July 14th, 2015: an article in the Los Angeles Times entitled…wait, I’ve forgotten what it was called. Oh yeah—“Child Porn law hinders treatment, therapists say” An okay title, I thought–a bit limited, maybe. Stephen Ceasar, the journalist who authored the piece, hadn’t told me when we’d spoken two weeks earlier what it would be called. He didn’t tell me what the slant of his article was, and he certainly hadn’t told me that my quotes would be the first ones referenced in the story. There are so many facets to this issue it’s hard to remember them all. But that’s how it goes with interviews, I guess. Can’t remember everything. On the whole, however, this opportunity was well taken, so as I read the whole article, including the familiar arguments from the other side of the AB1775 divide, I could see why my point of view had been placed up front. So far, I’m the only one passing along an actual story to illustrate the issue.
The AB1775 controversy has been kicking around for about a year. A year ago is when The California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT) announced its support of the bill; alerting members to the first major changes to The Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA) laws in a generation like it was announcing a summer social gathering. Since then, therapists have been gradually waking up to a law that, contrary to the statements of Cathy Atkins, CAMFT lead counsel (the principals who sanctioned the bill are all lawyers), does a lot more than “clarify” the existing requirements of mandated reporters of child abuse. As written before in these pages, bill AB1775 inserts the following words into a subsection of California penal code, defining sexual exploitation of minors: “downloading, streaming, accessing, through any electronic or digital media”. The older language referred to photographic stills, slides, videos, among other things, and was of course anachronistic, but the definition of exploitation was confined to production and distribution, not mere “accessing”. Now the viewing of obscene material through anything electronic is conflated into a definition of exploitation, thus opening up several rabbit holes: notably relating to the prevalence of so-called “sexting” among teens, as well as the murkier issue of what constitutes exploitation in our society.
Not that the LA Times fully explored all of these angles–again, can’t remember everything. For example, the remarks attributed to LA district attorney Jackie Lacey (one of the defendants in a suit seeking injunction of AB1775), suggest that a child is abused and exploited each time an obscene image is viewed. Really? So, it’s not just the production and distribution of obscene material (BTW: also defined in the penal code) that constitutes exploitation, it’s also the consumption of the product. Interesting. What implications, you might wonder, does this have for an economy enamored of electronic and textile imports, many of which are manufactured and/or assembled in developing economies, by individuals, including children, who are subject to unfair, even inhumane labor practices; and living in extreme poverty as a result?
None, some will say, nonplussed by analogy, but still edging protectively towards their I-phones. I have one or two terms to describe these people: hypocrite is one. Selectively moralistic, is another. The conservative bias that ignores economic exploitation while frothing at the mouth at anything relating to sex fills me with contempt. It’s okay for kids to starve or not have access to healthcare or clean water, so long as they’re not having sex. That’s their blinkered, simpleton, corrupt point of view. “Well, that’s happening over there”, stammered one dissenter I spoke to, before adding, “it’s not our responsibility what’s happening overseas”. In other words, it’s okay to buy cheap products made overseas, produced on the back of indentured servitude. It’s not our problem, even though we benefit from the labor. “Okay,” I said, pulling back. Like a focused motivational interviewer, I choose to meet them where they’re at. “So, if an image of child porn comes from, say, Thailand or Russia, does that mean it doesn’t matter because it’s happening overseas?”
At such points in these debates, mental short circuits start happening. The subject, once simple and clear, has become muddied, complicated, and is implicating all. My dissenting listeners start to tremble and shake, feeling the defenses crumble. It’s too much, I think. They won’t remember everything, so I amend the focus, keep things closer to home, which is all that some people really care about, actually. “How about this: it’s estimated that a third of all current teens have consentingly ‘sexted’ at least once. Do you really want each of them reported to police, because that’s what this law calls for?” The person in question said she wanted both police and therapists involved in a discussion of “decency”: a worthwhile, if naïve answer. My rebuttal made things complicated once again–oh well: I indicated that a therapist who reports confidential material to police will almost certainly lose the trust of a teen patient. If the sexting teen is a girl she’ll likely receive a stern lecture from police, with feminist overtones about respecting herself and her body. A boy will receive a similar lecture, only with a tautological catch: he’ll be told to respect girls and their bodies also. Or, he may be referred to sex offender treatment through a provider who is certified by the California Sex Offender Management Board (CASOMB). I’ve been a CASOMB provider for a few years and I offer here that sex offender treatment is to psychotherapy what traffic school is to a college education. In this system, therapists operate under what’s called a “Containment Model”, wherein clients are subject to polygraph exam, and providers must report to probation or parole any ‘slips’ of behavior (as in recurrence of viewing of obscene material), which may then lead to probation or parole violation. This manner of therapy-with-a-stick is no one’s idea of sound or authentic care, but it will be the standard when anyone’s arrested via the new law.
I know. It’s too much. Some of you have stopped reading this, haven’t you?
My story, as I put it earlier, which fronted the LA Times article, concerned a man to whom I’d explained mandated reporting law as part of the informed consent process. His subsequently tentative suggestion of illegal porn use, followed by his withdrawal from therapy, was illustrative of the ‘hindering therapy’ problem, which the LA Times highlights. The other side might complain that the article was weighted in favor of those opposed to AB1775, but they’ve only themselves to blame. You’d think that if laws like AB1775 “help authorities prevent serious crimes from taking place”, then supporters would provide an anonymous example to support this claim, as I did with my counter. Believe me: journalist Stephen Ceasar was interested in a story, not just bombastic rhetoric. But supporters of the new law didn’t provide an example. They merely reiterated their empty pronouncements. Why? Because they don’t have examples, I think. They can no more illustrate that arresting porn users leads to arrest of porn producers than illustrate that arresting pot smokers leads to the arrest of drug lords.
So, why did AB1775 get written, or passed through the California legislature so easily? (78 yes votes to 0 no votes—and quickly rubber stamped by Governor Jerry Brown). Here’s why, in my opinion. A Southern California assembly woman, named Melissa Melendez, was looking to sponsor a bill that would simply score points with her conservative constituency. On her website she could (and she did) proclaim that she was “Cracking down on Child Porn”, knowing that voters would lap it up and not even require her to substantiate her claims. Her supporters are the type who will have co-signed similar impingements that comprised the Patriot Act in 2003; were they alive in 1942, they will have vociferously supported the internment of Japanese Americans, arguing that it could lead to the capture of saboteurs. It could work, they will have cried, like today’s AB1775 supporters. And they are the spiritual descendents of Wisconsin residents, who in 1946 were already sniffing for the next great evil of their time: holding up signs calling for the election of Joseph McCarthy to the United States Congress.
There. How’s that for remembering everything?