You may have noticed there has been some discussion in our country about who should use what public restroom. As a victim advocate, I have been occasionally asked my opinion on the matter, and I am careful to point out that for me, as an individual who has spent her career working with those victimized by others, the threat is about sex offenders. Nothing more. Nothing less. But I would say that sex offenders are a threat if I was talking about sleepovers, Sunday School, or sports. Because as a victim advocate, I know sex offenders are in all of these places…right now. And what’s more, they have been there since these places have existed. We just haven’t been talking about it.
And now, when we have the opportunity to have an open dialogue about it, what do we, as a nation, do? We throw around words like “hate,” “tolerance,” and “bigots” when the word we should be using is “education.” Being asked my opinion on the topic has reinforced what I already knew – most people don’t understand sex offender behavior and only the brave will ask – and until we do better on this topic, we can expect to continue to have a nation of walking wounded.
Sex offenders have always come from every walk of life. They have always looked for opportunities to take advantage and satisfy their desires at the expense of others. It is my opinion that changing public restroom laws will not increase the amount of sex offenders in our world; however, it has the potential to change their access to victims. This last point is enough encouragement for me, as an advocate, to remind all of us, that we need to be having a consistent, on-going dialogue about how to protect ourselves from all sex offenders, every day – not just in public restrooms but everywhere. No one wants to deal with the aftermath of sexual victimization whether it happens in public or private or to an adult or a child.
What do we need to understand about sex offenders?
They can be anyone. And by anyone, I mean anyone. They can be male, female, heterosexual, homosexual, old, young, religious, atheist, rich, poor, white, black and anyone in between. In the case of 90% of child sexual abuse victims and 66% of adult victims they know their offenders before any sexual assault takes place. So, the majority of sexual offenses are committed by someone the victim knows. But not all of them. And not all offenses are committed in private locations. Which means, when we are out in public, regardless of where the “where” is, we need to be aware of this fact. Sex offenders are a real threat but sex offenders have always been a real threat. We just haven’t been acting like it.
What do we need to do?
We need to understand that the best defense is a better offense. We can legislate things all day long and we will not be able to eliminate our threat from sex offenders. Arguably, some legislation may change access and consequences for sex offenses, but regardless of what lawmakers decide to do, we should always choose to be proactive when it comes to protecting ourselves from sex offenders. Like now. We should be proactive right now.
This means we need to educate ourselves on sex offender behaviors. Our next blog will more thoroughly explore this topic, but for now it is enough to know that sex offenders are predatory by nature. Many are opportunistic and are clever at getting away with their deviant behaviors. They do not want to be caught and they figure out ways to blend in.
However, we are clever people too. And we can use our cleverness to protect ourselves. It’s like learning to cross a street. I don’t stop crossing streets because a car has the ability to kill me. I learn to cross the street without getting hit by a car. Once I learn how to safely cross, it is still feasible for me to be hit by a car, but my chances of that happening go way down once I understand what to do. This is the same principle.
- Always be aware of your surroundings. You are at your most vulnerable when you are distracted. Look around you and make sure that others see you are looking around you. Not only is it polite to make eye contact, it also lets people know you are noticing them – regardless of their intentions. Certainly not everyone is a sex offender, but you won’t know which ones are, so being polite by making eye contact and smiling lets everyone know they are being noticed. This is actually a good defense against robberies, kidnappings, and other kinds of crime as well.
- Educate, educate, educate. Yourself. Others. Your children. Anyone who will listen to you. Everyone needs to understand that sex offenders are present and decisions involving public restrooms, sleepovers, Sunday School, sports and everything else we do should always be made with this fact in mind.
- Respect your 6th sense. All too often we override our uneasy feelings for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. If you feel uncomfortable, remove yourself from the setting. It can be done politely but it should be done. If they refuse to let you leave the setting, be prepared to use your voice…..loudly. Draw attention to yourself. Predators want to get away with their behaviors not get caught at them. And teach your children the same.
- Since this discussion is centered around public restrooms, there are a couple of things to note that we should have been doing all along. Many businesses have a family restroom. Use them if they are available. Using them automatically reduces our risk to strangers who want to prey on us or our loved ones. However, family restrooms are not always available which means I, like so many others, then have to deal with the fact that I am not the same gender as all of my children. My oldest son is 8 but he looks like he is 10. It is not comfortable for him, nor is it comfortable for other women for him to accompany me into a women’s restroom so I, after reminding him of all the stranger danger and “your body is private” guidelines, have been known to send him into a men’s restroom with the parting instructions to “yell if you need me – I’ll be right here” as I wait for him on the outside. For both of my oldest children (a boy and a girl), the discussion has started that they need to look for things that are out of place in the restroom – mainly recording devices. I want them to get in the habit of looking up and looking down and looking all around their stall before they begin in the event that anyone has set up a monitoring device. And if they see something amiss, to immediately tell me. These have been ongoing discussions in our home because I know the threat has always been there.
Regardless of how laws or policies do or do not change, we must be proactive. Sex offenders are not going away. We just have to get better at understanding them and talking about their behaviors. Our power comes when we understand this topic…together.
Valerie Craig, Co-Founder and Director of Education at Tennessee Voices for Victims
Valerie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org