The cultural concept of Stranger Danger, a colloquial term, has origins in human development. A facet of this concept is commonly seen among infants in the form of Stranger Anxiety—where babies become fearful and ambivalent towards those who do not look like their most familiar caregivers. “Don’t talk to strangers!” is a common phrase heard in almost every childhood upbringing. On a larger scale, the natural fear of Stranger Danger is replicated in media culture, as well as social policy and practice about sexual offenders. However, social science research has debunked the myth that sexual offenders are mostly strangers. Yet, the Stranger Danger myth continues to dominate cultural depictions of sex offenders and how we approach them in social policy and practice, despite the harmful risk of being misinformed as to who sexually abuses and who doesn’t.
QUICK FACTS: Who commits sexual abuse and where does it happen?
›Of those who are sexually victimized, approximately 60% of boys and 80% of girls are abused by relatives, caregivers, and friends
From faces on milk cartons to Amber Alerts, visual sources depicting child abduction cases by strangers dominates our cultural (mis)beliefs about sexual offenders and Stranger Danger. Although it is natural to fear the unknown, stories depicting Stranger Danger distort the reality of what research tells us about who commits sexual abuse.
Famously publicized news cases have been known to trigger mass anxiety, like what followed the 1962 abduction and murder of two little girls in Mansfield, Ohio by an 18-year-old male, and result in fear-based narratives dictating who we in larger society believe is dangerous (i.e. “strangers” who sexually abuse children). The Bright Lights Film Journal suggests that the 1962 Mansfield, Ohio murder was the inspiration for The Child Molester (1964), which was produced by the Highway Safety Foundation for public education on how to prevent child sexual abuse.
Since the 1960s, we have learned much more about the tragic reality that those who sexually abuse are most often known by the victim. However, the cultural depictions of sexual offenders, as seen in The Child Molester (1964), continues to resonate among contemporary public opinion about sexual offenders.
In the opening scene of the film, the camera angle omits the face of the sexual offender, which implicitly detaches the viewer from possibly seeing the face (and personhood) of the offender. In fact, it is not until the end of the film that a face is attached to the sexual crime.
Why do cultural misconceptions of Stranger Danger matter?
Because, ultimately, continuing such myths in larger society misinform sexual offender policy and practice. The complex reality of sexual abuse is that victims remain silent about the abuse because the offender is someone they know and family members often do not hold offenders accountable due to disbelief. If we fail to integrate continued research and evidence that sexual offenders are people (and not strangers or monsters), are we doing all that we can to address the problem of sexual offending within larger society and in the best interest of prevention? As a sex offender treatment provider, I have concerns with the cultural depictions of sexual offenders, such as in The Child Molester (1964) that fail to recognize the humanity of sexual offenders, which puts more children at risk for abuse.
QUICK EDUCATION TOOL: What are some ways to educate yourself and others about how to identify sexually abusive behaviors?