Monday, July 31, 2017

Researchers, Labels, And Logic

Emotional Subjects Can Mean We Avoid Logic

But you knew that already, right? As people have pointed out many, many times, the topic of child sexual abuse is one that is very emotional for many people. All I have to do is say "child rapist" and you see red. Yes, that includes myself. I was sexually abused as a child.

I developed a sexual attraction to children when I hit puberty. Both of those things were beyond my control, and I get angry at those that sexually abuse children. I get even angrier when I see that the United States government, and governments around the world, are not doing enough to protect children from sexual abuse before it happens in the first place.

I could be your stereotypical victim that seeks harsh punishment for all sexual abusers. I could sue the people who abused me. I could do any number of things that would be driven more by emotion than their actual effect on reducing sexual abuse. However, I have chosen to take a hard look, not only at the science and research around this issue, but at the logic we use on this issue. In many cases, that logic fails because it is based in emotion. In most cases, the policies we have formed, with the best of intentions, are completely inadequate to protect children and focus on the wrong population.

Emotion is a wonderful and terrible thing. It can drive perfectly sane reactions, like drying the tears of a hurt child, or a quest for justice in a hit-and-run accident. However, it can also cause harm, like the jealousy-driven murder of an ex-lover who was cheating, or snubbing an employer and hurting one's prospects of future employment. Emotion can be both incredibly helpful, and amazingly destructive.

Researchers Need To Take Notice: Science Comes First

Many researchers do not focus exclusively on the science. Some researchers, in their quest for more funding, instead focus on topics that the public will accept. In turn, the news media drives this by publishing studies that are more widely received by the public (currently, health-related topics and unusual or cute animals seem to be the two major areas) and avoiding studies that may cause disagreement or unrest.

A prime example of this is the news four years ago that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Health Disorders, Fifth Edition, would be referring to pedophilia as a sexual orientation. There has been much debate among scientists about exactly how pedophilia should be defined and labeled, and when that debate hit the public eye, the backlash was (and still is) intense. In fact, this backlash forced the American Psychiatric Association (which publishes the DSM-V) to give a press release saying they will no longer consider pedophilia to be a sexual orientation, and that classifying it as such was a mistake. It appears they never actually made that change.

There is a need, now more than ever before, for the science to ignore political, emotional, and public leanings and simply state what the facts are. All too often, on the topic of pedophilia and beyond, scientists are letting the fear of public response dictate not only what they work on, but what they conclude in their findings. This seems particularly true for social sciences like psychology, sociology, and criminology. The facts simply do not matter anymore, what the public reaction to what the facts seem to say is more important for some researchers.

What You Label Things Does Not Matter As Much As What They Mean

What you call a sexual attraction to children really does not matter: The fact remains that some people, mainly men, have a sexual interest in children that they did not choose and cannot change. I believe it is easier to call this pedophilia, because that is how the term is understood medically. Whether that attraction is classified as a paraphilia, a mental disorder, or a sexual orientation likewise does not matter: The fact is, those with this attraction (like myself) never chose to have it any more than someone with depression chooses to be depressed. Their depression, like an attraction to children, does not make them inferior.

In some cases, that attraction has no deleterious effect on mental health because it does not cause distress, it does not cause anxiety, and it does not lead to harmful behavior. We need to find a label for when it does have that deleterious effect, and the DSM-V has one: Pedophilic disorder. We need to find a label for when it does not, and one already exists: Pedophilia. We have and readily use labels for when someone, whether they have this attraction or not, becomes sexual with a child: Sexual abuse, child rape, etc. The observation or effect you are trying to describe is always more important to communicate than the label with which you use to describe it. However, the use of an improper label can miscommunicate what you are trying to describe.

While the label is less important as what it describes, it can still lead to an inability to comprehend what is being described.

Where Logic Comes In

To be fair, logic has already come into play. I think by now you realize the point I am making here: The label we use, while important and can lead to miscommunication, is not as important as fleshing out the implications of what we are saying with logic. Labels help this "fleshing out" process be shorter and easier to read, but when there are disputes about these labels, it can complicate this process tremendously.

There is the rub: Researchers have differing opinions on what terminology to use around a sexual attraction to children. Do they call it a mental illness, a disorder, a paraphilia? Do they differentiate between offending and non-offending persons with this attraction, and if so how? Should they consider the attraction a sexual orientation, and if so, how will the public understand that? Should the difficulties that arise from having the attraction include sexual behavior with children, and should such behavior be indicative of a mental illness? If you look at what Psychology Today has to say about these issues, you get a different answer than if you looked at WebMD's answer that quotes a sexologist, and both of those are still different from other sexologists on the matter.

These are very straightforward questions that can be answered quite readily by logic. No one would presume that all heterosexual men are liable to rape women, unless they want to sound ridiculous. No one would presume that the presence of rape fantasies is indicative of a mental illness, nor would anyone presume that just being a heterosexual man constitutes a mental illness. Being troubled by being heterosexual, and fearing one's behavior towards women may be cause for a mental health diagnosis, but absent such fears and feelings being heterosexual seems to be a perfectly natural occurrence.

