Thursday, July 30, 2015

Lessons from Oprah's interview with Matt Sandusky

In her recent interview with Matt Sandusky, Oprah Winfrey hit one of the toughest issues associated with child sexual abuse head-on. People must rid themselves of the notion that all sexual abuse hurts physically.

Lessons from Oprah’s interview with Matt Sandusky

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Matthew Sandusky , the adopted son of sexual-abuse convict and former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky, during an interview with Oprah Winfrey (not pictured) aired last week. GEORGE BURNS / Harpo
Matthew Sandusky , the adopted son of sexual-abuse convict and former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky, during an interview with Oprah Winfrey (not pictured) aired last week. GEORGE BURNS / Harpo

A version of this article first appeared on Rosenweig's Website, SexWiseParent.com.

In her recent interview with Matt Sandusky, Oprah Winfrey hit one of the toughest issues associated with child sexual abuse head-on.

Her interview with the man both victimized and adopted by former Penn State assistant football coach and convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky drove home this point: people must rid themselves of the notion that all sexual abuse hurts physically.

“It is part of my mission to expose sexual abuse for what it really is,” said Winfrey, and her skilled questioning of Matt Sandusky was one more step on that path.

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Video: Sandusky’s Son Tells Oprah About Father’s Bedtime ‘Ritual’

As she did with former child actor Todd Bridges in 2010, she directed her questioning of Sandusky to reveal that sexual arousal and climax were part of the abuse.

“It’s very confusing, it’s very confusing to you because you...have a reaction,” said Sandusky, tearfully stumbling over his words. “It’s something that you definitely don’t know what’s happening, but that’s just what it is, I guess, I don’t want to say that it’s pleasurable, but it’s not the most painful thing I guess.”

Winfrey firmly told Sandusky that it is OK to say it’s pleasurable, “because it is. You don’t have the language to even explain what’s happening,” she said.

And that is one of the most compelling arguments for sexual education for children. Kids need to know how their bodies and those of the other gender works. We can neutralize one of the most powerful tools used by predators when we raise kids who truly understand that genital arousal in response to stimulation is as uncontrollable as getting goose bumps when they are tickled.

There is no shame or mystery – that’s just how the body works. Parents are the best people to share this information with their kids in age–appropriate doses as they develop, and I believe that so strongly that I developed resources to help them.  With practice and resources like these, it can be easier than it seems.  

Oprah Winfrey shares my dedication to ensuring that people understand that involuntary physical sexual arousal is often an aspect of sexual victimization, and ignorance of this fact traps victims into confusion, shame and silence.

In April 2010, she asked Todd Bridges to read the section from his autobiography “Killing Willis” where he described his awful confusion from climaxing when molested. That show inspired me to bring a sex educator’s perspective to child sexual abuse prevention, write the Sex-Wise Parent and put resources at SexWiseParent.com. In 2012, I heard boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard speak at a Penn State conference on child sexual abuse; he said that hearing Todd Bridges acknowledge this physical reaction gave him the courage to speak out about his own victimization.

Sexual abuse of children takes many forms, each of them painful in its own awful way. We know that the majority of abuse is initiated by a person known to the child, and in many of these situations, the abuser uses so-called ‘grooming’ techniques to seduce a child into compliance before the child knows what’s happening. Accurate information, lovingly shared by informed parents, can provide children an extra means of defense against fear, guilt and shame and provide a robust defense against a most common type of sexual predator; those who shun physical violence in favor of inducing a physical reaction.   

I will always thank Oprah Winfrey for using her platform to continue to share this very important message. Let’s honor that by helping families and communities provide accurate and honest information about sexuality. To paraphrase a pedophile I interviewed when writing the Sex-Wise Parent: “kids want to talk about sex and if their parents won’t do it, I will”.

Parents -- take this as a call to action to educate yourself and your children.  Doing so can bring families closer together  and offer your child a defense against the most insidious weapon used by so many predators  – a child’s ignorance and shame about their own involuntary physical response. 


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VP for Programs & Research for Prevent Child Abuse America
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The Healthy Kids blog is your window into the latest news, research and advice around children's health. Learn more about our growing list of contributors here.

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Janet Rosenzweig, MS, PhD, MPA VP for Programs & Research for Prevent Child Abuse America
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