Insight Is 20/20

Exploring the pervasive, and unperceived, patterns that govern our lives

Why & How We Protect Girls Better Than Boys in America

The Sandusky scandal never would have happend if the victims had been girls.

In writing extensively on the Jerry Sandusky trial from a psychological perspective, a disarming thought recently occurred to me: The series of abusive behaviors never would have continued if the victims had been young girls instead of young boys. Why? Because we protect our girls much better than we protect our boys.

Picture for a moment a middle-aged man inviting young girls to his house, playing with them in the basement, and inviting them to spend the night. Honestly, this would never happen because everyone involved would automatically assume that the grown man could have perverted motives and could violate her sexually.

Considering Sandusky’s situation from this perspective, it seems strange that we wouldn’t assume that a man could similarly violate a young boy in exactly the same situation. Of course, the notion of a grown man molesting a young boy isn’t foreign to us. Sadly, we know that it happens all the time, and we also know that pedophiles tend to be men and they tend to molest both girls and boys. That so many individuals close to Sandusky didn't think his behavior was worthy of a child abuse report is a perfect example of the fact that we so poorly protect our boys.

When it comes to our girls, the situation is completely different. We protect our girls with sanctity, and I’ll give you a couple examples of how we do this. As the parent of a three-year old daughter, I put my daughter in a dress but never forget to make sure she wears shorts under her dress. Why? Honestly, I never thought much about it, but I guess it stems from the fear that she could be the subject of some sort of sexually violation. We have no such fears, on the other hand, when it comes to how we dress our boys.

Similarly, as kids get older and become teenage years, Dads start getting really anxious about the likelihood of teenage boys – aka Male Predators – coming to knock on the front door for a date. Dads are always making grand pronouncements about how they would postpone the start of dating into their daughters’ 20s if that were possible. When it comes to parents with their teenage sons, they’re usually not so worried. For the parents who are, it’s usually a pretty simple concern that begs a pretty basic intervention: “Make sure you were a condom.”

But we don’t protect girls better than boys entirely for sexual reasons. We also protect them better because we see girls as softer, sweeter, and more agreeable than we see boys. Accordingly, girls are seen as more innocent and vulnerable, while we imagine that boys are tougher and far better at defending themselves physically. For the most part, our feelings about boys and girls aren’t based in reality, so it ultimately reflects our own projections and fantasies about who boys and girls are, respectively, and who we want them to be.

I think it is important and justified that we protect girls as well as we do. I simply wish that we did a good job protecting boys, too. The truth is that the Jerry Sandusky trial could teach us an extremely important lesson. Now, it's our job to listen.

Seth Meyers, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

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