Last weekend, Barbra Streisand got herself into trouble with a series of disparaging remarks about the adults who have accused the late Michael Jackson of sexually molesting them as children. In a wide-ranging interview with the Times of London published last Friday, Streisand said of Jackson’s accusers: “You can say ‘molested,’ but those children, as you heard say, they were thrilled to be there.” Streisand went on: “They both married and they both have children, so it didn’t kill them.” The reading public, perhaps reeling from what it learned from the recent documentary film, “Leaving Neverland,” was not thrilled with Streisand’s commentary; she has since apologized at length.
Streisand’s comments were alarming, in part, because children are understood to represent a special class of sexual abuse victim, deserving of the strongest protection and redress. Children are credulous, children can’t defend themselves, and there is not even a possibility of a child rendering consent — all legitimate reasons to understand child sex crimes as a distinct category of offense.
But we are entering a period in which we are going to hear more reports of childhood sexual abuse — not necessarily from children themselves but from now-grown-up adults who are prepared to come forward about their pasts. Conditions are better, in terms of submitting these allegations for legal and public review, than they have been before, thanks in part to the #MeToo movement and the revival of legal scrutiny regarding the Catholic Church’s handling of its sexual abuse crisis.
How we greet and treat these victims and their claims matters. Yet, as we hear more from adult victims of childhood sex abuse — R. Kelly’s accusers, for example, or Jeffrey Epstein’s, or any of the hundreds of victims of sex abuse in the church — it’s already clear that the special status reserved for child victims of sex crimes is eroding.
Defenders of R. Kelly have blamed his accusers for being “fast.” Epstein’s victims have been called liars and fame-seekers in light of their coming forward. Some victims of abuse by Catholic priests and Protestant pastors have been cast as gold diggers. Kids who report their abuse while still young may be protected by the special respect set aside for children, but it increasingly appears that, as adults, suspicions about experience, motives and culpability will be aired and lodged. In that sense, adult victims of childhood sexual abuse can expect to be treated a lot like victims of sexual offenses who were adults at the time of their abuse.
We should know this by now: The unique dispositions of individual adults have never been a good reason to doubt otherwise credible reports of sexual abuse. Nor should they constitute a reason to doubt adults who come forward about incidents that occurred when they were children. I have interviewed dozens of adult victims of childhood sexual abuse in my work for The Post. In those conversations, I have found these survivors to be just as varied and unique in their motives, attitudes and intentions as anyone else. Some of them are angry about what happened to them and absolutely want to see their abusers exposed and punished; some are shy and frightened of public scrutiny, and just want to forget what happened to them. Some want money — which is fair, not only because we use money as a universal means of settling accounts in civil law but also because survivors of sexual abuse are often in need of money to cover ongoing health expenses, therapy and other costs associated with lifelong trauma. Some of them don’t mind the fame that comes with highly publicized accounts of abuse, which can be refreshing after many years of secrecy and shame; others want nothing to do with the media or are only comfortable participating in stories if their names and faces are not used.
And none of those motives and explanations has any bearing on whether their allegations are credible. In the coming years, as further investigations and independent probes of individuals and institutions provide new opportunities for adult victims of childhood sexual assaults to come forward, we have a chance to redress old wrongs and build a public and legal culture that is, overall, more capable of rendering justice. Whether that promise pans out will have a great deal to do with whether we can reverse the attitudes that have made reporting these crimes difficult from the beginning.
We might as well start now.