“Are All Men Pedophiles?” Who’s Asking? And Why?

By J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP

Although a significant portion of my professional life involves work with sex offenders, Jan-Willem Breure’s “Are All Men Pedophiles?” escaped my attention until a few friends alerted me to its presence on Netflix. The documentary is meant to be provocative. In fact, Breure labeled his own work “the most controversial film of all time”—which is roughly akin to describing Creed as “the most important band of the 20th Century.”

I suppose that Breure’s film is controversial, inasmuch as the bulk of its content is unsubstantiated, unquantifiable hooey, put forth by somebody who has admitted (in sources other than the film) that he is attracted to teenage girls as young as fifteen years old. Breure’s is an argument put forth by somebody attempting to normalize his own sexual desire for teens by saying he is just like all other guys, and that all other guys are just like him.

Breure doesn’t get around to delivering his answer to his title question until after the credits—that answer being that, yes, all men are pedophiles, but only if one uses an incorrect definition of pedophilia. Pedophilia, Breure clarifies, is an attraction to prepubescent children. Hebephilia, Breure explains, is an attraction to teens (although if we want to get even more specific, hebephilia really only applies to younger teens). So, Breure says, all men ARE attracted to teens, whereas NOT ALL MEN are attracted to prebubescent children—therefore all men ARE pedophiles in the popular use of the term where pedophilia includes teens, but are in actuality hebephiles if the (somewhat more) correct terminology is used. Or, to simplify things, Breure claims that all adult men want to have sex with teen girls, call it what you will.

It’s probably pointless to engage in a clinical discussion about why Breure’s terminology is overly broad, thereby negating his argument, given that Breure is casting a net so wide that he hopes to catch every adult male on planet Earth. But I will say that, clinically speaking, sexual attraction to anybody who is physically/sexually mature is not considered pathological. In addition, for somebody to be properly considered a hebephile, they actually have to have a sexual preference for teens over people in any other age category.  There is also a complicated interplay between what is culturally “taboo,” what is prohibited legally, and what is considered an actual paraphilia or sexual disorder. Under Breure’s nebulous definition, any adult male who has ever entertained a sexual thought about a minor teenager is a pedophile/hebephile—even if that sexual thought occurred before said adult male was an adult. Under Breure’s all-inclusive concept, a 16-year-old male who had sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend is a hebephile/pedophile the moment he becomes an adult, as is any male who was ever, say, a 15-year-old boy who rubbed one out to thoughts of a peer-age classmate.

The definition-exploding, argument-negating core of Breure’s presentation in support of the idea that all men are incorrectly-defined pedophiles, or correctly-defined hebephiles, is the concept that sexual attraction does not ‘age’ but that it merely expands. That is to say, he believes that because boys first become sexually attracted to teen (or younger) girls, their attraction to teen girls stays with them forever, even as those boys become men and “expand” their field of attraction to include older women.

Breure has a 14-year-old female model in makeup and a small, tight, pink dress, present his idea of expanding attraction as if it were fact, while neglecting to cite the source of the information, which, from a brief survey of the literature, appears to be Breure’s ass.

Advocating for perpetual adolescence--Breure's model tell us our teenage attraction to teenagers never lessens.

Advocating for perpetual adolescence–Breure’s model tell us our teenage attraction to teenagers never lessens.

As an aside, I’m not sure what the theory of expanding attraction is supposed to say about all of the (cisgender, heterosexual) boys whose first sexual thoughts are aimed at adult women, or what it says about my own fifth/sixth-grade infatuation with Annette Funicello who turned up on TV most weekdays in both her “Mickey Mouse Club” teen form, and as her peanut-butter-pushing mid-30s self.

Pubescent confusion, thy name is Annette.

Pubescent confusion, thy name is Annette.

And, incidentally, if Breure’s theory of attraction expansion is valid, it would mean that all women are also pedophiles, or hebephiles as it were, unless women/girls are never attracted to, say, 15-year-old males at any point of their development, or unless Breure believes that the phenomenon of “expanding attraction” is exclusive to males—as if women move on sexually, but men do not.  But since Breure is mostly fixated on male attraction to females, he doesn’t spend much time considering anybody who falls outside of that focus.

While Breure belabors the point that people use the words “pedophilia” and “pedophile” incorrectly, he also confoundingly claims that there is no universal definition of pedophilia, because age of consent laws range widely from country to country (or state to state). Of course, “age of consent” and “pedophilia” are not synonymous, nor do they define each other. Whether a country’s age of consent is 11 or 19, pedophilia still involves sexual attraction to children lacking in secondary sex characteristics.

Breure’s use of statistics is as questionable as his slippery use of definitions. Among other things, he reports that child pornography is a $3 Billion-a-year business. I’ll give him credit for at least using the low end of the unsubstantiated claims regarding the income potential of child pornography. However, he then goes on to assert that 20% of all pornography on the Internet involves minors—a claim that, to anyone who is at all familiar with the vast quantities of pornography available on the Internet, is obviously false.  There is just no way child pornographers could keep up.

At any rate, viewers are left with no clear connection between child pornography and Breure’s argument. Combined with yet another vague and unsubstantiated discussion of teen nudity in fashion shoots, delivered by the same 14-year-old, pink-dress-wearing model, Breure suggests that all those men out there using the Internet are already masturbating to images of nude, underage girls in pornography and fashion, and so are obviously sexually attracted to teen girls, and therefore hebephiles/pedophiles.

Breure even strays into an argument about how ALL men are treated like bad guys because SOME men do bad things, (something that some of his supporters have placed into the category of “reverse discrimination”) and that the problem of pedophilia is being blown out of proportion. Of course, as Breure is bemoaning the great injustice of all men being viewed with suspicion, and treated as if they were all potential pedophiles, he is, at the same time, promoting the idea that all men want to have sex with teenage girls, and implying that they should be allowed to.

In addition to condemning all adult males for already jerking off to teen girls, Breure sets himself up as an apologist for pedophile priests, saying priest pedophilia is not true pedophilia (engaged in out of true desire for sex with chidren) but only pedophilia in practice–because it’s just the natural consequence of too many guys being around too many other guys without sexual access to women/girls. Unfortunately, in his super-simplistic argument, ignoring a vast array of factors for the abuse, Breure forgets to include an explanation of why the adult guys don’t just have sex with the other adult guys if they’re not really interested in sex with children.

Breure’s film also implies that because other cultures in other time periods allowed for sex between young teens and adults (with evidence based on ancient Greece, the Virgin Mary, and a wife of the Prophet Mohammed), that sex between adults and teens should be perfectly acceptable. In other words, Breure wants viewers to believe that girls between the ages of 11 and 15 having sex with much older men is just fine, because people have done it plenty, and—y’know—the Bible tells me so. It’s a compelling argument because, of course, the only times that we, as a culture, have prohibited past practices involved misunderstandings about the true nature of humans. So, maybe while we’re working to bring back pederasty, we can lobby to allow 8-year-olds to work in coal mines again. And, hey, who’s up for a bit more human sacrifice? Legalized slavery anybody?

Speaking of advocating for salacious behaviors, for those viewers who want some prurient content with their pedophilia documentaries, Breure offers up plenty, including:

  • Breure’s sexualized 14-year-old female narrator, engaging in some slow-motion, hand-in-hand running with another teen girl, as the camera operator forgets to keep the girls’ heads in the shot.
  • A teen model embracing and kissing a much older man.
  • A woman discussing her past as a victim of incest and rape, by her father and another man, before the age of five. And, not to deny a victim of sexual assault a voice in a discussion of sexual violence, but it’s unclear why this woman’s story exists in the film, except perhaps to suggest that true pedophilia is ugly and violent, whereas hebephilia is not.
  • A self-proclaimed female pedophile describing how she digitally raped a menstruating girl in a story so contrived it sounds like it was created for a rather specific form of fetish porn.
  • An interview with a male (non-practicing/non-hands-on) pedophile discussing how he avoids acting on his attraction to children, shot in an outdoor setting where he is sitting on a park bench…eyeing little girls with bad intent (okay, there were no little girls in the scene, but I was already going out of my way to fit the Jethro Tull reference in there, so cut me some slack—Breure clearly made the decision to film the interview this way to invoke the idea of perverts lurking in a park—in contrast to perverts lurking at malls where teens gather, or at high school sporting events, or…).

