Friday, July 3, 2020

Returning to the Basics: A UK Case Goes Terribly Wrong

By David S. Prescott, LICSW, & Kieran McCartan, Ph.D.

A BBC News report from earlier this week tells a disturbing story: a man released from prison despite a number of warning signs abducts and sexually assaults women whose ages range from 11 to 71. He has now been given 33 life sentences. In a style telling of how people often respond in these situations, the third sentence of the article notes that “so far only one person has since been demoted.” It seems clear from the article that much more is at play than the question of how many heads should roll.

What happened? A broader inquiry has just been published by HMI Probation has highlighted challenges within the local probation services, issues within the system, the impact of transforming rehabilitation, and funding. From the BBC report, it seems that Joseph McCann, 34 years old, had been convicted of burglaries. While in prison, there was considerable staff turnover, which people managing his case changing every year or so. Risk assessments examined his likelihood for further burglaries, while at the same time he sent letters containing threats of sexual violence to family members and his case manager. Reportedly, many of the professionals involved, already beset with high caseloads and other difficult workplace expectations, did not communicate all of the potential risks that McCann posed. Perhaps most telling is that although he had been seen by probation ten times in the two months after his release, he had been assigned three different probation officers during that time.

Obviously, we (the authors) are in no position to point fingers or place blame. In fact, we wish to underscore that what happened in this series of events is a tragedy that will likely forever alter the lives of all involved. It is not difficult to imagine some of the recommendations that will appear in the final report on this incident. Doubtless, caseloads, staff turnover, and other resourcing issues will receive a mention and may result in action. The authors believe that this case crystallizes the problems of and the fallout from the failed Transforming Rehabilitation agenda in the UK, the fracturing of probation service had a massive, problematic impact on the management of people with a criminal conviction. As we move towards the building of a new probation service this case highlights several concerns that we hope will be addressed:

The first is that when it comes to community supervision, supervision, and (risk) management, communication is vital. No amount of training, policy, or protocol is entirely helpful when the expectations of one’s job preclude one’s ability or proclivity to communicate. Our hope is that whatever measures are taken, they enable supervising agents and agencies to communicate meaningfully with one another.

It also seems that this tragedy poses an excellent opportunity to create training models that emphasize sharing information in general and communication skills specifically. Although we have no way of knowing, in our experience, training budgets are often among the first resources to be cut when political situations demand belt-tightening. The opportunity to re-create, or re-establish, a service enables us to put training, staff support, and political engagement at the top of the agenda.

The other challenge raised by the report was that McCann’s perspective was taken at face value, that staff overemphasized his perspectives on this own rehabilitation and underplayed their critical edge. This presents a challenge and an opportunity. In the UK we are moving towards a trauma-informed way of working, hearing the service user voice, and engaging the person with a conviction in their reintegration. But, how do we do this in a way that facilitates proactive risk management, staff security, service user engagement, and community safety?  

Perhaps most importantly, though, is that when considering risk, it is essential that professionals ask, “risk for what?” Often, we label people who break the law in accordance with the laws broken, as if they were all specialists in one area of crime or another. In this instance, it seems that any discussions of risk were focused on crimes of record instead of the warning signs that were apparent to many involved in the case. Compounded with what appears to have been intensive staff turnover, much of this tragedy appears to have occurred not because people didn’t have the right answers but because they weren’t in a position to ask the right questions.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Sexualization of youth, complexity, complicity, and uncomfortable truths.

By Kieran McCartan, PhD., and David S. Prescott, LICSW.

In the last few days, a story has emerged about actress Megan Fox and her sexualization in the movie Bad Boys 2. In her words, 

"I had just turned 15 and I was an extra in Bad Boys II. They were shooting this club scene and they brought me in, and I was wearing a stars and stripes bikini and a red cowboy hat and six-inch heels. [Director Michael Bay] approved it and they said 'Michael, she's 15 so you can't sit her at the bar and she can't have a drink in her hand', so, his solution to that problem was to then have me dancing underneath a waterfall getting soaking wet."

While describing this to talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel, his audience apparently laughs and he makes jokes, including stating that these actions were “perfectly wholesome.” While Megan Fox has since said that she did not feel that she was  assaulted or preyed upon in what I felt was a sexual manner”, what the story does is reveal some uncomfortable truths about the way that we sexualize you girls and women.

