There was a news story recently about a popular camp counselor who was arrested for allegedly having sex with underage girls. Reportedly, two teenage girls willingly accompanied this man to his home and joined him for a nude hot-tub soak. One girl left and the other woke up hours later with signs she'd been sexually assaulted, but with no recollection of the event.
What were those girls thinking? A parent might scream, but the answer is that more likely than not, rational thought was not guiding the decisions of the two young women. Teens can be seduced by a predator skilled in the specific art of appealing to their need to feel cool, attractive, mature, and accepted. Coupled with the fact that the part of the brain responsible for high-level reasoning is not fulling formed, we have a recipe for disaster when naïve tweens or teens are caught in the sights of a predator.
By now, most parents know about pedophiles, adults who target young children to meet their sexual needs. But that information is not sufficient; parents also need to understand hebephiles and ephebophiles—adults who are attracted to tweens and teens. They are more likely to fly under the radar, but a quick search with your favorite search engine will reveal a community of people who could spell serious trouble for your kids.
Do your children know enough to help avoid a situation like the one described in the news story? To help make sure they do, here are a few conversation starters. I use he below, but predators can be men or women:
"No matter how cool you think the teacher (or coach or whomever) is, if he needs to hang out with kids, he is not. If he were really cool, he'd be hanging out with people his own age."
"When you were little, you probably heard about pedophiles, or people who try to have sex with little kids. (If your child participated in a prevention program where they learned about pedophiles, reference it here!) Now it's time you learned about people who like to have sex with teens because I don't want you to get caught up with someone like that. If any adult wants to spend time with you outside of the organized activity, like school or the sports team, let me know and I can help you decide if he's really a friend or not. "
"If you experience your body reacting to the sight of an attractive teacher (or coach or whomever), take a moment and be thankful that your body is working as it should. Then, take a much longer moment to remind yourself that genitals are connected to the part of the brain that responds to instinct, like hunger, and not the part of your brain where rational, reasoned decisions are made. It is not safe to act on your body's response without consulting with your brain, and your brain should tell you that sex with a teacher is neither safe nor healthy."
If you have not explained sexual arousal to your children, read my posts for parents of boys here and girls here. Kids who do not understand the autonomic nature of arousal are at risk of thinking their body's physical response has a greater emotional meaning than it does. This common physical response, coupled with hero worship of an adult can leave your child vulnerable to the charms of a person skilled the art of seducing vulnerable teens.
Not all adults who pursue teens and tweens are predatory ephebophiles, but one of the most important things experts advise parents is to ensure that their children tell them about any alone-time they spend with an adult or older teen. No exceptions.
The thought of having this kind of conversation with your youngster may make you feel uncomfortable, and that's understandable. But a few minutes of discomfort is a small price to pay to share information with your children that can both help keep them safe, and let them know you're there to help them. As I say in my book, The Sex-Wise Parent, find the courage to be uncomfortable and consider it an investment in your child's health and safety.
Rosenzweig is also author of 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.