Yet, despite the inclusion of all manner of ideas semi-related to his almost-thesis, one of the things that Breure doesn’t bother to include is actual data from actual studies utilizing plethysmography, among other things, to measure adult male sexual response to girls and women (or boys and men) across a range of ages—data and studies that don’t support the conclusion Breure wants us all to accept.

And maybe Breure leaves out real evidence, and real studies because he never actually manages to explain the conclusion that he wants us to accept, at least not until after the credits roll and we are only still watching if we suffered through a terrible, terrible song about angels and guilt and religion that Breure wrote and performed (I can’t help but think of a fictional album review from the movie “Spinal Tap”–“treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry”). And even then, he gives us a watered down explanation of what he is thinking, without acknowledging his own personal stake in the argument.

But, really, rather than asking the question, “Are all men pedophiles?”—a question completely ludicrous to anyone who is using anything like the actual, clinical definition of pedophilia, or even hebephilia, the question that should really be asked is, “What exactly is it that an adult male would see in a teenage girl that would make her more attractive as a sexual partner than an adult woman?”

I’m going to give Breure a pretty wide berth here—please bear with me. Currently, Breure is a 25-year-old male. When “Are All Men Pedophiles?” was released, he was 23. So, I’m guessing that when Breure first began his work on this project he was around 21 or 22, if not younger.

I like to imagine that the idea for Mr. Breure’s project came about after he expressed interest in, say, a 15- or 16-year-old girl when he was, say, 20. In my imagination, a friend or two of Mr. Breure, or perhaps friends of the girl or the girl herself, told Mr. Breure that he was f*cked up for trying to ‘get with’ with such a young girl; or that he was a pedophile for even expressing his interest. Mr. Breure then reacted defensively, and in the greatest overreaction of all time, decided to raise money to make a documentary defending himself against (rather limited) allegations of pedophilia—all while saying his behavior is just fine because teenage girls are hot, and all men know it.

I only hope that all of the effort that Mr. Breure put into defending his position hasn’t made him shore up his stance that it’s perfectly fine for adult men to lust after teens. I hope he’s not forever, ahem, planting his flag on the “adult men should have sexual access to teen girls” hill, but might, instead move on to have a mature relationship with an adult who he can approach as an equal.

Breure, attempting to normalize adults having sexual access to teens, advocates for nothing more than serial abuse of young people. Because, Breure’s idea of “attraction expansion” is more properly labeled as “attraction stagnation.” He is not advocating for growing up and engaging in mature relationships with adults, while still being able to appropriately acknowledge that, yes, there are teens who are attractive, but they are off limits to adult men, because otherwise we are advocating for manipulative relationships.  Instead, he is asking for permission to make teens objects of sexual gratification, while labeling manipulation and objectification “love.” He is saying that, because we start off in one place, we should be able to continue circling that one place, without ever truly advancing, as we grab at those who pass through, no matter how damaging such circling and grabbing is to those trying to make it through, or to ourselves.

God Looks Away, Youth Minister Sex Offender Publishes Self-Serving Article (TW)

At the core of “My Easy Trip from Youth Minister to Felon,” an article posted in the online version of Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal, is an odd and self-serving theological point: that God does not look upon sin, and that when sin continues long enough, God gives us over to it so that we might hit rock bottom and then seek redemption. God turning away is, according to the anonymous author, a convicted sex offender still in prison, the reason Jesus felt God had forsaken Him while He was on the cross—God could not look on His Son/Himself as His Son/He took on the sins of the world. It is God’s looking away, the author suggests, that allowed King David to embrace selfishness and send Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, into battle to die, so that David might have sexual access to Bathsheba. In this same fashion, the author contends, God looked away so that the author might plunge deep enough into sin to be made to answer for those sins.

The author provides no theological discussion of why God also looked away from the victim of the author’s sin, implying (through the author’s shaky theological discourse, and his frequent use of “we” and “our”) that the teenage girl who had been manipulated into a sexual relationship with her youth pastor, shared in the sin, or simply had to be sacrificed so that the author could be redeemed. Without ever naming his actual crime, the author crafts a tale of a sexual predator in need of redemption, and a sexual assault victim as sacrificial lamb, all with God’s blessing/God’s inability to stomach what was happening. But if we are to look at God as incapable of looking on sin, or even the victims of another person’s sinful behavior, then it seems only right to assume God looked away throughout the process that led to the publishing of the article.

The article, taken down from Leadership Journal after much public pressure, can be read from an alternate site here.

I’m a bit torn about whether I think people should read it—not in the sense that I think it deserved to ever be published in the first place—it didn’t—but because it provides an interesting look into the kinds of self-centered justifications, and victim-blaming that sex offenders will endorse in an effort to convince people around them that they’re sorry and won’t ever do anything like that again, because, boy, they’ve learned their lesson, and (in this case) Jesus forgave them, so you should, too.

What was meant by the editors to be taken as a moving story of sin and redemption was, instead, merely a continuation of the abuse, prettied up with self-aggrandizing mock-contrition and Bible verses. And, sadly, the editors saw fit to tag it with the “related topics” of Accountability, Character, Failure, Legal Issues, Self-examination, Sex, and Temptation. Of those tags, “Failure,” and “Legal Issues” seem the only appropriate ones. “Sex” only fits in the broadest definition; whereas “Sexual Assault” or “Sex Offenses” would have been much more fitting. “Temptation” is little more than a label that normalizes the sexualizing of underage girls.

It's not somebody who's seen the light...It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

It’s not somebody who’s seen the light…It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

What I keep wondering in all of this is how the article came to be posted in the first place. Did the editors of Leadership Journal coordinate with prison officials to approve the project, or did they just accept it from some inmate, insisting via e-mail that he had a unique tale of a fall from grace and a re-acquaintance with God? Did they know the author prior to his incarceration? Is the author in a treatment program in prison? If so, were his treatment providers at all aware of what he was doing? Were lawyers for the author, lawyers for the victim, or the judge in the case aware of the intent to publish such a piece? And, perhaps most importantly, was the victim, or the victim’s family aware that any of this was happening? And did she/they have any say in the matter?

I ask the above questions because I cannot imagine that, prior to publication, the article was examined by anybody with any clinical knowledge of offender behavior—or, for that matter, by anyone with any sense of the damage done to victims of sexual assaults. If I give the editors the benefit of the doubt, then maybe I can view them as possibly well-meaning, but definitely confused/ignorant people looking to generate an attention-grabbing conversation about statutory rape. And while, it certainly grabbed plenty of attention, that was because it took a story of sexual assault and transformed it into a discussion about how easy it is to be seduced by a teen when one takes one’s eyes off of God, and vice versa. The sexual content is so subdued/obscured that it comes across as if it is intended to describe temptation only—definitely much more so than if it was labeled appropriately as child molestation, pedophilia, hebephilia, exploitation of a minor, statutory rape, or rape.

Any sex offender treatment provider who knows anything at all about what she/he is doing certainly would never have approved of the article as it appeared. Offenders in treatment (in or out of prison) are often given writing assignments wherein they are required to relay details of their behaviors and thought processes and demonstrate an understanding of the damage they caused, as well as the way they convinced themselves it was okay. And while I recognize that it wasn’t specifically crafted as a treatment assignment, the Leadership Today piece reads like an eloquent first draft of such an assignment, crafted with care before a treatment provider and/or members of a treatment group demanded changes due to the author taking a victim stance, failing to acknowledge the actual crime or its impact on anyone other than himself, and refusing to incorporate even the most rudimentary sense of understanding about how he built up to the offense and kept it secret for as long as he did.

Or perhaps it’s more like a second draft, after the offender removed most of the overt blaming of the victim, and switched, instead, to implied mutual blame or implied consent for the crime.

I have heard hundreds of variations on the same basic story told in the article, from the mouths of offenders, emphasizing the frustrations in their lives, the reasons they had contact with the victim to begin with, and the reasons they are not to blame (and, yes, a lot of them invoke religion as part of that). It is rare to come in contact with an offender who, from the beginning (not of the offense, but of contact with the justice system and the need for an evaluation for sexual deviancy) is capable of outlining how he (or occasionally, she) manipulated the victim to engage in sexual acts and to keep it a secret, how he justified the crime to himself, and what specifically happened (in clinically appropriate and criminally accurate terms), without putting a large portion of the blame on the victim for somehow enticing or seducing him.

