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Ideas | Stephanie Ebbert

Girls today are seemingly the fiercest America has ever produced. Why can’t we protect them?

In a time of #MeToo and “girl power,” teen girls may seem stronger and more empowered than previous generations. Yet, many remain susceptible to predators.Nathan Klima for the Boston Globe/File

CARLOS RIVERA LIVED a world away from Jeffrey Epstein, the Palm Beach billionaire who used his wealth, power, and a private jet nicknamed “the Lolita Express” to lure girls to work as masseuses at his mansions and private island. Yet Rivera, a schlumpy 47-year-old mechanic, was likewise capable of attracting girls to his first-floor apartment in Lawrence. He did it by providing the party — allegedly trading drugs and alcohol for sex and sexually explicit photos. The Globe reported last week that authorities now suspect he may have victimized more than a dozen girls in addition to 13-year-old Chloe Ricard, who died after he allegedly left her at the hospital, unconscious. On a step leading to Rivera’s doorway, police found a single pair of women’s underwear; his bedroom wall was plastered with more than 100 pictures of girls. On his phone, investigators would unearth over 7,000 photos of girls who looked to be in their teens.

Carlos Rivera at his arraignment at Lawrence District Court.Jonathan Wiggs /GlobeStaff/Globe Staff

Why are so many girls still prone to predation? Even in the midst of a movement that has given voice to grown women’s fury about their past victimization, stories about the sexual exploitation of girls keep exploding in real time.

Raised with empowerment bordering on entitlement and reared with the blithe certitude that of course they can do anything, today’s girls often seem more confident than those of past generations. But they have not been protected by pussyhats or “girl power.” Their seeming savvy does not make them less susceptible to bad actors. Teenagers are still teenagers — impulsive, rebellious, and with notoriously bad judgment.


The unlucky ones — flailing in uninvolved families, struggling with mental health problems, or stewing in a pit of low-self-esteem — are especially vulnerable to predators’ attention. But even the stable and the beloved can be taken advantage of. One of the strongest young women in the world, gymnast Simone Biles, recently broke down in tears as she addressed the systemic negligence that allowed her and some 300 athletes to be sexually abused by their doctor.


“You had one job, you literally had one job,” Biles said of USA Gymnastics, “and you couldn’t protect us.”

Today’s girls are seemingly the fiercest America has ever produced. Why can’t we protect them from predators?

FIRST, SOME WELCOME news: Girls are actually statistically less at risk than they once were. Violent crime and sexual assaults are down. The early 1990s were a far more dangerous time for women and girls.

“Sexual abuse actually has been decreasing — although we are seeing more of it because people are reporting more,” said Elizabeth L. Jeglic, a psychology professor and specialist in sexual violence prevention at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “I see that as encouraging.”

She also noted that the risk is not shared equally: Predators gravitate toward those whose home lives, mental states, or circumstances make them especially vulnerable.

“These are kids that potentially are coming from homes where there are problems,” said Jeglic. “They’re feeling lonely, vulnerable, depressed. The predators know how to select those children, like you saw with Epstein . . . and once they have identified people who are vulnerable, they figure out how to entice them. With some teens, that’s drugs and alcohol. With Epstein, that was the luxury lifestyle.”

Most of the girls Epstein recruited — as masseuses and then, for sex — came from disadvantaged families, single-parent homes, or foster care, the Miami Herald reported. Some had friends or relatives who committed suicide; others had seen their mothers abused or had themselves been beaten or molested by their fathers.


Most of the girls Epstein recruited — as masseuses and then, for sex — came from disadvantaged families, single-parent homes, or foster care, the Miami Herald reported. New York State Sex Offender Registry via AP/File

Girls can be further manipulated to feel as if they are complicit in the crimes against them — even if they are underage and can’t legally consent to sex.

“The predators know how to create feelings of guilt and shame,” said Jeglic, saying they might remind the girls, “ ‘You came here willingly.’ No one was pulling them into the apartment. They did come.”

If the incidents seem endemic now, that may be because we’re processing them differently. The #MeToo movement — which not only unearthed women’s tales of abuse but encouraged people to believe and support them — may be making us more receptive to stories of the victimization of girls who are not perfect victims, said Lisa Goldblatt Grace, executive director of My Life, My Choice, a Boston-based nonprofit that works to end commercial sexual exploitation.

“This has been happening for a long, long time that vulnerable kids were being used and hurt in this way,” she said. “We thankfully are at a point now where we see them as victims and not delinquents, which is a major, major shift.”

Reducing the risk of predation, then, also requires looking out for the vulnerable.

“That’s where our culture and our safety system needs to come into play and identify these kids who have problems at home, low self-esteem, because those are the ones that will more likely fall for this,” Jeglic said. “We have to identify these kids and give them what they need in a non-predatory way. That’s our job.”


Of course, a troubled home is not the only source of girls who are susceptible. Any culture can be toxic. Take the USA Gymnastics team, whose marquee stars, one by one, revealed they had been abused by their team doctor, Lawrence G. Nassar (who also admitted to abusing athletes he treated at Michigan State University).

Last month, a US Senate panel concluded that both USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee “knowingly concealed abuse by Larry Nassar, leading to the abuse of dozens of additional amateur athletes from summer 2015 to September 2016.”

