Tips for Kids: On Sexual Predators (Part 1 of 2)

Please pass this on. If it helps even just one kid out of a difficult situation, then it was well worth the time and effort to write it. — EES

“Kids face so many dangers now,” said a friend during a Facebook Messenger exchange. She’s a mother of a teen, and my oldest is now a pre-teen, and we were talking about how many more restrictions are parentally imposed on today’s teens’ movements compared to when we were that age. I couldn’t help but lament how much today’s kids are missing out — and for good reason — not being able to do what we used to do independently. “Like sexual predators,” she continued, “there’s so many of them now. I’m glad we didn’t have to deal with them back then!”

Um, I’m no expert, and have really no credentials or first-hand knowledge, really, on what kids today are facing. But I do know one thing: There sure were sexual predators back then, too. A lot of them.

You see, I used to love cutting classes and skipping school back in high school. Way more than what was considered healthy, I think. I must’ve been 14, 15-years-old when that started. And it’s not like no one noticed me gone. They all noticed, just ask my friends. And not just them, the teachers too — even the administration, for goodness sake.

How’s that possible? You see, I was supposedly one of the good kids. At a decent private school — Benedictine Abbey School (now San Beda Alabang). A permanent fixture in the honors class for as far back as there were honors classes there, and that’s a long way back: I started in that school when it first opened in 72, among the small handful of its pre-schoolers when the “campus” was literally nothing but a single small building with three classrooms surrounded by nothing but grassy hills. Good old BAS. “Bene” to us students. And it grew huge and expansive, and me along with it.

And I wasn’t exactly a low-profile kid either. Suffice it to say, the teachers and administration knew me. And they sure would know if I wasn’t there when I was supposed to be. I guess I just got exceedingly bored with high school at some point, and decided to just go do my thing, on my own, whenever I thought I could get away with it. And with the weird mix of academic and reputation invisible “credits” I’d managed to build up at that point, they just looked the other way, figuring I’d make it up somehow.

Because there was one more element to the mix that made all that possible: The school had started experimenting with what they called PSI, or the Personalized System of Instruction. Subjects were broken up into X number of modules for the whole year, and the kids could learn and get tested on each module whenever they wanted, as quickly as they wanted.  The theory, of course, being the students who got “bored” easy could then zoom through the material, finish fast, and that done, the ideal world scenario is they’d start taking on a lot more advanced material, giving them a huge head start on the next grade level.

They did forget one thing, though: kids could also choose to go as slow as they wanted. The route I ended up taking. Probably took me all of two seconds to get to that action plan, weigh all the pros and cons and muse over the ramifications of my decisions. At some point, worst-case scenario, I still could just zoom through all those modules at the end of the year, I figured. Or not. Honestly didn’t think that far ahead. I know, really unusual for a young teen, right?

Well, that’s how it all got started playing out anyway.

Still had to do the “Mission Impossible” thing, though, to get myself extricated from the campus during schooldays. It wasn’t like I had some pass to show the guards and they’d let me out. So, how’d I do it? Quite simple, actually: Most of the time, I just got out of the school bus in the morning before it entered school grounds. I had historically-built up “rep” credits with the bus driver and conductress too, and they believed me (or at least figured I wouldn’t get into trouble) when I asked to be let out at a “friend’s” house nearby and we’d just walk to school together.

Not that that was really required, either. I often found myself in school already (I did have to show my face on occasion). When I inevitably got bored yet again, well, I knew which of the inner fences had low passer-by traffic. I’d just time it right and climb over, knowing full well that once I was out by the parking lots, I was free and clear to exit school grounds.

Now I was debating whether to include these specific details here, but then I figured, you know what, if kids today can still get out of campus that way, hey schools, up your game. If you need help, let me know, and I’ll plug your security holes. Want to know where a home’s vulnerable entry points are? Ask a robber.

Anyway, once out, I’d just work my way to the Alabang-Zapote road, take a jeepney to Alabang, then a bus to Makati, to the Quad cinemas and mall in what was then the Makati Commercial Center. And that was where I would hang out for as long as I felt like it.

So, here we are at the point of this whole trip down memory lane, and do note, this was in the very early-80s. Because now we’re at the big reveal: Just about every time I was there, on average at least once each trip (with three being my personal best), I was propositioned by an adult male. And there goes that whole “there were no sexual predators back then” thing. They sure were there, looking for youngsters. You just had no idea, did you? Well, maybe you did, but didn’t realize there were that many. Yes, already. Alarming, huh?

Well, if this is all news to you, pull up a chair and sit next to the youngsters. The following tips may be eye-opening and enlightening.

1. How do you spot a sexual predator? You can’t.

It’s not like they have a uniform or badge. No rule they have to have pornstaches. Beady eyes. Gaudy jewelry. Whatever. They look and behave like everybody else. Normal as can be. Until they make their move.

So kiddies, if you think you can rely on your “street smarts” and will be able to spot one coming toward you, unless the predator’s an absolute moron or you’re psychic, um, I don’t think so.

Here’s an even more important observation: Many of them are, in fact, quite disarming. Personable. Very friendly. And that’s their whole shtick, to get you to lower your defenses. So much for those street smarts.

What about online? I guess the very same thing applies, and even more so, since you’ll likely have far less physical cues to go by. I’m just guessing since this “online socializing with strangers” scene isn’t something I can say I have much experience with. Oh, I’ve developed many online friendships with “strangers” through the years, many of whom I’ve never actually met face-to-face but, by now, feel I know quite well. But they’re all from professional and special interest online communities and forums, and the connections and friendships just evolved over time. Although I’m sure some were there to socialize, maybe even find dates, the dynamic’s different from sites that bill themselves as specifically for that sort of thing. At any rate, the point is that it’s a safe bet that predators will be just as difficult if not even more so to detect online prior to them revealing their intent.

Does that mean then that you have to be extremely wary and should suspect every single person you encounter? Nah, that’s no way to live. But don’t be dumb or careless, either. Maybe the rest of these tips can help out a bit.

A question that’s probably bouncing around your psyche right now is what was it about me that made me a particularly alluring target for these guys back then? It’ll be pretty clear why in the next tip.

2. Don’t be where you’re clearly not supposed to be.

It was daytime, during a school day. I was still in my school uniform, with my school bag. And there I was, all by myself, messing around in National Bookstore and that record store right next to it, and walking up and down the Quad’s halls, going in and out various shops, just wasting time. And heck if I looked like I was anywhere close to being college age. Now tell me, did I really look like I was supposed or even allowed to be there?

Didn’t take a lot of analysis to reach the conclusion that I very likely wasn’t supposed to be there, that no one else knew I was there, and worst of all, that I had no inclination to want anyone else to know I was there either. As low risk as low risk gets. I must’ve been prey on a platter for these guys.

I was their perfect target, in simplest terms.

That’s it. That’s all it really took to keep me in their crosshairs.

So the lesson is simple: If you want to minimize the chances of encountering them, don’t be a good target for them. And one of the best ways to do that is to not be where you’re not supposed to be, doing what you’re not supposed to be doing.

Now, if you think no one’s smart enough to notice you, you’ve not only severely underestimated other people’s basic intelligence, you’ve completely forgotten about their experience. Chuck that youthful arrogance out the window. We see you. That we choose to totally ignore you for whatever reason doesn’t mean you haven’t been spotted.

Maybe that’s a wake up call? Because if you think about it, if people who really don’t care to see or interact with you are fully aware of your presence, what about that group of not-quite-upstanding adult citizens who not only want you to be there, they are specifically seeking you out?

Well, maybe messing around where you’re not allowed to be online would be safer, then, right? One would think, anyway. Obviously the playground changes a tad. It would certainly be easier for you to pretend to be much older than you really are. An intriguing idea, huh? It is, until you realize that no matter how slick you are, many of us are quite adept at sensing your presence there too, even from behind a computer screen. We often can even do it in an all-text online environment, like message forums. There are a lot of “tells,” you know, way more than measly visuals. That your true age range can’t and won’t be noticed online is quite a faulty assumption. Maybe even a potentially dangerous one, as you tend to drop your defenses with that false sense of anonymity.

Let’s make it even more interesting: You’ll tend to learn these “tells” as you get older and start looking at kids trying to BS you from this side of the fence. The life experience elements you’ll pile on as you mature tend to isolate and bring those “I’m a youngster” tells to your attention. Knowing you have no clue at this point yet what tells I’m talking about (and hell if I’m telling you, not to mention any predators who may be reading this), let’s look at a related question: Are you adept, experienced and perceptive enough to tell if a way older predator pretends to be someone around your age and sends you a friend request online? Something to think about.

I think the only sensible conclusion, then, is that if you wish not to have to deal with predators, avoiding their attention in every way possible would be a good way to do that. Not being where they’re looking for you, even better.

Unfortunately, you can do everything right, and still you may end up dealing with them. They are a persistent lot. Well, know one thing: Despite all my encounters with them as a rule-breaking, “perfect target” teen, none of their overtures ever came close to succeeding. Not a one. It didn’t help their cause, of course, that I had absolutely zero interest in whatever it was they were selling. But even then, I was still a kid at a physical disadvantage. None of it. however, even escalated to a point where I felt like I was in trouble, let alone in danger. Why? Hindsight assists us with that. The next tip may help shed some light on why those encounters played out that way.

3. Confidence, it makes a difference.

Be forewarned: What you’ll learn in this tip may actually prove quite dangerous. You’ve been warned. Make sure you read through to the end of this and the succeeding tips and understand them to help make sure that if things get a bit dodgy, you’ll have a fighting chance to make the best decisions.

So, how did my encounters with these sexual predators usually transpire? Quite uneventfully, frankly. To any casual observer, it all looked oh so normal. Not that I was paying much attention or alert and looking out for them — I was going about my business of just wasting time: browsing bookshelves, tinkering with one product after another, walking from one shop to the next, nothing unusual.

But at some point, obviously, they figured it was a good time to approach. Likely when there was no one else within the immediate vicinity, making for an opportune moment. And they’d initiate a friendly chit-chat. The chats all started somewhat like this [translated from Tagalog]:

PRED: Hi, I’m Pred. What’s your name?
ME: Hi, I’m Eldon.
PRED: Nice to meet you Eldon. What school do you go to?

And the conversation was on. Friendly, normal banter. Them asking questions, me answering. I have no idea how long those conversations lasted; my memory probably has them pegged as far longer than they actually were. Nor do I recall any of the questions that followed the first, but that also probably means there was nothing unusual or alarming worth remembering.

At some point, this friendly exchange all comes to a head when they get to the question they really want to ask, and they do end up asking:

“Do you want a friend?”

It has more impact in the original Tagalog, actually: “Gusto mo ng kaibigan?”

It’s very clear now what it is they want, isn’t it? Clear as the waters of our best beaches, unless one happens to be the naivest of the naive, or more likely, the dumbest of the dumb. (Let’s call a spade a spade, OK? This is very important stuff.)

So, how’d I get myself out of that scene that suddenly turned dramatic? Well, it may disappoint you to learn that I didn’t reply with anything TV drama-worthy. All I did was say, “No thanks, I’ve got enough friends.” And walked away, ignoring any protests or comments (and there usually weren’t). It’s important to note that to anyone observing, it would all still look perfectly normal. I wasn’t angry or scared. I didn’t rush away. I just walked away purposefully, like I knew where the heck I was going. Which at that point was really pretty much anywhere I felt comfortably far enough away from the predatory prick where he likely wouldn’t bother following in pursuit. But not all that far, hell, I still had important time wasting to do.

They never did follow.

Now let’s analyze this, see if we can learn anything from all that. Nah, who’s got time for that. Let’s cut to the chase: I figure the main thing that worked in my favor in those situations was that I simply did not come across as being “intimidatable.”

I came across as confident.

That’s it. That’s all it really was. I talked normally, clearly, like talking to anyone else out there. I was polite, as much as the situation required, no more no less. Didn’t shy away, cringe, or react in any unusual way, really. Didn’t look all around for support or an escape route, no inching away or showing any signs of discomfort. Didn’t really look like I cared, now that I think about it. And when the time came, I left with no hesitation, just headed straight for where I was heading, which really was anywhere.

Now let’s be perfectly clear about something. Could any of those predators have overpowered me? Most if not all of them could’ve. I’m now 5’9″ and change, and I wasn’t a late bloomer, so I couldn’t have been all that much shorter then. But I sure didn’t have the muscle — haha OK, pounds — I now carry. I was not an imposing figure, not to an adult male, that’s for sure, whatever his height. And need I remind you: young teen. It would be very unusual for anyone that age to know how to handle and withstand an adult male’s strength — pile on all those extra years of adult experience on top of that too while you’re at it. So as far as that goes, phffft, I didn’t stand a chance in a physical confrontation.