Despite the author’s claim, added after the controversy erupted, that he takes 100% of the blame for the crime, and recognizes that what he once viewed as a consensual relationship was no such thing, the article itself tells a much different story—of a man who worked hard to build something up for the glory of God (and how he was really amazing at doing that work), and then how he accidentally broke it because he was being selfish. Without ever acknowledging the severe harm he did to the victim, harm that is likely to last a lifetime, he signals that he has returned to a life of service to God because he is involved in leading a ministry group in prison (another thing I have a really hard time with anybody allowing).

And while the author touches on one of his justifications for engaging in his behavior—that his wife was paying too much attention to their children, and not enough to him—he is only able to acknowledge the impact on his wife in the form of the fight they had when she found out about the crimes, and how she left in the middle of the night with the children. The author laments that he has not seen his children since, but doesn’t even mention the extreme embarrassment and devastation he caused his wife and children. Nor does he ever fully indicate that he recognizes how childish his justifications for his behavior were, or how those justifications were merely the starting point for a cycle of lying and manipulation committed for the sole purpose of having repeated sexual contacts with a minor.

In a truly terrible minimization of his behavior, the author compares his repeated sexual abuse of the victim (while implying she shared in an identical struggle with him) to the difficulty of smokers trying to turn away from cigarettes.

From the complete dearth of information in the article, if this really were a treatment assignment, once all the extraneous details, self-promotion, and claims to deserved forgiveness are removed it might sound a little more like this:

“In my 30s, I accepted a position with a church as the coordinator of youth ministry. I built up the group from just a few members until it was one of the largest youth groups in the region. I realized I was experiencing sexual attraction to one of the underage members. I manipulated her into having sex with me, and justified my sex offenses, in part, by blaming my wife for not paying enough attention to me. I had sex with the teen repeatedly. When my wife found out, she took our children and left. I was convicted of sex offenses and sent to prison. I am currently still in prison. I will be a registered sex offender for the rest of my life.”

And, if the author began to actually include the most obvious missing items, the skeleton of a real assignment, or perhaps a combination of real assignments, would start to look like this:

“In my 30s, I accepted a position with a church as the coordinator of youth ministry. I built up the group from just a few members until it was one of the largest youth groups in the region. I realized I was experiencing sexual attraction to one of the underage members, and that she looked up to me in a way that made it possible for me to manipulate her. I set about grooming her. I justified my sex offenses, in part, by blaming my wife for not paying enough attention to me. I managed to work up to the point where I convinced the girl to have sex with me. I then had sex with her repeatedly while convincing myself that she wanted to have sex with me as well, that she was mature enough to handle a sexual relationship with an adult who is an authority figure in her spiritual life, and that I was in no way manipulating her. I managed to keep her from telling anybody about our relationship through various forms of coercion, and went to great lengths to keep anyone from finding out about it. We eventually got caught. My wife, understandably, left me and took the children with her. I was arrested and convicted of sex offenses. I am currently in prison. I will be a registered sex offender for the rest of my life. The teenager I manipulated and raped will need a great deal of therapy and other supports in order to cope with the aftermath of my actions. My wife, my children, and numerous other people impacted by my behavior will also need support to attempt to repair the damage I caused. I recognize that I need to stay away from minors for the rest of my life, and that I can never be placed in any kind of position where I might have authority that can be abused, particularly over any people who could be considered ‘vulnerable.’ I also manipulated editors of Leadership Today into publishing an article I wrote that completely justified my behavior, and suggested that the victim was equally to blame for my sex offenses.”

The assignment would be given back with numerous, specific requests for much more “self reflection,” “accountability,” and actual identification of his specific behaviors and thoughts.

Becoming a sex offender isn’t an “easy” path as the author’s title suggests. It is one that is pieced together with care by the offender, and crafted to secure the cooperation of the victim(s). It is not, as the author portrays it, a little trouble in a marriage, a dash of arrogance, and some innocent flirtations evolving over time into mutual passion—passion that makes God look away, as if God were easily embarrassed. Such a description may be a very simplistic explanation of how an extramarital affair (the words the author uses along with “adultery” to describe his sexually exploitative behavior of a child under his care) evolves.

Unfortunately, by diving into this discussion, without any sense of just how manipulative the author was, and how harmful his words are, the editors of Leadership Journal have put themselves in a place where they must now back away from this discussion entirely. Rather than promoting a meaningful dialog about forgiveness and redemption, they allowed a sex offender to promote himself as a victim of the temptation to have sex with minors.  They allowed him to promote his story of redemption—a story that rings as false as any rapist having the arrogance to compare himself to Christ on the cross, as he suggests that God’s mercy has saved him, all while implying a teenage girl entrusted to him for guidance and education was just as responsible for being raped as he was for raping her.

 

Why Asking “Are You Off Your Meds?” Isn’t Funny

If somebody were to quit using their insulin, or stop taking their heart medication, would a company use that situation as a humorous way to try and sell soft drinks, power tools, or airline tickets?

In recent months, I’ve repeatedly heard a radio commercial involving a married couple discussing a particular service, which is supposed to be so great, at such an unbelievable price, that on hearing about it, the wife asks the husband, “Are you off your meds?”

Sadly, “off your (his/her/my/their) meds” is one of those expressions that is used so casually and so often that it is treated as a perfectly acceptable phrase to describe someone who is viewed as irrational, or who is behaving in any way that is deemed unacceptable by the person using the expression.  If the saying weren’t so accepted, it wouldn’t be used as a joke in a radio ad, in a way that the advertisers assume will cause no offense to anyone, and will actually draw people to the company that paid for the ad.

At base, when people use the phrase “off your meds” to take a dig at someone, they are indicating that they believe the target of that phrase is delusional, or foolish in some way that is indicative of mental illness.  Stripping that phrase down to its core, using “off your meds” as a joke is essentially saying that mental illness is something to be laughed at, and people who use medications to manage mental illness are appropriate targets of ridicule.  In such a context, the symptoms of mental illness that might lead to a diagnosis or to a prescription for psychiatric medications are symptoms that make a person entertaining, or perhaps annoying, in such a way that it is perfectly acceptable to mock them.

Hey, you know what would be really funny?  Debilitating psychiatric symptoms!!

Hey, you know what would be really funny? Debilitating psychiatric symptoms!!

For people working in the mental health field, and for a number of connected disciplines, such as medical practice or law enforcement, it is common to end up in situations where questions about a person’s psychiatric medications must be asked: “Are you prescribed any medications?,”  “Have you been taking your medications?,”  “Is your prescriber aware?,” and so on.  Such questions are not jokes to be taken lightly, but queries to get a read on potentially serious problems.

Mental illness that is being treated with medication is much like any physical condition being treated with medication, in that it is ideally guided by a skilled practitioner with a well-informed client, and with the client’s best interests in mind.  If medication is not being used properly, as directed by the prescriber, it becomes nearly impossible to know if medication is effective for a client, or if adjustments need to be made, or if new strategies altogether need to be employed.

So, what exactly does it mean to be “off one’s meds”?  The answer to that question depends on the nature of a particular mental illness, the severity of the illness, and a huge variety of factors in the life of the person taking the medications, much the same as it is for any physical illness being treated with medications.  Some mental illnesses may require use of medications over extended periods—years, or even decades—just to ensure a client’s ability to engage in daily functions.  Other mental illnesses may be subject to cycles where medications can be used over much shorter periods, when symptoms intensify, rather than as a long-term, critical part of everyday routines.

For some, being “off their meds” is the difference between stabilization and falling into debilitating psychiatric symptoms which are likely to lead to an inability to manage even simple tasks.  Intentional, or unintentional self-harm leading to hospitalization may be consequences of people being “off their meds.”  For people falling into this most severe category, maintaining a medication regimen without both professional and personal supports can be extremely difficult.