The same simple logic applies to a sexual attraction to children. If someone can refrain from acting on this attraction and is not troubled by it, there is no cause for considering them to be mentally ill. If someone with a sexual attraction has not abused a child, they should not be suspected of such merely for having the attraction. One should not need the consensus of the scientific community in order to come to these conclusions, yet the feedback from differing researchers and organizations has not been in agreement.

In Short...

As people with sexual attractions to children, no matter what you choose to call us, the scientific community needs to apply its famed approach to our attractions. The scientific community must research not just those with attractions to children that have acted upon these attractions, but those who have not. They must look at the labels and determine which is most appropriate for each classification, and they must come to a consensus regarding whether or not someone is mentally ill for having a sexual attraction that does not lead to harmful behavior or mental health issues, or if those mental health issues are separate from the attraction itself.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Major Wins On Three Fronts

Not Often...

It is not often that I get to report good news in the fight to prevent child sexual abuse... before it can happen. However, there is great news out of Alabama, Pennsylvania, and California that are well-worth celebrating, in addition to the recent win in North Carolina at the Supreme Court of the United States.


A case in Alabama is currently before the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals, and the argument is that Alabama has violated the ex posto facto clause of the United States Constitution. In other words, Alabama has violated the United States Constitution by enacting retroactive punishment for a crime committed over 30 years ago. This case is significant and related to a win in Pennsylvania, which is why this case is already being considered a win.


A case recently decided by the PA Supreme Court involved a man forced to register for a crime committed in 2007 before the registration requirement applicable to his situation was enacted in 2012. The PA Supreme Court decided that the case violated the same ex posto facto clause and retroactively applied punishment - yes, punishment - for a crime. This is essential, because until now, the sex offender registry has been considered preventative, not punitive according to most state and federal legislation. The ruling in PA makes it likely that the case being considered by the 11th Circuit will be ruled similarly, and gives opportunity for the PA ruling to be cited in the decision. While this has yet to play out, it is also important because of a win in California.


In California, lawmakers are being spurred to adopt major reforms to the sex offender registry, essentially treating offenders with lower risk differently than those that are high risk: The lower-risk offenders could eventually be let off the sex offender registry, and the focus for law enforcement and monitoring would be on high-risk offenders instead. These are reforms that are already in place in most other states, but California still has a one-size-fits-all system where every sex offender is required to register for life.

Interestingly, it is criminal justice leaders, such as district attorneys, the ACLU of California, the California Police Chiefs Association, and several others. The bill is currently moving swiftly through the legislature.

Why Is The Registry Bad?

In case you have not heard me say this before, sex offender registration is bad because it focuses on the wrong threat: Sex offenders. Sex offenders are known to commit less than 10% of new sexual crimes in most states, and even less in major states. In New York, that rate is 5%, and in California, that rate is .6%. This focus on sex offenders means that people are focused on those who do not often commit new sexual crimes as if they do, which means the real culprits of sexual crimes, those trusted in the community with no criminal record, fly under the radar.

Research shows that perpetrators of sexual crimes have trauma in childhood, have no criminal record, are predominantly male (though recent research is calling this into question), and are largely trusted by their victim(s). This shows that programs that reach at-risk youth with trauma in their backgrounds can make a substantial difference in reducing sexual crimes before they happen, and shows that our focus must be on preventing the initial perpetration of sexual crimes rather than reacting where they happen.

Is This Foreshadowing?

With these major wins, in addition to the recent social media win at the United States Supreme Court, the it may be that the tide is turning against emotionally-driven policies that feel good but are ineffective in preventing sex crimes. It may be, as the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times puts it, that we are seeing clearer thinking about sex offenders. If so, then maybe we are seeing the beginning of the end of after-the-fact punishment schemes that distract from preventing sexual crimes... before they can happen.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Stand Up For Net Neutrality

You cannot go far today without hearing about it: Several large US companies would like to end the neutrality we currently enjoy, which allows most internet sites you visit to load just as fast as any other, among other things. If you enjoy being able to use the internet, please consider adding your voice to the chorus telling US leaders to keep net neutrality rules.

To learn more about net neutrality and why it matters, see here. Also, consider signing a petition, in addition to contacting the FCC.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Why The Statistic Matters: Part Three, Sex Offenders

This is part of a miniseries about why the statistics on this site, and the upcoming website, should matter to you, not only in your everyday life, but in preventing child sexual abuse... before it can happen.

Statistic 1: Most Who Commit Sex Crimes Are Not Sex Offender Registrants

You have heard me cite this time and again: 95% of new sex crimes are committed by those new to the criminal justice system, stemming from a study on 21 years of arrest data in New York. Another 2015 study out of California is also significant, finding that just .6% of the 56.1% three-year return-to-prison rate were new sex crime convictions. Unless other criminals are committing sex crimes (which is not supported by the rest of the report, or general trends among sex crimes in general), it is safe to conclude that, nationwide, upwards of 95% of sex crime is committed by those with no criminal background.

Why does that matter?

