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How to stop your child being kidnapped by a foreigner

All child snatchers seem to be foreigners.

You go on facebook and someone has shared “BEWARE… my 4 year old was out playing when he was approached by a black/asian/Eastern European man in a van…” the stories go. It prompted a friend to quip that we don’t need to worry about immigrant workers stealing our jobs, since in a decade not one of their child snatchers has successfully kidnapped a child.

The availability Heuristic, or Availability Bias, is a pretty interesting phenomenon. To give you a loose definition, this is when you start to see things that you have recently been thinking of. So for example, you think, “Y’know a lot of people seem to be pregnant lately”, and for the next week, everywhere you look seem to be pregnant women. The best explanation for why this happens is that despite the tremendous complexity of our brain, it needs some help with processing data, and takes shortcuts.

And as usual with this blog, right now you’re asking what the hell that has to do with martial arts.

Okay, I’ll get to the point. Sorry.

Leaving aside the possibility that “Foreign men snatching children” could be in part motivated by latent racism, or, which I suspect,  the possibility that some of these posts are created intentionally to generate mistrust of dark skinned people, the Stranger Danger, man in a van, “don’t take sweets from strangers” thing has been around for years. With good reason. That’s a powerful fear. Your child being kidnapped or sexually abused by a predatory person. It’s good advice. I say it to my kids.

The issue is that from a statistical point of view, it’s probably not really protecting your child. Child kidnappings by strange men are a small portion in the statistics of sexual abuse of minors. The man in the van might be a powerful image, but perhaps we deal with the horror of child sex abuse by creating a Freddie Kruger, an anthropomorphic character who comes in the night to get our young ones. It’s an easy target. It’s more comfortable than the full story.

60% of children who have suffered sexual abuse have suffered it at the hands of a relative.

90% of victims knew their abuser.*

We don’t need too much prompting in Ireland to understand this, given our history with institutional sexual abuse, and we only need to pay attention to the news to see that family members, male in particular, make up a large portion of abusers.

Another less reported fact is that the majority of sexual abuse of minors involves a male perpretrator and a female victim. We allow overt or latent homophobia to colour our perceptions of what an abuser looks like. The estimate globally is that the rate is around 8% of males will experience sexual abuse as a minor, versus 17% of females.

Girls are more than twice as likely to be sexually abused than boys.

It’s a true horror. It’s not the bogeyman, or the man offering sweeties, it’s someone in our community or family.

Am I offering a solution to that complex problem? How arrogant would that be? In fact, how arrogant is it that any “Self Defence Expert” with a black belt in Karate offers solutions to this complex social problem, no matter how well-intentioned they may be?

I’m not trying to suggest that telling your child to not take sweets from a stranger is a waste of time, that’s still good advice. What I’m suggesting is that by propagating stories of child kidnappers and bogeymen we may miss the evidence in front of our eyes.

I can’t imagine the horror of being told your child has been a victim. Even the thought causes a swell of rage in me. There’s something primal in it, and regrettably there are people in the media who use that rage to taint our perceptions of foreigners or homosexuals. I can see why people lose their sense of logic and look for targets. But lashing out and sharing false stories without checking their veracity isn’t helping, it may even be harmful.


*I’ve drawn these statistics from several sources, including the Irish Rape Crisis Centre and various sites on sexual abuse in English Speaking countries. What struck me is that the statistics were broadly the same regardless of territory, so I haven’t cited them all here.

The breakdown of victims’ gender comes from Wikipedia and the citation there was Pereda, N.; Guilera, G.; Forns, M. & Gómez-Benito, J. (2009). “The prevalence of child sexual abuse in community and student samples: A meta-analysis”. Clinical Psychology Review. 29 (4): 328–338. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2009.02.007  As an aside, UNICEF counts Child marriage in the sexual abuse statistics which may skew the gender breakdown slightly but I couldn’t find a breakdown that excludes that statistic. To be clear on that point, I’m not suggesting that Child marriage shouldn’t be included in the statistics, just that it would be a relatively minor player in an Irish context.


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