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The Dangers of Sexualizing Our Children

July 28, 2002|JULIE HUDASH | Julie Hudash is an Irvine-based freelance writer who focuses on children's issues.

Advice on how to protect our children from sexual predators is flying around suburban neighborhoods faster than F-14s over the White House. Parents haunted by the terror of Samantha Runnion's kidnapping and murder are desperate to ensure the safety of their young ones.

It's never been more clear that monstrous predators exist in all areas of society. No profession or economic class stands immune: clergy, scouting, teaching--there are even allegations that a local judge, with child pornography on his computer, molested a 14-year-old boy.

At the same time, society pressures children into the world of adult sexuality.

The natural lines meant to protect children have become dangerously blurred as children, especially girls, have become burdened by the inappropriate transfer of adult sexuality. This doesn't cause criminal behavior, nor can it serve as an excuse. But it also can't be regarded as benign.

The night Samantha's body was found, I listened to four guests on "Larry King Live" discuss the murder. One thing they all agreed upon: the connection between such crimes and child pornography.

Child pornography has exploded on the Internet. This availability encourages the pedophile's sick desire to sexually exploit children. Punishment for creating, distributing or promoting child pornography must be swift, and legislation needs to be in place to lock up these sociopaths.

The terrifying reality of pedophilia, coupled with societal pressures on children to dress and act suggestively, leads to a volatile mixture. This is where parents must take up the fight.

I find myself juggling conflicting motivations. I try to teach our children to be confident and empowered by saying things like "Believe in yourself, and you can be whatever you want to be." Then a voice from deep within says, "But you don't really want to play in the frontyard, do you?"

We must protect these most innocent and vulnerable citizens from a home-bred form of terrorism. Aside from child pornography, children are being dangled as sex objects within the inescapable world of advertising. Recently, Abercrombie & Fitch became embroiled in controversy after it began selling thong underwear for young girls.

Girls in elementary and middle schools feel pressured to keep up with the sexy image of pop star Britney Spears, and retailers are cashing in on the fashion craze.

I recently took our preteen daughter shopping for school clothes. It shouldn't be too difficult, I thought, because I had just two requirements. Shirts had to cover the navel, and pants couldn't leave hipbones exposed. It required visits to four stores to find appropriate clothes.

A colleague shared a story that illustrates the disappearing boundaries separating childhood, adolescence and adulthood. While shopping at Limited Too, a clothing store popular with pre-teenage girls, she noticed padded bras on sale. She asked the store manager and got this casual response: "Well, you can't imagine how flat some of these girls are!" Exactly! Because they are children, not women!

These kinds of experiences should send parents complaining to management and boycotting the offenders. Where will we draw the line? When our school-age children are wearing stilettos and string bikinis?

Just as kids learn math and reading, they need to learn to understand the visual messages on TV, in music videos, on the computer and in print that bombard them. They must learn critical thinking skills to keep from falling victim to the damaging messages.

I'm a mother of five young children. I don't claim to be an expert in criminology, but I can't disregard the potential impact that the over-sexualizing of our children potentially can have on dangerous pedophiles.

Pedophiles are like dry forests during the peak of fire season--unassuming but potentially dangerous. We can't stop all fires, but we can become aware of the risks and refuse to allow our children to be the spark that ignites disaster.

The pain Samantha's family is enduring is unimaginable. More than flowers, teddy bears and condolence cards, the best way to illustrate that her shortened life served a greater purpose is to fight to protect other children.

Samantha was probably too young to have been affected by the pressure society places on girls. But it's so sadly true that she wasn't too young to fall victim to the undeniable evil in the world.

I can't imagine the terror that Samantha Runnion endured in the last hours of her life. In the words of Marc Klaas, another parent whose daughter was kidnapped and murdered: "No one can turn their backs on this crime anymore."

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