People with chronic, severe mental illness are also most likely to repeatedly go off their medications without warning, and without informing their friends, families, or professional supports of their decisions.  They are likely to do this with the thought that they are capable of handling their symptoms regardless of signs to the contrary.  Many who fall into the category of chronically mentally ill are also at risk of pursuing self-medication via alcohol, street drugs, or by tampering with the dosages of prescribed medications.

For people who need medications to manage psychotic symptoms, going “off their meds” can make a return to those medications extremely difficult.  Imagine, for example, trying to convince a client suffering from paranoid delusions that they need to take medications when that client views everyone urging the use of such medications as conspirators in a plot to poison and/or control that client.  In such cases, the unfortunate outcome may be that mental health conditions need to deteriorate to the point where the clients can be involuntarily hospitalized before they can get the help they need.

At the same time, for a number of people struggling with mental illness, being “off their meds” is a perfectly reasonable goal, one which they may achieve after a brief period of using medications, or one which they may find they need to pursue multiple times throughout their lives.  Such people may reach a point where they feel they have learned enough coping skills and health strategies to ease off their medications, as they try to maintain a healthy balance of the various elements in their lives, with the support of family, friends, and professionals.  Such attempts to live medication-free can lead to careful, deliberate lifestyle choices that allow for long-term, medication-free, satisfying relationships and careers.  But such attempts can also lead to disappointments, for example, when stressors become overwhelming, and people find that they need the support of medications to achieve periods of stabilization when things are at their worst.

For the purposes of full disclosure, I will say that I feel that the use of psychiatric medications without the support of counseling is almost always a mistake.  Medications without other professional mental health supports can keep clients from “checking in,” both with themselves, and with professionals who can help clients establish and/or strengthen coping skills.  Since it is becoming less and less common for prescribers to have the time for more than brief check-ins with clients, having mental health supports beyond just medication is crucial.

Let me also say that I know that people who call attention to such language issues are frequently accused of lacking a sense of humor, or of being overly sensitive.  Those who make such accusations are also quite fond of demeaning people for taking offense at something that is “just a joke.”  And, no doubt, there are also those people who fall into the potentially-offended group (people on psychiatric medications) who will say that phrases like “off your meds” do not offend them, because they have a sense of humor.

To such people, I say, go ahead and say what you want to say.  I can’t stop you, and I agree it is your right to do so.  But just know that you have a choice to say, or to not say, things that are potentially offensive.  If you feel that it is more important to make jokes about people being “off their meds” than it is to maybe find a different way of expressing yourself, then just don’t demand that others not get offended by your words.  You don’t have any more a right to expect a particular reaction to your words (especially after the potential offense has been pointed out) than anybody has a right to tell you that you can’t say something.

In the United States, we have a convoluted relationship with psychiatric medications, counseling, and mental illness in general.  We rail against people wanting to take pills to solve their problems, then turn around and rail against people who don’t take medications they need.  We say people need counseling to work out their issues, but then condemn counseling as something for people who are too weak to manage their own problems.  And we simultaneously blame untreated mental illness for heinous events, while laughing at people with untreated mental illness.

So how about if we agree that psychiatric medications, when used appropriately, can have a great many benefits, rather than shaming people who use them?  How about if we agree that counseling, entered into in good faith between practitioners and clients, is something that can be of great help?  And how about if we agree that you don’t get to blame untreated mental illness for gun violence (which is a ridiculous argument) and then turn around and laugh about how funny untreated mental illness is (which is an asinine thing to do)?

 

 

 

 

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.

 

GUN CONTROL OR PEOPLE CONTROL? Part One: The NRA’s Build-a-Bogeyman Workshop

It doesn’t matter how many shots are fired and how many bodies pile up—particularly in those attention-grabbing mass shootings—the cry goes out, crafted by the NRA, that it is something other than guns and ammunition that needs to be addressed. The most recent and prevalent pro-gun meme is that it’s the mental health system that needs to be fixed, while guns are just great. In fact, guns are so great that everybody should have them all of the time, except for criminals and those people with a severe mental illness. But if any criminals or people with mental illness try to shoot any of us good people, then we can all pull out our guns and shoot them back, and definitely shoot them better, harder, faster, and, just for good measure, deader.

Prior to the pro-gun, blame-the-mental-health-system meme, it was the, “We don’t need new laws, we just need to enforce the existing laws” meme. Of course, since the NRA lobbied to make sure that the existing laws wouldn’t be enforced, and, in fact lobbied to have laws enacted that made it illegal to enforce the earlier existing laws, they had to come up with a different cheer for team shoot-em-up. So, hence: guns good; mental health system bad.

There’s this other, less clearly- and less frequently- articulated position underlying the broken-mental-health-system argument, that people working with the mentally ill are incompetent, first of all, for allowing the system to fall into disarray, and second of all, for not being clairvoyant enough to determine which of the people they encounter who express some form of homicidal ideation are just talking nonsense and which really are stockpiling weapons or have access to weapons their family members stockpiled, so that said mental health professionals can then direct law enforcement to stop the future crimes. Okay, in fairness, there are ways to assess for danger—not that the NRA didn’t lobby to try to prevent anybody in the medical and mental health fields from even asking people anything as simple as whether they have access to guns.

But fortunately, the NRA has finally stepped up and has been instrumental in working to address real-life situations and offer up functional ideas for systemic changes, like, “You guys need to fix the mental health system so that people with mental illness stop shooting people, okay?” Except there’s that whole thing about how people with mental illness who actually commit violent crimes (a very tiny portion of them) are not generally compliant with treatment if they’re even in treatment to begin with. So not only do mental health practitioners have to accurately determine which of their clients might commit violence and make sure those clients are stopped from doing so, but they also have to ferret out all of the potentially violent people with mental illness, even if they have never even met them.

Anyway, what I’m saying is that the argument about fixing the mental health system is a nonsensical argument for a WHOLE lot of reasons…most notably that it’s an argument designed for inaction as far as gun laws go, while setting up a bogeyman that can spring out and yell ‘boo!’ anytime there’s a high-profile shooting. For instance, if somebody commits atrocities, such as shooting up a theater or a school, then we can all say, “Wow, this guy was obviously disturbed. Why wasn’t he getting any help?” Or if said shooter was in treatment, we can say, “How come more wasn’t done to make sure he wouldn’t hurt anybody?” Or if there are no clear indications that a shooter was, for example, psychotic or in treatment, we can always fall back on the idea of undiagnosed mental illness. The broken-mental-health-system argument is also convenient for all those 19,000-ish annual suicides by gun.

The argument to fix the mental health system is also nonsensical because it essentially allows the problem of gun violence to go on forever. That is, no set of laws is ever going to solve the problem of murder 100%, but when the argument is that guns aren’t problematic, but the mental health care system is, then as long as there are shootings, we can keep hemming and hawing, failing to enact simple measures like universal background checks, or tracking of Internet-based weapons and ammunition sales, or making certain classes of weapons flat-out illegal.

In addition, the broken mental health system argument allows gun manufacturers to rack up more gun sales. After all, what are a few dead kids if you can rake in some extra dough by letting 24-hour news networks scare everybody into thinking they need to arm themselves against a bunch of crazy people who are going to shoot their kids? (or invade their homes, or shoot them in a theater, a mall, a church…) Just check out how gun sales spike after high-profile shootings, combined with talking heads appearing on news shows to say stupid things about how the crimes would have been avoided if only everybody on scene had been armed. Check out the secondary spike in sales when the same talking heads suggest that gun laws are going to suddenly become so restrictive that nobody is going to be able to buy a gun anymore.

On top of that, the majority of the people who parrot the broken-mental-health-system meme have no idea how the mental health system actually works, or how it interacts with law enforcement, hospitals, and the court system, or what could actually be done to “fix” it. Nor do most of them care, since it conveniently props up their view of things, without them having to actually learn or understand anything. They’re super-familiar with arguments about why killers are going to kill just as many people whether they have clips with 8, 27, 92, or 412 rounds; why it doesn’t make a difference if a person has access to a pop gun, a hunting rifle, an AK-47, or a BFG-9000; and why any gun control measure at all is useless because criminals are going to get guns anyway, and then only law-abiding citizens will be left unarmed.

