Skip to main content

Today, sex abuse victims are less alone

By David Finkelhor, Special to CNN
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Wed June 20, 2012
Penn State students gather in November in the wake of abuse accusations to express solidarity with the alleged victims.
Penn State students gather in November in the wake of abuse accusations to express solidarity with the alleged victims.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Finkelhor: Abuse victims may be watching Sandusky trial to see how victims are treated
  • He says good and bad news. Good: Victims today far more likely than in past to tell someone
  • He says teachers, cops, communities far more clued in, responsive on child sex assault
  • Finkelhor: Bad news is judge wouldn't let victims testify anonymously; this potentially hurtful

Editor's note: David Finkelhor is professor of sociology and director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

(CNN) -- If you are a survivor of sexual abuse who has not yet reported, you may be attending closely to the trial of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky to see what happens to those who do. The news is both good and bad.

You see some courageous men being taken seriously by prosecutors and journalists. But you see a degree of potential exposure that few victims would want to face, and that we could do a better job of preventing.

First, the better news: We all know that sexual abuse is still a crime that is mostly unrevealed. But progress has been made. Comparisons of recent surveys to those from the 1980s show far more victims today say they reported or that someone in authority found out.

What will jury do with Jerry Sandusky?
New Sandusky tapes may be trial shocker

Yet boys are still disproportionately less likely to report, for some of the reasons showcased in this trial: the fear that others will not believe they are really victims, and the fear that they will be stigmatized as wimpy and/or homosexual.

So a case such as this with male victims coming forward, explaining how conflicted they felt, why it took them so long, what it did to their lives, but nonetheless giving convincing testimony that has clearly been believed by the prosecutors and much of the press, this certainly must give other boys and men some sense of possibility.

Indeed, that this case is being prosecuted at all shows how much has changed. People in law enforcement and the public at large now know that boys do indeed get abused. Thousands of professionals have gotten specialized training in how to identify victims, how talk with them and how not to exacerbate the harm when interviewing.

Specialized Child Advocacy Centers exist in more than 600 communities to make the process more child friendly. These trained police and prosecutors do understand why it is so hard to report, why the testimony sometimes changes and how the fact of participating in the sexual activity doesn't signify enjoyment or lack of harm. Growing numbers of women in law enforcement have certainly helped.

But we still have a long way to go.

Jerry Sandusky trial: All you need to know about allegations, how case unraveled

The possibility of your abuse ending up fodder for a national media frenzy that rivals the Super Bowl would hardly seem comforting to most potential disclosers. The possibility of having your lifelong identity become "that kid who was molested by that coach" would be terrifying.

In that light, perhaps the most discouraging news for survivors in the trial so far was the refusal of the judge to allow the victims to testify anonymously.

This ruling would seem callous. Lots of other countries have built in legal protections that prevent the media and other court participants from learning the names of child victims of sexual assault. Even in the United States we have protections against the disclosure of the names of juvenile offenders. The notion behind that is that young people can be permanently stigmatized by such notoriety. Why not victims, too?

Mother of Sandusky accuser testifies
Sandusky witnesses testify about showers

True, many news outlets have policies to avoid reporting the names of sexual assault victims. But it is an entirely voluntary policy, proudly flouted by some outlets. Studies have shown that information that could readily identify victims appears in 37% of news articles that report on child sexual victimization. So far, the names of the Sandusky accusers have not gotten widespread circulation. But they could.

What was the judge's rationale for denying what would seem like such a reasonable request?

"Secrecy is thought to be inconsistent with the openness required to assure the public that the law is being administered fairly and applied faithfully," Judge John Cleland wrote in his order dismissing the request. "Consequently, there must be justifications of public policy that are very deep and well-rooted to support any measure which interferes with the public's ability to observe a trial and to make their own judgments about the legitimacy of their legal system and the fairness of its results."

But there are. An enormous quantity of research shows sex crimes against children to be particularly traumatic, and aspects of the court experience to be a contributor to the trauma.

Allowing victims to testify anonymously would not truly undermine the openness crucial to make a judgment about the fairness of the system. The victims still have to testify publicly, still have to be confronted by the defense, still have their credibility tested in the eyes of the jury and the media.

Perhaps the judge was afraid of creating a basis for the appeal of a guilty verdict. But that only illustrates how the protection of victim identities needs to be better enshrined in law and practice so it is not seen as a risky anomaly.

Opinion: Tell toddlers what's private about their bodies

However the rest of the trial goes, we we must continue to commit ourselves to building a justice system that takes into account the reasonable needs of child victims for privacy and protection. It is one of the biggest things we can do to help victims come forward and stop abusers after the first rather than the 10th victim.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Finkelhor.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
updated 2:32 PM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
updated 5:03 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
updated 5:25 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT