There has been a large up-tick recently in media coverage of sexual abuse of children. This is mostly due to the alleged abuse of children by former and current coaches in high profile college sports programs. These alleged incidents are significant personal tragedies for the alleged victims involve; but equally significant is the degree of public shock created by who was involved, and how unusual an occurrence such cases appear to be. But what the increased coverage really points out is; how few of the many cases of sexual abuse of children are actually reported; how incompletely such cases are handled by various authorities; and worst of all, how rarely the media actually covers this criminal behavior that is much more common than most people would like to admit.
While the recent and current headlines are about cases of young boys being molested, the number of young girls molested is far greater. When you add in the number of adults, particularly women, who are sexual predator victims; the numbers is staggeringly huge; in the hundreds of thousands annually. In cases of both children and adults, the number of individuals that fall victim to each predator is typically very high; dozens or more. The period of time over which abusers exhibit their predatory behavior is also often long. All of the statistics beg asking the question; how and why do we allow such situations to happen in such large numbers and over and over again?
The behavior of sexual predation is universally condemned, often in very emotional terms, in our society; yet our laws hardly reflect the fear and anger that we express about this behavior. Yes, they are criminal offenses; but the classifications under which they fall and the punishment designated for sexual crimes, fall far short of reflecting our rhetoric of outrage on the subject of sexual predation.
Part of this discrepancy between our decrying of these crimes and the punishment metered out for them can be explained by an incomplete knowledge and appreciation of the impact these crimes have on the victims. Sexual abuse virtually always has a very powerful negative effect on the victim. It has a devastating psychologically and very often physically painful component to it. The fact that the abuse of the victim by the same perpetrator is most often repeated many times significantly adds to the trauma for the victim. Those of us not victimized, while nominally acknowledging how awful an experience it must be; don’t fully understand, nor can we really feel the devastating effect of being sexually abused. The extreme emotional and physical pain of sexual abuse is also magnified by the fact that it often comes at the hands of someone close to and trusted by the victim. That someone whom we are close to, who is supposed to care for and protect us, is the one actually hurting us; is an additional factor that makes it difficult for the rest of us to truly comprehend the extensive destructive power of sexual abuse on the victims.
In the many instances of the abuse of children by members of Catholic priesthood recently made public, a majority of people might have made the erroneous assumption that it was a matter mostly restricted to a small number of men from a small and unique group within our society. But the recent cases involving otherwise well respected members of major university coaching staffs shows that sexual predation can and does occur anywhere in our society. True, the two most recent cases involve men who had unique opportunities for access to young boys; but as time goes on it is predictable that more and more people will come forward with allegations of sexual abuse in other more diverse circumstances; painfully showing society that the problem is much more prevalent than we would like to acknowledge.
This increase in public awareness of the extent of the problem of sexual abuse in our society is an opportunity to take an in-depth look at the way we classify and punish these crimes. Considering that sexual abuse is a life altering negative experience for the victim; it is wrong to classify any kind of sexual abuse as merely a misdemeanor. In any form, sexual abuse should be considered comparable to aggravated assault; a felony. The recidivism rate (the likelihood that sexual offender will repeat their crime) of sexual predation is higher than virtually any other felony, including murder. That, coupled with often large number of victims of each offender, calls for much stronger punishment for sexual crimes.
The case can readily be made for capital punishment (the death penalty) for the crime of forcible rape. Rape can have such a destructive effect on the victim; that as result, psychologically, they are never again truly capable of living what can be called a “normal” life. For some victims, living in the aftermath of a traumatic rape actually feels like a “fate worse than death”. The call for the ultimate punishment for such a crime is understandable, in that it can be defined as a psychological murder. But punishment alone is not the only purpose in the sentencing of criminals for any crime. The right of our society to protect ourselves from all manner of predators is part of our reason for imposing prison sentences on those found guilty of crimes under our system of laws. In the case sexual offenders, the incredibly high (upwards of 90% in many studies) likelihood that convicted offenders will abuse additional victims; calls for sentencing that will do our absolute best to protect the innocent from becoming victims of a predator in the future. The only way we can guarantee a particular sexual predator will never again hurt an innocent victim is to impose a life without possibility of parole sentence upon them, for the very first offense of which they are found guilty.
Too harsh, you say? In fact Federal law already imposes a life sentence for sexual crimes under certain circumstances. If a sexual predator were sentenced to life without parole for their first offense; there would never be a second victim. No one would ever have to explain to the second victim or their family; why they thought it would be okay to let the predator out of prison. Since the recidivism rate is so high for sexual predators; the odds of them damaging another human life if they are ever let out of prison are greater than in playing Russian Roulette. Which just what we would be doing with the next victims life if the sentence for sexual predation were anything less than life without parole.
If (as some progressive thinkers believe) a society can be judged by the way they protect the blameless and helpless among them (children for example); then our society can best conduct ourselves by dealing with the issue of sexual crime and predation by seeing and understanding it as the extremely serious and destructive problem that it is. And dealing with it using all the legal and moral courage and strength that we have.