The Danger of Desensitization: Child Pornography Users and Other Empathy-Sapping Traps

In Grad School, I did my practicum work with an agency that specialized in the assessment and treatment of sex offenders, an agency I went on to work for as a contractor.  As part of the practicum process, along with the work students did at agencies, we also had class meetings that were structured more-or-less like a consult group, where a small number of students could discuss cases under the supervision of an instructor.  At one of these meetings, while discussing an occurrence that had thrown me off balance in the previous week, I said something along the lines of, “I was looking through the client’s file and thinking, ‘oh, child porn offender, no big deal’…”

As I continued on, I noticed several in my cohort registering mildly horrified looks on their faces.  It was as if I’d just casually told everyone present that I barbecued live kittens because I was fascinated by how the dome of my Weber impacted the tonal quality of the pained mewls of the kitties as they were burned alive.

Thankfully, the instructor did what she could to rescue me by noting that in certain areas of practice people become desensitized to the peculiarities of those fields.

Such distancing and desensitization was exactly what I was trying to highlight.  I had, in a fairly short period of time, gotten to a stage where a person who was arrested for possessing child pornography seemed much less insidious to me than somebody who—as we refer to it in the biz—had “hands-on” victims.  This was not my attempt to minimize the seriousness of child pornography, but my admission that I had begun compartmentalizing things in a way that was making it easier for me to cope—but in a way that potentially compromised my effectiveness in dealing with clients.

The point I had been moving toward when the barbecued kittens got in the way is that the charging papers for this particular client contained descriptions of the child pornography that had been recovered from the client’s computer.  For me, reading through those descriptions was a kind of reboot to the disturbing reality of just what “child pornography” or “depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct” entailed.  I will spare you good readers the details, but we aren’t talking about photos of little kids splashing around in the tub.  I will also say that, because the files had already been cataloged by the FBI in previous cases, the descriptions were pretty minimal, but distressing nonetheless.

As a (greatly simplified) note of explanation, the FBI tracks child pornography cases, and labels the “sets” of photos and/or videos that are uncovered in those cases—often with some readily distinguishable feature of the sets—so they can be easily identified each time somebody is found in possession of such files.  The bulk of child pornography that is exchanged involves files that have been floating around for some time.  In each case, efforts are made to track down everyone involved in sharing the files.  However, when new sets (files not previously cataloged) turn up, there is an intensified response to identify and shut down the source, as well as to find the victims and secure help for them.

As another note of explanation, the documentation on clients with hands-on victims routinely contains detailed information from the investigation, often including transcripts of interviews with the victims.  Generally speaking, case information from child pornography charges describe things such as from where the files were recovered (computer hard drive, storage disks, flash drives, etc.), the type of files (images versus video), and the number of items recovered.  Obviously, reading through a child’s account of being groomed and molested carries a much heavier impact than a brief mention of how many image files were found on a client’s memory stick.  Hence, my more startled reaction to reading the descriptions of the child pornography files on this particular occasion.

On some level, making a distinction between child pornography possession cases and hands-on victim cases speaks to a more generalized idea of how people interact online or with media, compared to how people interact with each other face-to-face.  That is, it is much easier to distance oneself from the feelings of people one only knows from images or Internet exchanges than it is to distance oneself from the pain of an actual person one knows.  From the perspective of a treatment provider, accepting such divisions becomes an easy way to compartmentalize, but also speaks to a number of lies—the lie of an offense of lesser seriousness for the offender, and by extension, the lie of lesser pain for those exploited.

A big part of the work done with offenders who have accessed child pornography, but have no hands-on victims, is breaking down their defense mechanisms that allow them to view child pornography as a “victimless” crime—the offender’s sense that they are not victimizing anybody because they didn’t create the porn or do anything directly to harm the children in it.  In some ways, working to establish a sense of empathy can be more challenging with users of child porn than with those who have hands-on victims, simply because it can be easier to get an offender to understand how they have harmed somebody they actually know, than it can be to get an offender to understand how they have harmed somebody in a picture or a video.  This is especially true since an offender is  unlikely to have any idea what has happened to a child in a series of pornographic photos in the time since those photos were taken, and much more likely for a hands-on offender to have some knowledge of the turmoil created in the life of a victim in the time since the offense(s) took place.

Still, child pornography ties sexual gratification to children, reinforces deviant arousal with the power of images, and provides a false sense to users of child pornography that they are not complicit in the harm that it does.  It also potentially creates the illusion for users that they are in control of what they are doing, and are capable of keeping that deviant gratification from making the leap out of their virtual worlds and into their real lives and the lives of potential victims.  And, of course, it’s illegal as @$#*%, and with good reason…great reason…unassailable reason.

The issue of child pornography is one that I have to address with clients on a regular basis.  But it is also one that I am seeing as a more frequent element in the ‘histories’ of the offenders I encounter—particularly for those in their twenties and younger.  On the one hand, I understand the possibility of increased use of child porn as a consequence of Internet access and the ability to find child pornography by chasing down links on a computer, as opposed to having to go through several steps to connect to purveyors via phone, through the mail, or in face-to-face meetings.  But on the other hand, I find the possibility of increased use to be somewhat shocking in the sense that I assume people realize just how much trouble they can get into for possessing it.  Also, it takes some effort to get to it.  It’s not the kind of thing that turns up in sidebar links when you’re shopping for curtains online.  And, given that reporting child pornography that one might encounter is also a matter of clicking a few links or making a phone call or two, one would think that anybody who came across it would report it, just to keep themselves out of trouble.

At any rate, I’ve carried the ‘barbecued kittens’ with me for years as a means of (trying to) remind myself to exercise caution in how I discuss my work, particularly with those who are not in the field, but also as a way of reminding myself that each case, each client, is a serious case, a client who needs some real help.  Compartmentalizing is often a necessary strategy for therapists working with challenging populations.  One cannot be effective if one is carrying around every deep emotional scar of every client, or internalizing each client’s negative behaviors.

But there also has to be that place and time for the compartments to get busted open, particularly while in session or during other client contact, where the reality of what a person has done, how they got to that point, and what they are doing about it now, are not things that can be shut out.  Obviously, that ‘busting open’ should not drown the therapist in overwhelming emotion of any kind, but instead needs to involve the ability of the therapist to connect with the client both as a supporter of positive changes, and as a challenger of negative habits and patterns.  That de-compartmentalization and re-sensitization must not lead to complicity in allowing a client to minimize his/her actions.

In dealing with the struggles that are attached to difficult fields and difficult clients, I am frequently reminded of a quote from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, from a story about the city of Necropolis, a home to specialists in preparing and honoring the dead: “It is our responsibility not to let it harden us.”

Indeed, as therapists working with difficult populations, it is often necessary to compartmentalize and protect ourselves from succumbing to the emotional toll such jobs can take.  But it is also necessary to avoid hardening ourselves against those realities if such hardening keeps us from connection not only to clients, but also to the impacts those clients have had on others.

 

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