Monday, March 15, 1982

Let Children Be Children, Urges Florence Rush, Not Victims of Sexual Abuse

Let Children Be Children, Urges Florence Rush, Not Victims of Sexual Abuse
By Richard K. Rein
People Magazine - March 15, 1982

This spring the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether or not to uphold a lower court ruling that struck down a 1977 New York State child pornography law. At issue: the provision that made it illegal to produce or sell materials showing children engaged in any form of sexual activity, whether those materials were deemed obscene or not. The state court held that the law, as written, was too broad and would "prohibit the promotion of materials" traditionally protected under the right of free speech and a free press. Florence Rush, 62, the author of The Best Kept Secret: Sexual Abuse of Children (McGraw-Hill, $5.95), is one expert who feels the High Court should reinstate the New York law. The Manhattan-born daughter of Russian immigrants, she studied social sciences at New York University and earned her master's at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work. She raised three children of her own—all now in their 30s—and worked for 14 years with emotionally disturbed youngsters in Westchester County. Now divorced after 35 years of marriage to a machine shop owner, Rush lives alone in Manhattan. She is active in Women Against Pornography, a feminist action group, and is researching a sequel to The Best Kept Secret dealing with the image of children in the media. She spoke with Richard K. Rein of PEOPLE about ways society exploits children sexually. 

Why do you think the Supreme Court should uphold New York's child pornography law? 

In this country we have a long tradition of protecting our children with special laws that do not apply to adults. A minor cannot leave home, enter a contract or take a job if it violates child labor laws. It's only in sex that a child is considered an adult, and a man is permitted to be as irresponsible as a child. The First Amendment may protect the right of the pornographer to sell his material, but at the same time it contributes to the abuse of children. 

But don't other laws on the books make sexual activity with minors a crime? 

Yes, but cases of sexual assault against kids usually go unpunished. In a Brooklyn study of 256 cases, only 23 offenders received jail sentences and five others were committed to mental institutions. More than half the cases were dropped when the families had to face the trauma of police and legal interrogations and court appearances. Last year, out of 1,000 Brooklyn cases, only one-third made it to court. 

How widespread is child porn? 

No one knows, since most of it is clandestine. Most experts agree it's a multimillion-dollar-a-year business in the U.S. Whatever the figure, this kind of pornography increases children's susceptibility to all forms of sexual exploitation. The image that's projected is that the child enjoys sex and is in ecstasy while it's happening. 

What about the way children are portrayed in films and the media in general? 

In last year's Beau Père we were shown a 29-year-old man succumbing to the repeated sexual advances of his 14-year-old stepdaughter. The suggestion, made over and over, is that children are sexual. That is the message in those blue jeans ads where not only Brooke Shields but many models under 16 have been used. The Lolita syndrome seems to have captivated the American public. 

What is the allure of children? 

An ad for toiletries that appeared in Seventeen and other publications in 1977 showed a girl of about 7 made up to look like Marilyn Monroe, clutching a stuffed animal. The caption read, "Innocence is sexier than you think." Since sexual expression often is related to dominance and submission, the younger the child, the more attractive she is. Children are trusting, passive and less resistant. Recently a New York modeling agent was quoted as saying, "What is most sellable now is a real seductive baby face." 

Aren't you reading more into these ads than is really there? 

The effect on 99 percent of us is to subtly implant in our minds that little girls are sexy and available. To the 1 percent who may be sexually aroused by children, this is a direct turn-on. 

Is this a new phenomenon? 

Historically, girls have always been pushed into selling their bodies, whether legitimately through marriage or illegitimately through prostitution. Among the Greeks and Romans, sexual use of children was rampant. The Talmud recommended that a daughter be given in marriage between the ages of 12 and 12½, but according to certain interpretations of the Bible, betrothal of a child far under that age was legitimized by the act of sexual intercourse. 

Are children more vulnerable today? 

I suspect there's more exploitation now than 30 years ago because of the swing toward sexual liberation. It's been estimated by the American Humane Society that 1.2 million kids a year are used in the child porn and prostitution rackets. Movies like Butterfly, in which Pia Zadora plays a 17-year-old who looks 11, give men permission to act out their sexual inclinations and fantasies. There are more flesh magazines—a Canadian publication called Rustler just published nude pictures ofBrooke Shields at 10—and there are even beauty pageants featuring girls as young as 3. 

How widespread is child molestation? 

In the early '50s a Kinsey study of 4,441 predominantly urban, affluent, college-educated women revealed that 24 percent of them had had a sexual encounter—anything from sexual advances to exhibitionism to fondling and beyond—with a male adult before the age of 13. University of New Hampshire researcher David Finkelhor, in a 1978 survey of 796 college students, found that 9 percent of boys have some similar sexual experience with an adult before age 16. 

Who are the offenders? 

They are predominantly male and can be either heterosexual or homosexual. Women are not encouraged to be sexually aggressive. About 75 to 80 percent of child molesters are either a relative or an acquaintance of the family, someone the child knows and trusts. Although reporting of incidents is increasing as more attention is given to the subject, nearly half of these occurrences go unreported. 


It's the best-kept secret because some of the best people are offenders. They quite often are those upon whom others depend. Confronting the offender might embarrass or disrupt the family. The man might lose his job, and then what would happen to his wife and children? 

In your terms, what constitutes a sexual encounter? 

I limit my definition to exhibitionism or physical genital contact. I don't want to make every man who loves kids self-conscious about what he's doing. 

How can you judge a man's intentions? 

The man who just enjoys children does not particularly look for ways to be alone with them. The person who is potentially a sex offender finds ways to do so. He may urge them to play hide-and-seek, isolating children, but he seldom will join games involving the whole family. 

Are these men prone to violence? 

Not usually. Men who assault, kidnap or murder children represent a small minority of molesters. I'm more concerned about the garden variety of molestation happening daily. 

Were you molested as a child? 

I was fondled by a dentist when I was 7; he was a family friend, so my parents assumed I was making up stories just to avoid going. Later, when I was 11, men sitting next to me at the movies would try to reach up my skirt. 

Don't some children make up stories about being molested? 

It is very rare. Children only lie to enhance their esteem: "We have 10 phones in our house," or "My daddy's a millionaire." They're usually so ashamed about being abused they rarely tell, and when they do tell, they are often not believed. Then if something of this nature occurs again, they will certainly keep quiet about it. 

What is the long-range impact on the victim? 

Women abused for a long time as children feel guilty, dirty. They may never outgrow it. The consequences in their adult lives can be lowered self-esteem, emotional problems, even suicide. Studies have shown that 70 percent of young prostitutes were sexually abused as children. 

What about boys who are molested? 

Some boys feel degraded and question their own masculinity. Others, sadly, grow up to identify with the abuser and become abusers themselves. 

How do molesters feel? 

Some may be ashamed, but most don't feel guilty and show little remorse if caught. 

Can children fight back? 

If the child says, "No, don't do it or I'll tell my parents," most offenders will back off. Often molesters behave the way they do because in one way or another they feel they've been given permission. A first step in eliminating such abuse is bringing it out into the open. Let these people know we disapprove—that we believe and support our children. 

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