Bay and Kimmel’s actions have been discussed and debated across social media, with blame being laid at everyone’s door for her sexualization. No one has accepted responsibility for what happened, and no account is forthcoming on why it happened. People have blamed her for “consenting”, her parents for not being responsible, Michael Bay for sexualizing her, and the movie industry for just “being that way”. Even Fox herself has stated that the media and society have “mishandled” this situation, describing these experiences as “inconsequential … I have endured some genuinely harrowing experiences in a ruthlessly misogynistic industry.” Of course, just because Fox did not consider the Michael Bay situation to be sexualization does not mean that it was acceptable.

The real issue, in our opinion, is that so many adults sexualize youth and are comfortable adults in doing so, particularly in the name of entertainment. Former porn actress Mia Khalifa recently addressed some of the issues involved in an interview for the BBC’s Hardtalk, when she described many of the people and processes she had experienced at the age of 21. This is something that we have talked about on previous blogs about pornography; however, it is also important to focus on the social nuances of sexualization.

The major question that arises in this situation raises involves informed consent. One of the main responses to the Megan Fox is that “she consented” or” she took the money, therefore she can’t complain”. Each of these is loaded and challenging statements.  The first issue is that given her age Megan could not consent; her parents would have to have consented to her appearing in films. We wonder if there is not more to consent in these circumstances. Even if she could have consented, could she have fully understood the implications? If she could not provide meaningful consent, who was responsible for providing consent on her behalf? Who is the responsible authority the parents, the studio, the director? In addition, it is important to keep in mind that under these circumstances, consent is loaded at best. What is this person consenting to? Why are they consenting to it? What pressures exist to consent, and who is looking out for this person’s long-term self-interest?

This story also reinforces the complexity and paradoxical nature of our relationship with sex, sexualization, and youth. Megan’s story reinforces that while we as a society has no problem consuming sexualized images of youth (as demonstrated by our recent blog about Pornhub), people don’t want others to know about it because it would reflect poorly on them. Jimmy Kimmel's reaction to Megan’s story clearly demonstrates this as he joked, brushed it off, said that everyone does it and that some are better at not mentioning it in public. Therefore, for many, it is acceptable to view, think, and do it, but not to mention it. Kimmel’s response, while reflecting the beliefs of many, is not helpful. It was, and is an opportunity, for us to collectively think about how we experience and portray sex, sexuality, and how we can best work with people around this.

The reality of Megan’s story is that it highlights the social construction of sexuality and sex. Our society has created a narrative that the sexualization of youth is acceptable, allowed the processes that enable this narrative, and has become quietly comfortable with the results. The authors feel it is time to discuss these challenges so that our communities can better understand why we accept this and how we can change the narrative. Some points for consideration include:
  • challenging the societal norms around the sexualization of youth.
  • accept our responsibility and role in the creation, maintenance, and consumption of this material.
  • recognizing that sexualized behavior, especially problematic sexual behavior, exists on a continuum.
  • understanding the impact of sexualization on the person experiencing it, particularly where the sexualization is not a direct contact offense.
  • the need to confront sexualization at the boundaries or at blurred boundaries as well as how much we are willing to push back.  

Friday, June 19, 2020

The Wisconsin ATSA Group is the first to take their conference online: A success story.

By David S. Prescott, LICSW

The announcement this week that ATSA’s 2020 conference will take place online has been greeted with more than a small sigh of relief. It is difficult to comprehend all of the variables regarding conferences in the COVID-19 era. Many were concerned about the conference experience itself, given that most venues are far from designed for social distancing. Others were worried about the travel experience, anticipating the many delays as airlines seek to sanitize planes and boarding areas and wondering whether they would need to self-quarantine on arrival or on their return. Still others were ambivalent about traveling to the USA from abroad. One result is that the conference will likely become more accessible to more people as a result. Although the author is clearly biased, ATSA is deserving of major kudos for its work in migrating the conference. Many other conferences were not able to do so.

Wisconsin ATSA was the first to jump into the breach with respect to the online experience. This could not have been easy. Anxieties about connection issues, presenters’ screens freezing, etc. must have been rampant behind the scenes. Fortunately, the chapter was careful to include back-up processes.

Wisconsin ATSA (WI-ATSA) has a long history of annual conferences, having featured local talent such as Michael Caldwell, Lloyd Sinclair, and David Thornton over the years as well as experts from outside the state (Robin Wilson, Andrew Harris, and Karl Hanson come immediately to mind). This year, WI-ATSA President Sharon Kelley moderated the two-day event, ably assisted by Aniss Benelmouffok from ATSA HQ, who ensured that all the technological considerations went well.

