Saturday, September 26, 2015

Facts: Child Sex Abuse And The Abusers

Definition

Child sex abuse, which is a commonly misunderstood term, refers to any use of an adult or older child by a minor for sexual purposes. Note the word use of 'using' a minor. Some state that children can consent in certain circumstances, but by law the age of consent indicates that a child under that age cannot consent. Psychologists use trauma as a measure of whether or not abuse has occurred, and while their are cases where children are used for sexual purposes and are not traumatized, these cases are a very small exception to the rule. Examples of child sex abuse are child marriage, molestation, penetration, propositioning, taking sexual pictures or videos, prostitution, and sexting. Many psychologists have also stated that exposing to a child, for any reason, is child abuse and others have stated that having lewd sexual conversations with a child is child abuse.

Effects

Child sex abuse has a number of demonstrated psychological effects on its victims, including PTSD, depression, anxiety, dissociation (an unawareness of internal or external surroundings, and detachment from such) and also has physical effects in some cases such as bleeding, lacerations, organ damage, STD's, STI's, infections, and damage to areas of the brain that are essential to development.

Prevalence

On average, child sex abuse affects one in six boys and one in four girls by the time they reach the age of eighteen in the United States- a figure confounded by the fact that 90% of abuse cases are not reported to abuse (of the abuse that we know of). It is a commonly held belief that abused children grow up to become abusers, however, studies have indicated that this is true less than 40% of the time for adults that abuse children. It is far more common for a child who abuses younger children to have been abused than it is for an adult who abuses children. Many victims grow up to have lasting psychological issues and criminal convictions involving alcohol or drug abuse.

According to a meta-analysis of over 200 studies in 2011, 12.7% of the world's population is affected by child sex abuse: 7.6% among boys and 18% for girls. North America, Africa, and Australia had the highest percentage for girls abused (20%-21%), while Africa and South America had the highest percentage for boys abused at 19.3% and 13.8%, respectively.

Factors Affecting Disclosure

Numerous factors affect whether or not abuse is disclosed, either publicly or to authorities. In some cases, the family and victims decide not to disclose the abuse publicly or to authorities so that the child and family have space to heal and move on from the event. In others, the child is threatened or manipulated into secrecy, or forces themselves to forget the abuse. Societal pressure on boys from sex stereotyping and minimization affects reporting for boys, and sex stereotyping overall is also responsible for increased shame and humiliation in the victim. There are many, many factors that lead the victims themselves to decide it would be best not to disclose that they were abused, and many factors that lead families to keep it from going public. Suffice it to say that child sex abuse thrives on secrecy: Both on the victims to tell, and on offenders to keep the act quiet. While some false allegations also influence disclosure statistics and data, approximately 10% or less of abuse allegations are found to be false.

Stigma

Alongside the sex stereotyping and secrecy that affects disclosure is a stigma against abuse victims. Some victims are mocked and ridiculed for having been the victim of abuse, and may be teased about the clothing they wear or imply that the abuse was the victim's fault. In some cases, the trust in the adult being accused is such that the victim is not immediately believed and may change their story based on the reaction to their disclosure.

Abusers

Approximately 60% of abusers are family acquaintances such as neighbors, friends, babysitters, or teachers and another 30% of abusers are directly related to the victim. The remaining 10% of abusers are strangers. Estimates in the 1990's indicated that most abusers were abused themselves, but recent studies have thoroughly debunked this myth. Most researchers estimate a high of 40%, which still leaves the majority of abusers having never been abused. Some other myths have stated that abusers abuse because they are left-handed or have wisdom teeth (none of which has any causal effect on their behavior).

Registries

Following the Jacob Wetterling Act, Megan's Law, and the Adam Walsh Act, the United States set up a nationwide Sex Offender Registry.

Under the Jacob Wetterling Act, enacted after an 11-year-old was abducted, assumed to be by a sex offender in a halfway house in the same town. This act's intent was to inform law enforcement in a convenient database of where criminals convicted of sex crimes resided and were employed to further investigations into sex crimes.

Under Megan's Law, enacted after a 7-year-old was raped and killed by a man who had previously been convicted of two other sex crimes, certain classes of sex offenders mandate law enforcement to notify the community of where an offender lives. Megan's Law expanded sex offender registries by mandating this community notification and requiring all states to comply with registration requirements.

Under the Adam Walsh Act, named after a 7-year-old who was kidnapped from a shopping mall and killed, sex offender registration was given more uniform requirements and risk assessment guidelines for determining risk level and increased the classification for who is and is not on the registry.

