Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Sexual Violations and Sexual Violence

“When sexual abuse occurs in the absence of violence,
and in the presence of trust, kids may be totally disarmed.” 
 Early in my career, as a child protection social worker, I was dispatched to a school, accompanied by a police officer.  A school nurse had reported a 12-year-old girl who disclosed sexual abuse.  The nurse asked “Amy” if she would tell us how her father would come into her room at night and hurt her.   Amy quietly shook her head, “No.”  It seemed Amy was recanting.  Then the nurse asked, “Amy, do you remember telling me how your dad would come into your bedroom at night and touch you under your pajamas?”  Amy nodded, “Yes, but he didn’t hurt me.”  The ‘ah-ha’ moment struck all of us - the nurse had chosen words that conflicted with Amy’s experience.  Amy added tearfully but confidently, “I love my dad.  I just don’t want him to come into my room at night.”
In that short exchange, Amy conveyed two important lessons: first, that professionals should let victims tell us how they experienced sexual violations, and second, a victim will often have an otherwise valued relationship with their abuser.  This is especially true for child victims, when more than four out of five sexually abused kids are abused by a friend or relative.
Amy was indeed harmed, in ways that she would need help understanding, but she didn’t experience the kind of violence that immediately cues kids that something bad is happening.   When sexual violations occur with the recognizable violence of pain, bodily injury, force, or threats, even young children instinctively know that something is very wrong.  Sexual abuse that includes “violence” is easily recognizable, always harmful, and always against the law.  But when sexual violations occur without veritable violence, many children, predisposed to trust their abuser, often don’t recognize that they are in the midst of sexual abuse.  Sometimes sexual abuse is a violation of a relationship.
One insidious characteristic of non-violent sexual abuse is that it may be unrecognized.  When people are asked why they didn’t report the abuse, they sometimes say they felt duped, perhaps complicit, but mostly confused.  And when victims otherwise liked their offender, they often didn’t report because they were afraid of the uncertainty of the aftermath – for themselves and for the offender.
These are among the findings of research conducted by psychologist Susan Clancy.  Dr. Clancy interviewed hundreds of adult survivors of child sexual abuse for her 2009 book, The Trauma Myth; The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children – and Its Aftermath.  Clancy reported that the vast majority of sexual abuse of children occurs without violence, and, as a result, adult survivors typically expressed that, as children, they felt more confused than traumatized by the experience, especially if the abuser was someone who they otherwise liked and trusted.  Clancy suggested that children experience sexual abuse in a range of unique ways and that professionals should be supportive in letting kids tell us how they experienced sexual abuse, with cautious judgment.  Clancy validated Amy’s experience.
In the years after “lessons from Amy,” when I began to work with offenders, I discovered that offenders are similarly disabled by the other side of the same coin: offenders usually admit they knew they were taking advantage of another, but are slow to understand sexual harm that is not accompanied by violence.  Non-violent sexual violations often occur in a blind spot for both victims and offenders, especially when abuse is within families or between friends.
When people have an understanding of “sex offenders” as violent rapists, predatory child molesters, or otherwise “evil monsters,” and family or friends don’t fit that description, children are unguarded by familiar relationships.  When sexual abuse occurs in the absence of violence, and in the presence of trust, kids may be totally disarmed.  The “monster myth” and perceptions that sexual abuse must be “violent,” may obscure both victims and offenders from recognizing a broad range of sexual violations.
More than half of all children who are sexually abused, are abused by an older child.   Depending on the age difference between kids, sexual contact might be against the law in one state (or province), but not in another.  In many states, sex between teenagers might be “statutory rape,” even if it meets criteria for consent.   If certain sexual behaviors are “statutorily” proscribed, they are, by definition, illegal, but if it is truly consensual should it be called “rape,” which in any form is understood to embody violence?
Prevention of sexual abuse should begin by teaching kids about sexual respect, but teenagers need to also know local “statutory rape” laws, or risk becoming a “child molester” or “rapist” because they crossed a legal definition or jurisdictional line.  People are taught from a young age that violence is never okay, and that sexual violence is particularly reprehensible.  But in the absence of violence, the rules for interpersonal sex are often confusing for young people.  Teaching people about sexual respect goes beyond avoidance of sexual violence, and inoculates both future victims and would-be offenders.
In summary, sexual violence is not a synonym for sexual abuse – it is a subset.  When we describe all sexual abuse as sexual assault or sexual violence, we risk losing recognition by victims as well as offenders.  We also lose the critical importance of context and the actual continuum of sexual abuse.  Perhaps in our zeal to convey that sexual abuse is a serious matter, we use “sexual violence” as an attention-getting, generic term, however, using “sexual violence” to describe all sexual violations might exacerbate deceptive myths, and unwittingly hinder public education and prevention efforts.
Jon Brandt, MSW, LICSW


