support.

(This piece was first published at Psychology Today.)

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3 comments to What if the sexual predator image you have in your mind is wrong?

  • anonymous mom

    Thank you so much for this piece! When my husband was 25, he was arrested in an online sting operation that involved an undercover officer (who, for what it’s worth, was several decades older than my husband was at the time) posing as a sexually-experienced 15-year-old in an 18+ adult sex chat room seeking out another hook up with an older guy (something “she” claimed to have done before and to have had a great time doing). Was he wrong? Yes. Was he a predator? No. He was not seeking out a teen; he was just too stupid, immature, and compulsive in his online behavior to have the good sense to say no when a mature-sounding teen (the officer never, in the months that “she” interacted with him trying to coax him into a meeting, mentioned school, homework, parents, curfews, friends, extracurriculars, or anything that would indicate youth or immaturity–the only things other than sex “she” ever mentioned were getting drunk, getting high, and shopping) sought HIM out.

    Was he wrong? Of course. Did the two years of probation he was sentenced to–and the mandatory therapy–fit the crime? I think so. But the 25 years on a public sex offender registry that he is now 11 years into was NOT fitting. He was not–and this was the conclusion of two therapists, his own and the state-appointed one–a pedophile, predator, or threat. To me, it’s the difference between a drug dealer who is standing on a street corner where adults go to buy drugs, is approached by a teen who asks him to sell to them, and does so, and a drug dealer who stakes out the local high school offering free samples to passing freshman in the hopes of getting them hooked. Both are doing something wrong, but while the latter may pose a genuine threat to teens in the community, the former is only posing a threat to teens seeking out the threat themselves. I think we have to take that difference into consideration, when we’re thinking about things like registries and community notification.

    The unfortunate truth is that you cannot run enough stings in the world to stop 15 year old girls who are actively seeking out sex with 20-something guys from finding somebody willing. The reason the type of sting my husband was arrested in can generate nearly 100 arrests in a single weekend is because MANY men–most of whom aren’t pedophiles or predators or even actively interested in sex with teens, but just want sex in general–will not say no when propositioned by a teen for sex, especially if the men are themselves in their late teens or twenties and still pretty immature and impulsive themselves. If we feel this is a serious problem, we need to address it in other ways, that focus on the needs of the teens who are actively seeking out these encounters, not seeding the internet with undercover officers pretending to be wild, eager teens in places where adults go to meet other adults for sex and then seeing how many men they can catch.

  • vas

    Anonymous mom,

    Your police seems to have nothing better to do. Of course it’s more interesting to spend time in adult chat rooms than fight real crime, thieves and gangsters.

    You know what? I think your husband was not wrong, he was wronged. First, in some countries, 15 is the age of consent. A 15 year old girl is by no means a naive child. Second, I think the police officer acting as agent provocateur should be tried as a crime instigator and pervert, or at least put to real work instead of pretending to be a young girl in adult chat rooms.

  • New Mama

    This is a really thought provoking post. I, too, asumed that online “predators” are mostly adult men. But working in public education, there are a LOT of adult women who prey on teen boys, for one. So let’s not assume men are the only ones capable.

    But really, how many parents educate their kids on how to deal with sexual pressures from their peers? I’ve seen reports from my district – too many! – about even elementary aged children being caught in sex acts on school property! They’re learning it somewhere – and bringing it to school to victimize their peers. That’s more of a threat than some creep online!

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