“Don’t talk to strangers.”
As children, this instruction became so overused and familiar, we began to forget what it even meant. I always agreed to abide by it, in earnest, though often spoke to strangers, regardless. As a young child, talking to strangers was a necessity – everyone in school was a stranger at first and I was in my third new school by the time I was eight. In high school, I was no longer afraid of “strangers”, and never thought twice about giving boys my phone number after chatting over a soda outside McDonalds when I just met them. A slightly wild child, I did this mainly for shock-value to make my friends gasp, while giggling sparkly-eyed and full of teenage-invincibility. But in reality, speaking to strangers was, and still is a daily occurrence, and largely unavoidable.
In the main, encounters with strangers tend not to result in traumatic outcomes.
So why was it impressed upon us as children to avoid talking to strangers ? Well, we all know the answer to that.
Child sex offenders. It was the fear that by speaking to a “stranger” we children could, ultimately be abducted, sexually harmed, perhaps raped and maybe even murdered. In an effort to hammer the point home, tragic news items of child victims harmed by pedophiles were shared with us by our mothers speaking in hushed tones with grave faces, proving the worst could happen if we did not adhere to this cardinal rule.
There seems less emphasis on “don’t talk to strangers” these days – some of that is possibly a result of developments in communications technology. The word “stranger” is almost obsolete now that everyone we interact with is a “follower” or a “friend” in the online world we inhabit, despite the fact many are actually also “strangers”. Indeed, at least half the friends I talk to on a daily basis are just names and digital photographs on a screen.
It’s true – I have never met them in real life. So, to use old fashioned language, I’m doing what I always promised my parents I would not do: “Talking to strangers.” As a parent, it makes it hard to enforce the rule I was raised with when I am role-modelling the opposite to my children every day.
My youngest children are too young to use social media, but it intrigues them and they watch me on Twitter. Looking over my shoulder at my Twitter feed today, my 11 year old comments, scornfully “There’s Harvey Weinstein,” before pulling a face of disgust. She is right, his photo is on the screen. Not a person she would have heard of before the recent press, let alone recognised his photo. But now a man she readily equates not with the Hollywood film industry, but with sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape. I asked her and her younger sister the question – “Is Harvey Weinstein a stranger?”
“No” both girls quickly agree they would not class him as a “stranger”, despite the fact they have never even met him. This is perhaps because they can identify him from photographs and know his name. Do they see Weinstein as a threat? When asked, our children all answer “Yes” – and there are more. Aged 9, 11, and 13, my children can suddenly recite a list of famous men’s names they are hearing frequently in the news, linked to various allegations of sexual harassment and sexual violence. This current surge is in the wake of the #MeToo campaign which has brought to light a torrent of allegations in high profile arenas including the entertainment world and British political circles.
We have gone from focussing on the threat being “strangers” to the threat being “celebrities” – whether they be famous performers, politicians, or others with a claim to fame. Alongside this message runs the narrative that it is mainly men preying on mainly girls/women, and also that girls/women can, or even should take steps to avoid being preyed upon. This final point is one which I openly and vehemently contest, as do most people with any feminist ideals. Victim-blaming leads to shame which fuels silence, allowing the crimes to continue. That’s a whole other blog.
In reality, despite popular notions promoted in the press that strangers (or celebrities) are the main perpetrators of sexual harm, the reality is very different. The majority of sexual harm/violence is committed by people (mostly males) known to the victim, whether they be an adult or a child. Indeed, the sexual harassment and sexual assaults I have experienced have nearly all been perpetrated by males I know in some capacity, including work colleagues, acquaintances and even boyfriends.
The conversation about known potential predators does not happen the way the “Don’t talk to strangers” one does. In fact, given the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and sexual assault around the globe that has once again been highlighted, this time by the #MeToo campaign, it is a much bigger conversation that needs to be had, and not with potential victims. Society must proactively seek ways to raise boys who value other human beings, and treat them and their sexuality with the respect, care and compassion they duly deserve. Then, perhaps we will no longer need to work out which group of perpetrators our warnings need to be focused on.
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Written byJudith Staff
Judith Staff is an early years teacher, a safeguarding lead, and a trainer. She is a member of her Local Safeguarding Children Board. Dedicated to issues affecting children and families, Judith promotes child safeguarding and works collaboratively to address sexual violence in society. Visit her website where she blogs regularly on social issues she’s passionate about.