Much of our focus and derision rests upon the violence inflicted by adults against children. That is easy enough to condemn, to call for blood, to clamor for justice. In that situation, there is no question about fault, no confusion about who is victim and who is predator. Our discourse uses loaded language in this instance to emphasize a terrible, damning point. The words we use blast away at injustice in the hopes of reaching eventual fairness. Fairness is a worthwhile concept, but in particular circumstances, fault is difficult to discern.
If a child knows only violence, violence is often the byproduct. The shame, anger, and humiliation internalized has to go somewhere, even if it rarely goes anywhere productive. As a society we are hesitant to prosecute children as we would adults except for the most heinous of offenses. We give them the benefit of the doubt, for a while at least. Juveniles may never serve a single day in jail, but they may experience the indignity of being separated from their families. Leaving a toxic atmosphere might be good for the short term, but the behaviors already learned do not subside easily. Reversing what has taken hold already is the really hard work, and it can be intensely difficult.
A few weeks ago, the notorious R&B singer Chris Brown shared in an interview that he had lost his virginity at age 8. Subsequent commentators have correctly deduced that if his story is to be believed, Brown was, in fact, raped by a woman twice his age. He views it with a kind of macho pride, one more notch in his belt of sexual conquests. Although most perpetrators of sexual abuse are men, women can commit similar crimes. Boys can be molested by their mothers, or, as is the case here, by women substantially older than them. The stories of male K-12 educators who engage in sexual conduct with their underage female students are commonplace enough. From time to time, one finds a woman guilty of the same offense.
Although many cases of sexual assault are relatively open and shut, crimes committed by minors against minors are harder to prosecute. Adults should know better, we reckon, but by that logic the same cannot be said for children. Even hardened criminals often have a soft spot in their hearts for children. We would like to believe, as a society, that the possibility for reform exists for those who have not yet been corrupted. By implication, adults have fully formed ideas of right and wrong, whereas children do not. At least that is what we think and rationalize.
I am not a violent person. As an adult, physical violence runs contrary to my definition of morality and to my religious convictions. But, for a couple of years during childhood, I became a major behavior problem. I lashed out at whomever got in my way, with force and with conduct that intended to wound. In time, other boys knew to keep their distance, but what I really regret is the way I treated my sister. All siblings fight, but my conduct towards her was especially vicious. Neither of my parents knew what to do, so I received a daily dose of Dad's leather belt. It never stopped me.
I was exhibiting multiple warning signs of sexual abuse, but my parents missed them entirely. They couldn't understand why my behavior was now so contrary to my usually peaceful, shy disposition. It is fortunate for everyone involved that this period of time was relatively short in duration. At most, it persisted for two years, after which time my family moved away from the source, which had been four houses away. But, nevertheless, the damage had been done. The two of us have been dealing with the consequences ever since.
If my family life had been dysfunctional from the start and if I had no access to help, who knows where I might be today. We may have the ability to make personal choices in our lives, but none of us picks our parents, nor the environment into which we are born. What happened to me was tragedy more than criminal act. My sister has chosen to forgive me of her own volition and without anyone's insistence, for which I am greatly appreciative. I never again raised a hand against her, because I felt no need. I was no longer being abused. But the memory of this painful interlude rarely leaves my thoughts for long. The two of us will share it for the rest of our lives.