Note that all of these laws that have formed the current sex offender registries are named after victims of crimes. Under these registries, any crime under the umbrella of a sex crime can make someone a sex offender and require registration, regardless of the crime's severity or the risk of the offender. Urinating in public makes someone a sex offender as easily as someone having sex with a minor, or child sex abuse, pornography, trafficking, or prostitution. In most states, a simple failure to properly register can increase an offender's assigned risk level and mandate community notification. In every state, law enforcement is required to check the compliance of an offender's registration once per year or more, depending on risk level.

Recidivism (Rearrest/Reoffense)

It is commonly believed that sex offenders frequently or typically reoffend. However, several studies have indicated that the recidivism rates for sex offenders is much lower than other criminal populations with the sole exception of murder. Some studies, such as the 2002 study by the Office of Justice Programs under the US Department of Justice which observed 9,691 male offenders released in 15 states across 3 years, puts those rates as low as 3.5% . This compares to an overall 68% rate of recidivism for other crimes.

Effectiveness of Registries

Many studies and research has studied the effects of registries on offending and found, contrary to the popularity of such registries, that sex offender registration does not decrease reoffending and in some cases has been shown to increase recidivism. For example, a University of Chicago Law School study of over 9,000 offenders, half of which released to states where they were required to register, and half where they did not, found that there was no noticeable difference in the propensity to reoffend. The same study found that blocks of the nation's capitol where sex offenders lived did not have different rates of crime. Another significant example was the University of Michigan Law School study done in 2008 comparing the effects of registration and community notification (police only and public notification, respectively), which found that public notification actually increased the number of sex offenses by 1.57% or more.

In short, sex offender registries were originally designed to give law enforcement an idea of where to look when a sex crime has been reported and is under investigation. However, given the low recidivism rate, the registry is a distraction for law enforcement in most cases, as they must check compliance of those registered at least once per year, per offender, or more depending on risk level.


My Conclusion

My conclusion, and granted I do not know nearly as much about the topic of registries, their requirements, sex offender laws, sentencing guidelines, and child sex abuse as I could, is that the focus on sex offenders distracts from real predators who groom the community, such as Jerry Sandusky or Jimmy Savile. Granted, these predators are in the minority of all sex abuse cases. However, it is important to note that most sexual abusers only abuse once- some research estimates state that 95% of abusers only abuse once. However, if every one of the other 5% have multiple victims and actively use their knowledge of their crime, grooming, and trust to abuse children, they are a significant problem, far more so than most registered sex offenders, who are assigned a low risk level. By focusing on these low-level offenders as if they will always be raping children, we are distracted from the real danger of true predators who actively pursue children.

Another conclusion I come to is that the current popular law, Erin's Law, which I have discussed before, will end up being more traumatizing for victims of child sex abuse if their abuser uses any form of manipulation, intimidation, or threats to silence their victims because of the increased shame and confusion. Therefore, educating children is not the solution. A child cannot tell when abuse is happening or what it is. They do not have the knowledge, words, or power to do anything about it. In terms of identifying when abuse is occurring, educating adults on the warning signs of abuse in children and the proper questions to ask and responses to suspected child abuse will make more of a difference in identifying and stopping abuse when it is occurring.

The final conclusion I come to is that help is not known or available to people who are attracted to minors- who make up the majority of child sexual abusers. Furthermore, the huge stigma around even having attraction to minors and the moral panic surrounding sex offenders makes it extremely unlikely that they will get help, even if someone was attracted to children and wanted help and knew that help was available. Furthermore, there are not nearly enough resources available to children on the topics of sex, sexuality, attractions, abuse, or the legal, moral, and psychological consequences of abuse. The general public is likewise not knowledgeable about these topics.

Therefore, we must make a sexual education standard for all children in the United States that teaches children, at an age appropriate level, about the aforementioned topics. We must provide them with resources they can use to get help if they need it- not just if they are being abused, or with their sexuality, but if they think their thoughts are dangerous or are afraid of what they are thinking. If any three of these conclusions are acted upon through the creation of new policies or legislation, it will be a huge step in the prevention of child sex abuse before it can occur.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Appalling Abuse Minimization

I came across another parent-oriented prevention article today, and a separate one talking about the effect on victims. A similar article, also by the Buffalo News, advocates more notices about sex offenders.

The problem with how we approach child abuse is that we focus on what we have been told- that sex offenders will offend again (95%, on average, do not), that strangers are to blame (5% of the time), and that children must be educated about what is and is not okay for people to do to them.