Don’t bother trying to point out that all kinds of laws exist that, just as the concept of law implies, are followed by law-abiding citizens, and violated by criminals, and that what makes a person a criminal is that the person violates a law. After all, the no-gun-control stance involves absolutist/absurdist arguments where ANY restrictions on guns and ammunition mean all law-abiding citizens lose ALL access to their guns and ammo, and criminals suddenly have unfettered access to all the weapons they could ever want so that they can create the maximum amount of mayhem. It’s an argument that requires a good dose of the paranoia that persons with mental illness who carry out violent crimes sometimes exhibit.

But the logical extension of the no-gun-control kind of argument is that we could get rid of “gun crimes” and “gun criminals” completely if we could just get rid of all laws related to guns, because then there would be no gun laws to violate. Then we only have to enforce the existing laws against murder. Yup, what’s really broken is the anti-murder system in this country. And if we all had more guns, we could solve that, too.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I would absolutely love it if we, as a nation, were going to get serious about “fixing” the mental health system (makes it sound so simple, doesn’t it—kind of like fixing a leaky faucet or fixing your basset hound). But getting that fix all taken care of isn’t happening anytime soon, since it takes a whole lot of money, a whole lot of changes to the legal system, enough well-trained mental health professionals working in tandem with law enforcement and other community resources, a whole lot more places to keep persons with severe mental illness while they get treatment, and a whole lot of money. Oh, I guess I touched on that money one already.

Of course, a big block to getting the mental health system fixed is that a lot of the same people screaming at everybody about prying beloved guns from cold dead hands and fixing the mental health system are the same ones screaming to slash taxes and remove all government funding from everything everywhere. A lot of them are the same ones who worship former President Ronald Reagan, who loved the idea of shutting down psychiatric facilities in favor of “privatizing” the oversight of people with severe mental illness, who need a lot more than a place to stay and a minimum-wage worker to watch over them.

And even with that “privatization” of things like residential homes and intensive outpatient programs, guess who is paying for mental health care for the people with the most severe mental illnesses. Go on, guess. If you said “the government,” then you’re right. And if it’s a puzzle to you why people with chronic, severe mental illness aren’t getting good jobs with great insurance plans to pay for all the medications, therapy, and hospitalizations they require, well, then I obviously can’t make you understand how we’re ever going to “fix” the mental health system.

So, how do you reconcile de-funding everything in the government, including the mental health system—particularly those long-term inpatient facilities where the people with the most severe mental illnesses stay (or, rather, used to stay)—with the idea that we’re going to fix the mental health system to keep all the most dangerous people with mental illnesses off the street so that we don’t have to have any new gun control laws? Well, the real answer is that you don’t, because it’s a nonsensical argument in the first place.

Now, happily—well maybe not happily, since it took multiple mass shootings and the NRA clamoring to prevent any gun control laws from being enacted while simultaneously screaming about the broken mental health system—mental health funding is kinda-sorta being restored to the very limited levels that existed back when G.W. Bush was president. Unfortunately, those levels are still not anywhere close to the level—comparatively speaking—that such funding was at when dear, old Ronald Reagan became President. So, thanks NRA—you are advocating for restoring all 40,000-ish psychiatric ward long-term “beds” for those with chronic, severe mental illness that went away back when Ronald Reagan was in office, right?

Beyond the complete insincerity behind the NRA’s argument that the mental health system needs to be fixed, the NRA is actively doing a disservice to the people of the United States—a disservice that actually serves the NRA well by scaring up gun sales. By creating a bogeyman out of people with mental illness, the NRA promotes the idea that people who are diagnosed with a mental illness are inherently dangerous, unhinged, and likely to kill us all. Never mind that the mental health system deals with a wide array of concerns, from situational depression to anxiety disorders, PTSD to schizophrenia, and that the majority of those people are never going to commit a violent crime. By squawking that gun violence is a problem of the mental health system, as opposed to a problem with multiple facets, most notably of ensuring easy access to guns, while provoking fear of one’s fellow citizens, the NRA sets the country on yet another course to doing nothing about gun violence, while spreading ignorance about what mental illness is or what it means. The NRA provokes more fear of a big portion of the population, perpetuates a culture where people will avoid seeking help for mental health issues for fear of becoming part of that bogeyman group, and provides an excuse for inaction that will see no end. After all, as long as there are shootings by people who can be labeled as having a mental health issue–bam–the mental health system failed. It’s got nothin’ to do with the guns themselves.

If you want to consider whether the NRA has anybody’s best interest at heart, consider that following the Newtown school shootings, more than 85% of the American people supported instituting ‘universal background checks,’ but the NRA managed to ensure no action would be taken through the power of the almighty dollar. The NRA can threaten to withhold money from political campaigns, or worse, to dump massive amounts of money into campaigns to take out politicians who do anything they don’t like.

The NRA, aka the gun manufacturer’s lobby, knows that an occasional scare is good for business—and having a bogeyman is the best thing possible—especially when that bogeyman is easily stigmatized, poorly understood, and getting the problem of the bogeyman “fixed” could take forever. The whole fix-the-mental-health-system argument put forth by the NRA is nonsensical because it posits that it is easier to “fix” a complex system that attempts to address the needs of people with a broad range of conditions that are not set, uniform, or easily managed than it is to restrict access to the things that people—many who avoid contact with the mental health system prior to committing heinous acts—use to kill people.

AM I REALLY SUPPOSED TO THREATEN TO SHOOT MY DAUGHTER’S BOYFRIEND?

I suppose the title question of this piece is something of a moot point, or rather, the threat to shoot my daughter’s boyfriend would be an empty one, as I don’t have any guns with which to shoot my daughter’s boyfriend—or anybody else. I do have a potato gun.  Home invaders take note.

That said, this is the first holiday season where my (adult but still teen) daughter has had a “boyfriend” important enough to her that we had to consider their plans when making our family plans.  And, happily, she spent time with his family, and he with ours.  And I’ll say I like the guy.  I feel that my daughter has chosen wisely and connected with someone who compliments her, and vice versa.

After the Christmas round of holiday gatherings had come to an end, and I had returned back to work, I got to thinking about the all-too-frequent jokes and ‘memes’ I see in social media that involve threats to shoot boys who are taking peoples’ daughters out on dates (probably because I’ve seen several in the last few days—the most recent involving one of those Dick Dynasty beardos whose family values apparently include threatening to shoot other peoples’ children just for expressing an interest in dating his daughter).

Dads take note: if you want to shoot the boys who have had impure thoughts about your teenage daughters, you should probably shoot all the heterosexual teen boys who have ever seen your daughters.  Or so the predictable jokes go—relying on the idea that all dads used to be teenage boys themselves and so know how vile teenage boys are.  And is that how we as men think back on ourselves as teenagers?  That we really were so vile that we would have raped any time the chance presented itself?

And isn’t there some way that those “vile” and “impure” thoughts can be channeled into more positive outlets—say, like normalizing sexual thoughts and providing some guidance on how to deal with those, rather than tying sexual thoughts to threats of violence?  Or do we really believe that our sons are perpetually on the verge of rape?  Do we believe our daughters are so clueless that we cannot trust them with their own bodies?  Do we have to threaten violence against teen boys to make sure that our teen girls come home with their “virtue” intact?

And what if our daughters are not interested in maintaining that barrier?  Isn’t it better that our daughters are taught to understand what they’re comfortable with, and how to communicate that, and to seek out partners who respect that?  And while we’re at it, how about teaching our sons the same?  If boys know that it is okay for them to be “uncomfortable” with regard to sex, or to value girls for the same kinds of things they value their male friends for—common interests, for instance—they might feel a lot less pressure to be so gung-ho about looking at our daughters through such a narrow lens—they might be able to see our daughters as people rather than as sexual targets.

And beyond all that, what is it with adult males feeling the need to threaten the boys/young men who have expressed an interest in their daughters?  At it’s most base expression, this is a pissing contest over sexual access to the females of the species.  It is treating our daughters as property or livestock.  It is sending the message to girls not that their fathers want what’s best for them, but that their fathers don’t trust their judgment.  It sends clichéd messages that girls are not interested in sex, and that only men can be trusted with (and are never to be trusted with) protecting women’s lady parts.  On top of that, it, perhaps unintentionally, sends the message that all men are rapists that need to be stopped by other, more powerful men.

