Sex Abuse 103: Attractive Nuisance

Sex Abuse and Misunderstanding the Law

This post is part 3 of a 5 part series on sex abuse education and what I try to teach my students. Part 1 is about Mixed Messages. Part 2 is about my personal experience with sex abuse in Hollywood. Here in Part 3 I’ll examine a common misunderstanding of the law (Attractive Nuisance), empathy and social norms. I have used it in my classroom when teaching about sexual relations. Part 4 is my biology teacher’s reason for not being surprised at what happened (Part 4: The Chimpanzee Lecture).

This is not about blaming or excusing anyone. It’s about understanding what needs to be taught to everyone. This is not intended for those broken souls who are incapable of learning. There will always be those humans who are so crazy, or so convinced that the way they see the world is the way everyone else does or should, that they are not bound by any social norms. But we’ve got to start somewhere and these are things which need to be taught.

As I said before: I do have my own experiences and a few suggestions which I offer here. Make of this what you will. I believe that if we don’t share as much information as possible we won’t ask the right questions; and if we don’t ask the right questions we won’t arrive at the right answers. So I offer these experiences (which I also discuss with my students in the classroom) as additional information in our mutual quest to teach everyone to treat others with dignity and respect.

Don’t “SHOULD” on me!

The psychologist Dr. Pat Allen warns against use of the word ‘should’ and I also want to warn you. So when I use the word ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ in the following paragraphs, read it as if it was capitalized, bolded, italicized, and in quotation marks – meaning, beware of this word and your thinking.

I’ve heard males say, “Why do girls (women) wear provocative (tight, short, low cut etc.) clothing if they don’t want to attract attention? Girls shouldn’t dress that way. They’re just asking for it.” Girls will say, “We should be able to dress however we want.” The boys are demonstrating a lack of understanding of the law and good manners. They are corrupting the concept of attractive nuisance. Girls are ignoring biology. Let me explain…

Attractive Nuisance or Girls shouldn’t dress that way.

“The attractive nuisance doctrine applies to the law of torts, in the United States. It states that a landowner may be held liable for injuries to children trespassing on the land if the injury is caused by an object on the land that is likely to attract children. The doctrine is designed to protect children who are unable to appreciate the risk posed by the object, by imposing a liability on the landowner.” (Cotten, Doyice; Wolohan, John T. (2003). Law for Recreation and Sport Managers. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company. pp. 208–.)

In layman’s terms it means you can be sued if you don’t have a fence around your swimming pool and a child breaks the law and trespasses on your land and then drowns. The concept being that the child doesn’t have the reasoning power to follow the law because your pool attracted him.

Here’s an example of a corruption of the law. I learned about this law in a class on law and school issues to protect us by making sure our classrooms were safe and free of attractive nuisances. We were told of an incident in which a 17 year old boy ditched class and tried to climb over the 12 foot fence surrounding his school. His class ring became caught on the top of the fence and it tore his finger off. His parents sued the school district on the grounds that the fence was an attractive nuisance. Sounds insane to me, but the district settled out of court rather than incur the cost of a defense (I would have fought on principle alone).

When men say that a woman shouldn’t dress a certain way – she is asking for it, they are corrupting the doctrine of attractive nuisance. It’s not the same thing. A swimming pool can’t speak up for itself and say no. A child who trespasses doesn’t have the power to hire or fire the pool. Ask men who  you believe acted inappropriately (whether or not they said women shouldn’t dress that way…). Should those men have been able to appreciate the impact of their actions? Were they really unable to control themselves due to ineffective teaching (at home or at school), ignorance or immaturity. Did they really believe that there was nothing wrong with their actions? Unfortunately the answer in most cases is “Yes.”

Rosalind Wiseman has a detailed and very insightful exploration of the dilemma concerning how girls dress and boys’ reactions to the way they dress in her wonderful book The Guide. She says,

“…girls are trying to figure out a complex equation:
how to look sexy without coming off slutty…”

What I teach my kids and we aren’t teaching enough,

“Laws and social norms change over time. What was accepted as normal in the past is now looked upon as obviously unacceptable. Guys, there is no law or socially acceptable norm to excuse forcing a girl into any situation in which she feels uncomfortable. It’s not right for you to use physical power or social power (i.e. you’re a boss and you make getting a job contingent on a return of sexual favors).”

The way a woman dresses is not an invitation to overtly strident advances. I tell my kids, “Women dress attractively so they can attract the mate of their desire. But this also means that they will attract a lot of attention from many men whether the women desire them or not. Girls, be ready to politely reject those who don’t interest you. Guys, be ready for lots of rejection. If you get rejected, move on, and don’t make an ass of yourself.”

Along with teaching about social changes we also need to be aware of what biology teaches us. Women deserve equality in determining their own destiny. But we ignore biology at our peril. Having equal rights socially does not mean we have the same goals biologically.

Again Rosalind Wiseman gets to the heart and soul of the matter:

Girls are “…trying to achieve the impossible
by pleasing both girls and straight guys,
two groups with competing agendas.”

So what does biology teach us about what those competing agendas really are?

See Part 4: The Chimpanzee Lecture.

If you liked this blog post, I’m sure you’ll like my book

What Happened to David

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2 thoughts on “Sex Abuse 103: Attractive Nuisance”

  1. Oh wow..that’s a tough one isn’t it. I love the wording in your second to last paragraph beginning ‘The way a woman dresses is not an invitation to overtly strident advances’. I like it because you have added ‘Girls, be ready to politely reject those who don’t interest you’ personally I feel that is a vitally important addition as the female needs to take responsibility also.


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