Minimization

The issue I have with all of these articles is that they systematically minimize abuse. Yes, you read that right- they minimize abuse. Child abuse is not an issue you can solve by focusing on the people who have already been caught- do we try to prevent murder by looking only at those who have already murdered? No, of course not. By continually turning public attention towards victims' stories- the horrific, stand-out stories that the news constantly beats into us, as if it is an example of all abuse- we are taught and conditioned to believe that all abuse happens as victims have reported it. The fact of the matter is, abuse is much more insidious.

Real Abuse

Child abuse is not evil because of the immediate effects on children. Many, many children have been abused and do not suffer the same as the victim stories we read about. It is evil because it changes the beliefs of those who are abused. Being abused even once, you think it is your fault, or that it is okay. You minimize the effect it has on you- I did, to the point where I saw nothing wrong with it and abused a child myself. The real evil is that it changes the child, and leads the child to believe things that are not true.

Any child can cope with the physical actions. No child is prepared for- or can easily solve- the numerous issues that are caused indirectly by the abuse. Children believe adults are to be trusted, so what the abuser did must have been okay. These beliefs can morph and twist into things that affect the child for life. I once told my victim that I could not control my actions. Not only was this a lie, it directly put the responsibility on him for the fact that it was occurring. I made him believe a lie about me, and about himself.

That is the true cost of child abuse. It is not PTSD. It is not how horrifically a child was raped, or how shocking what they went through is. It is how it is reacted to, and how it creeps into every area of your life and changes you- without even knowing why, how, or when it happened. I would give anything to be able to tell my victim, face-to-face, that what I did was completely my fault and correct the lies I made him believe.

Society's Reaction

The reaction we have to abuse- that it is terrible, must be stopped, and the disgust, terror, anger, and discomfort (tame word, I think, but it is the best I have) leads us to think that if we lock up, stop, monitor, or register the person responsible, or people responsible, we have fixed the problem. We can make it go away by arresting the person.

That is not how child sexual abuse works. It is not like theft where a strong punishment creates a deterrent. The problem does not go away because people are arrested and sent to court. The problem remains, because the problem is that the people who abuse children saw or had no other alternative. They had no support system to intervene, no therapist to talk about their thoughts and feelings, no tools to deal with whatever it was that led them to abuse a child. And this will continue so long as we react to it. By reacting to it as we are, we minimize the issues, and we minimize what is actually being done to the children.

The fact that this blog exists, and is written by someone who had sexual contact with a child, should speak volumes about how effective treatment is and break the lies you have been told about abuse and abusers. Sexual abuse is real. Abuse affects at least 20% of all children, and abuse is perpetrated by people who feel they have no other choices available to them. That makes me livid at the same time I feel overwhelming sadness, both for victims and for abusers. Knowing what I know now, and having little to no idea how to reach the right people to prevent abuse, feels so overwhelmingly powerless and depressing. I am only one voice, and I fear decades might pass before that voice is heard.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Life As A Sex Offender

I realize the topic of this is not obviously relevant to the topic of this blog, so please bear with me. I am a convicted level 'zero' sex offender, although this will not always be the case. I will not always have to register, because the state looked at my case and determined that, provided I follow the program of probation, treatment, and reintegrating myself, my selfish decision will not impact my entire life. An interesting point is that when I talked with my probation officer about what came of sending my apology to my victim's family? They wanted to move on, and they wanted me to move on and wanted what happened not to affect the rest of my life, and refused to read the letters I wrote to further that goal.

Belief on Reoffending

However, I believe it will impact my life. Not because of the legal system, but because of the changes I have made in my life and the ability to see what got me to where I was. I cannot say I will never offend again, because I think that the minute I say that, I undermine all of what I have learned. It took a rather inviting situation for me to offend in the first place. I cannot say I will never offend again, because that statement, of itself, means that I am ignoring what led to my original offense. It means I ignore my risks, triggers, and needs. It means I think I am above it. Clearly, having sexually abused a child once, I am not above those poor decisions. I do not believe anyone is.

The point I am trying to make has nothing to do with whether I have a commitment to doing what I need to in order to be safe, but my attitude towards safety. Safety starts with me, and no one else. I am responsible for asking for what I need, I am responsible for checking in with my support people, and I am responsible for being aware of how I am feeling, what I am thinking, and what I am doing. No registry, laws, ordinances, or societal attitudes will affect that simple fact.