Sunday, November 16, 2014

ATSA 33rd Annual Conference – San Diego 2014 (Part 2 of 2)

Welcome back to part 2 of our review of the ATSA conference, this week myself and David Prescott will discuss some of the material that we think might be of interest to the wider SAJRT community.
An area of research that I (Kieran) have been involved in for a while is SORN, particularly the public notification aspect of it, and as such I attended a session looking at preliminary data from a National Institute of Justice funded study looking at law enforcement attitudes to it (Jill Levenson, Andy Harris & Chris Lobanov-Rostovsky). The data that was discussed was based on approximately 100 interviews with law enforcement officers across four states (California, Massachusetts, Florida & Colorado) each with a different approach to sex offender registration and notification. The preliminary data indicates that law enforcement believes that registration can have its benefits in enabling them to do their job effectively but that the data and the computer systems being used currently are problematic, unhelpful and do not map together well. In addition, it was felt that in the main the majority of sex offenders complied with their registration requirements and when they did not it was not necessarily a purposive breach indicating a return to offending, but rather individual human error and/or carelessness. The authors will be discussing this research again in a more expanded fashion over the next couple of years and it will be interesting to see what else it brings to light. (KM)
One of the benefits of this structure of ATSA this year (i.e., that there was only one plenary on the Thursday and Friday morning) was that there were more research, as well as treatment, papers to attend and often times these papers where allowed more space for discussion. I attended a session on the health and social cost of prevention and heard two radically different papers, one on the cost of sexual abuse in the UK (Carol McNaughton Nicholls) and one on trauma informed treatment (Liam Marshall). At first these two papers may seem to be poles apart but in reality they talked to the same pertinent issue, which the negative impact is being a victim of sexual abuse has you individually and how this impacts your future mental, physical as well as emotional health. Both papers talked to the importance of recognizing abuse early on people’s lives and intervening to prevent it from continuing as well as enabling the victim to start the healing process before the abuse severely impacts their long term development. In addition the two papers, but particularly McNaughton Nicholls, talked about the inter-relationship between different types of vulnerability and being a victim of abuse suggesting that we could maximize the limited resources that we have in a more effective interrelated approach. (KM)
The past two decades have seen dramatic changes to our understanding of psychopathy. With the first waves of higher-quality research, concerns emerged about whether or not treatment had any effect on criminal re-offense, or whether it would actually make matters worse. A study by Seto and Barbaree (1999) came to prominent international attention, suggesting that treatment could make matters worse. A follow-up investigation by the same authors with Calvin Langton using more sophisticated techniques, a longer follow-up, and expanded sample found less reason for alarm and yet did not garner the same amount of attention. At around the same time, many professionals became concerned that the marketing efforts of measures of psychopathy were outpacing the actual accumulation of knowledge, and that extending the construct to juveniles could do more harm than good. This year, Paul Frick, Michael Caldwell, and Mark Olver offered fascinating perspectives on people with high levels of psychopathic traits across the lifespan. (DP)
An entertaining presenter, Paul Frick summarized years of research on callous/unemotional traits in children. He noted that although response to treatment can be a challenge among these children, reward-oriented parenting approaches, cognitive-behavioral treatment, and interventions targeting social skills appear to be promising. Michael Caldwell then described the treatment of adolescents with high levels of psychopathic traits at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison, Wisconsin. Caldwell’s research in this area has been compelling, with significant reductions in violence. Finally, Mark Olver presented the current state of research on the treatment of adults who score high on the PCL-R and concluded that there is currently no evidence that appropriate correctional treatment makes psychopathic offenders worse, that risk reduction assessed during treatment is linked to reduced sexual and violent recidivism, and that risk reductions can be found among offenders with significant psychopathic traits. (DP)
The findings of each of these presenters are important for a number of reasons. The first is that there is increased reason for optimism that the right treatment can work under the right conditions for even the most challenging of clients in treatment. While much more research is needed, Frick, Caldwell, and Olver have certainly added to our knowledge and practice. (DP)
This completes the SAJRT brief review of the ATSA conference. This review is by no means comprehensive or extensive so please have a look at the conference brochure on the ATSA website to see what some of the other interesting and informative papers were.
Kieran McCartan & David Prescott

