Heal the World – from Child Abuse


At the risk of being denounced for asking the question: Which do you think is worse: sexual abuse or physical abuse?

Sexual child abuse is of course inexcusable. But I suspect there are other crimes that can do as much or more damage to a child as sexual abuse, crimes that we routinely forgive.

Michael Jackson was abandoned by most of his fans over allegations of child abuse. He was never convicted of anything so it is may be unethical to speculate, but one biographer argues that the worst impropriety probably involves a phone call with a teenager. Put that alongside the established fact of Joe Jackson’s physical abuse of Michael and all his siblings (vicious whippings for borrowing a guitar or missing a dance step), that went on throughout the kid’s whole childhood as documented in the TV miniseries “The Jackson’s: An American Dream.” (And this is the version of events approved by the Jackson family!) Why is the public so much more outraged when they think there is sexual abuse and than when they know there has been physical abuse? I suspect it is because a similar outrage at physical abuse would require that we condemn more people we actually know.

To hate all child abusers, while recommending that children be beaten for good discipline, is like hating all drug addicts, while extoling the benefits of smoking. Between sexual and physical child abuse, it is understandable that we demonize the one rather than the other : one behavior is more unusual, more deviant from societal standards. But that says nothing about which behavior is the bigger societal problem.

Of course we should condemn sexual abuse and recognize that it can destroy lives. It is a complete betrayal of the child by a caretaker, which undermines their trust in people generally and their belief in the possibility of a healthy love. It can damage the victim’s own sex life when sex becomes associated with memories of abuse.

It is not obvious to me that physical abuse is much different on these counts.

Michael Jackson’s many problems, including his reclusiveness, failed relationships, and addictions leading to an early death, are almost certainly rooted in the abuse he suffered as a child. It was heart-rending to watch, across multiple interviews, a grown man become unglued when discussing his father, who he claimed still terrified him to the point that, both as a child and as an adult, he would sometimes “regurgitate” upon seeing him.

It was amazing to me, as the priest sexual abuse scandal unfolded, that no one chimed in about the parallel physical abuse that was an open fact of life, in Catholic schools and beyond. To me, the biggest difference between sexual and physical child abuse seems to be that socially approved reaction to physical abuse is to laugh it off. If you were physically abused, you must turn it into a harrowing yet cute story and hope that someone else chimes in with a beating story topping yours.

Long ago I was listening to a radio talk show, when an old man called in to tell what he recalled as an amusing story, where the nuns were beating every child in his class one by one, in a bathroom for some forgotten offense. The talk show host had no idea what to do with this story, having experienced nothing like it. The punch line was that after having been beaten, each boy left the bathroom and, because of the acoustics, the boys could hear screams of their classmates echoing down the hall, which made them realize their screams had similarly been broadcast down the hall. The old man was chuckling and keep saying, “you know” as if such a scenario would be familiar to the other listeners. The talk show host kept saying, no he didn’t know, but thank you for sharing. Was Catholic school really like that? The host was shocked by all the details, including that these schoolboys had been beaten by women on a bare behind.

The Adrian Peterson scandal has inspired a fresh round of such oversharing, this time on Facebook. One person will post a mean-to-be-hilarious quip about the severity of the whippings they’ve received, adding their caretaker would surely end up in jail attempting such a thing today, given how wimpy everyone has become. This puts the facebook friends on the spot, wondering whether it is worth informing this person that what they have just described is child abuse. (The answer is, it IS worth telling them IF they have kids and also state an intention to perpetuate the abusive practice.)

If you are beaten by your caretaker, you are put in an impossible situation. How do you resolving the feelings of hurt and betrayal. Are you supposed to still love your abuser? Some say you should. Is it OK if you don’t? And how do you trust the next person who claims to love you? The problem is amplified for small children who are trapped with no one but their caregiver for most of the time in their early years. Going back to the Michael Jackson example, friends say that throughout his life he veered between claiming to forgive his father and confessing deep guilt that he would never be able to forgive his father, and that he never stopped struggling with this.

If you cannot see the physical and sexual abuse are comparable, consider this: physical abuse can easily be experienced as sexual abuse. 1) physical abuse is a violation of one’s person; one’s body is ab-used by another to satisfy the demands of the abuser and the point is humiliation, 2) the abuser will often state, and perhaps believe and convince the victim, that the abuse is actually a sign of their love, and 2) for whatever reason, many people (including children) are sexually aroused by beatings or the threat of a beating, and many are aroused by the opportunity to beat someone. For anyone who would deny this, I submit the huge mainstream success of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and that plaid Catholic schoolgirl skirts are a standard S&M fetish. These are inconvenient facts for Christians, whose god has nevertheless prescribed physical punishment for children. It is necessary for Christians to insist that appropriate physical punishment can be securely separated from any sexual innuendo.

An atheist, unimpressed with the so-called intelligent design of creation, is more open to the possibility that for no good, moral reason whatsoever, the brain may be wired to associate some physical humiliations with sex. A similar inconvenient fact is that many women are aroused by a rape. If historically much of human sex was nonconsensual, there may be an evolutionary explanation for these odd facts.

There is a huge dilemma in dealing with the prevalence of physical abuse in this country. As Charles Barkley said, a law against spanking or even just against whippings would transform a large swath of the population into criminals. And former victims of abuse, like Adrian Peterson, would be the group disproportionately sent to jail as they wake up and find they have fallen short of rising standards of decency. Maybe physically abusive parents can be sent off to rehab rather than jail. Maybe we can be proactive with public service messages and parenting classes.

But abuse must be labeled as such; and it must stop. Religion is no excuse; ignorance is no excuse; anti-government sentiments are no excuse. These factors never excuse sexual abuse. Why do these factors still excuse physical abuse? Our first duty is to rescue the child.

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