Sex Offender Registries

Being on a sex offender registry makes no difference to me, given my circumstances. I am only visible to law enforcement, and no one in the community is notified if I move. Why? Because I was honest when the truth came out, honest in my desire to get help, and motivated for treatment, and the prosecutor and judge saw that and gave me a chance to rebuild my life.

Not everyone gets that chance, and some who get that chance do not take it. They fail to keep up with their registration. They get convicted of another crime. They get kicked out of their treatment program (while I was in treatment, this happened four times to other group members, and once to a former group member). Probation officers have a certain amount of discretion in whether or not to violate an offender's probation status, same with parole officers. All of the probation officers I have had clearly wanted me to succeed.

Sex offender registration itself is humiliating, particularly if you are on it and you are public. I cannot speak to being public well, but I can certainly imagine: Community meetings being held whenever you have to move, only being able to have certain jobs (usually lower-paying), not being able to volunteer at many events... From my perspective, being public on a registry, and certain conditions by probation or parole, can easily make someone feel more and more removed from the community they are in. My initial conditions were far more restrictive: No alcohol, stay 300 ft from schools, daycare, and parks. Just those two are enough to make one feel fairly hopeless.

Living in a bigger city, where schools, daycare, and parks are everywhere meant that the requirement was virtually impossible. There are counties where the standard is there regardless of your offense: If it was a sex crime, tough luck, these are your restrictions, suck it up and deal with it. The registry is fairly fear-inducing, because if you are public, anyone can put your full name into a website- a very public website- and find out where you live, where you work, what you look like, and what your offense was.

I have had former group members who had to notify their employer- specifically, separate from hiring practices- what his offense was, what his requirements are, and hope that the employer will still take them. I do not have such a restriction, yet I was turned down at major retailers- Sears, Home Depot, Micro Center, Target, AMC, and countless other employers- simply because of my offense, despite having more than a decade of retail experience.

Registries and the restrictions that are imposed upon sex offenders are horrendous. No other class of criminal is treated in such a manner. And the worst part is that the public is told that sex offender registries improve safety. Very, very rarely will you have a sex crime that was committed by someone on a registry, and the registry was related to them being caught. It is similarly rare for someone on a registry to commit another sex crime: Usually, the crime is unrelated. That is what statistics say.

Other Restrictions

Other restrictions I have heard of are not being able to have any internet access. Do you realize what that means? It means you cannot search properly for jobs. You cannot have any kind of social media presence, like LinkedIn or Facebook (Facebook does not allow convicted offenders on their site at all, though who knows how enforceable that is, and while LinkedIn does, you typically have to have approval for it). Your ability to search for and find work that either pays well or advances your career is greatly diminished.

Even though statistics say that sex offenders offend less when they have strong ties to the community, even though professional treatment organizations like ATSA encourage offenders or at-risk people to have support and a stable life, many of the restrictions imposed on sex offenders do not allow them to have any of those things. Sex offenders are set up to fail, because even evoking the word 'sex offender' brings 80% of people to say things like 'they should die' or 'they should be locked up for life' or 'they should be castrated'.

Emotional Toll

On top of those restrictions, anyone who wants to go through treatment and live a normal life again must learn how to deal with the attitudes towards them. They must answer- or not answer- questions regarding their offense. They must deal with the sometimes silent, 'Why on earth would anyone do this? You're sick.' There is very little understanding, and most people, in my experience, are unable to properly process the real facts of any offender's situation. 

When I was in the mental ward, when I tried to kill myself after the truth came to light, I was concerned about the aftermath- going to jail, getting help, what kind of help my victim would get, if a normal life was possible. I was trying to find a reason to not think that suicide was the only way to prevent me from harming more children. And a nurse, a supervisor nurse, said to me, 'If I were you, I'd be more worried about what you put that kid through.' Like I was already not thinking about that? I had just tried to kill myself, and here a supposed mental health professional told me about the most unhelpful thing I could have heard at that point in my process.

Empathy

Alcohol abuse people understand, because there are chemical reactions going on in the brain and an addiction cycle at play. Drug abuse, people understand for the same reasons. Thieving people understand, because economic times and personal circumstances can make people desperate. But any kind of sexual struggle, and it feels impossible to find someone who understands, someone who can relate, or someone who will simply tell you, 'I don't understand because I haven't been there, but I want to help. Tell me what I can do.' Add to that the fact that you abused a child, and it becomes even harder to find people who understand and want to help you get better.