All of this takes on an even more twisted element when we look at how rape victims are treated in this culture.  Girls and women who come forward with complaints of sexual assault are viewed first in terms of what they must have done to invite the sexual assault.  Where were you?  What were you wearing?  Were you drunk?  Using drugs?  Why are you making these accusations?  Men and teenage boys are too often excused for rape, especially if they have some status in the community and/or if their victims can be shown to be (or it can be implied that they are) less-than-perfectly-pure in every way.

The whole “get my daughter home on time or I’ll shoot you” (read: you are not to have sex with my daughter or I’ll kill you) idea plays on the idea that boys/men are incapable of controlling themselves sexually when they have time alone with a girl/woman.  It plays on the idea that girls/women are not to be trusted with their own sexuality or sexual decisions.  Worst of all, perhaps, it plays into adolescent revenge fantasies where girls/women are perpetually the victims or prizes in contests between men–that girls’/women’s chastity counts, but girls/women don’t.

Men in our culture (myself included) are not generally taught how to engage their emotions in productive ways, but to channel everything into problem solving, feelings-dodging, and violence.  It is in this context that we tell our daughter’s boyfriends that we’ll shoot them if they “come home late.”  It is also in this context where we connect violence and sex on numerous levels.

If we as men think of teenage boys as little more than rape machines with faulty safety mechanisms, or worse yet, think that we were rape machines as teenagers, then we excuse the worst of male behaviors as nothing more than biology—hormones acting out the only way they can express themselves—violently.  And that’s simply not true.  It is not only as teenagers that people have powerful sexual urges, or multiple forms of confusion and angst over various aspects of sexuality and relationships; and it is never acceptable for those urges to be translated into violence.  It is as teenagers that we should really be learning how to navigate relationships in a positive fashion.  It is as adults that we should guide teenagers—and that means mentoring our daughter’s boyfriends, not threatening to kill them.

I would much rather welcome my daughter’s boyfriend into the family and make him feel comfortable than to threaten him.  But then again, I don’t imagine my daughter coming home with somebody who I would feel threatened by—someone I would feel the need to engage in a pissing contest.  This is not to say that I feel my daughter is immune to sexual assault, or even bad decisions in choosing guys to hang out with.  It is to say that I do what I can to convey my trust in her, but more importantly, to let her know to trust herself as a whole person. 

IT’S (not) THE MOST SUICIDAL TIME OF THE YEAR!

It’s common knowledge that the holiday season, and more specifically the days around Christmas, sees a spike in suicides.  Right?  Wrong.  Not true at all.  But lazy TV news writers and reporters, and scores of jackasses who can’t think of anything original to say, and can’t be bothered to perform a simple Internet search, repeat this same fallacy year in and year out.

Now, I could lay out a bunch of statistics for you here, but that’s boring and stupid and it will take you roughly six seconds to perform that Internet Search I just mentioned, which will turn up well over a quarter-of-a-million articles, almost all of which start off with the same, basic statistics.  Okay, jeez you lazy jackasses—click the link if you don’t believe me:  https://www.google.com/#q=Christmas+suicide+spike

The myth about Christmas-time suicides was most likely birthed by an episode of “The Brady Bunch” wherein mother Carol loses her voice, and is unceremoniously kicked out of the church choir just before Christmas.  Youngest daughter Cindy prays to a mall Santa, who manages to deliver the Christmas miracle of snow in Southern California on Christmas, but can do nothing for Carol’s voice.  On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Carol is locked in her bedroom, knocking back snifter after snifter of Brandy, and wrapping presents.  As she finishes using the scissors to curl a ribbon, the song Carol was supposed to sing in the church choir comes on the radio.  Carol begins trembling with anger, then viciously slashes at her wrists with the scissors.  A short time later (after a commercial break) housekeeper Alice, attempting to deliver fresh pillowcases to the bedroom, realizes something is amiss, and kicks in the door.   Alice uses her apron to keep Carol from bleeding out as Marcia, fresh from her driving contest victory over Greg, hilariously pilots the family station wagon through an open-air holiday market to the Emergency Room.  Once mom is medically stable, a doctor, played by a pipe-smoking Paul Lynde, tells the family in a happily sadistic voice, “You’re lucky she lived—Christmas is absolutely the worst time of year for suicides.”

(Notice there was no actual mention of a spike in suicides.)

Following the episode, the network aired a public service announcement that involved the Brady kids singing their hit single “Sunshine Day.”  Mike and Carol step into the foreground as the music softens, and say, “The holiday season can be tough.  Don’t let suicide ruin your sunshine day.  Get help.”  Strangely enough, it was revealed several years later by the Parents Music Resource Center that back-masking on another Brady Bunch hit, “Time to Change” involved the first known use of the suicide instructional phrase, “Down the street, not across the road,” voiced by one Paul Lynde.

Now that your mind is totally blown, let’s get at the heart of the matter in all this.  I don’t really care that people mistakenly think they know something about suicide in terms of just the basic issue of them being wrong.  What is problematic is the idea of normalizing seasonal suicide.  That is to say, when it is repeated over and over again that people kill themselves around Christmas, it can seem to those suffering from depression, or suffering from various other situational or seasonal forms of depression or mood disorders, or even just having normal reactions to aggressively annoying family members, that Christmas isn’t such a bad time to kill oneself.  Join the club.  It’s normal.  No big deal.  Suicidal gestures also get a pass in this form of thinking—‘maybe they’ll realize how much they’re hurting me if I hurt myself.’

Now, I’m all for normalizing suicidal thoughts—suicide not so much.  Bear with me here—I think it’s valuable for people to know that suicidal thoughts are not a rare occurrence.  Suicidal action often follows people believing they are all alone and that nobody understands them.  If people realized that suicidal ideation occurs to a lot of people, and along a scale of ‘Maybe I should talk to somebody’ to ‘Holy shit! Why am I heading out into the woods with a loaded gun and a fifth of Monarch gin?’, then they might recognize that seeking help is a good idea.  Furthermore, if more people were aware that a friend or family member expressing suicidal thoughts is not an occasion to panic or to plug one’s ears and start screaming ‘La la la—I can’t hear you!’ but an opportunity to open up a dialog and seek out help, then we could make some more progress not just on suicide, but on mental health issues in general. 

In the good ol’ U.S. of A. we love our stories of suicide, murder, and mayhem.  We love a good tragedy that we can sum up with a banal, and ill-informed comment like “Well, Christmas is when suicides occur the most.”  What we have a harder time with is actually acknowledging that we have feelings other than ‘happy’ and ‘murderous,’ and that there are plenty of things that make us sad.

A client suffering from depression recently told me that she feels that at this time of year she can’t just back out of obligations other people have placed on her.  If she would rather stay home and sleep, read, or watch a movie than go out to the seventeenth Christmas party she’s been invited to in the last two weeks, or spend Christmas Eve and Christmas day shuttling between various relatives’ houses for hectic feeding-frenzies and gift-giving-orgies, the people around her slip into panic mode—as if any expression of a desire to spend time alone is an indication she wants to go kill herself.  She attributes this insistence that she be happy and perpetually moving to the idea that Christmas is the time people kill themselves.  In short, she ends up feeling exhausted and out of sorts, because she is trying to prove to people that she is not suicidal—which, she jokingly added, just makes her want to kill herself and/or leaves her in fear that she might drop dead from exhaustion.

So…yeah…Christmas doesn’t, as a rule, provoke suicide.  And if we could all embrace the real ‘holiday spirit’ of actually connecting with each other, instead of pushing ourselves through marathon ‘base-touching’ sessions with people we ignore the rest of the year; if we could learn to communicate a range of emotions, and respond with caring, rather than indifference or panic, we might realize that because we are each dealing with our own, personal situations, all times of the year are the most wonderful time of the year (and the most depressing time of the year, and the most mundane time of the year, and…) Continue reading

THE WAR ON CHRISTMAS AND THE FIGHT AGAINST COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS

In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Linus points out to Charlie Brown that he has taken “a Wonderful season like Christmas, and turned it into a problem.”  And while I would never compare a beloved figure like Charlie Brown to ridiculous cartoon characters like Bill O’Reilly and Sarah Palin, the people who push the idea of a “War on Christmas” are engaging in that same mindset of turning a wonderful season into a problem—and all allegedly because they love it so much.

When Charlie Brown complained about Christmas, it was because, “I know nobody likes me.  Why do we need a whole holiday season to emphasize it?”  This is what we in the therapy business might call examples of thinking errors, or cognitive distortions.  Look beyond your pantophobia.  Challenge those thoughts, Charlie, and what do you arrive at?

“I know nobody likes me.”  That’s what we might call “All or nothing thinking.”  As a little hint, almost anytime you say that everybody or nobody is doing something, that’s pretty much a distortion—a false statement.  What would a challenge be to that thought, Charlie Brown?  I bet Linus might feel a little offended at being considered a “nobody,” as I doubt he would say he doesn’t like you.  He’s a pretty good friend to you, offering support at every turn.  So, there are people who like you, and you know that.

Now how about the idea that there is “a whole holiday season to emphasize” that nobody likes you?  Well, since we’ve already successfully challenged the idea that nobody likes you, the argument is already flawed, but what else?  Might we call this magnification?  It’s definitely an exaggeration, as if an entire season was there just to make you feel bad.  Is it everybody’s desire to make you feel bad that drives the holiday season, or is there something else going on?  I think your good friend Linus hits on at least one different explanation.  Lights please.

So, now it’s your turn Bill and Sarah.  How about the phrase, “War on Christmas”?  Are there any problems with this phrase?  How about magnification?  Blowing things out of proportion, kind of like Charlie Brown did?

First of all, “War” is a pretty harsh word.  In the most real sense, it means organized, focused acts of aggression and violence.  People get killed.  Property gets destroyed.  So, certainly, in the United States you can’t mean that there is, properly speaking, a war going on with Christmas as its target.

Even in its more hyperbolic meaning, as when it’s applied to a concept, the word “war” is usually attached to actions that have a demonstrable, negative impact on the thing against which the war is being waged.  For example, the “War on poverty” was intended to have specific impacts that “damage” poverty or put an end to poverty.  One might fight poverty by trying to increase employment, reduce hunger, and ensure adequate access to housing.  There is a coordinated plan of “attack” with goals to be achieved and measured.

So, maybe instead of saying that there’s a “War on Christmas” you could say, there’s a “Push for recognition of non-Christmas holidays” or maybe a “Movement to make participation in Christmas celebrations elective.”  Sure, those phrases aren’t that catchy, but they also help steer away from connecting anger and violence with Christmas, which really seems like a great goal, don’t you think?

“But…but,” you may be saying, “the War on Christmas has a demonstrable, negative impact on Christians!”  Careful, now, we don’t want to get into emotional reasoning, believing something is true just because you had a feeling related to the thought.  Let’s look at the impact the war on Christmas has on Christians in the United States.

In order to measure the tangible impacts, we would have to have some specific examples of what this War on Christmas involves.  Let’s see—there’s the matter of some stores having employees say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and utilizing the same language in their ads.  But does that really hurt anybody who is filled with Christmas spirit and good will toward all her/his fellow human beings?  Or does it actually make sense, in the United States, a pluralistic society which was in no small part established by people looking for freedom to worship how they wanted, to expect that people will celebrate whatever holidays they want in whatever way they want?

It is hardly an insult to say “Happy Holidays,” unless you consider referring to Christmas as one of multiple holidays (which literally means “holy days”) insulting. So, what is it about “Happy Holidays” that is so offensive?  Isn’t it more offensive to establish an atmosphere in which people think that “Merry Christmas” might be a challenge—a test to see if they’ll say “Merry Christmas” back in order to avoid a fight?  What is it about Christmas that makes anyone want to start an argument, especially anyone who views Christmas as a positive thing?

So what else have we got?  Public schools deciding not to include specifically religious (Christian) songs in their “holiday” (not Christmas) music programs?  Does it really hurt you if the kids sing “Frosty the Snowman” and “Winter Wonderland” rather than “Greensleeves” and “O Come All Ye Faithful”?  Well, how about this—how many of the “War on Christmas”-endorsing crowd would be happy to find out that all the kids in the local public school had to learn a specifically Muslim song for, say, a concert in honor of Ramadan?  Or if they had to learn a Jewish song that was more religiously-based than the Dreidel Song?  Or maybe the Dreidel Song is offensive enough to anyone who actually believes that there is a war on Christmas.

So, let’s stack up the allegedly negative impacts of the “War on Christmas” against what goes on in the United States every year during the “holiday season.”  Christians, and many people who celebrate Christmas out of tradition rather than out of religious conviction, decorate their homes, and often various community gathering places.  Churches have one of their busiest times of year, including plenty of singing, praying, and programs wherein children perform religious songs and plays while dressed as shepherds, wise men, and the Holy Family.  Stores certainly decorate and make a variety of specifically Christmas-related items available.  I know I can walk into almost any major department store, and even a huge number of specialty stores and find nativity scenes of various sizes, Advent calendars, Christmas tree ornaments, Christmas cards, and on and on.  Where’s the real damage?  The destruction?  The horrible losses?

Acknowledging that other people in your community don’t share your same traditions and religion does not mean you are under attack, and definitely does not mean you are involved in a war.  To believe as much is a massive cognitive distortion, a mental filter siphoning out the good of Christmas in search of a reason to be angry rather than to be filled with joy, love, and the Christmas spirit.  People asserting their right not to be Mannheim Steamrolled by Christmas excesses are not armies or even shoe bombers, just people saying, “Hey, we’re not all like you.”

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Therapists and mental health professionals of various stripes are not automatically opposed to religion.  (And, contrary to popular belief, the holiday season is not the time of year with the most suicides, at least not the most completed suicides).  I have seen firsthand, and participated in, some of the incredible good that people of faith can accomplish.  And I think various expressions of faith and spirituality are wonderful when they are used as part of a person’s support system and coping skills.  Plenty of people derive great strength from their faith, rely on it to provide meaning in their lives, and engage it to look for the good in others.  And I’m pretty sure Jesus said something about being able to tell Christians by their love, and not by the ludicrous complaints they make in an effort to sell books.

But maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe spirituality is not intended as a source for expanding one’s view of the greatness of all creation, and one’s place in, and connection to, it, including one’s ties to one’s fellow people.  Maybe spirituality is the best tool for narrowing down one’s focus to the pettiest things one should really be angry about.  Hunger?  Economic injustice?  War?  Violence?  Why bother with addressing any of that when you can get angry about City Hall having a “holiday tree” but no manger scene, or perhaps a manger scene, but also displays for Chanukah, and Kwanzaa?

What does it do to a person when she/he uses spirituality as a source for anger at those who don’t express their beliefs in the same way she/he does?  What does it do to a person to make Christmas a source of personal anger at other people, not because she/he despises Christmas, but because she/he claims to love it?

Linus, engaging a pure sense of Christmas spirit, shows that love is transformative and life-giving.  It brings people together, and challenges their notions of separateness, selfishness, and persecution.  So, take a cue from Linus this…ahem…holiday season and engage that sense of love and joy.  You may just end up feeling less like “nobody loves me” Charlie brown, and more like “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.”

Of Sex Offenders, Sentencing, and Suicide

Dear Judge G. Todd Baugh,

It’s been about a month since the height of the media attention on the less-than-minimal sentence you gave to teacher Stacey Rambold for violating the terms of a plea deal on charges of rape stemming from a sexual relationship he had at his age of 49 with then-14-year-old Cherice Morales.  In some baffling…uh…I guess you’d call it legal reasoning, you expressed that Rambold had suffered enough as a result of being under the “control” of Cherice, who committed suicide just shy of her 17th birthday in 2010.

I don’t want to devote too much time to going over old ground that plenty of other people have covered, like about your use of ridiculous sexist stereotypes, and your blame-the-victim mentality.  What I really want to do, Judge Baugh, is kick a few ideas your way, from a clinical perspective, in the hopes that you might understand Mr. Rambold’s behavior and how and why it led up to his appearance in your courtroom in late August.  Since Rambold just completed his grueling 30-day sentence yesterday, there’s a possibility that he is going to land back in your courtroom on appeal of that sentence.  So let’s just call this a teachable moment.

In handing out a 30-day (of 15-years) sentence, when prosecutors had pushed for ten years (of 20), you argued that Rambold had already been punished enough.  You lamented Mr. Rambold’s loss of his job, loss of his teaching license, loss of his house, and loss of his wife, as well as Mr. Rambold having to suffer the “Scarlet Letter of the Internet” whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.  Hester Prynne didn’t get in trouble for having sex with one of her teenage students.  And Mr. Rambold, unlike Prynne, did not try to protect his sexual partner.  If protecting Cherice was his goal, Rambold would have accepted his responsibility and taken a plea deal from the beginning, to keep Cherice from the threat of being grilled in a courtroom.  (I could go into a lot more detail with the literary comparison/contrast here, but let’s just leave it at that).

Now, it’s weird that you consider Mr. Rambold’s loss of his wife and his house as punishments he received for having engaged in the rape of a minor.  What happened between Rambold and his wife as a result of his sexual relationship with a student (and whatever other factors were involved) has nothing to do with any punishment handed out by the courts.  There are plenty of sex offenders who have partners or spouses who stick by them, and plenty whose wives/partners leave them, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Likewise, Mr. Rambold’s loss of his house is not a punishment handed out by the court for having violated laws against having sex with underage girls.  I’m guessing Mr. Rambold lost his house either in the divorce from his wife, or as the result of losing income.  But either way, that has nothing to do with the sanctions of the court for committing a sexual offense.

Some of the specific sanctions that came directly as legal consequences of Rambold’s actions, like losing his teaching license, are clearly spelled out in the law, and for reasons I think most people would agree are necessary.  Perhaps you disagree, Judge Baugh.  Perhaps you do not feel that teachers owe it to their students, the families of those students, and the community at large to steer clear of sexual relationships where there is a vast age, power, and maturity gap.  Perhaps you think that teachers should be able to have sex with 14-year-old students, so long as they pick the “mature” ones.

Perhaps, Judge Baugh, you even think Mr. Rambold should have his teaching credentials restored, and that he should be placed back in a high school.  But from the standpoint of his pathology, he already broke down his internal barriers that might have kept him from engaging in sex with minors/students.  And those barriers don’t really ever get put back together in full.  They can be patched up a bit.  People like Rambold can learn to stay well away from situations where they’ll end up having to rely on those damaged barriers to keep them out of trouble.  But Rambold’s barriers almost certainly won’t hold if he is put back in among teens in a position of authority and trust.

And speaking of being in among teens, Judge Baugh, you didn’t think that it was all that important that Rambold was hanging out, unsupervised, with minors.  From what I can tell, you rationalized this away (or let Mr. Rambold’s lawyer rationalize this away) as being a non-issue because the minors in question were relatives of Mr. Rambold.  Now, from a clinical standpoint, that may or may not make a difference to whether he would re-offend against those particular children.  But it’s not considered a good idea to leave someone who offended against minors in a situation where that offender is alone with minors, relatives or not.

Just a little question, Judge Baugh, would you leave your underage relatives in the care of Mr. Rambold?  Here’s a hint from the treatment perspective: the correct answer is “No.”

And, Judge Baugh, you indicated that you weren’t too concerned that Rambold’s repeated rules violations led his treatment provider to kick him out of the program—you know, the treatment program Rambold agreed to attend as a condition for avoiding prison.  I’m guessing you’re not aware that failing to comply with treatment is considered an acute risk factor for re-offense.  Or maybe you are aware of how risk assessments work, since you were sure that Mr. Rambold was doing just fine because he had been rated as “low-risk to re-offend.”

But you know what?  Almost all non-violent (the ones who groom victims into compliance, rather than forcing them into sex) and non-hands-on offenders are considered “low risk to re-offend.”  Contrary to popular belief, sex offenders (again, of the non-violent sort) have a low rate of recidivism once they’ve been caught.  And that recidivism rate drops even lower with treatment.

A funny thing about those ratings, though, is that the ratings are generally predicated on the assumption that the offender’s behavior is actually going to match up with the information used to obtain the risk-level rating.  In other words, the rating is only as good as the information used to obtain the rating (and the quality of the rating tool, and the ability of the rater to use the tool correctly).  For instance, when the evaluator is doing the risk assessment, if it is assumed that the offender is not going to be left unsupervised with minors (which should be a given for anybody in Rambold’s situation), but then Rambold is left unsupervised around minors, then that rating loses more than a smidge of its reliability.

I also noticed, Judge Baugh, that you didn’t seem to think it was such a big deal that Mr. Rambold failed to show up for multiple sessions with his treatment provider.  So, Judge Baugh, when people are scheduled for court dates in your courtroom, is it important to you that they actually show up?  Also, how do you proceed with cases when involved parties aren’t there?  I’m guessing that things don’t turn out in favor of the people who don’t appear for their court dates.  So, that’s kind of the same thing that goes on when a sex offender doesn’t show up for treatment sessions—it doesn’t work out in his favor.  Or at least it’s not supposed to.

It’s also quite difficult for a treatment provider to get a feel for what’s going on with a client who fails to show up for appointments.  It’s considered kind of important when you, as a treatment provider, are supposed to be holding an offender accountable for his behavior, but that behavior includes skipping treatment—you know, because skipping treatment isn’t really considered being accountable.  Believe me, nobody wants that kind of liability.  This is why most states, including your home state of Montana, have laws that allow for offenders to be thrown into jail and/or prison when they violate the terms of their plea deals.

As a treatment provider, do you know what else makes it difficult to keep tabs on an offender?  Lies and lying.  Maybe you weren’t aware, but offenders lying to their treatment providers is considered another one of those things that moves an offender away from a “low risk to re-offend” rating.  And Rambold lied to his treatment provider, or rather, failed to tell his treatment provider that he was in a sexual relationship with a new girlfriend.

Now, generally speaking, having a committed relationship is considered a good thing in terms of risk assessment of sex offenders.  But, having a sexual relationship with someone without telling your treatment provider is, in technical language, a no-no.  This is for a variety of reasons.  For one thing, the treatment provider needs to know certain key things about the new partner, you know, like if she has children around.  Also, it’s considered important that any new partners are aware of the offender’s background so that they don’t do things like let the offender hang around the partner’s underage relatives unsupervised.  There are a lot of other potentially problematic factors here, like whether the partner is of an appropriate age, or if the partner has a history of trouble with the law, drugs, drinking, domestic violence, abuse as either a victim or perpetrator, and so on.

Now, just so you know, I work with sex offenders, and I’m not a really big “throw ’em in prison type”—at least not when it comes to offenders who take their responsibilities seriously and don’t screw around with their treatment.  But you might guess that I’m a bit sensitive about offenders who treat the whole thing like a joke, as if they don’t have to follow the rules.  I would think that as a judge, people who fail to follow the rules would bother you too, even if you don’t take all of this clinical info into consideration.

But I do hope you take the clinical information into consideration, because Rambold didn’t just violate the rules once or twice.  He violated them on numerous occasions.  And the rules he violated were, in treatment terms, kind of a big deal.  If this were basketball, this wouldn’t be traveling.  It would be Rambold driving a car onto the court, parking it under the basket, climbing up on top of the car to stuff the ball through the hoop, then flipping off the referee while Rambold’s coach explains to the referee that it’s okay for him to act that way, and gets the referee to agree.

So, Judge Baugh, a girl was abused, then shamed, then stressed to the point where she thought killing herself was a viable option, then shamed and blamed some more in your courtroom years after her death.  And even if you view Cherice as fully responsible for taking her own life (and, believe me, I could hammer you with a bunch more clinical info on that count), and even if you (completely ludicrously) view Cherice as equally “in control” of the sexual relationship she had with Rambold, Rambold completely failed to take his responsibilities seriously.  He was given the opportunity to dodge a lengthy stay in prison so long as he engaged in treatment in good faith.  He didn’t do that.

So, Judge Baugh, if Rambold ends up back in your courtroom on appeal, I would urge you to take the aforementioned clinical (and other) concerns into consideration when you decide how to amend your earlier judgment.  And whatever happens, I would urge you not to help Rambold or any other sex offenders minimize and justify their actions—they’re already pretty damn good at that on their own.