Seventy New Yorkers were arrested this week for the possession and distribution of child pornography. They were nabbed in an undercover sting that exposed the nefarious activities of community leaders, including a Westchester police chief, a rabbi, two cops, two nurses, a paramedic, an au pair, and a Boy Scout leader/Little League coach. In discussing the accused, James T. Hayes, Jr., special agent for Homeland Security, said he found the professional status of the perps troubling: “We can no longer assume that the only people who would stoop to prey on children are unemployed drifters.”
Hayes is talking to the parents of America who, despite all evidence, maintain the belief that pedophiles are dirty, old man in raincoats who lurk at playgrounds. Constant news reports about abductees like Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard, and the Cleveland kidnapping victims reinforce the image of predators as deranged derelicts with dirty hair, unkempt clothes, and crazy eyes. As a result, people think the biggest danger to children is disturbed strangers. But nothing could be further from the truth. Less than 10% of all child molestations are committed by strangers. 90% of all child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child already knows. The real dangers to children are teachers, coaches, pediatricians, babysitters, clergymen, neighbors, friends, family, husbands, and even our teenage sons.
The truth about pedophiles is hard for most parents to swallow. It means there are people they know and trust and maybe love right now who collect pictures of naked kids. Some people don’t realize they have kiddie porn in their own homes—hidden on the family laptop in the upstairs bedroom. My mother was such a person. She was married to a pedophile teacher who molested me and lots of his students. He ran the Drama Club at our school and tutored kids for free on weekends. Most people thought he was a fine, upstanding guy who went out of his way to help the children in his care.
My dad collected child pornography, like nearly every pedophile. He traded images with other pedophiles in a ring similar to the one that just got busted. As far as I know, there were no unemployed drifters in the ring—just teachers, policemen, a guy who sold rare coins, an executive at Crayola, and the fellow who owned the local hoagie shop. These were regular guys. Most of them were married with kids. They belonged to the PTA and coached the school sports teams. They weren’t strangers.
Well, not on the outside.
That’s what’s so hard about these kinds of stories. They remind us that there are people we know who we don’t really know at all. Pedophiles are master manipulators who live among us and delight in conning parents and kids. In order to effectively deceive, they almost always lead a double life. They have families, work solid jobs, and become members of a church. In short, they deliberately establish themselves as the good guys. Then, under their covers as model citizens, they pursue their real goal—sex with children.
Is it any wonder that when these good guys are arrested, we have trouble believing it? These are our beloved neighbors, coaches, uncles, husbands. How could they suddenly turn around and do something so horrible?
What most people can’t accept is the fact that they didn’t suddenly, in a weak moment, decide to hurt a child. This something they’ve been doing for years. We just didn’t see it. We see a dedicated teacher/priest/friend who inexplicably exploited a child. In reality, the role of teacher/priest/friend is just the pedophile’s cover—his means of accessing victims.
It’s all over the news. X-Men director Bryan Singer and three other Hollywood bigwigs have been accused of sex with a minor. Michael Egan, who is now 31, claims that he was raped by many of entertainment’s gay mafia in the late 90s. Egan was only a teenager at the time. Besides the juicy names involved, the story is making headlines because of the sensationalistic milieu where the rapes allegedly occurred—wild sex parties at mansions in Los Angeles and Hawaii. At these gatherings, naked teenage boys were reportedly given money and drugs in exchange for sex with the Hollywood elite. Descriptions of these parties sound very Valley of the Dolls. Well, the Ken dolls, at least.
The lawyer at the helm of these lawsuits, Jeff Herman, has recently been making quite a name for himself. The self-styled “Voice for Victims” is also the guy who brought suit against the voice of Elmo, Kevin Clash. Herman has been specifically targeting Hollywood types, because he says, “Hollywood has a problem with the sexual exploitation of children. This [the Singer case] is the first of many cases I will be filing to give these victims a voice and to expose the issue.”
While I’m all for legal action against sexual abusers—and certainly Gung Ho for the exposure of any “notorious” sex ring—I worry about Herman’s message that child sex rings are somehow a Hollywood problem. Based on the five famous men he has recently targeted, I’m also gravely concerned about the implication that sexual abuse is somehow a gay thing. The truth is: Child sex rings (or, in this case, teen sex rings) are not reserved for the rich, gay, and famous. They are everywhere in the world, exploit children of all ages and both genders, and involve perpetrators from every walk of life. Most rings don’t involve mansions or private jets or promises of movie deals. Most rings don’t involve men with the kind of fame and money that would attract a lawyer like Herman to fight for its victims.
I know all of this, because I’m an expert of sorts. I’m a psychologist who specializes in the study of child sex rings. More poignantly, I was the victim of one. When I was 8-years-old, I began living with a pedophile who routinely traded kiddie porn and actual kiddies with other men. For six years, I was prostituted to other members of the ring, both one-on-one and at sex parties. A few of these parties were held at expensive houses and involved men of means. Most were held at motels and involved run-of-the-mill perverts. All of my abuse was obviously perpetrated by men with heterosexual tendencies. And there wasn’t a Hollywood type among them.
All over the world, children and teens are routinely and systematically lured into sex rings by malicious adults. According to the FBI, these run the gamut from solo sex rings with a single perpetrator enjoying a stable of young playthings to highly organized, multi-abuser rings that sell child pornography and children for profit. Internationally, there are rings that buy and kidnap children from around the globe for use in child-sex tourism.
Here at home, a quick Google search will turn up countless news stories of fathers, stepfathers, uncles, coaches, teachers, counselors, and clergymen luring their wards into suburban sex rings.
So, in light of this highly sensational story, I think it’s very important to remember that child sex rings don’t all happen under the palms of the Paul Mitchell estate. For, when we assume that, we gain a false sense of security, believing child sexual exploitation is something that happens somewhere else. But believe me, it happens everywhere and to all types of children. There may even be a child sex ring operating on your quiet cul-de-sac.
Dr. Michelle Stevens is a psychologist, writer, and expert on trauma. She wrote the bestselling book, Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving (Putnam, 2017).