My Point

My point is not that you should pity me. My point is not that you should pity sex offenders. Pity and empathy are two completely different things. My point is that the average person does not comprehend what a typical sex offender (whatever that means) goes through, and how that is very unhelpful to keeping children protected. They do not understand the impact of the stigma, the restrictions, and the registry, and how that pushes people towards, not away from, committing another offense. And yet despite not understanding any of this, they get to play judge and jury and decide that all of these things somehow improve safety.

If primary prevention is to occur, then we must stop with the lies. We must stop with the pure reaction to the issue. We must be able to look at all of these factors, look at the facts, look at statistics, and listen to what the treatment experts are saying. We must stop putting the burden of stopping abuse on children. We must stop 'prevention programs' that are more like 'disaster preparedness exercises' to address abuse that is already happening. We must, if it is possible, look at this issue honestly and logically, and put ourselves in another's shoes. For all the empathy I have heard that sex offenders supposedly lack, I have yet to see empathy directed at what a sex offender must currently deal with. If I am to have empathy towards my actions and towards my victim and his family, then I think I deserve a little myself. Fortunately, there are some states willing to give it.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Warning Signs In Potential Abusers

A potential abuser is someone who either may be abusing a child, or may be at risk for abusing a child, but you do not yet know one way or the other. I got the inspiration for this post from Stop It Now, so, of course, I am borrowing some of their information and questions. As always, I come up with my own answers based on their ideas. This is a list of things to watch for in any adults who work with children, based on my own experience. This list is in no particular order, and any one of these things can mean nothing. 

The List

  1. Evidences cognitive distortions
    1.  A cognitive distortion is essentially a belief or thought process that does not add up. These are typically thoughts, but can be evidenced by something someone says or does. This feeds more into gut feeling: That someone says or does things that just seem off. One example might be someone who makes arguments that are worded unusually or have conclusions that are at odds with the overall argument. Things that they say or do just do not follow.
  2.  Ignoring Boundaries
    1. This may seem self-explanatory, but sometimes people are just unable to respect someone else’s wishes. They may violate social boundaries, like doing things that are socially unacceptable. They may violate emotional boundaries, like saying things to hurt other people and not seeming to care that they are causing emotional pain. They may violate physical boundaries, like touching, slapping, or poking when someone is telling them not to.
  3. Ignoring A Child’s Wishes
    1. Like the first behavior, but for children. The person may hug, tickle, kiss, roughhouse, hold, or touch a child when the child says they do not want to. Disrespecting a child’s wishes can be a way of testing the child’s boundaries to desensitize the child to other boundary-crossing behaviors or sexual behaviors.
  4. Refusing To Let Children Set Or Keep Boundaries
    1. Similar to ignoring a child’s wishes, but this can be done in a way that seems innocent (Joe, you will hurt my feelings if you don’t give me a hug and kiss) or in ways that are teasing, belittling, or bullying a child when the child tries to assert their boundaries.
  5. Using A Child For Emotional Support
    1. Children are not capable of handling adult concerns, and an adult who tries to sooth their frustrations or concerns by sharing them with a child may be having difficulty with something that is going on in their life. Normally, these concerns are issues that would ordinarily be shared with adults like personal, financial, confidential, or other kinds of activities and concerns that seem odd to share with a child.
  6. Using A Child For Physical Comfort
    1. This may be as seemingly innocent as requiring hugs from children to “get through a rough spot”, or snuggling with a child. It could also be something more upsetting, like having the child give massages, demanding kisses, or other odd behavior.
  7. Situational Obliviousness
    1. Sometimes, the person may say or do things that do not fit the situation (and not for comedy’s sake). They may say something that is insulting to others and not realize it, or ignores the social cues in a situation. A common thought might be, “They’re just not getting it.”
  8. Using Sexual Language Around Children
    1. This can take many forms, like telling a dirty joke when children are around, saying something that would be considered flirting if it were an adult being spoken to, or sharing a personal sexual issue with a child. This can also be pointing out sexual images to children.
  9. Secrets And Secretive Behavior
    1. This can also take many forms. Some examples might be sharing a game, sexual material, drugs, or alcohol with a child and asking them not to tell anyone about it. This can also be someone who texts, calls, emails, chats, or spends an excessive amount of one-on-one time with a child. Red flag words might be “Hush, that’s our little secret,” or “That’s our private time, no one needs to know about that.”
  10. Making Excuses For No Apparent Reason
    1. This usually comes with your reaction of, “Dude, you don’t have to justify yourself to me, I get it.” Or, something like, “Yeah, you did it, you know you did it, just apologize already.” Someone who justifies their behavior constantly, or defends choices that are clearly harmful to other people, or outright denies that something was harmful at all would fall under this category.
  11. Insisting On Alone Time With A Child
    1. Seeking time alone with a child may be natural, healthy thing within a family, but if someone inside or outside the family insists on being alone with a particular child, this can be cause for concern. Unusual amounts of time alone, unusual interest in a particular child, or that the time alone is uninterrupted or uninterruptible are also causes for concern. Another aspect of this is spending lots of time with children rather than adults.
  12. Drug Or Alcohol Abuse
    1. Many people do inappropriate things under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and while they are responsible for their behavior regardless, drug or alcohol use can be a sign that someone is unable to cope with the stresses of daily life. This is a warning behavior that may need an intervention at the direction of a professional trained in chemical dependency.
  13. Being Interested In A Child’s Sexuality
    1. This goes beyond simple concern that one might have for a child’s well-being, like inquiring about who a child likes or directing them to resources if they are struggling with particular issues. Concerning behaviors might be someone who interrupts a child’s dates with the child’s peer, interfering when the child dates others, or talking about the child’s body and how attractive they look. Behavior would look like jealousy from an adult interested in another adult, but is directed towards a child.
  14. Disrespecting Others’ Privacy
    1. This could be obvious, such as walking in on children or others when they are using the bathroom, but may be less obvious like peeking when no one appears to be watching or insisting on helping a child bathe or clothe themselves.
  15. Frequently Ignoring A Child’s Inappropriate Behaviors
    1. The person might turn a blind eye to a child’s behaviors when those behaviors are clearly problematic, or they might even encourage these behaviors. Allowing a child to violate other children’s boundaries, encouraging a child to be sexual with other children, or allowing a child to view pornography are also examples of ignoring inappropriate behaviors.
  16. Appearing To Be An Ideal Role Model
    1. Some behaviors might be giving gifts to children, babysitting for free, giving children money, going on special alone trips with children, and overall appearing to be “too good to be true”.
Debrief

