LANNING'S GUIDE TO ALLEGATIONS
OF CHILDHOOD RITUAL ABUSE, PART 2
In order to attempt to deal with extreme allegations of what constitute
child sex rings, it is important to have an historical perspective of
society's attitudes about child sexual abuse. I will provide a brief
synopsis of recent attitudes in the United States here, but those desiring
more detailed information about such societal attitudes, particularly in
other cultures and in the more distant past, should refer to Florence
Rush's book Best Kept Secret: Sexual Abuse of Children (1980) and
Sander J. Breiner's book Slaughter of the Innocents (1990).
Society's attitude about child sexual abuse and exploitation can be summed
up in one word: denial. Most people do not want to hear about it and
would prefer to pretend that child sexual victimization just does not
occur. Today, however, it is difficult to pretend that it does not happen.
Stories and reports about child sexual victimization are daily occurrences.
It is important for professionals dealing with child sexual abuse to
recognize and learn to manage this denial of a serious problem.
Professionals must overcome the denial and encourage society to deal with,
report, and prevent sexual victimization of children.
Some professionals, however, in their zeal to make American society more
aware of this victimization, tend to exaggerate the problem. Presentations
and literature with poorly documented or misleading claims about one in
three children being sexually molested, the $5 billion child pornography
industry, child slavery rings, and 50,000 stranger-abducted children are
not uncommon. The problem is bad enough; it is not necessary to exaggerate
it. Professionals should cite reputable and scientific studies and note the
sources of information. If they do not, when the exaggerations and
distortions are discovered, their credibility and the credibility of the
issue are lost.
||a. "STRANGER DANGER"
During the 1950s and 1960s the primary focus in the literature and
discussions on sexual abuse of children was on "stranger danger" - the
dirty old man in the wrinkled raincoat. If one could not deny the existence
of child sexual abuse, one described victimization in simplistic terms of
good and evil. The "stranger danger" approach to preventing child sexual
abuse is clear-cut. We immediately know who the good guys and bad guys are
and what they look like.
The FBI distributed a poster that epitomized this attitude. It showed a
man, with his hat pulled down, hiding behind a tree with a bag of candy in
his hands. He was waiting for a sweet little girl walking home from school
alone. At the top it read: "Boys and Girls, color the page, memorize the
rules." At the bottom it read: "For your protection, remember to turn down
gifts from strangers, and refuse rides offered by strangers." The poster
clearly contrasts the evil of the offender with the goodness of the child
The myth of the child molester as the dirty old man in the wrinkled
raincoat is now being reevaluated, based on what we now know about the
kinds of people who victimize children. The fact is a child molester can
look like anyone else and even be someone we know and like.
There is another myth that is still with us and is far less likely to be
discussed. This is the myth of the child victim as a completely innocent
little girl walking down the street minding her own business. It may be
more important to dispel this myth than the myth of the evil offender,
especially when talking about the sexual exploitation of children and child
sex rings. Child victims can be boys as well as girls, and not all victims
are little "angels".
Society seems to have a problem dealing with any sexual abuse case in which
the offender is not completely "bad" or the victim is not completely
"good". Child victims who, for example, simply behave like human beings and
respond to the attention and affection of offenders by voluntarily and
repeatedly returning to the offender's home are troubling. It confuses us
to see the victims in child pornography giggling or laughing. At
professional conferences on child sexual abuse, child prostitution is
almost never discussed. It is the form of sexual victimization of children
most unlike the stereotype of the innocent girl victim. Child prostitutes,
by definition, participate in and often initiate their victimization.
Furthermore child prostitutes and the participants in child sex rings are
frequently boys. One therapist recently told me that a researcher's data on
child molestation were misleading because many of the child victims in
question were child prostitutes. This implies that child prostitutes are
not "real" child victims. In a survey by the Los Angeles Times, only
37 percent of those responding thought that child prostitution constituted
child sexual abuse (Timnik, 1985). Whether or not it seems fair, when
adults and children have sex, the child is always the victim.
||b. INTRAFAMILIAL CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE
During the 1970s, primarily as a result of the women's movement, society
began to learn more about the sexual victimization of children. We began to
realize that most children are sexually molested by someone they know who
is usually a relative - a father, step-father, uncle, grandfather, older
brother, or even a female relative. Some mitigate the difficulty of
accepting this by adopting the view that only members of socio-economic
groups other than theirs engage in such behavior.
It quickly became apparent that warnings about not taking gifts from
strangers were not good enough to prevent child sexual abuse. Consequently,
we began to develop prevention programs based on more complex concepts,
such as good touching and bad touching. the "yucky" feeling, and the
child's right to say no. These are not the kinds of things you can easily
and effectively communicate in fifty minutes to hundreds of kids packed
into a school auditorium. These are very difficult issues, and programs
must he carefully developed and evaluated.
