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One lesson from ‘Leaving Neverland’: Knowledge is power against predators

It may be difficult to watch the documentary on the singer's alleged abuses, but please don’t look away — it’s this aversion that gives predators cover.

Michael Jackson and Wade Robson in "Leaving Neverland." (Amos Pictures/IMDb/TNS)
Michael Jackson and Wade Robson in "Leaving Neverland." (Amos Pictures/IMDb/TNS)Read moreAmos Pictures / MCT

Millions of people were glued to Leaving Neverland, the HBO Michael Jackson documentary detailing the singer’s alleged sexual abuse of boys, but many others likely turned away. Some may have turned away because they believe these allegations are false, but others — particularly parents — may have turned away because they just could not emotionally handle the words of the young men at the center of the film describing how easy it can be for a predator to seduce a child in front of their parents and the world.

This is understandable. Healthy people are not wired to think of children in a sexual way and have difficulty when confronted with stories of abuse. But please don’t look away — it’s this aversion that gives predators cover. Find the courage to work through your discomfort and make talking about sexual health and safety an important part of your family life.

Here are basics that adults need to know:

  1. As Oprah Winfrey helped make so clear in After Neverland, the special that aired on HBO after the documentary, sex abuse does not always hurt! In fact, for many kids being singled out by a high-status adult and receiving special attention, affection, and gifts may be a highlight in their lives.

  2. Predators seduce victims through a gradual process of benign touch, progressing to touching of genitals and then to sexual acts.

  3. Many acts of sexual abuse do not cause physical pain — it does not feel like abuse.

  4. Some acts of sexual abuse cause physical pleasure, which can be extraordinarily confusing for a victim

Here are some basics that children need to know:

  1. There is a difference between privacy and secrecy — as kids mature, they earn the right to privacy, but children should never keep secrets from their parents for more than a very short time (such as knowing about a surprise party).

  2. Their genitals will feel good when touched in certain ways. Most kids figure this out for themselves when they discover masturbation. This feeling just means that their body is working right — it is never to be confused with love at any age!

  3. Their parents are always there to help or answer questions.

  4. A grown-up might look uncomfortable occasionally talking about sex, because they are used to sex being private.

  5. If a parent can’t answer a question immediately, they’ll find an answer and communicate it to the child in an age-appropriate way.

The level of detail will vary by age. If parents provide an emotionally safe space for discussion, their children’s questions can guide the topics and detail.

The phrase, “sexual abuse” is certainly correct from a legal and moral standpoint, but too often it lacks accuracy and confuses children. As boys, the young men interviewed in Leaving Neverland did not feel abused until much later in life. I’ve experienced adult women speaking to me after a workshop telling me that until they learned that day that sexual arousal was an autonomic reflex, they had always felt complicit in their abuse.

Child and adolescent victims lack knowledge and language to understand; but this knowledge and language is a gift all parents can give. It may help prevent your child from being entrapped or from feeling responsible if a predator strikes.

Janet Rosenzweig, MS, PhD, MPA, is the executive director of The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and the author of ”The Sex-Wise Parent” and ”The Parent’s Guide to Talking About Sex: A Complete Guide to Raising (Sexually) Safe, Smart, and Healthy Children.” For more information, read her blog and follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter.