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2017-12-11 06:14:47 Commentary

No sooner had the news broke of a child abuse scandal at a Beijing RYB Education facility than debates on the subject flooded Chinese social media. Some people took to the web to make their own allegations of abuse, while others played judge, jury, and executioner with the accused.

As a professional sexologist, I was approached by various media outlets for interviews asking me to speculate on China’s sexual assault issues. I gave the same reply every time: I was not willing to pass early judgment on the allegations that teachers had poked students with needles as punishment for misbehaving. As for the claims circulating online about the mass sexual assault of young children, I will reserve the right to be silent until these accusations are found to have credibility.

Many online posts firing accusations at the nation’s educators have since been removed, often because they violate regulations on so-called rumormongering. Be that as it may, certain claims have stuck in my mind. I remember reading about older men who allegedly forced preschoolers to strip naked and then viciously raped them while other children watched. Children brave enough to say no were thrown into a dark room, the post said.

Let me be clear: I abhor all forms of sexual assault and find it profoundly disturbing that any adult would perpetrate such actions against young children. Should any of these allegations be proven true, I hope that the abusers will be arrested, tried, and brought to justice.

Yet the sheer number of unproven and seemingly baseless claims online has led me to the uncomfortable conclusion that many web users are using online forums to falsely accuse upstanding members of community of harming their children. I have inferred this from reading many preposterous pieces online that lack fundamental knowledge both of human biology and the psychology of pedophilia.

Let’s return to the above example. If an active pedophile was working at the school, they would most likely be aware of the fact that the sexual assault of a young child is a serious crime. Even though China’s legal system lacks comprehensive rules for dealing with perpetrators of child sexual assault, and the country still does not have a nationally integrated sex offender registry, abusers could face anywhere between three and 12 years’ imprisonment depending on the severity of the crime and whether they were punished under rape or child molestation laws. Their number one concern would be maintaining secrecy, so why would they have other children watch them perpetrate rape? Regardless of how young the students are, they can still talk about what they have witnessed.

Some claims of abuse certainly have a basis in reality; others display a worrying amount of disinformation.

The same post used uncomfortably graphic language, accusing the men of “thrusting” into their victims. But the use of such violent verbiage to describe sexual acts ignores basic biology: Even if an adult male managed to penetrate a small child, this would cause such severe injury and pain that parents would immediately notice.

Some claims of abuse certainly have a basis in reality; others display a worrying amount of disinformation. This inability to separate truth from fiction has led people to question whether some children who have corroborated the accusations might actually be lying. In my experience, while young children rarely intend to deliberately lie, they sometimes do so under their parents’ coercion.

In 1983, members of the McMartin family, who ran a day care center in California, were accused by parents of sexually assaulting children left in their care. During the six-year proceedings, which at the time constituted the most expensive criminal trial in American history, hundreds of children were asked speculative, highly suggestive questions about the supposed abuse that took place. Many of the children’s answers were used to buttress the case against the McMartins, although no convictions were ever made, and all charges were dropped in 1990.

Why would parents have their children lie about sexual abuse? The answer can be found in the lamentable state of education in China aimed at preventing sexual assault. In the last five years or so, Chinese media outlets have frequently returned to the topic of prevention education, and more and more schools have provided classes in recognizing and preventing such abuse. But what we teach our kids is of little practical use. In fact, it could have potentially negative outcomes.

Mainstream prevention education in China focuses solely on sexual assault. It doesn’t contextualize it alongside definitions of healthy, consensual sex. Instead, it stigmatizes all forms of sex and causes children to fear it. Teachers talk about “sexually sensitive areas” — basically anything your swimsuit would cover — rather than the right to full bodily autonomy. In doing so, it gives undue attention to the genitals and chest as the sites of sexual assault while implying that unwanted contact anywhere else on the body is not considered abuse. It tells children to “just say no,” but doesn’t actually specify what, exactly, they should say no to.

Fed a constant diet of media stories about sexual assault, Chinese parents are understandably alarmed that their child might be the next victim.

When China’s current form of prevention education was launched five years ago, I wrote, somewhat controversially, that if sex education discusses assault to the exclusion of all other sex-related topics, it can be more damaging than sexual assault itself. Today, China’s anti-abuse programs talk only of the potential harm of sexual activity and not of the potential beauty of healthy, consensual sex. Such programs do make children aware of topics like rape, consent, and sexual abuse, but they cloud their judgment of where the boundaries lie between legal and illegal intercourse.

As you might imagine, that essay was roundly criticized. But I stick by it. The fallout from the RYB scandal only proves that China’s prevention education is not effective, no matter whether it is taught in schools, or disseminated through informal means such as media articles and online forums.

Fed a constant diet of media stories about sexual assault, Chinese parents are understandably alarmed that their child might be the next victim. Add in a random happenstance — perhaps a muddled conversation with their child or an offhand comment they overheard — and you have a recipe for anxious parents fabricating a claim of sexual assault from their children. Kids are very suggestible. If adults point them in a certain direction, they can “finish” the story on their own.

Many of today’s parents were not taught about sexual abuse when they were children, an oversight that can carry severe consequences. While many online articles published since the RYB allegations have dispensed objective, valuable advice, others deal only in scaremongering. This piece, published by popular news portal Sohu.com, tells parents to suspect sexual assault if they see their child drawing pictures of fire or snakes, for example.

We have to do a better job teaching our children about sexual assault. In my opinion, any sex education curriculum should empower our kids to identify, report, and discuss acts of abuse. I am certain that if we do not teach kids how to define sexual assault, how to differentiate abuse from innocent and legal forms of physical contact, and how to guarantee their right to bodily autonomy, they will grow up to have intimacy problems, and stigmatize and fear healthy forms of sex.

Translator: Brian Bies; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: Three girls cover their faces out of shyness during a sexual assault prevention class, Jiangxi province, Sep.13, 2015. Chen Ronghui/Sixth Tone)