Sunday, June 11, 2017

"So... How Do We Do that?"

Say What?

Often, I get up in news discussions and say something to the effect of... "Most sex offenders do not reoffend, most sexual crimes are committed by first-time offenders, not registrants. Our money would be better spent on preventing these crimes before they can happen."

And someone says to me... "Right, that sounds great. But how do we do that?" So, I think it is high time to discuss some practical ways that people (yes, you) can prevent child sexual abuse, as well as systemic policies that can be put in place. In the midst of writing out the prevention section for the website, I think this deserves a blog post as well.

Remember That Symposium?

Remember that rather dry symposium I covered last month? Well, one of the presentations was by Jill Levenson, discussing among other things, the fact that most sex offenders have trauma in their backgrounds. So what, sex offenders had a rough childhood. Exactly. But here is the thing: If we know that most of them come from some sort of trauma in their childhood, we know early on who is at-risk to becoming a sex offender. If we can help take care of them and give them the message that they are loved, believed in, etc... then we can intervene before they hurt people. And it is not just sex offenders: Dr. Levenson's presentation had similar findings for crime in general, not just sex crime.

Interventions For At-Risk Youth

There does need to be formal interventions for children with traumatic childhoods, and without the label. Someone with a rough background does not need to hear that they are at-risk, I mean, really. But we do need programs to reach these children, and mentors as well. After-school programs, mentoring, and the YMCA have done a lot of good in these areas. Ministries aimed at youth have also done very well. So, there is a need for formal programs here.

But let me share a brief tale of when I was a camp counselor. My first week, I had a very diverse group of middle school kids, and one of the kids had me hearing things like "emotionally disturbed" and "anti-depression medication" and "lost his mom when he was eight." You get the idea, I am sure. Well, one day, some girls came up to me and told me that this kid was pushing them off the swing. So I go up to them all, and I tell them they need to get along or they will be in trouble. It was so effective that five minutes later, the camp director came up to me and told me that the kid would be sweeping the mess hall because he had kept doing it.

So, he and I are sitting there, waiting for the director to come and lecture him before he does his sweeping, and I ask if I could talk to him. He said no, he wanted to be left alone, so I respected that and kept silent. The director comes, and he sweeps, and we are walking back to all the other kids... and I asked him again if I could say something. I said to him, "I know you've had a rough life so far. I know you lost your mom, and I'm sorry about that. But please don't make the same mistake I did of taking it out on everyone else." I did not have any more problems with him the rest of camp.

This is just one story of many where I talked with youth going through a rough time. You do not need to be part of a program to make a difference. All you need to do is say a kind word, show that you care and understand, and tell them you believe in them. Kids need to hear that, even without trauma in their background.

Proper Sexual Education

One issue that needs resolving is that we teach children many, many things to help them succeed in the real world: Get a job, go to college, choose a career... but we do little to prepare children for sex and relationships. I was never taught consent growing up, the concept just was not taught. That is an issue, because children who are exploring with their sexuality can hurt younger children if they are missing the information they need to ensure they are safe and respecting others' boundaries.

We need comprehensive sexual education that goes beyond the physical and physical health aspects of sex: We need to teach consent, mental health, relationship health, respect, and everything in between. If we are going to prepare children for the real world, we must prepare them for how to handle sex and dating, and the potential legal consequences for not handling those areas well. We cannot just assume that they are moral enough to understand, because all the good intentions in the world can still cause harm without guidance.

Destigmatizing Mental Health

We need to talk about mental health and how we are feeling, and if we are parents, we need to demonstrate that to our children: Ask them how they are feeling, not just how they are doing. We need to talk about mental health, and we need to show children what self-care is. We need to stop stigmatizing mental health in our everyday speech: Calling something psychotic or retarded, referring to people as crazy, loony, or nutzoid... We need to stop using mental health as an excuse to bully people, and we need to stop pushing the issue under the rug or avoiding it altogether. For ideas in how you can start destigmatizing mental health in your sphere of influence, visit this website.

Using Proper Terminology

You had to know this was coming. Improper terminology can spread myths about sexual abuse that lead the public to erroneously believing that individuals or situations that pose zero risk to children... do pose a risk. Sometimes, we refer to child sexual abuse as "child sex offending" and those who perpetrate it as "sex offenders." I argue that both terms are incorrect: When someone has been caught, they are unlikely to commit a new sexual crime, particularly if a child is involved, so referring to it as an ongoing event (offending) is mistaken, as is referring to someone as being a constant perpetrator (offender), because those who perpetrate child sexual abuse are rarely adjudicated offenders: They are those with no criminal record, trusted in the community. We cannot define people by their behavior, attraction, mental illness, etc. It runs the high risk of putting our focus on the wrong population.

Referring to those who have abused as pedophiles is inaccurate, then, because you are using a label that refers to someone with a sexual attraction to children and implying that attraction is the cause for their abuse of a child. It minimizes child sexual abuse and pushes pedophiles further from help by conflating their attraction with acting on it, when the two are separate. Referring to child sexual abuse as pedophilia is even worse because it directly conflates feeling with action. Pedophilia needs to only be understood as a sexual attraction to children.

Defund The Sex Offender Punishment Scheme

As most who sexually abuse children are first-time offenders and sexual recidivism among sex offenders is extremely low, we need to stop spending so much money on policies that attempt to address an issue that does not exist. Instead, our efforts on sex offenders would be better spent on rehabilitating and furthering their reentry into the community: Extend help, not fear and suspicion. This would not only help curb what little sexual recidivism there is, but would curb the proportionately higher rate of general recidivism. Incarceration should be reserved for particularly heinous cases where there is no remorse and multiple prior sexual offenses: Incarcerate those who pose a risk to the public, and rehabilitate those who do not pose that risk.

In other words, no more registry. No more public notifications. No more hype and drama when sex offenders are released. Spend that money on research and prevention, not useless tactics that put children at increased risk.

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