Well, if the bulk of our policies on "preventing" sexual crimes are aimed at sex offenders, who are not responsible for a very high percentage of sex crimes... and we spend lots of money on these policies... then our policies are simply ineffective, and costing lots of money we could spend on more effective methods. This does not just refer to sex offender registration: Notifications of sex offenders, residency restrictions, civil commitment, and of course, juvenile registration and notification. If it targets sex offenders, the policy does very little to protect communities because it is not registered sex offenders who commit sex crimes.

Statistic 2: Juveniles Commit Sex Crimes Too... 

Specifically, juveniles commit 35.6% of sexual offenses against minors. Researchers such as Elizabeth Letourneau and Jill Levenson have said that half of sex offenders were juveniles during the commission of their sex crime. Regardless of the specific figure, it is safe to say that a statistically significant portion of sexual crimes are committed by juveniles, not adults.

This matters almost as much as the first statistic, because it means that the bulk of our policies are aimed at people who committed their crimes as juveniles. While these crimes absolutely were harmful to the victims, one must wonder if punishing juvenile perpetrators for life is aiding prevention, particularly if most of them never commit another sexual crime (97%, to be precise).

Statistic 3: General Recidivism Is High, But Lower Than Other Criminals On Average

Recidivism is a much-discussed statistic, and before I touch on why a somewhat high recidivism rate for general crime (both sexual and non-sexual crimes) is high, we must first understand recidivism rates. Some studies look at rearrests, which are considered the most liberal picture of recidivism. Some studies look at returning to prison, which are considered the most conservative picture of recidivism. Still others look at reconvictions, which are a middle ground between the two. As with any crime, any recidivism statistic paints an incomplete picture of new crimes committed by offenders.

If you recall the 56.1% return-to-prison statistic from the study mentioned in the first section, it should be noted that most studies find, on average, a general recidivism rate around 30-40% for sex offenders. This means that California has a rate that is much higher than what would be considered "the norm" for sex offenders. While the very term "sex offender" encompasses a wide variety of crimes and offenders, this also means that specific types of offenders that commit specific crimes have varying rates of recidivism specific to that type or crime.

This matters, because it means there is room for much improvement in rehabilitating and successfully reintegrating sex offenders back into our communities. It means there are barriers for successful reintegration, and a need to change how we treat criminals in general. While recidivism statistics can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways depending on the study, offender, and offense, it is safe to say that in most cases, sex offenders do not reoffend, whether that is with a sexual crime or any other crime.

Statistic 4: Population Of Sex Offenders, Victims

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (whose figures are somewhat disputed among some advocates and state leaders), there are 861,837 registered sex offenders living in the United States. That is 264 sex offenders per 100,000 people. If you have followed the rest of the statistics to this point, then you can probably guess what I am about to say: Focusing our policies on nearly 1 million Americans to protect children, when most of those .862 million people are not responsible for further sex crimes means that we are creating much more damage than we are solving. How do I figure that? The math is simple.

Restated from part two, child sexual abuse, according to this source, there are 73.8 million children in the United States, and the known victim-reported prevalence is pegged at 8% for boys and 19% for girls, which translates to roughly 3,011,040 boys and 6,870,780 girls, or 9,881,820 children. The estimates that attempt to account for underreporting translate to 6,273,000 boys and 9,040,500 girls, or 15,313,500 children. In other words, our best data and estimates indicate that 13.39-20.75% of children are sexually abused (which is a big deal).

Running the estimates, 494,091-765,675 children are sexually abused by registered sex offenders, or repeat sex offenders, in other words. If somewhere between .6% and 5% of these 861,837 sex offenders are repeat offenders, that means that there are between 5,171 and 43,092 sex offenders that are repeat offenders.

This means that there are between 818,745 and 856,666 sex offenders who are being needlessly registered, and if we assume that each of them have 5 family members and 10 friends, that is 12,281,175-12,849,990 people that are affected by the sex offender registry without sufficient basis. Compared to the 494,091-765,675 children that are victimized by repeat sex offenders, that is a very disproportionate number, and while sexual abuse is not trivial, this means that we punish and indirectly affect about 12-14 times the number of people we need to. When you remember that somewhere between 35-50% of these people are juveniles at the time of the offense, you get an appalling number of children that are being harmed by the very laws that were formed to protect them.

Closing Thoughts

I have re-written the overview of sex offenders for the website three times now, and each time, I wonder if I am covering all of the bases or giving an overly simplistic view of sex offenders. Even writing this one post has taken me two weeks for similar reasons.

"Sex offender" is a term that encompasses a wide variety of crimes beyond rape and crimes against children, though together, these crimes make up the majority. However, the mere commission of these crimes, as discussed in the first and third statistics, does not mean the person committing them is an ongoing danger to children. Even the commission of a "child sex crime" would not appear to indicate such a danger because most such crimes are committed by first-time offenders. Covering each segment of restrictions against sex offenders is likewise complex.

Thus, any attempt to tackle the issue of sex offenders from any angle, research-based or journalist-based, will lead any reader to misleading conclusions about sex offenders.