By Laurie Tasharksi
You can make children safer at your school by changing how you talk about harm
The strongest word isn’t always the right word
Perhaps it’s the news or social media, but there is a tendency to refer to all sexual offenders as predators or pedophiles. Yet, no one believes they hire, work with, or know a pedophile or predator. Casual use of these pejorative terms is inaccurate and leads to harmful bias. It accentuates the myth that sexual abuse is rare and adults who sexually offend are monsters, rather than people like us. Associating these words with all sexual abuse makes it more likely that victims will not be believed, that doubt will be sowed, and that offenders will not be held accountable. These terms may trigger a cycle of denial in a person who finds excuses for their harmful actions because they are neither pedophile nor predator. Their denial makes it more likely they will blame the victim or offend again.
Using the term pedophile is problematic for other reasons. Pedophilia is a mental health diagnosis. It refers to adults sexually attracted to pre-pubescent children, a small proportion of those who sexually abuse children. The word pedophile props up myths about offender and victim gender and sexual orientation It makes us overlook or doubt the harm caused to male victims and can hide sexual abuse perpetrated by women and other children.
Call it what it is
Educators often use minimizing language around sexual offenses because it’s hard to say these words, much less imagine them happening to a child. We say attack instead of rape, touch instead of molest and avoid altogether terms like sodomy. These are hard words, but if the victim can experience them, we should be able to say them. Joking, teasing or flirting are imprecise words that become excuses when talking about inappropriate behavior and sexual misconduct. Physical and sexual assault between students is minimized when called bullying or hazing. Educators and parents sometimes normalize the sharing of self-produced sexual images or ‘sexts’ between children even when there are aggravating elements such as threats, and extortion. Such acts are criminal and the images may be considered child pornography (child sexual abuse material).
There is a spectrum of behavior sometimes called ‘low level’ boundary crossings that fall short of criminal offenses. Yet we know these behaviors in themselves cause harm. These offenses or concerns range from verbal to contact sexual harassment, from inappropriate student attachment to features of grooming. They can be intentional or unintentional. They are always inappropriate and unprofessional.
We do our students a disservice when we fail to maintain appropriate relationships and minimize the consequences of unprofessional behavior like quid pro quo, sexual conversations outside curriculum purposes, favoritism, oversharing of our personal life and dual relationships outside the classroom. Harm can occur even when inappropriate behavior does not have a sexual motivation. A lack of professionalism disrupts learning and has consequences for children, especially those in vulnerable groups. Once a boundary is crossed by a trusted adult, the child is likely to accept the behavior as normal and may be more vulnerable to sexual abuse by another adult.
Identify and alert others to blaming descriptions
Pejorative language around victims fosters bias, blames, and impacts our objectivity. Labeling victims as difficult, attention-seeking, sensitive, promiscuous, or troubled implies compliance or guilt, masks other contributing factors in the abuse and obscures the child’s inability to consent to abuse. In fact, these perceptions might be the reason the victim was targeted or susceptible to abuse, making abuse more likely, not less.
It is difficult to monitor the language of professionals working on a child protection case. It can be helpful to designate advocates for the victim and accused from the team involved in gathering information on the concern to ensure minimizing, biased or pejorative terms are avoided.
As we learn more about preventing institutional abuse, we must acknowledge that a tradition of identifying with and excusing adults has helped perpetuate low disclosure rates and failures to prevent abuse and respond appropriately when it occurs. We are steeped in a history of minimizing harm and blaming victims. Sexual offenses against children are not rare and children cannot consent to abuse. It is always the responsibility of the adult to maintain appropriate boundaries and to act when children are harmed. We must acknowledge that most unprofessional and inappropriate behavior is adult-serving and can harm children, sometimes with lifelong consequences.
By changing our language around child protection concerns we help to remind ourselves that abuse can happen here, false allegations are rare, and a good person may do a very harmful thing.
Learn more from the Education Portal: Read these useful terminology guidelines, also this information about boundary crossing, the role of mandatory reporters of abuse and internal child protection response team roles.
Laurie Tasharski, M.Ed. is the Director of the Global Educator Centre for Excellence at the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children and the curator of the Education Portal resources. The International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children works globally to reduce violence against children. The Education Portal (EdPortal.ICMEC.org) houses resources for educators and other youth serving professionals on abuse prevention and response to abuse when it does occur. Laurie is also a contributing member of the International Taskforce on Child Protection and a great friend and partner of CIS.