Notice how most of these connect in some way to your gut reactions. Most of the time, we see something that is off and justify it. In fact, when we are driving, we are taught to do this: Oh, they must be late for work. But if you are noticing things that do not seem right, write them down. Make a list. 

You are not writing this list and looking at these warning signs so you can catch a child molester red-handed. That is the job of the police, teachers, and social workers. You are looking at this list because you are concerned, and you want to make sure everything is alright. Multiple times, the family of my victim noticed that I seemed sad and lonely. I ignored them, just as I was ignoring my feelings. But they were concerned about me, and they noticed that something was off.

There were multiple people in my home church in college who were concerned I might be attracted to children. But no one said anything to me. The one person in my church who actually knew that I was did nothing to keep me supervised, and did not talk with me about resources or ways she could help. The main point is that multiple people in my life noticed that something seemed wrong, but no one said anything to me about it. 

Maybe they did not know how. How can you talk with someone you know and trust about the possibility that they are sexually attracted to children? Where do you start? Stop It Now has advice on that too. I also have my own suggestions for starting a conversation, and why. Stop It Now also has a hotline you can call (1-888-773-8368, M-F, 9-6 EST). 

How To Talk About It

When I first entered treatment, I was extremely defensive and vulnerable. There were things I could not hear or begin to comprehend, because I simply was not there yet. There were things I could not accept, like the idea that I would be attracted to children the rest of my life. Disbelief was huge. So starting a conversation with someone you think may be dealing with attractions to children must be eased into. You cannot begin it as a confrontation. Think of it as an intervention of sorts: You need to create a safe space for them to share what is going on.

You must start the conversation by voicing what you are seeing, and that you are concerned about them. Above anything else, they need to know that you care and you want the best for them. They need to hear that they are not alone, and that you want to help them. Minimize any aspect about child safety and emphasize that the conversation is about protecting them, period, end of sentence. Not protecting them from abuse. Not protecting them from themselves. Not protecting their favorite child. All of that may be true, but what they need is that you are there for them. If they hear that you are concerned about them hurting a child, it will end the conversation and they will not talk to you. It will immediately make you an unsafe person to talk to.

If they are dealing with attractions to children, they may, as I did, tell themselves that no one can understand them and no one will care if they knew the truth. They need that belief challenged, and you can do that by telling them, repeatedly if necessary, that you care about them. 

Example

If I were to write to someone I think might be dealing with attractions to children, I would write the following:


I need to talk with you. I have seen some things that I am not sure I understand, and I want to ask you about. I care about you, and I want you to know that will not change no matter what. It feels like something might be bothering you, and I want you to know I am here to help you with whatever that might be, if anything. It does not matter what the subject is, I promise to listen and hear you out.

What Is Primary Prevention?

Definition

Primary prevention is a term used by the ATSA (Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers) to describe prevention that results in a person at-risk for sexually abusing a child getting help before the act can occur. Okay, I answered the question, end of blog post, right? Not quite.

Distinction

Primary prevention, at its core, is different from any other prevention method currently in use. The most popular method of child abuse prevention is currently Erin's Law (website and brief biography). This prevention method involves educating children about good/bad touch, the difference between a secret and a surprise, and who to tell if someone is abusing them. In other words, the law requires teachers and educators to be aware of the above-mentioned education and teach it in an age-appropriate way to children. It also requires that parents and guardians be given information about warning signs for abuse, and resource information for victims and their families

The difference is that the expectation that children- yes, children- put this education to use, and tell a trusted adult who can intervene and report if abuse happens. It places the burden of telling on and stopping the abuse onto the child, and identifying the abuse on an adult's end once the abuse has already occurred. This method relies on being able to spot the abuse after it happens.

What Parents Are Told

Most recommendations for parents include this same information: Talk with your child, learn the warning signs, tell children the differences between what is appropriate and not appropriate, know who to trust, etc. Only recently has it become common for parenting sites and advice columns to teach the warning signs of a potential abuser. The biggest recommendation for parents, of course, is to know where registered offenders are in their area. In some cases, teachers and parents are taught that sex offenders are the people who abuse children. Not only do known/registered sex offenders make up a very low percentage of sex abuse crime, only 10% of abuse victims actually report it. Part of current prevention focuses on ensuring that children will report abuse when it happens.

Why Current Prevention Fails

All of the prevention methods discussed above are great for building a child up. It is excellent to teach a child boundaries, as Erin's Law does, because it means they will be more mentally healthy and able to stand up for themselves. I am far from convinced that this actually leads to children being able to fight off a would-be abuser. In the words of Stop It Now, "Children cannot be responsible to determine what is abusive or inappropriate." These prevention methods fail at what they are designed to do: Prevent harm from coming to children. What they do accomplish is stopping that harm where it does occur. While there is certainly value in stopping existing abuse, calling it prevention is neither accurate or wise.

Challenges to Primary Prevention

Primary prevention is a great idea: Child abuse, frankly, sucks. Children should have the right to live abuse-free lives. However, practically making primary prevention happen is extremely difficult for several reasons. The current attitudes towards sexual offenders have also been directed at and felt by true pedophiles- those with attractions to children, not just those who have harmed a child. Most sex offenders who are caught are being caught for the first time. The majority are not repeat offenders, yet parents are still being told and the government is still perpetuating the idea that sex offenders, because they are sex offenders, are dangerous to children. Even the 19-year-old sex offender who had consensual sex with a 14-year-old, someone viewing sex abuse images, or the guy that was caught urinating behind a bush.

The severe attitudes towards sexual offenders have been well-documented. Many justices have struck down residency requirements of sex offenders, and many states and cities are having discussions about how helpful it is to require all offenders in their area to be a certain distance away from schools, parks, and child care facilities. Many believe that by punishing sexual offenders, a deterrent for sexual offenses is created. However, this relies on victims in order to work. The idea behind prevention is to reduce victims.

These attitudes make it extremely difficult for anyone to seek out help, even if they want it and are concerned by their thoughts. The risk of being exposed is extremely high, and the fear of facing the attitudes towards sex offenders makes it very unlikely that someone with attractions to children or concerns about their sexual thoughts will get help.

There are also many myths regarding sex offenders that prevent otherwise rational people to concluding that help is possible for people with deviant sexual thoughts or attractions. One example the idea that all sex offenders are psychopaths with no empathy (I believe reading my blog you will find that I have empathy), or the idea that offenders cannot take responsibility, or that sex offenders cannot be cured (horrible way to put it). Then there are the stereotypes, like stranger danger, white vans, mustaches, and homeless people.

While Wikipedia has accurate information on the subjects, the myths and attitudes still persist. I believe that as long as these myths and attitudes exist, child abuse will remain a serious issue and continue to happen. In order for primary prevention to happen, people must come forward- on their own- for help, and in order for that to happen, education must be available in the right circles.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

About Grooming

Difficult Topic

Grooming is a vast and challenging subject to cover because there are not always readily noticeable behavioral differences between someone who is grooming a child and someone who is simply building a mentoring relationship with a child, as a church worker might do. Some people might look at a list of grooming behaviors and respond, “What’s the difference between that and a normal relationship? Sure, the secrecy might be concerning, but everything else? Come on, be serious.”

To me, the main difference is gut reaction, secrecy, and how many behaviors are being noticed. Like my list of warning behaviors, the presence of a single behavior should not be cause for concern, but the presence of many behaviors that seem odd or out of place. 

Regardless, it is important for you to write down what you see. We are often socially conditioned to give people the benefit of the doubt, so we might see something that does mean something and dismiss it because we rationalize what we are seeing. One great example is driver behavior: We see someone driving fast, and we just assume they are running late, when they may be driving fast for a wide variety of reasons, and we do not call the police because that step seems far too drastic.

Personal Impact

Grooming is an extremely difficult topic for me to cover for a number of reasons. I never intentionally groomed my victim, yet that is exactly what it looks like from the outside. I never intentionally manipulated my victim, except to get him tell someone what was going on, yet what I did was exactly that: Manipulation. I know it may be hard to believe that I did those things without intending to or realizing I was doing it, but that is the truth. 

In the moment, it was not about me being sexual with my victim, it was about me helping him. I was not even being honest with myself about my own thoughts, and lied to myself inside my own head. I manipulated my own thoughts without even intending to. That, I think, more than anything enabled me to groom and manipulate my victim without any awareness I was doing it.

My method of manipulation was to tell him that I was helping him have good hygiene. That is what I thought I was doing. I wanted him to be happy, and free from the problems I had when I was a child with wetting the bed, getting rashes and zits, etc. So in my mind and to him, I was helping him know how to take care of himself. 

All of that was just a facade that I told myself and him to avoid the truth of the matter: I was emotionally overwhelmed by many, many things and was using him to try to feel better about myself. Internally what was motivating my abuse of my victim was not anything I was consciously aware of.

Why do I bring that up? I must point out and illustrate that knowing the difference between grooming for child sexual abuse, and genuinely trying to be helpful to a child can look very, very similar. Observing signs of grooming are just one way that you could determine that someone may be a potential abuser.

No List?

I have been asked by a few people if I will put a list of warning signs, or ways that abusers can groom their victims, so that parents and caregivers can have a list of things to watch out for. I am still adamant about not sharing such a list, because such a list could easily be misused by people to abuse children. It would also be entirely too triggering for me to write or find such a list, and too much information for most people to handle. 

The information can be misused far too easily, either by the minority of sexual predators that we must be concerned about, or the people that see a potential abuser around every corner, in every shadow. If you are still determined to find a list of grooming behaviors, I am sure you can Google that and find information.

What I will say about grooming and manipulation is that offenders and those with the high potential to offend have lived in two worlds: One, everyone thinks that the potential abusers are wonderful people, and two, they know the potential abuser’s thoughts and have their own opinions about the potential abuser’s struggles. A potential abuser or abuser is adept at lying to others about their issues, and concealing the truth so that they are not found out and burned by the information. 

They feel that they are alone in their struggle, and must just plow ahead anyways without help. They are adept at lying to themselves and thinking that no one can understand their issue, even if they know what that issue is. They need a caring person to intervene, and show them a healthier way of doing things. They need access to mental health.

The Need For Mental Health

It took me just over two years of hard work to be able to see all the ways I was lying to myself and others, and how harmful keeping secrets is for me. It took me five years before that to get to the point of abusing a child, which means there is time to intervene. An abuser and potential abuser do not have insights into their own behavior. They will likely be grooming and manipulating without ever realizing they did so. That is where you can come in: Giving perspective on their behavior.

The ones that do realize it, like Sandusky and Seville, are the people you should truly be afraid of because manipulating and grooming on a conscious level means there is no conscience. They are the sexual predators, but we must remember that these people represent a small minority of “sex offenders”, and that most abusers are people like me: Completely unaware of how harmful their behavior is, where their behavior is headed, and what is motivating the behavior. In other words, people in need of mental health help and a caring support system.

The best advice I can give about grooming and manipulation is that you instinctively know when someone is not being forthright. You feel it in your gut that something is off, whether you can identify what or not. Use that feeling, and if it happens concerning children, write it down and make a list. Then consult the warning signs, and how to talk to a potential abuser. If necessary, report your suspicions to the police or a child protective agency. If you are still unsure, contact Stop It Now and ask for help and guidance, or visit your nearest child advocacy center.