Saturday, November 8, 2014

ATSA 33rd Annual Conference – San Diego 2014 (Part 1 of 2)

The ATSA conference has come to a close for another year, thank you San Diego and we are looking forward to Montreal next year. We (that is Jon, David and myself) thought that we would reflect upon the conference and highlight some of the interesting sessions and papers that were presented, for the benefit of those could and could not make the conference…

Jesse Bering opened the conference on Thursday morning with a plenary session that was as provocative as the title: Does Lust Make Us Stupid? The Effects of Sexual Arousal on Decision Making. Bering is the author of Perv, the Sexual Deviant in All of Us. Bering presented an extensive literature review that suggests, as one might suspect, that lust does indeed make us stupid. Again, not surprisingly, it appears that males are more lustful, and “stupid,” than females. Bering suggested that significant “lustful differences” between genders have biological and evolutionary explanations. He also explained how social rules for interpersonal sexual behaviors, with historical and cultural roots, are constantly evolving. Despite efforts, beginning with Kinsey, to understand the range of human sexual behaviors, we don’t have sufficient research to know what variants of sexual arousal are truly within the range of “normal.” In contrast, Bering offered compelling illustrations for how our knowledge of deviant sexual behaviors is little more than anecdotal. Bering’s presentation was a captivating, if not unsettling, sequel to last year’s keynote by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, on A Billion Wicked Thoughts – what the Internet tells us about sexual behavior and relationships. (JB)

On the Thursday evening there was a special interest group session by Berkley Media Studies Group on their NSVRC/ATSA backed study examining the representations of sexual abuse and sex offenders in the media. Their findings, so far, are that the media typically frames sexual offenders as predominantly a monster narrative that is mainly reactionary, criminal justice orientated and negative. They suggested that we need to reframe our sexual violence narrative in terms of prevention and bring that to the media in order to enable them to reframe the conversation. There was also a discussion of the changing sites of media engagement with blogs, twitter and social networking needing to be used more effectively. In addition, there was a discussion of how long-running stories could be utilized to change the conversation, so the 3rd or 4th day story could be about prevention rather than trying to get in on the page on day one. Finally, there was a conversation about how we should be more strategic in talking with the media, both in terms of talking to them where they live (their conferences, at media “camps” at big stories) and bringing them to where we live (having the media representative on boards being a journalist). (KM)

If anyone has not attended a recent workshop by Phil Rich, they might not be up-to-speed on the latest research and best practices for the treatment of adolescents who have sexually offended. I once asked Phil how he keeps up with the literature, which he seems to devour. He replied that he’s driven by the constant concern that there might be some breaking research that he should be aware of. Phil presented three different workshops at ATSA; one, as a co-presenter, on neurodevelopmental research, and two solo: A Contemporary Approach to the Treatment of Sexually Abusive Youth: A Relational Approach, and The Role of Case Formulation in the Treatment of Sexually Abusive Behavior. Every workshop that Phil presents is a densely-packed compendium of the latest research applied to best practices. Phil also draws on his extensive experience in the field, to account for all the moving parts of effective treatment. When Phil presents, the only thing that moves faster than his Powerpoint slides is his mind. Phil offers so much content in his presentations that many attendees can’t take notes fast enough. Those who know that his Powerpoint handouts contain most of the content, can spend more time trying to absorb the wealth of wisdom. (JB)

On the Friday afternoon there was a CoSA panel (Ian Elliott, Kathy Fox, Andrew McWhinnie & Robin Wilson) which updated us on where Circles of Support and Accountability research was currently at across the USA as well as Canada. The panel indicated that CoSA was developing numerous programs across the USA and that, despite small local statewide differences to implementation, that there was capacity for USA wide evaluation, with data from some states (especially Vermont) that CoSA was assisting sex offenders to desist as well as increase their levels of community engagement. The session highlighted the capacity building in respect to CoSA nationally and internationally, with a number of international researchers talking about ongoing evaluations and evidenced-based work in their areas. (KM)

Please come back next week for more reflections upon the conference.

Kieran McCartan & Jon Brandt