The latest issue of Psychology Today features an article entitled “Sympathy for the deviant”, fronted by a teaser, “Do we misunderstand sex offenders?” It’s a leading question, suggesting, as such questions tend to, that misunderstanding constitutes prejudice. The thesis of writer Jennifer Bleyer is that sexual abuse stigma may prevent people from getting help before they commit harm. She follows accounts of men who slide from attraction to early adolescents, to grooming behaviors, skinny dipping, sleeping nude with underage partners, from embracing to sexual intercourse. The passage from intrigue to abuse is insidious, laden with denial, compulsion and horror. Partners share their trauma as they watch their husbands being hauled away to jail. The husbands, like the wives, are shaken, apologizing desperately, seeking forgiveness before anything’s been understood.
How can it be understood? the article asks. Given the legacy of silence and collusion, it won’t be easy, writes Bleyer. She points out that discussion of sexual abuse emerged from the cultural shadows in the 1980s, when a confessional culture lead survivors to speak out. “For the first time, its prevalence and its adverse effects became apparent. The pendulum of public concern swung hard in the direction of indignation, as sexual abuse went from being largely ignored to intensely condemned.” In psychoanalysis this is called reaction formation. In short: guilt. The guilt feelings are appropriate, but as many within our profession argue, guilt also gets in the way, by stirring its derivative, rage. It gets in the way by disregarding some facts: that recidivism rates for sex offenders, for example, are lower than for other major types of crime and much lower than is commonly believed. Take radio show host Bill Carroll, for instance. In July, he and politician Melissa Melendez clucked righteously that sex offenders can’t really be treated. “You can’t change a pedophile’, he said. The next day I went on his show and told him what’s what. In September, a board member for the California association of marriage and family therapists (CAMFT) opined that sex offender treatment was ineffective, offering in a public forum that over half of offenders continue to offend despite treatment. After the forum, I stepped up and with a polite smile told her she was wrong also.
No surprise that this side of the information divide makes it to public ears, coloring opinion. Given the hysteria that such opinions generate, few learn the truth as Jennifer Bleyer reports: that only 40% of convicted sex offenders meet criteria for pedophilia, or that pedophilia refers to an attraction, not necessarily a behavior or set of behaviors. It chills the skin of progressives to consider that pedophilia is likely an orientation, and likely because they don’t wish that sympathetic term co-opted by an unpopular segment of society. They may be assuaged to learn that pedophiles have been shown to be shorter on average and more likely to be left handed, as well as having lower IQs. One study has shown they are more likely to have suffered childhood head injuries. My own clinical experience (not based upon a large sample, I should note) bears out the impression that pedophiles are prone to childlike personas, presenting as sexually diffident, living on the margins.
In Germany, a prevention project begun in 2005 aims to prevent abuse by offering anonymous treatment to people who are sexually attracted to minors. In on TV ad, a masked man recites a script of self-loathing, followed by a pronouncement of what he had learned in therapy. In the ad’s climactic moment, the man removes his mask, exposing his shame, but also expressing his hope. “I don’t want to be an offender,” he says. According the Bleyer, over 5000 people have come forward seeking treatment as a result of the ad campaign, leading to the establishment of 11 clinics across Germany, with a specific sexual abuse prevention at the core of program mission statements. CBT and testosterone-reducing pharmaceuticals are the preferred interventions, not so much psychoanalysis. Oh well, progress not perfection, I say. With this article in hand, I approached my colleague at work, a man exhorting me to renew my credential for treating sex offenders with the state. We should be bypassing the state, I said. Long term, we should be trying a version of what they’re trying in Germany: reaching out, through our website, through social media, through CAMFT board meetings, meetings with the California Coalition on Sex Offending (CCOSO). We should be aiming at those individuals who are out there, seeking help, looking for therapists, programs, who will speak to their particular problem.
So far, no one in this neck of the woods is doing this. No one’s aiming a marketing strategy at sex offenders, or sex addicts who might transform into offenders. No one’s funding a public service announcement on a bus or billboard, outreaching with a message like the one suggested in Bleyer’s article: “If you’re concerned about your attraction to children, call this number.” My colleague claims–rightly, I think–that new reporting laws such as AB 1775 will make preventions efforts such as what’s happening in Germany virtually impossible. Maybe that’s true. Maybe someone with a problem can’t really talk to me. If they tell me they look at underage porn, I’d have to report that to authorities, who may choose to let therapy do its thing, or they may not. They may choose to break down my client’s door, confiscate electronica, make an arrest that will trigger a catastrophe in that person’s life. I guess they’d call that prevention too. But they couldn’t call it understanding.