Culture of Molestation

GREAT PRAISE to The Seattle Times for its investigative series, "Coaches Who Prey," by reporters Maureen O'Hagan and Christine Willmsen, about the abuse of young women in the public schools. In addition to documenting outrageous incidents ranging from groping to rape, the paper's investigation itself became part of the story as reporters faced stiff resistance from the Washington Education Associationthe teachers unionto releasing public records of sex-related complaints against coaches and teachers in Seattle, Bellevue, and Federal Way. Indeed, in some cases the union actually organized "file parties," during which teachers were invited to clean out their files after learning that the Times was seeking access. And you thought the Catholic Church was uniquely callous in terms of sex-abuse cover-ups.

The Times went to great trouble and expense to fight the legal battle necessary to get these public records, something only a paper with large resources can readily do. They are to be commended for doing so during tough economic times, when the paper's own financial future is precarious. (The Times' law firm, Davis Wright Tremaine, also does legal work for Seattle Weekly.)

As a result of the way some districts handled or ignored complaints and disciplinary actions, the Times reported, molester coaches were sometimes able to continue working with young women. Some coaches guilty of misconduct would agree to leave a school in exchange for the district's silencealso reminiscent of the Catholic Church's willingness to move pedophile priests from parish to parish without warning the flock. And the Times reports that even when complaints were forwarded upstairs to the office of the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, they were often dismissed or not investigated, allowing molesters to collect taxpayer money while continuing to prey on school children.

THE REAL NEWS IS not that such molestation occurs; it's that our society seems to be grooming kids for abuse. Molestation doesn't happen in a vacuum. Elayne Rapping, professor of media studies at the University of Buffalo, was recently quoted in the San Jose Mercury News observing that, in American popular culture, "younger and younger women are becoming celebrities and being sexualized." She says, "There's this juvenile view of sexuality, a sort of male obsession with young girls." This isn't unique to our times (look at the Victorians), but it's on the upswing.

It seems like eons ago that we were shocked at the way the little murdered girl, JonBenet Ramsey, had been dolled up like a vamp to compete in kiddie fashion shows. Now, broadcast TV commonly features talent contests where youngstersboys and girlsbump and grind their way to stardom in a way that would probably make the Ramseys blush. Teen casts on prime-time soap operas also send mixed signals: Hotties in fashionable clothes spew adult dialogue. The effect conveys a kind of maturity few real teens possess and a sexiness designed to appeal to adults as well as teens. Who wouldn't think Buffy the Vampire Slayer was totally hot, even as a high-school character?

Speaking of vampires, the entertainment and fashion industries are particularly predatory toward the young, a desirable demographic group that can be molded and exploited. Madison Avenue plays a heavy role. Pop divas have to become strippers, and fashion magazines continually run spreads featuring young women who look like abuse victims.

Another example is in athletics. The Times reports that the rapid expansion of women's sports programs has created new opportunities for molester coaches. Sex can be coerced in exchange for help getting athletic scholarships, and indeed, sex appeal seems integral to achieving mainstream success in women's pro sports (to wit: Sue Bird, Anna Kournikova, Brandy Chastain). At the same time, professional teams are looking for younger and younger competitors, dipping into high schools for the next hot performers. Kids are groomed at a very early agebefore they are even close to having their identities fully formedto become the next athletic marketing marvel. Basketball player LeBron James got $90 million from Nike when he was still in high school. Nike recently gave a 13-year-old soccer player a $1 million deal. Marketers are betting on kids' futures with big bucks, and shaping them, with the help of parents, coaches, and agents, to fit a commercial role.

Are the parents who aggressively push their kids into this world any more blameless than those who allow Michael Jackson to baby-sit their children? The coarsening of what used to be amateur athletics leads to a more cynical environment, one ripe for all kinds of exploitation.

PUBLIC SCHOOL PARENTS who sign their kids up for school soccer have every right to expect that they'll be in a safe environment free from sexual abuse. But clearly, the schools don't do enough to police the system. And we taxpayers should make sure that the state and local districts have enough money, people, and training to clean house and root out molesters, especially now that we know these problems are neither isolated nor uncommon. It is inexcusable to look the other way.

Likewise, it would be wrong to expect all responsibility for what's happening in classrooms and locker rooms to fall on the shoulders of the school authorities. These institutions exist within a broader culture that seems a fertile breeding ground for molestation dynamics, and all of us need to take more responsibility for that.

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