“In the gymnastics situation, it was a culture that was created where they didn’t feel safe to report,” Jeglic said, noting that even when they did report, the girls’ complaints went unaddressed.

“Everybody can be vulnerable,” she added.

That’s especially true in adolescence and the teenage years, when girls’ natural instinct to test limits and push boundaries can lead them right into harm’s way.

“We often see these stories about girls who want to run away, who are in conflict with their parents, connecting with someone online,” said author Sara Pipher Gilliam. “They see that individual as a way out of a momentary situation or a way to rebel. That rebellion and that pushing against parents is developmentally appropriate. That’s a part of adolescence. But that’s one reason that girls tend to be vulnerable.”


Last month, a US Senate panel concluded that both USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee “knowingly concealed abuse by Larry Nassar, leading to the abuse of dozens of additional amateur athletes from summer 2015 to September 2016.”RENA LAVERTY/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

GILLIAM, THE DAUGHTER of psychologist Mary Pipher, jokes that she was the original Ophelia. Twenty-five years ago, her mother published the iconic book, “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls,” based on their own experiences, interviews with teenage friends, and interviews with Pipher’s therapy clients.

The book was a cultural touchstone, opening people’s eyes to the perils of adolescence — that fraught journey between a carefree girlhood and an adult world. It alarmed parents, even though Pipher rejected the popular thinking at the time that traced the roots of children’s troubled behavior back to parents. Pipher reserved her criticism for the culture at large — a “girl-poisoning culture” — and documented its relentless expectations of thinness, prettiness, smart-but-not-too-smartness, and cruel mixed messages on sexuality, which hounded girls into having premature sex, then ridiculed them for it. The no-way-out trap of it all left girls deadened after adolescence: anxious, anorexic, shallow, a lot less interested — and less interesting — than they had been as children, she posited.

When Gilliam joined her mother to rewrite a 25th anniversary edition of the book, interviewing today’s girls about concerns such as school shootings and social media that previously didn’t exist, they found very different attitudes.

The girls of the 1980s and 1990s had been “rebels and risk takers,” experimenting with sex, drugs, and alcohol as they tried to wrest independence from their parents. Their description of today’s girls: “Cautious.”

Though many of today’s teens may seem formidable and fearless, their generation is not as worldly or wild as their predecessors, they found.

Girls today have less sex, and dabble less with drinking or drugs. They talk to their families more and claim their mothers as their best friends. They’re dating less and are apt to stay in on a Saturday night with Netflix and group texts. Many are in no rush to get their driver’s licenses.

It’s encouraging feedback for families, said Gilliam, a former middle school teacher and editor of a magazine for early education professionals.

The downside is, their caution can work against them. They’re sheltered. Isolated. Looking at the world from behind a screen.

“Girls are, from our perspective, far less prepared to interface with the real world than previous generations,” Gilliam said.

Today’s teens are in constant digital proximity to their parents, which can be reassuring for safety’s sake. But since parents are often called to trouble-shoot — say, with a difficult teacher or a flat tire — young people aren’t learning to solve problems on their own, she said.

While this may seem counterintuitive, Gilliam and Pipher recommend that today’s worried parents cultivate “calibrated risk” for their daughters — challenges that fall short of danger but help them learn to navigate the real world. One mother, for instance, gave her daughter responsibility for scheduling and getting to all her medical and dental appointments. Another, tired of hearing her daughter’s complaints of boredom, told her to find and book a flight to visit a relative with her own money. The idea is to foster critical thinking skills and interpersonal interactions without a parent there to smooth the way.

Conversely, though, today’s parents are surprisingly hands-off when it comes to their children’s electronic devices, Gilliam said. Girls now spend six to nine hours a day online, she said. But mothers in their focus groups, almost to a person, said they don’t read their daughters’ texts or screen their social media accounts.

“That was quite jarring to us as researchers of this new phenomenon,” she said, noting that mothers would want to know whom their daughters were with for six to nine hours a day. “Because these mothers, for all that they are very caring of their daughters, are really missing out on this big aspect of their daughters’ lives.”

So one tip that she and her mother offer in their book — for both communication and guarding against predators — is that parents keep much closer tabs on their daughters’ smartphones and social media accounts.

Jeglic, co-author of a book called “Protecting your Child from Sexual Abuse,” also recommends that parents open traditional lines of communication — even the awkward ones, like talking about sex.

“We’ve ingrained in our culture that sexuality is somehow shameful,” she said, noting that girls often absorb that shame if they are touched inappropriately and infer they have done something wrong. Openness in talking about sexuality, starting at a young age, can make children more communicative if there is something to report, she suggested.

And though the stories about predators can seem pervasive, Jeglic is encouraged that longtime alleged abusers like Epstein and R&B singer R. Kelly are now being held to account. Though Epstein died in jail before facing justice, she’s bolstered by signals that authorities intend to pursue charges against those who helped him recruit and abuse girls. She likened it to the pressure put on the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno for the abuse committed against boys by his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

“The more we hold people who knew and didn’t do anything accountable, I think the more people are going to recognize that we can’t just be passive observers,” she said. “We need to be active interventionists.”

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert