Self-Infantilization or Supportive Compromise? On the Controversy over Safe Spaces

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

In her March 21 piece for the New York Times, “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas” Judith Shulevitz mocks, among other people and things, Brown University student Katherine Byron for setting up a “safe space” for students who might be “triggered” during a debate between Jessica Valenti and Wendy McElroy that was likely to include a discussion of rape culture.

Shulevitz reported that the safe space “room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” Nothing is said about why such items and personnel might have been present, or what the theory behind such a ‘safe room’ might be, other than Shulevitz’s own assumptions about how college students of today are over-parented and overly-sensitive.

Shulevitz goes on to say that, “Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints.” Shulevitz does not provide anything other than anecdotal evidence about the alleged increasing prevalence of such a conviction.

On top of that, one major thing that gets lost in Shulevitz’s piece is that the debate between Valenti and McElroy went on. The ideas were not silenced. No speaker was banned.

Instead, Byron, and those who assisted her, offered a place where audience members could go if they became uncomfortable, not necessarily with the ideas being expressed, but with the content of the discussion, which presumably included descriptions of how rape is depicted in popular culture, as well as how rape and rape victims are treated in the news media, by law enforcement, and in other areas of their lives.  The safe room was established by the Sexual Assault Task Force, first and foremost, to afford a safe space for trauma victims–not a refuge from ideas.

All the comfort of the joys of childhood...

All the comfort of the joys of childhood…

Perhaps Shulevitz’ mocking of the “safe spaces” is particularly disappointing because she has written other pieces on trauma and its impacts, most notably, a November piece in The New Republic, called “The Science of Suffering” which explored research into how PTSD can potentially be transmitted from generation to generation.  In it, Shulevitz includes this succinct and powerful description of PTSD:

Provoke a person with PTSD, and her heart pounds faster, her startle reflex is exaggerated, she sweats, her mind races. The amygdala, which detects threats and releases the emotions associated with memories, whirs in overdrive. Meanwhile, hormones and neurotransmitters don’t always flow as they should, leaving the immune system underregulated. The result can be the kind of over-inflammation associated with chronic disease, including arthritis, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Moreover, agitated nervous systems release adrenaline and catecholamines, both involved in the fight or flight response, unleashing a cascade of events that reinforces the effects of traumatic memories on the brain.

Shulevitz’s New Republic article describes research into, among others, Cambodian refugees who suffered through brutal conditions of war. And maybe this is where Shulevitz’ disconnect arises: her inability to see how a sexual assault in the modern-day USA could lead to similar forms of psychological and physical response as living through a years-long period of war somewhere else in the world.

But PTSD just as powerful as that experienced by those who have been through war can arise out of a sexual assault or rape. PTSD is not measured and assigned on some scale where those who experienced the longest, and arguably worst, trauma have the ‘most’ or most severe PTSD.

Complaining of the “self-infantilization” (a term Shulevitz credits to Judith Shapiro) demonstrated by things like the Brown University safe room, Shulevitz also neglects to explore other potential psychological issues stemming from sexual assault, particularly for those who were assaulted repeatedly at a young age. To be clear, I am not assigning a specific causal relationship here (i.e., if this happens, then that is the result, and/or, because a person exhibits this behavior, this particular thing has happened to them) but issues such as Borderline Personality Disorder are often tied to a history of having been sexually traumatized.

Strangely enough, complications associated with Borderline Personality Disorder can include shortcomings in one’s ability to develop into an emotionally mature adult.  Along with the repeated hospitalizations, there are frequently tendencies toward anxiety and overreaction to stimuli, impulsivity, fear of abandonment, hostility and perceptions that one is being personally attacked, and difficulties in forming long-term, stable relationships—issues which might, along with PTSD symptoms, be addressed (at least in the immediate sense of a perceived threat) by the “safe room” tactics that Byron deployed.

Rather than exploring the potentially positive effects of the safe room, though, Shulevitz instead uses it, and other alleged examples of “hypersensitivity” at universities, as evidence that today’s college students aren’t tough enough to handle the real world, and that today’s parents are coddling their children too much. But ongoing PTSD, personality disorders, and other psychological manifestations of trauma are not the result of overly-attentive parenting—and are more likely to be exacerbated by the opposite—a lack of attentiveness and support by those who should be providing it.

Still, Shulevitz pats herself and her peer group on the back for being much “hardier souls” than today’s college students–which includes an explanation that, in her day, college students only censored speakers for the right reasons. She writes, “I’m old enough to remember a time when college students objected to providing a platform to certain speakers because they were deemed politically unacceptable.” Shulevitz isn’t particularly clear on how “politically unacceptable” is markedly different from ‘ideas that make some people uncomfortable.’

Perhaps this is a good time to reiterate that Byron and her Sexual Assault Task Force didn’t actually stop anybody from speaking at Brown, but set up a space, off to the side, out of concern for those who might be interested in hearing the debate, but weren’t too confident that they would respond well to it. If anything, it represents a form of compromise much more than a form of censorship.

So maybe the safe room isn’t the perfect answer. Maybe it seems funny and easy to mock as a form of “self-infantilization,” particularly to those who aren’t all that interested in finding out what it’s supposed to mean or accomplish—those people who, as Shulevitz puts it, haven’t learned “the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it.”

Then again, maybe today’s college students aren’t really that different from past generations of college students—and are just exploring different ways of addressing concerns that didn’t exist in the past—or, rather, were ignored in the past.

Because heaven knows, none of us from older generations ever did anything questionable while we were in college, or came up with ideas that older generations might mock, as we tried, in an atmosphere of rapidly evolving technology, culture, and scientific understanding, to navigate a complicated passage into adulthood.

Advertisements

Why John Grisham Wasn’t All Wrong about His Child-Porn-Viewing Friend

by J.C. Schildbach, LMHC, ASOTP

Way back in mid-October, an eon ago in Internet time, an article and partial interview was published in The Telegraph, wherein John Grisham decried the unfair treatment an old law school buddy of his had received at the hands of the overzealous legal system. After all, Grisham argued, his friend had only looked at some child porn that was really just technically child porn, because it involved 16-year-olds who looked 30, or some such rot.

You can read that piece here: Grisham on What Makes a Real Pedophile

Jessica Goldstein put together a piece for Think Progress that explains a whole lot about what was wrong with what John Grisham said, from the perspective of why maybe, just maybe, seeking out pictures of 16-year-old girls, even if they look mature, might be problematic. It is available here: Goldstein Explains Why Grisham’s Friend Shouldn’t View Child Porn

I would add to Goldstein’s piece that, developmentally speaking, if you think 16-year-olds are capable of making rational decisions about being ‘porn stars’ then, well, you’re wrong. Look into brain development, and when people actually become capable of making decisions about the long-term consequences of their current behaviors. Add to that the problem that sixteen-year-olds, legally speaking, can’t enter into ANY contracts (even if they can legally consent to sex) and, well, it’s pretty cut and dry that 16-year-olds (and minors of all ages) in pornography are just plain being exploited, as well as frequently being abused, drugged, threatened, or otherwise coerced.

In the time since the publication of the original piece, Grisham’s friend has come out to say that his treatment in the legal system was not unfair, that he deserved what he got, and that he should have never done the things he did. It also came out that, unlike what Grisham said, his friend did not just accidentally look at some 16-year-olds who looked like adults, but that he was actively participating in the exchange of child pornography, including files involving children as young as 12 (who presumably did not look like they were 30).

Much has been made about why Grisham would have given such a distorted view of what happened with his friend. My guess is that he didn’t know exactly what happened, and that he was going off of an explanation his friend had probably given several times to family and friends when his legal troubles started. That explanation probably went very much like Grisham explained it: ‘I was drunk. I was unhappy. I clicked on a link that I didn’t realize was child pornography.’

Not surprisingly, when friends and family of an offender first hear of allegations of any kind of sexual misconduct, particularly when it falls into the realm of sexual misconduct involving children, whether that is “hands-on” contact or viewing child pornography, the default position is to not want to believe it. Likewise, the default position for the person engaging in the offending behavior is to not want to admit to it.

When offenders are “found out,” there are several stages that they often go through on the way to actually being able to own up to their actions. Very roughly speaking, those usually look like: 1) Nothing happened; 2) Something happened but it’s not nearly as bad as they say it is; 3) It was an accident/the victim did x first; 4) Something happened that is worse than I originally said, but really not as bad as they are saying; 5) Really, I have a pretty extensive history of this kind of behavior.

The offender, and those closest to the offender, simply do not want to believe that what happened actually happened, and often cling to that as long as possible, and often to the detriment of the victims of sexual abuse.

Grisham's factual failure may have led to a bit of a headache for him

Grisham’s factual failure may have led to a bit of a headache for him

So, I’ve highlighted a few of the things that Grisham said that were clearly wrong and stupid when it comes to offenders. So, what did he get right?

Grisham’s words were rather careless. Citing old white guys in prison as a big problem is not really the best way to go about making a case. Old white guys in prison is about as big a problem as young white guys not being able to get into college because of Affirmative Action. In other words, relative to other systemic problems, it’s nothing.

But something that is pretty limited is the threat that old guys (regardless of ethnicity) represent to the community at large. In the case of old guys looking at child porn, the threat can be further reduced by eliminating their Internet access and by eliminating any contact they are allowed with children.

But how do such limitations get put in place or enforced? In several states there are “sentencing alternatives” for sex offenders (and for people who have committed various other types of violations), particularly those who are not considered “violent offenders.” And, I realize the language is odd, but “violent offenders” are those kinds of offenders who, say, go after kids they don’t know or engage in physical violence beyond just the sexual acts they inflict on their victims, as opposed to “grooming” children that they are in regular contact with. Groomers, or non-violent offenders, tend to work slowly and patiently to get what they want from their victims. Violent offenders smash and grab and are a small minority of overall offenders.

At any rate, from what has come out, Grisham’s friend had no hands-on victims. And really, what’s the bigger punishment? Putting him in prison for three or more years, and then letting him out, all done, all paid for; or putting him in jail for less than a year, and then putting him out to go about rebuilding his shattered life, while under strict supervision and treatment guidelines?   Once on the outs, he has to get a job (probably not a high-paying attorney job as I’m guessing that door has probably closed), pay for whatever housing is available to him—which will likely be severely limited, be under the supervision of a Community Corrections Officer (CCO), and have to go to/pay for outpatient sex offender treatment for the next several years, potentially for the rest of his life.

At any rate, the sentencing alternatives cost taxpayers a lot less money, are just as effective from a treatment perspective. And, for the vindictive among you, such sentencing alternatives are plenty demeaning—loss of status and being under a harsh set of rules, with the threat of being bounced back to prison for violating those rules, is not something anybody wants to live with. And for those offenders who manage to maintain any kind of support network, or rebuild a new one, they get to go through the rather unpleasant process of explaining their offenses again and again, just so that they can build a group of chaperones, or at least informed contacts.

So, in a way, Grisham was right that people like his friend don’t need to be clogging up the prison system, just like Grisham is right that non-violent drug offenders don’t need to be clogging up the prison system. Sure, there need to be consequences, but there are more and less effective consequences, and more and less expensive consequences, both to offenders and to the public at large.

But since laws are generally written by politicians, and not for the purpose of doing what is most effective, but for doing what is most politically expedient/most popular, things like sentencing alternatives are created and used less and less frequently. No matter how much sense such policies make, or how cost-effective they are, lawmakers don’t want to be labeled as the ones who let sex offenders, even offenders with no hands-on victims, even offenders who are made to pay severe penalties other than prison time, out into the community.

But such short-sightedness means that more offenders actually get out of prison somewhere down the road, and with little or no supervision, and no organized checks on their behavior.  Grisham is right that there are better places for his friend to be, even if he was completely wrong about what his friend did, and what it meant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sons of Guns & Daughters of Rapists

by Jonathan C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP

The last several weeks have seen charges of molestation, “aggravated crimes against nature,” and rape of a child, among others, brought against Will Hayden of Red Jacket Firearms and the Discovery Channel’s “Sons of Guns” reality show. Hayden has protested that the alleged victim, his own 12-year-old daughter, made the accusations only after his angry ex-girlfriend put the child up to it. The police and many news sources are now walking back their identification of the victim as Hayden’s daughter under laws that protect the identity of minors…but since it’s already splashed all over the Internet, I’m not sure what good that’s supposed to do.

I’ll put forth the disclaimer that anyone accused of a crime in the U.S. is innocent until proven guilty. I’ll also say I’m all for keeping things like this out of the media—but that’s clearly not the world we’re living in, particularly when such charges involve a public figure. After all, Hayden’s show was abruptly cancelled, and his business partners openly distanced themselves from him as a form of damage control to keep their custom gun business afloat. In addition, in the time since the accusations from Hayden’s minor daughter first surfaced, multiple other alleged victims have come forward, including Hayden’s adult daughter Stephanie, who initially defended him against the charges, but is now reportedly slated to appear on the “Dr. Phil” show later this week to explain that she was molested and raped by Hayden when she was a child.

And to add to the various disclaimers and caveats, I must also say I don’t know enough about Hayden’s past, or his current behaviors, to suggest that I, in any way, know that he fits, or doesn’t fit, the general clinical conditions suggesting high-risk behaviors for pedophilia or sexual abuse of a minor.

Let me also put forward that as much as there is an assumption of innocence for the accused, if we really want to make any headway on addressing sexual abuse of children, the assumption needs to be that children who come forward to seek help for sexual abuse are not making things up. When children are lying, their stories do not hold up particularly well, although depending on how skilled or unskilled, careful or careless, someone is when interviewing children, plenty can go wrong with the information that is gathered. But if our first reaction to children who report sexual abuse is to shut them down, or leave them in the homes of the accused, they are potentially being put at further danger, and a likely increase in the level of that danger.

And speaking of making headway in addressing issues of sexual abuse, I’ve noticed, at least as indicated by Internet comments, that when it comes to stories like this, we can count on public opinion to fall into a small number of categories:

1) Kill ’em all: This just involves amped-up vitriol aimed at sex offenders, and those accused of having committed sex offenses. I understand the anger. But, seriously, if you think that killing more people, or addressing problems of abuse with violence is the way to move toward a better society, a more healthy understanding of human sexuality, or better protection for children, you’re taking an overly simplistic view of the way the world works. And if you think this approach has some merit, why weren’t you able to spot Hayden and bring him to justice earlier? Is that anger and all those demands for vengeance really accomplishing anything?

2) “He’s obviously a rapist because he does/likes/thinks X.” Whenever somebody is in trouble for being an (alleged or convicted) sex offender, people like to equate the offender’s other behaviors and beliefs (that don’t jibe with their own) with the offense behavior. In the case of Hayden, some have connected “gun culture” to sexual abuse of children. And while, as anybody who has read my other posts knows, I am no fan of guns, I just can’t see anything productive coming from conflating gun ownership or gun manufacture with child molestation. Of all the people I know, holding varying levels of support for gun ownership or gun control, none of them have ever expressed an endorsement of sexually abusing children. This lack of support for sexually abusing children is pretty universal, regardless of one’s political beliefs, religious beliefs or hobbies.

Furthermore, while I have worked with a few offenders who have had guns figure prominently or incidentally in their abuse behaviors, they have been the exception, not the rule. In terms of grooming behaviors, things like money, jewelry, candy, drugs/alcohol, video games, clothing, toys, and porn have been involved in many more of the offenses I’m aware of than have guns.  And I’m not going to advocate for the banning of any of those items based on the ability of abusers to involve them in abuse patterns. I’m more than happy to advocate for a ban on guns based on their use in—well, shootings—homicide and suicide and attempts at both, not to mention all manner of other crimes and accidental deaths, but as for their involvement in child molestation–not a huge concern, at least from what I’ve personally seen.

3) “How can somebody do this?” This is usually sideways of the “Kill ’em all” concept, and often involves plenty of name-calling. I get that it is very difficult to understand how somebody could rape their own daughter—or sexually abuse any child—but many of the factors involved are not beyond explanation. Most people just don’t want to hear the explanations…or deal with them…except in punitive, harsh ways once somebody has committed such acts.

Generally speaking, though, a person doesn’t sexually abuse a child because he or she is thinking clearly, or because he or she has just suddenly come up with such an idea after a long life of healthy relationships. If Hayden was engaging in sexual abuse of children, he wasn’t, one assumes, doing it out in the open, as such behaviors usually involve a great deal of secrecy and manipulation, like Hayden’s alleged warnings and threats to his daughter not to tell anyone, because, “I’m all you’ve got.”  In short, people who sexually abuse children are ill and engage in a number of behaviors to try and mask that illness, or keep others from learning of it.  I’m not sure how to properly emphasize this enough.  Sexual abusers of children are not just random guys who are bored and horny.  There are a lot of factors involved, including a huge number of elements (rationalizations, justifications, creating situations where one has access to children and is willing to take advantage of that access while plotting to keep anyone from finding out) that involve breaking down the normal barriers that prevent such sexual abuse.  In other words, “How does somebody do this?” is a question that involves a long and extended answer.

…And now for a clip of Hayden that seems weirdly re-contextualized, check this out–especially the last 20 seconds or so…y’know, where he talks about people becoming bad headlines and how he tends to his own conscience.

Anyway, let’s say that way back before Hayden had ever (assuming he did) touched his daughter or any other young girls in a sexually inappropriate manner, he realized he was having thoughts in that direction, and that he needed to do something to steer clear of that behavior. What would he do?

For those of you who know what kinds of resources are out there for dealing with someone who is having thoughts of sexually abusing a child, bravo. Please do what you can to make sure others know. I will say that over my years working on the crisis line, I have fielded a very small number of calls from people (both men and women) who were concerned about the nature of some of their sexual thoughts towards minors—either specific minors in specific situations, or more generalized sexual thoughts—and were seeking help.  In my years of dealing with offenders, I have seen numerous people who just might have sought help if they had any idea how to, and if they hadn’t felt like total garbage for acknowledging that they needed help.

But most people facing thoughts of sexual attraction to children do not have the wherewithal to seek help, much less have any idea where such help could be sought. It is a much more common reaction to deny that there is a problem, to try to push the thoughts away, or even to feed the thoughts (as in masturbating to inappropriate fantasies) while assuming that the actual offense behaviors can still be avoided.

Furthermore, treatment providers in the field of sexual abuse can have a difficult time promoting services. People tend to come to providers by referral from a lawyer or a community corrections officer (CCO) after they are already in trouble or have already served time, even though the same types of treatment could be just as effective before any offenses were committed. After all, just how welcome do you think a provider would be if they hung a sign out on their business that said “Sex Offender Treatment” or “Specializing in the Treatment of Sexual Deviancy,” or something similar? The stigma and shame that prevents people from seeking help for mental health issues as relatively common and accepted (and I mean relatively accepted) as depression, is increased a great deal for issues surrounding sexually inappropriate thoughts and behavior.

So, regardless of all that business about stigma and secrecy and providers protecting the privacy of their clients and confidentiality of their services…here’s a site that has a directory of providers throughout the U.S.  It’s basically set up for people who are already in trouble.  But it doesn’t have to be.  This is through “Stop It Now” which has referrals to the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) and numerous other organizations.  Get help if you need it.  Get help for others if they need it.  That’s right, help, and try to discontinue the hurt.

http://www.stopitnow.org/faqs_treatment

Maybe if everybody calmed the f*ck down and decided they were more interested in actually protecting children than in getting angry at offenders, we might make some progress.  And maybe tend to that part of your conscience that’s problematic before you become a bad headline, or before you celebrate a bad headline.

Peace.

Why Would You Work in the Field of Sexual Abuse?

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

There are few circumstances where one would relish the opportunity to talk about sexual assault with one’s niece. But given that my niece and I both work in fields related to sexual abuse, and don’t get to see each other very often, chances to “talk shop”—despite “shop” involving some rather heinous things—are pretty great.

You see, my niece, I’ll call her SC for short so I don’t have to keep calling her “my niece” and so I don’t have to use her actual name, spends a portion of her workweek as a Forensic Nurse Examiner (FNE). I spend a portion of my workweek as an (Affiliate) Sex Offender Treatment Provider, and have worked with offenders in one capacity or another for over seven years.

Among the topics we discussed was the rather personal issue of why anyone gets into a field related to so much trauma and other forms of ugliness.

One big similarity we found is that, on learning of our professional lives, most everyone says, “I couldn’t do what you do.” In fact, we said it to each other. I have zero desire to be involved in anything that involves touching patients or perpetrators in order to draw blood or gather other bodily fluids and materials. I cannot imagine dealing with people who have just been traumatized, when the wounds are so fresh and the pain is still so raw. SC has no interest in engaging with those who commit sexual crimes, in order to get them to accept responsibility for what they’ve done, and unravel the knots they’ve tied themselves into on their way to convincing themselves it was okay.

One huge difference SC and I found in relation to the subject of why we do the work we do is that almost everybody asks me how I got into the field, while almost nobody asks her the same. The split in questions about why anyone goes into any career built around sexual crimes may be based largely on gender, and stereotypical beliefs about how one’s gender informs one’s connection to sexual assault. Then again, the particulars of our jobs might connect to different expectations. She’s involved in the early stages of trauma intervention and evidence gathering. Generally speaking, I’m involved with people with impending court proceedings or who have already served time for their crimes.

At any rate, in her estimation, it’s likely that nobody asks SC about her entry into the field because there is an underlying assumption/fear that she chose her path because she was sexually victimized. There is an assumption that asking her will unleash some history of traumatic experiences that will lead to all manner of emotional unpleasantness and the conversation rapidly turning uncomfortable.

Anna Gillespie's "I Don't Want to Know"

Anna Gillespie’s “I Don’t Want to Know”

On the other hand, people ask me because they assume that, since I’m a guy, I’ll have some interesting tale that is much less likely to involve me having been sexually victimized. From a purely statistical standpoint, the gender-based assumptions make a fairly good bit of sense. Although, with SC working mostly with adult victims of violent crimes, and me working mostly with offenders who groomed and manipulated underage victims, and no fully accurate statistics existing for crimes in either realm, statistics only say so much.

On top of the statistical inadequacies, despite such gender-based assumptions, I’m really not sure what people might think would be my reason for getting involved in the field that wouldn’t involve at least some form of indirect (to me) trauma—such as someone I know and love having been victimized. Or perhaps there’s some stereotypical thought that men in this field are engaged in matters of clinical interest due to career-building, problem-solving pursuits, while women are involved with their choices for more personal reasons. Perhaps a bit of research on gender-based perceptions of the career choices made by other people is in in order.

Inevitably, when I attempt to explain my involvement in evaluating and treating sex offenders, and I mention a connection to a pastor at the church I attended growing up, I get a “say no more” response. That is, once a pastor is invoked, the person asking me makes a quick re-evaluation of their question, resulting in the immediate reaction of trying to cut me off before I say anything they’d rather not hear.

But the connection to the pastor has much more to do with struggles of faith, and just what it means to have a significant portion of one’s religious education delivered by a sexual abuser of children, than with having been victimized. It has to do with understanding how anybody, let alone a religious leader, could have developed such behavior. But I rarely have the chance to get all of that out once the question has been raised.

And now that I think of it, while talking with SC, I didn’t get through much of that either—through no fault of hers, but due to my own hesitation/difficulty at explaining myself in this matter—or perhaps because I’m so used to being cut off. I did get to the “I’m not doing this because I was molested by a pastor” part, but didn’t get into the more esoteric components of my attraction to the field.

I don’t fault people for their (perhaps prurient) interest in hearing disturbing tales of twice-removed personal trauma. Anybody in this field has at least a clinical interest in such stories and understanding what is behind them, or how those involved might be healed or rehabilitated to the extent possible. Still, it’s much easier for most people to deal with such tales when they involve an unknown or distant victim, or when a computer or TV screen or a printed page is safely containing that victim’s story, than it is to deal with somebody whose emotional scars may burst open right in front of you.

In my work, I am much less likely to deal with such potential emotional eruptions than SC is. I’m used to dealing with all manner of misdirected, sometimes explosive, anger and shame. Still, the focus of my work involves a significant amount of distance from the victims of sexual crimes, and the pain of those experiences. As much as those of us who are involved in the treatment of offenders may attempt to dig in deep and uproot the sources of objectification and emotional distortion that may lead to further offenses, we providers are spared that intense level of immediate pain that comes from sexual assault. Even when dealing with offenders who have a history of victimization themselves, providers are generally removed from such experiences by years. In other words, I’m afforded a high level of abstraction of the victims and their pain that SC is not allowed in her work.

It may ultimately be that the distance from, and abstraction of, pain and victimization involved in my work makes it easier for people to ask me why I do what I do. In fact, the people I deal with are, to the general public, abstractions themselves. “Sex offenders” and “pedophiles” are little more than skewed ideas to large portions of the population. People want to know what such offenders are like, and if they fit the pervasive stereotypes. In that context, asking me what I do is merely a precursor to getting to “the good stuff,” the hope for a glimpse at the back-stories of true crime tales, as well as the actual true crime tales.

In contrast, the immediacy of the hurt SC deals with as a routine part of her job, and the connection to so much pain, is perhaps too real for most people to want to delve into. It doesn’t involve that level of abstraction, where offenders stay as cartoon characters, and, where the bad guys have already been caught and made to pay.

Or, to put it another way…SC deals with “us.” I deal with “them.” We all know what “us” is about. But what’s up with “them”?

People understand how a person could be in the wrong place at the wrong time, how someone could be so unfortunate as to become a victim, and they want to keep that out of their mind as much as possible, because it suggests their own vulnerability. They really want to know how a person becomes the factor…the thing…that causes that shift in time and place that makes that time and place all wrong. What they don’t realize is they’re still touching on another form of vulnerability, but one that they can’t acknowledge in themselves. They want to remain “us”—potential victims but still ‘normal’—while looking at “them”—the offenders as something alien.

Perhaps it’s just that people want to know more about my work, or why I’m doing it, because it involves the more unfathomable end of the abuse equation, the place where they cannot imagine themselves being, while they don’t want to know about SC’s work, or her connections to it, because that speaks to a form of vulnerability they more immediately understand…how they could be assaulted. Failing to imagine how anything could ever happen to lead them to become a victimizer (although, statistically speaking, a huge number more people victimize than are ever held to account for such behavior—whether with adult or child victims) people are much more comfortable asking me, “Why did you get into this field?”

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.

 

Crisis Line Prank Call Reviews: Ownage Pranks & the Wacky World of Rape Jokes

On the eve of April Fools’ Day, it only seems appropriate to look into the hilarious world of Crisis Line prank calls. The majority of prank calls to regional crisis lines and to the Lifeline Suicide Prevention Hotline involve humor of the sort that is enjoyed by middle-school males who fall on the low end of the socially-conscious and critical-thinking spectrum for that age group. And Ownage Pranks’ work in this area is no exception to that rule. (From here on out, I will be referring to the auteur/auteurs as “Ownage” since I don’t have any other name to associate with the site—withholding the names and hiding the faces of those involved being perhaps the only intelligent thing about Ownage).

The real achievement of Ownage, though, is that it has become the top Crisis Line prank call video on YouTube by exploring a juvenile fascination with anal penetration, engaging in racist stereotypes, and making light of domestic violence, rape, and spousal murder.  With this winning formula, Ownage managed to get well over 2 million views of it’s post titled “Asian Crisis Hotline Prank Call HILARIOUS!”  The title is perhaps best described as inexplicable, as it both identifies the prank as involving an Asian Crisis Hotline—whatever that’s supposed to mean, and refers to the prank call as hilarious—which is only appropriate if one believes the definition of “hilarious” to be “supportive of rape culture.”

The video, which is not exactly recommended viewing, was originally posted in March of 2009 and is comprised of audio with subtitles.  In case you haven’t had your fill of rape jokes and racist stereotypes for today, and you don’t trust me to accurately describe it, it is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9THBsHeODQ

Just be aware that by clicking on the above link, you’re going to build up the view tally for this video, and then have to live with yourself afterward.

Ownage Pranks is the brainless-child of some unknown person who bills it as “Nine stereotypical characters, one hilarious adventure.” Apparently, this is the tagline because Ownage believes that the people who would willingly view/listen to his pranks are too stupid to realize that the characters are based on stereotypes, and, as already mentioned, lack any knowledge of the definition of “hilarious.” The mascot for the site looks something like the Lamisil mascot “Digger,” the little toe fungus monster that, in one of the most disturbing series of commercials ever produced, lifts up toenails to crawl in under them. Visually associating Ownage with Digger is entirely appropriate, as both are roughly as pleasurable as toenail fungus and/or having one’s toenails lifted away from one’s toes.

Would you rather...have your big toenail pulled off, or listen to 7+ minutes of rape jokes?

Would you rather…have your big toenail pulled off, or listen to 7+ minutes of rape jokes?

At any rate, the Crisis Line prank involves Ownage “voice acting” as a woman that Ownage identifies as “Chinese—sorry Vietnamese.” When the crisis line volunteer, a 76-year-old woman, asks the caller for ‘her’ name, Ownage says, “Rangnahhahbilmangoyumdidahmgeh” (Ownage’s spelling from the subtitles). The Crisis Line volunteer then asks him to spell it out, and is told, “W-O-R-Q” for the first name, and “G-U-I” for the last name. Are we all cracking up, yet?

Ownage quickly dives into sexual abuse/spousal abuse/anal rape jokes with the caller explainnig that ‘she’ wants to have a family but that “every time we sleep together he want” (sic—as in deliberately ‘broken’ English) “to put it in the wrong area.”

The Crisis Line volunteer isn’t quite sure how to approach the call. Keep in mind that Crisis Line workers have to take every call seriously unless/until they can be certain it’s a prank. The volunteer’s task is made particularly difficult because Ownage keeps talking as much as possible, while asking only minimal, ridiculous questions. For instance, Ownage asks the Crisis Line volunteer if it would be a good idea to defecate on her husband’s penis while he is anally raping her in order to get him to stop.

Ownage goes on to say, “He force me. It like a rape.” Now, by saying it’s “like” a rape, I’m not sure if Ownage is making fun of the allegedly Vietnamese-American woman for not recognizing that her husband forcing her to engage in anal sex is actually rape, or if Ownage just doesn’t think that women who are married can be raped by their husbands. There are numerous other possible explanations behind what is supposed to be a joke, which I will leave out. I will just say that any woman who is forced into sex by her husband is, in fact, being raped, regardless of what part of her body is being penetrated, and regardless of what is being used to penetrate it.

Which leads us to our next point…Ownage proceeds to make jokes about the caller’s husband inserting baseball bats, wine bottles, beer bottles, and a watermelon into ‘her’ anus.

Following the watermelon comment, the Crisis Line volunteer states, “You need some help, you really do.” Ownage jumps right back in talking, I’m guessing, because he realizes that if the Crisis Line worker were to mention domestic violence shelters or resources for sexual assault victims, it would have ruined the glorious fun of his little prank. After all, nothing brings down a good rape joke like pointing out that it involves laughing at victims of sexual abuse.

Ownage also touches on the topic of men viewing porn and then expecting their wives/girlfriends to behave like the women in pornographic videos.   The caller reports that her husband watches videos that depict teen girls engaging in anal sex and enjoying it, and questions if there is something wrong with her for not enjoying anal sex like the performers in the videos. OMG, isn’t it so funny to think that men would watch porn, and then force their wives to engage in acts they viewed, whether or not their wives were comfortable going along with it? Oh, wait, that’s laughing at rape again, isn’t it?

Providing a brief break from the sexual violence jokes, the caller then mentions that ‘she’ thinks her husband is waking up and is in the bathroom. The husband in the bathroom becomes an excuse for Ownage to play some diarrhea sound effects—definitely the high point of the prank.

The husband eventually joins the conversation, and guess what? The husband is (supposed to sound like) a stereotypically abusive African-American man.  At this point in the prank, Ownage (via text) provides the little behind-the-scenes detail that, “I did both voices, by moving the mic away from me and turning away from the mic :).”  Yes, if ever there was a reason to use a smiley face emoticon, it’s when one is engaging in multiple racist stereotypes at once, all in the service of making jokes about sexual abuse.

The husband is then heard saying, “I’m not playin no games, you bitch. Now get your ass over here. Pull yo pants down nigguh” (Ownage’s subtitles). When the caller/wife protests/pleads that she does not want to engage in anal sex, and states that the “counselor” said “fack you,” to the husband, the husband gets on the phone with the Crisis Line volunteer and demands to know who is on the phone.

The prank ends with the ‘husband’ saying “fuck you” to his wife, followed by the sound of two gunshots, and then the wife wimpering for help. Are we all ROTFLOAO now?

Ownage’s prank lasts roughly 7 minutes, which can be enough time to de-escalate a person from a panic attack, or to help ground a person suffering from chronic mental illness.  It is enough time to determine a person is at serious risk for a suicide attempt, or perhaps has actively engaged in a suicide attempt, and is in need of intervention by emergency services.  It is enough time for a volunteer or paid professional to lend an ear to someone who has hit a rough patch in his/her life, and to provide that someone with a little solace.  But, instead, Ownage thought it would be funny to take up that time by trying to shock a 76-year-old woman with moronic jokes about anal rape, diarrhea sound effects, and racist “voice acting.”

As I’ve pointed out in other posts, when people point out problem “jokes” like this gem of a prank call, it is common for some backlash—accusations of excessive sensitivity, demands to lighten up, explanations that it is “just a joke.”

So, let me ask—on a scale of one to five—how many stars would you give to jokes involving racist stereotypes? How many stars does domestic violence rate? How about spousal rape? Spousal murder?

Yuck it up, clown. You really owned that 76-year-old volunteer.

 

 

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.

 

SHOOTING OUR DAUGHTERS’ BOYFRIENDS: BUICK LACROSSE EDITION

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

And I have yet another follow-up to an earlier post regarding jokes about dads shooting their daughters’ boyfriends. For this entry, I’m looking at a recent commercial for the Buick LaCrosse, notable mostly for actually showing the abject terror of a threatened junior-high boy, and the irritated reaction of the daughter to her father’s insecure, childish behavior.

The ad shows a white Buick Lacrosse driving along as we hear, then see an adult male telling the radio to play multiple songs. The stereo instantly accesses the tunes, along with the information on the artists, which are shown in a big, color display on the car’s console, complete with album cover art. The songs include “U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer, “I’ve Got Eyes Everywhere” by T-Booth and the Sensations, and “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” by The Georgia Satellites.

Cut to a shot of a teen(?) pre-teen(?) girl and boy in formal attire, sitting at opposite ends of the back seat, the boy looking terrified. The girl, with a look of contempt on her face, says, “Alright, Dad, we get it.”

Gee, dad, thanks for setting such a low standard for the men in my life by threatening children.

Gee, dad, thanks for setting such a low standard for the men in my life by threatening children.

The car arrives at a school, where a banner outside announces there is a dance happening. A voiceover says, “With Intellilink…” There is then a shot of the kids walking away from the car, the dad looking out the window, his arm resting on the bottom of the window frame, a look of nostalgic longing and dickish smugness on his face. Dad says, “Have fun,” the tone in his voice indicating he is proud to have possibly just caused a 7th grade male years of situational impotence. The voiceover continues, “…all your music is ready to listen to. Even if some people are sick of hearing it.”

Dad fondly remembering the school dance where his girlfriend's dad beat him senseless out by the dumpsters for letting his hands stray.

Dad fondly remembering the school dance where his girlfriend’s dad beat him senseless out by the dumpsters for letting his hands stray.

To anyone who gives it any thought, the commercial raises all manner of questions, like when the voiceover says “sick of hearing it” what exactly does that mean? How many times has dad done this before? And, really, what does that say about him that, one, he is allowing his daughter to go on that many dates when she’s clearly not old enough to be dating, and, two, that he thinks his 13-year-old daughter is constantly having to fight off sexual advances from the boys she takes to school dances?

Now, I’m not saying that kids having sex as young as 12, 13, or 14 is unheard of, but why is it that dad is so obsessed with his 13-year-old daughter’s sexual behavior? That’s more than a little…err…unhealthy. I mean, if dad’s so willing to imply that his daughter and her dates need to be schooled on not having sex while he is driving them to a dance, don’t you think he could’ve had a more productive conversation with his daughter about how to keep herself safe, and how to choose appropriate behaviors? And did he get a look at her date? The kid doesn’t exactly look like the type who’s running around seducing and impregnating his classmates (although I don’t want to stereotype—maybe he really can talk any girl into bed, or into a bathroom stall at a junior high dance, or whatever).

But anyway, let’s give dad the benefit of the doubt on the “sick of hearing it” comment. Let’s say that despite the commercial’s obvious, intended meaning, all it really meant was that your kids don’t like to hear the music you want to play in the car. I can accept that as a true-to-life situation for most adults, particularly those who are too insecure to allow their kids a few minutes of pre-func music while on the way to a dance.

So, how about we look at the music selections that are conveying this threatening message of “I’ll kill you if you try to have sex with my daughter.” As noted before, selection number one is “U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer. I’ll let the actual braggadocio of the song go (which has nothing to do with physical touching or sex) in favor of the heavily-sampled song underlying it—“Super Freak” by Rick James. Now was this some kind of sick joke suggesting that 13-year-old girls need to be kept in check, or just unintentional irony? The original Rick James song was about a woman who was rather well-versed in the further reaches of sexual behavior…”She’s a very kinky girl, the kind you don’t take home to mother.” I’ll leave it at that.

Selection number two, “I’ve Got Eyes Everywhere” by T-Booth and the Sensations, is a song (and band) so completely underground that it doesn’t actually exist…not that you’d realize it isn’t a real song from the few seconds of generic music that comes over the stereo. I’m guessing this pretend song had to be included because Rockwell held out for too much cash when Buick asked to use “Somebody’s Watching Me.”

Song selection number three, “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” by The Georgia Satellites functions as another entry in the unintentional irony category, as it is sung from the perspective of a guy trying to get his girlfriend to sleep with him—and it’s his girlfriend telling him ‘no’.

(Buick, call me. I can find tons of songs that might better convey the creepy message you want to get across—and from the knowledge base of a forty-something male who actually likes music).

And speaking of that…keeping in mind that I have no idea how Intellilink actually works…wouldn’t the better commercial involve the daughter and the dad having dueling song choices? (Well, for my comfort, let’s imagine the girl is several years older). Then we could get the girl throwing out some selections endorsing irresponsible teen/drinking/sex songs while dad tries to counter. It would make the boy’s confusion and fear marginally more entertaining…right? Maybe? Like this…

Dad: Play “U Can’t Touch This” (MC Hammer)
Daughter: Play “Hot in Herre.” (Nelly)
Dad: Play “Shot Down in Flames” (AC/DC)
Daughter: Play “Last Friday Night” (Katy Perry)
Dad: Play “Some Heads are Gonna Roll” (Judas Priest)
Daughter: Play “Locked Out of Heaven” (Bruno Mars)
And then the boy could freak out and call out some soft rock hit, like…
Boy: Play “Don’t Cry Out Loud” (Melissa Manchester)

Okay, so my version of the commercial is still playing on the same stupid sexual stereotypes that inform the original commercial, and it would’ve cost Buick a lot more to get the rights to at least some of those songs, but at least in my version the daughter gets to give it back to the dad for being such a dick, and suggests that if dad is going to make assumptions about her behavior, she might as well amp up his insecurities. Try and exert all the control you want, dad. Ultimately you don’t really have any.

Now, if I can get all moralistic on everyone again…what is this commercial saying? I’ve already touched on how creepy it is that dad is obsessed with his teen daughter’s sexuality to the point where he would try to ruin a date for her. Beyond that, dad’s obsession with his daughter’s sexuality leads him to act like a complete ass, and to threaten, or at least infer, violence toward a young boy.

What’s most problematic, though, is that the daughter’s exasperation at her father should speak volumes to him, but it apparently doesn’t even register, except to make him think he’s done his job. He doesn’t care what she’s thinking, and apparently believes it’s his job to act as the gatekeeper to his daughter’s body. But is that really what he wants his daughter to think? That she needs his permission before she can allow another person “access” to her body? Dad gets to lay a physical claim on her person, rather than teaching her about proper boundaries and trusting herself?

But dad’s not really thinking about the messages he’s sending his daughter beyond his desire to embarrass her, because he’s too fixated on scaring a boy who’s probably too young and insecure to even seriously be entertaining the thought that he’ll get beyond a slow dance or two and maybe a peck on the cheek.

As young as they seem, though, both kids in the commercial are certainly old enough to be having sexual thoughts. But is dad foolish enough to think that a junior high dance is the most likely place that any actual sexual activity would play out? Doesn’t dad recognize that maybe threatening violence to try and prevent any sexual activity is a sure-fire way to provoke your kids into shame and negative attitudes about sex? Doesn’t dad think that maybe his asinine behavior is projecting the message to his daughter that she is valued most as a sexual object (the exact opposite of what one would hope he is trying to convey) and that her body belongs to the men who lay a claim to it and can defend that claim through violence?

Also, while we’re looking into ideas about stereotypes and messages we’re sending, would this commercial work if the boy in question were, say, an obviously athletic football-player type? Would it make sense for a “jock” to be quaking in the back seat because of an MC Hammer song? Or if the boyfriend was more stereotypically “masculine” would that cause the message to stray into the territory of an actual pissing contest over the daughter, as opposed to the one that is portrayed, where dad has the obvious upper hand? If the boyfriend was more masculine, might the message run off the tracks, with the boyfriend thinking, “Threaten me to keep my hands off your daughter? Or what? Challenge accepted!”

You see, when you try to coerce somebody out of a particular action under the threat of physical violence, you invite the possibility that if that person can best you in a violent contest, then they are allowed to do what it is you were trying to stop in the first place—in this case, putting their hands all over your daughter. So, where does that leave your daughter’s choice in all this? Why is this not a call she gets to make out of the respect she is due as a human being, and based on her own desires? Certainly, any person as young as the girl in the commercial might not be the best at making thoughtful decisions that carefully consider all avenues of concern, but that’s where parenting comes in, which ideally involves providing guidance about things to consider when making important decisions.

And dads who actually think this is funny…why is it funny? How far would you take this? Would you hit a 13-year-old boy? Threaten to hit him? Why is it okay to threaten a boy with music? Putting it that way just sounds weird, doesn’t it?

So, let’s give Buick a new slogan: The 2014 Buick LaCrosse…for dads who are too immature to have an honest conversation about sex with their own children…but are willing to threaten other peoples’ children through the power of song.

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. 

America’s Hate/Love Relationship with Sex Offenders

If you use social media enough, it’s not that uncommon to come across ‘memes’ about how sex offenders should be maimed or killed in some horrible fashion, memes involving ideas like “Why use animals for laboratory research when there are so many sex offenders available?” or ugly, violent images tagged with bombastic proclamations of homicidal ideation toward anyone who would “hurt my children.”  Now, I understand the desire for a simple solution to a complex problem, but is there really some ‘debate’ about whether any of us want somebody to sexually abuse our children?

Arguably, the source of such black-and-white statements is a lack of knowledge, even a commitment to ignore any real information that might lead to a greater understanding of how to address the problem of sexual abuse, or even what is encompassed in the term “sex offender.”  “Sex offender,” to the oversized segment of the population desiring to eradicate problems through violence, is synonymous with “rapist/murderer of children.” 

But the reality of the term “sex offender” is that it applies to plenty of people who have never had any sexual contact with a child, let alone murdered anybody.  I don’t say this to minimize the seriousness of sex offenses, but to point out that, unlike the term “serial killer, “ “sex offender” does not have a single, well-defined meaning.  What’s legal in one state based on, for instance, the age of the participants, can be illegal in another.  What is normal, adult sexual behavior may be criminalized in a state, while much worse forms of sexual abuse are not defined as crimes, or are given much lighter penalties.

For example, if your 16-year-old son’s 16-year-old girlfriend sends him a nude or semi-nude photo of herself via phone, even if it may be legal for them to be having sex in your home state, your son may now be in possession of a depiction of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct, aka child pornography, which can lead to being charged with a crime and labeled a sex offender.  The label “sex offender” is also applied to exposers, who in the not-too-distant past were characterized as oh-so-comical ‘flashers’ and given a slap on the wrist. 

The sex offender label includes those convicted of statutory rape, which can include people who, if they had waited a few months, or lived in a different state, would have been having perfectly legal sex.  A 35-year-old software engineer engaging in a sexually-charged chat with a 38-year-old insurance salesman pretending to be a 13-year-old girl is disturbing and isn’t going to lead anywhere positive.  A 35-year-old software engineer engaging in a sexually-charged chat with a law enforcement official posing as a 13-year-old girl could lead to being labeled a sex offender under charges of communicating with a minor for immoral purposes, or attempted rape of a child–if the police can get the engineer to take the admittedly-twisted fantasy a bit further. 

To be sure, those convicted of sex offenses have almost certainly done things that range from the unsettling to the unthinkable, things that provoke reactions from disgust to outrage, things that require some form of restitution to the victims and to society at large—forms of restitution that are provided for in law.  But to lump ‘sex offenders’ into a uniform group whose members are all deserving of murder is to take the Carl Spackler approach to problem-solving: blowing up the golf course to get at the gopher, ultimately making the problem worse.  And, no, I’m not suggesting that the gopher was a pedophile.  I am saying that outright hostility toward “sex offenders” ensures that we will never get to a point of dealing with the problem in a way that might eventually reduce instances of sex offenses—but that’s an argument for another day.

For now, what most baffles me is how the self-righteous anger of those who would annihilate all sex offenders can so quickly reverse itself from being focused on the offender to being aimed at the victim.  While there are numerous recent and not-so-recent examples of this, Steubenville immediately comes to mind as a town that is now synonymous with rape and rape cover-ups.  It is also synonymous with blaming the victim.   And blaming the victim is just a different way of saying “siding with the sex offender.”   Let’s be clear about that: to whatever degree one blames the victim, one is, to that same degree, siding with the sex offender.

So how does the threat to smoke out and crush every evil, lurking sex offender get transformed into threats of violence against sexual abuse victims?  Well, when the offender is no longer some random, unshaven, greasy-haired creep in an arrest photo shown on the local news, but instead a high-school football star who is well-known in the community; and when the victim is no longer an unquestionably-innocent seven-year-old, but a 16-year-old girl who got drunk at a party; large swaths of the public suddenly decide to love the sex offender and hate the victim. 

In such situations, all of the Internet-clogging-bravado that fuels adolescent fantasies of being the slayer of sex offenders suddenly gets channeled into death threats and, astonishingly enough, rape threats aimed at high school girls.   Justifications are created to excuse the ‘dumb mistakes’ made by the teen sex offenders who apparently no longer deserve any consequences for their behavior.  And the Internet equivalent of pitchforks and torches are taken up in service of ridiculous arguments about how teen girls need to recognize that if they are going to behave like drunken sluts, they have to accept the responsibility for being sexually assaulted.

So, if you’re going to be all black-and-white about how much sex offenders deserve to be burned at the stake, then don’t pull them from the fire so that you can toss their victims in.  If you so enjoy black-and-white thinking, the only absolutes involved are that nobody deserves to be sexually assaulted, and that nobody has the right to sexually assault anyone.

If things are so black and white, then ask yourself why you would ever choose to side with sex offenders against their victims.