Stranger danger and children’s freedom.
Why this myth is hard to kill.
Less than 10% of all child sexual abuse is perpetrated by a stranger (RAINN, 2015), and child abductions are extremely rare, and mostly perpetrated by parents (https://archive.attn.com/stories/6974/odds-of-child-getting-kidnapped), and yet, children are constantly terrorized with stories of children taken by “bad men". The theme of the dangerous stranger is very common in the stories we tell them for example, like Little Red Riding Hood (Perrault explained the moral of the story as: “From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers”) or the Erlkönig (The Elf King tells the boy: “I love you, your beautiful form excites me; And if you’re not willing, then I will use force.”), everyday we are shown pictures of missing children and read on the newspapers dozens of cases of attempted kidnapping. Campaigns to teach children to “avoid getting kidnapped" called things like “Clever Never Goes" go as far as to imply that only stupid kids get abducted, and that it’s their responsibility to avoid it. Some parents would even traumatize their children to instill in them the message that all strangers are dangerous. In 2015, a six year old boy’s own family was arrested for kidnapping him in order to teach him a lesson about being “too nice” to strangers. “He was tied up, threatened, and even told he could be sold into “sex slavery” (https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.usatoday.com/amp/22961305). Moral panics about the disappearance of children always tended to be very reactionary (Renfro, 2020), think for example of the effect that the murder of Emanuel Jaques in 1977 had on Toronto’s queer community. But who paid the highest price were children themselves. They lost their freedom, as they were slowly drove away from public spaces. Parents today can be criminalized for something as banal as allowing their sons and daughters to walk or bike to school, or to play in a park on their own (Pimentel, 2012). It goes without saying that our current generation of children has the least possible amount of freedom to roam the public space. Even though today we are aware of how rare such risks are, children have hardly been more frightened.
(Not) for their own good: Why the “stranger danger" myth is not innocent.
Earlier this year I was shocked to find out that a very normal lesson on sexual consent to a class of young children had caused an uproar. “Parents were also reportedly angry the lessons included gender identity and consent, including teaching children their parents and grandparents shouldn’t touch them without asking permission”, "I’m paying $50,000 to these assholes to tell my kid not to let her grandfather hug her when he sees her?" one mother asked the New York Post” (https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.newshub.co.nz/home/lifestyle/2021/05/us-parents-in-uproar-after-5yo-class-learns-of-masturbation-consensual-touch-in-health-lesson.amp.html), I thought, no one would have said anything if those children were being taught to refuse candies from strangers, and that despite the fact that incest comprises the majority of child sexual abuse cases, while stranger assault is almost non existent. Why is that so? Because the “stranger danger” myth teaches young boys and girls to be fearful and restricts their freedom, while a lesson on the importance of setting boundaries even with family members teaches them to prioritize their own comfort over that of adults, to assert themselves, to make their voices heard. Recently, thanks to the #MeToo movement, there has been much more discussion surrounding the topic of teaching young people about consent. Sadly, it has been mostly limited to teaching teenagers about consent for the intimate relationships they will soon be having. The idea that children need to know that they have the right to refuse even an act as innocent as a kiss on the cheek from their aunt and that doesn’t make them “impolite”, is still not at the centre of the conversation, despite the publication of a lot of books directed at young children about bodily autonomy such as “Don’t Hug Doug (He Doesn’t Like It)”, “Rissy No Kissies”, “My Body! What I Say Goes!” ect. Teaching children such lessons is still more likely to get you called “hysterical” and to have people say you are making them into “entitled brats" than teaching children about “stranger danger", despite how much more useful that advice is. It’s not just a question of ignorance, but of how adults want children to be: Meek and subordinate. The “stranger danger" myth is in itself politicized, and by no means all children were seen as worthy of protection from “dangerous strangers". Some children, namely older black boys, were the “dangerous strangers". The profile of the victims of sexual child abduction in those moral panics never corresponded to reality. Paula S. Fass explains in “Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America” how the ideal victim of a sexual child abduction was portrayed as being a prepubescent white boy, while in reality the vast majority of children abducted for sexual reasons were adolescent girls of color. They did not fit the paradigm of “innocence” and “purity" that pretty paperboys did. Even today, black girls are painted as “fast" and responsible for their own sexual victimization. But there is hardly any compassion for any child when they break the rules. When this year a twelve year old who was out in the streets alone during the night was raped and shot (https://www.google.com/amp/s/wset.com/amp/news/nation-world/man-arrested-after-12-year-old-florida-boy-abducted-raped-shot-in-face), the vast, vast, majority of the comments victim blamed the child, even when the reason why he was out alone so late was unknown. The possibility that he might have been escaping an abusive family did not make the judgements any more lenient. Some comments even declared that it might even have been an instructive experience, “next time he will think twice before disobeying his parents". Susan Brownmiller, in her groundbreaking “Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape”, wrote that rape is: “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear”. In countries where the myth of “stranger danger" for children is not as diffuse, prepubescent girls have greater freedom than pubescent girls and women to roam the public space, because womanhood is equaled with sexual danger, but childhood is not (Hallman, K. K., Kenworthy, N. J., Diers, J., Swan, N., & Devnarain, B.,2014), in most Western countries, like USA, Canada and the UK, womanhood is still equaled with sexual danger, but less so than childhood, women have more freedom to roam the public space than prepubescent children, at their own risk and peril, just as children (some children, mostly working class boys) used to do in the West of the 19th and early 20th century, before the paradigm shift in the way children were valued that Viviana Zelizer chronicles in her “Pricing the priceless child”, today, we can extend Brownmiller’s observations to children. Despite the fact that stranger abductions and sexual assault are rare, children are constantly reminded of the possibility that they might happen. They see children being abducted and assaulted in television, on the newspapers, in books, and in the conversations of the adults in their lives. They are kept in a state of fear, and they are punished anytime another child is kidnapped or sexually assaulted by a stranger. Punished with the restriction of the little freedom they have. When a child or a young teen misbehaves, they are often punished by not being allowed to go out with their friends for days or weeks. Why should they live differently that restriction when instead of being caused by a bad grade or bad behavior, it’s caused by their mother hearing that a child has been snatched in the proximity of their neibourghood? The message that is unconsciously sent is: It’s your fault. Be clever, be smart, intelligent kids don’t allow themselves to get kidnapped.
Does it happen sometimes?
Yes. The sexual intimidation of children in public spaces does happen sometimes, and the “stranger danger” myth is not helpful when discussing it. Thanks to feminists, the street sexual harassment of teenage girls has been incorporated in the discourse surrounding the sexual molestation of women in public spaces, and it has been recognized that the perpetrator could be any man. When it comes to the sexual harassment of prepubescent children, sadly the “stranger danger" myth still dominates, and the perpetrator is still seen as being the monstrous stranger lurking in the shadows. It’s true that news of suspicious cars accosting prepubescent children feed the moral panic on stranger abduction, but the events are real, and there are men in those cars. It has personally never happened to me as a young girl, but it happened to my mother, to my father, to my grandmother and my uncle. Moving beyond the myth will help us understand that the sexual intimidation of children in the public sphere and the “stranger danger” myth exist in a continuum, it’s part of the way society makes the public sphere impossible for children to navigate, because they must stay home and at school. It’s, in a way, like all violence against children, a form of gender based violence (See Rush’s feminist classic “The best kept secret", also “Childhood sexual abuse of boys as gender-based violence”, Russell, Dalby, Hart, 2017). The best way to fight it is to fight the oppression of children as a whole, even if the idea of diminishing the authority of adults makes us uncomfortable.