But if push came to shove, I was likely trouble. At least that’s what they figured. Just enough to draw attention if a situation arose.

Maybe you’ve noticed: We’ve just identified what is probably the predator’s biggest fear, and that is the fear of drawing attention to what they’re doing. What I was, what I appeared to them to be, was simply something that threatened to put that very much at risk.

And that’s what worked to my benefit. I simply was no longer worth the trouble and risk.

Now here’s why all that is dangerous as sin. Heck if I knew all of the following back then. But I sure do know better now. You may as well take advantage of and benefit from that insight.

I appeared confident because I was confident. No doubt because I was oblivious and clueless to the really dangerous position I was in, but confident nevertheless. I don’t think this is one of those things you can really fake. And people sure can sense it. Doesn’t matter if it’s based on anything resembling reality, that the whole thing is just some foolish state of mind that has little if anything to back it up, if the confidence is there, it’s there, and people respond to it. (The Americans, for example, have pretty much built a modern day empire on little more than a foundation of just that. And they weren’t faking it. They believed it.).

On the other side of the coin, just like they can sense confidence, they can also sense a lack of it… or someone faking it. I figure if I have to tell you to act and be confident, and you didn’t know that you are exactly that in your gut already before I even let the words out, I think you really are better off not trying to gain it — or worse, fake it — and plan accordingly. Definitely not with this kind of dangerous scenario. Again, they can tell.

Not that being confident guarantees anything, either. It just makes the odds more favorable for you. Good thing that, in my experience, that’s often more than enough. But by the same token, sometimes it isn’t. I’ve experienced that too in other situations. Luckily, not with this. Messing with a sexual predator is one of those things where you really don’t want to find out if the confidence formula is enough or not to get you through it unscathed, especially not when there is without a doubt in anyone’s mind that you are the weaker side of the equation. Remember, they’re scared of you attracting attention — they’re not really scared of you.

But enough about confidence. There’s something else I did in the way I interacted with them that really was a huge mistake. And that was giving them the benefit of the doubt and actually chatting with them in the first place, waiting for them to pop the inevitable question before acting. Yeah, I can chalk that up to my 15-year-old naive stupidity, but still dangerous dangerous dangerous. Well, let me pull you out of the realm of the naive and put you squarely among those of us in the know:

No adult without an ulterior motive is going to talk to an unknown kid in public in that manner. Who does that? No, not the talking to strangers part — I talk to strangers — it’s all that “getting to know you and each other” stuff. All those personal questions! I mean, I may see a kid at a bookstore next to me pick up a book that interests me, and I’d ask them about it, if they know anything about it since I’d be interested in reading it too, yada yada. Or I’d see them pick up something I’ve already read and enjoyed and I’d tell them as much, maybe I’ll crack a joke, they’d laugh (or, more likely, do a phony pretend laugh while thinking, “Old dork”), then we’d go right back to doing our own thing, what we were up to before our brief interaction, which was pretty much ignoring each other. That certainly is “talking to strangers.” But that’s normal “talking to strangers.” I even do that with really young kids sometimes, kid around a bit, then we’re off on our separate ways. You know, normal. Not once do I remember ever introducing myself and/or asking for their name before any of these short encounters. No personal questions or anything of the sort. They aren’t required or needed in the least for the interaction. Coming up with specific examples is difficult out of context, but I think you know exactly what I’m talking about here.

Point is, these are the kinds of personal questions that appeared from the get go with those predators. They were friendly, yeah, but I know damn well I picked up early on their “vibe” very early on. Which also means that I should have ended the exchange early on, immediately, instead of waiting for them to get to the question they really wanted to ask.

Confident or not, I should’ve put a stop to the conversation quickly. And so should you if faced with a similar situation. Nothing’s gained by bravely soldiering on.

I can’t say this enough: As soon as you sense that the conversation is no longer within normal parameters, end it. I would prefer that you not be paranoid about these things — which is why I keep stressing there is normal and there is weird as crap — but I would prefer even more that you err on the side of caution. And I think so would you.

I’m a middle-aged guy now. It’s been many years since I was the weak side of that equation. But if you’re in your teens, you’re definitely on that side, and won’t be leaving it anytime soon.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: If there’s any doubt, no matter how small, end it and leave quickly. Because …