In the late 1970s child sexual abuse became almost synonymous with incest,
and incest meant father-daughter sexual relations. Therefore, the focus of
child sexual abuse intervention became father-daughter incest. Even today,
the vast majority of training materials, articles, and books on this topic
refer to child sexual abuse only in terms of intrafamilial father-daughter
Incest is, in fact, sexual relations between individuals of any age too
closely related to marry. It need not necessarily involve an adult and a
child, and it goes beyond child sexual abuse. But more importantly child
sexual abuse goes beyond father-daughter incest. Intrafamilial incest
between an adult and child may be the most common form of child sexual
abuse, but it is not the only form.
The progress of the 1970s in recognizing that child sexual abuse was not
simply a result of "stranger danger" was an important breakthrough in
dealing with society's denial. The battle, however, is not over. The
persistent voice of society luring us back to the more simple concept of
"stranger danger" may never go away. It is the voice of denial.
||c. RETURN TO "STRANGER DANGER"
In the early 1980s the issue of missing children rose to prominence and was
focused primarily on the stranger abduction of little children. Runaways,
throwaways, noncustodial abductions, nonfamily abductions of teenagers -
all major problems within the missing children's issue - were almost
forgotten. People no longer wanted to hear about good touching and bad
touching and the child's right to say "no". They wanted to be told, in
thirty minutes or less, how they could protect their children from
abduction by strangers. We were back to the horrible but simple and
clear-cut concept of "stranger danger".
In the emotional zeal over the problem of missing children, isolated horror
stories and distorted numbers were sometimes used. The American public was
led to believe that most of the missing children had been kidnapped by
pedophiles - a new term for child molesters. The media, profiteers, and
well-intentioned zealots all played big roles in this hype and hysteria
over missing children.
||d. THE ACQUAINTANCE MOLESTER
Only recently has society begun to deal openly with a critical piece in the
puzzle of child sexual abuse - acquaintance molestation. This seems to be
the most difficult aspect of the problem for us to face. People seem more
willing to accept a father or stepfather, particularly one from another
socio-economic group, as a child molester than a parish priest, a next-door
neighbor, a police officer, a pediatrician, an FBI agent, or a Scout
leader. The acquaintance molester, by definition, is one of us. These kinds
of molesters have always existed, but our society has not been willing to
accept that fact.
Sadly, one of the main reasons that the criminal justice system and the
public were forced to confront the problem of acquaintance molestation was
the preponderance of lawsuits arising from the negligence of many
One of the unfortunate outcomes of society's preference for the "stranger
danger" concept is what I call "say no, yell, and tell" guilt. This is the
result of prevention programs that tell potential child victims to avoid
sexual abuse by saying no, yelling, and telling. This might work with the
stranger hiding behind a tree. Adolescent boys seduced by a Scout leader or
children who actively participate in their victimization often feel guilty
and blame themselves because they did not do what they were "supposed" to
do. They may feel a need to describe their victimization in more socially
acceptable but sometimes inaccurate ways that relieve them of this guilt.
While American society has become increasingly more aware of the problem of
the acquaintance molester and related problems such as child pornography,
the voice calling us back to "stranger danger" still persists.
e. SATANISM: A NEW FORM OF "STRANGER DANGER"
In today's version of "stranger danger", it is the satanic devil worshipers
who are snatching and victimizing the children. Many who warned us in the
early 1980s about pedophiles snatching fifty thousand kids a year now
contend they were wrong only about who was doing the kidnapping, not about
the number abducted. This is again the desire for the simple and clear-cut
explanation for a complex problem.
For those who know anything about criminology, one of the oldest theories
of crime is demonology: The devil makes you do it. This makes it even
easier to deal with the child molester who is the "pillar of the
community". It is not his fault; it is not our fault. There is no way we
could have known; the devil made him do it. This explanation has tremendous
appeal because, like "stranger danger", it presents the clear-cut,
black-and-white struggle between good and evil as the explanation for child
abduction, exploitation, and abuse.
In regard to satanic "ritual" abuse, today we may not be where we were with
incest in the 1960s, but where we were with missing children in the early
1980s. The best data now available (the 1990 National Incidence Studies on
Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children in America) estimate
the number of stereotypical child abductions at between 200 and 300 a year,
and the number of stranger abduction homicides of children at between 43
and 147 a year. Approximately half of the abducted children are teenagers.
Today's facts are significantly different from yesterday's perceptions, and
those who exaggerated the problem, however well-intentioned, have lost
credibility and damaged the reality of the problem.
Return to the OCRT home page, or
"Not So Spiritual" page, or
"Ritual Abuse Studies" page, or
"FBI Report" page.