June 28, 2005

A Matter of Right and Wrong

I heard the saddest thing on the radio today.

Howard Stern was on. I don't usually listen to that show, but something about it caught my attention. I thought they were talking to a young woman; it turned out that it was a nine-year-old boy named John, who was talking to them about how he wanted to go to Neverland and have a sleepover with Michael Jackson.

He had apparently called because they had been talking to someone named Deborah who "had the Jackson family ear." I don't know if it was ex-wife Deborah Rowe or what. Howard Stern kept on warning him not to go to Neverland and asking him if he really wanted to sleep in Michael's bed, and John kept saying, "Yeah, if he wants to. I mean, it's a sleepover. I'm sure he's not going to do anything." But he had no idea what Michael Jackson might "do," or what all of the fuss was about.

He begged them to call Deborah back so that she could get him into Neverland, and they finally did. And that turned out to be the saddest part of all. Howard kept on insisting to her that this kid wouldn't be safe and asking her if she really thought that he should sleep in Michael's bed. Which she clearly didn't. She insisted that there were guesthouses and that his parents would come with him, while at the same time saying that they were using "mob mentality" and that Michael was "just a normal guy." And then things took a more sinister turn.

Howard kept pressuring her to admit that it wasn't a safe place for this kid to be and that something might happen. And she took the refuge of the terminally clueless: she began repeating that this kid "knows right from wrong." That even if Michael "tried anything," nothing would happen because John would say no, because he "knows right from wrong."

This was the most chilling moment for me in the whole discussion. I had forgotten, somehow, that there are people who think that sexual abuse is simple. Who think that children can consent. Who think that children can understand what might be about to happen, what is happening to them already, what it will steal from their hearts. Who think that it is simply a matter of sexual abuse being wrong and that children can stop it if they "know right from wrong."

Howard pointed out that John clearly didn't know right from wrong in the way that she meant it, because he "wanted to sleep in Michael Jackson's bed." Deborah didn't believe him, and John said, "Well, it's a sleepover... if we're having a lot of fun and we just get really tired...."

And then he said, "Whatever it takes to get there."

This tiny, innocent little kid. This child who nobody has ever told about incest or sexual abuse or molestation, who nobody has ever warned about bad touch or getting into bed with strangers. Trusting everyone. Trusting his belief that Michael Jackson "wouldn't do anything," without knowing what people think he might do.

And being trusted by adults who do know -- being given the responsibility of stopping potential abuse.

The most disturbing thing about the idea that a child will avoid abuse by "knowing right from wrong" is the implication that it's up to children to stop their own abuse. It carries with it the suggestion that if you are sexually abused, it is because you were somehow morally corrupt. It takes the responsibility off of the abuser's shoulders and places it on someone who not only is too early in their emotional development to understand what is going on or to defend themselves, but who in many ways will be stuck at that developmental stage for years because of the abuse.

Deborah, as well as many other otherwise reasonable adults, does not seem to understand the context in which abuse takes place. To place such expectations on the child is to ignore the tremendous power difference between a child and an adult, especially an idol like Michael Jackson - not to mention the difference in physical size and strength. John, after listening to them protest his safety for about ten minutes, announced that he would be fine anyway because he had a yellow belt.

This is a common childhood belief; my own son, who is seven and has a white belt in kung fu, often tells me elaborate stories about how he would defend himself in a tight corner. The tragedy comes when we carry this belief with us into adulthood, expecting children to protect themselves. In reality, even if they could meaningfully consent to or refuse an adult's sexual touch, being approached in that way itself robs them of their innocence.

comment on this piece. (c) 2005 catherine h.