Rachel Kahn began with a brief presentation on external protective factors and supervised release adjustment, taking note of the many challenges faced by people reintegrating into the community upon their discharge from an inpatient civil commitment program (the Sand Ridge Secure Treatament Center). She took note of areas such as employment difficulties/job loss, the support of friend and peers, disruptions in family connections, and community belongingness. Next up were Gina Ambroziak and Rachel Kahn, discussing recidivism rates under supervised release and unconditional discharge from Sand Ridge. The bottom line from their presentation was that sexual recidivism while on supervised release is rare (1.5% have been charged over an average period of 2-3 years on supervised release). Even with a less inclusive definition of sexual recidivism, 93.7% of clients have been safely managed despite above-average levels of risk. Dr. Lakshmi “Luck” Subramanian then presented fascinating data on the internal factors impacting supervised release management. Although worthy of an article or two, it is worth noting that her research into how clients in treatment think about times in their life (past, present, and future) is worthy of deep consideration by any evaluator or treatment provider. Daeton Degrant and Nena Kircher rounded off the first morning with a presentation on technology monitoring and Internet safety.

Candice Christiansen spent the afternoon exploring essential elements in the assessment and treatment of people on the Autism spectrum who have sexually abused. This has been an area of very intense study for Ms. Christiansen, who is open about her own diagnosis on the spectrum. Most valuable to the author were the points she made about how best to demonstrate safety, respect, and compassion to these individuals. She further emphasized what many others have said before her: “When you’ve met one person on the spectrum, you’ve met one person on the spectrum.” In other words, highly individualized presentations are the norm when considering this area of the many populations we serve.

Dan Murrie opened up the second day with a three-hour presentation on the possible biases that forensic evaluators can experience. Dr. Murrie has produced a number of studies in this area, and the topic has received attention in this blog before. Dr. Murrie’s presentation exemplified one reason why the conference experience can be so welcome. His approach to a difficult topic was measured and reasonable. His ability to discuss the issues in a way that offered ways forward for evaluators was welcome, especially in an area that can become contentious under other circumstances.

Finally, the conference experience wound down with David Delmonico and Elizabeth Griffin discussing the assessment, management, and treatment of people who offend online. As always, they succeeded in taking a very difficult topic and making it accessible to a wide range of participants. Live demonstrations of what happens in online chat, spaces were balanced with humor and the provision of resources. While one doesn’t sign up for conferences with the expectation of being treated to videos of talking dogs dishing on the presenters, it seemed the perfect counterbalance to the otherwise very powerful and emotionally charged work that professionals in our field do.

Of course, other high marks go to the audience, who participated in the chat and Q&A functions. Although not a replacement for break-time discussions by the coffee urns, there was palpable camaraderie throughout the experience. Congratulations to all at WI-ATSA.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Black Lives Really Do Matter: Reflections on Our Work in the Time of Protests

By David S. Prescott, LICSW & Kieran McCartan, Ph.D

Please note that this blog was written with reflections and comments from Dr. Tyffani Dent & Dr. Apryl Alexander. Kieran & David..

Professionals in the human services, perhaps especially in forensic arenas, have long known about racial disparities in the criminal justice system and beyond. It’s been six months since our blog post on racial disparities in risk assessment, the bail system, incarceration rates, diversion programs, and other realities of life for people of color. And the above areas are only the beginning; there are good reasons why commentators are referring to racism as the “other pandemic.”

Despite our knowledge in these areas, a perusal of social media in several contexts shows how much we all still have to learn. Several themes have been prevalent as we (white people of privilege) have watched – and participated – in dialogs. Because so many professionals in the human services are white, and because so many of our clients are people of color, it’s crucial that our field take a long, hard look in the mirror first, and then at the systems in which we work. It may be useful to ask ourselves: Do we want to understand and act on the best interests of our clients and colleagues of color or not?

These are not just idealistic observations. Virtually everyone who reads this blog works with people who have been marginalized; people who have seen how law enforcement and the legal system can behave unjustly. Injustice can come in many forms, from dismissing reports of brutality to disrespect of those who have been abused. Recent dialog has shown a number of shortcomings, including white people trying to position themselves as being free from racism while numerous organizations have issued statements condemning racism. As welcome as the latter is, we’re interested in what actions people will take in the wake of the recent protests.

Perhaps the first place we need to start is with the nature of the conversation itself. Leaning into one another is bound to produce discomfort as we listen to narratives and emotions that are hard to sit with. The simple fact is that so many of the unspoken rules of engagement for these discussions originated in Eurocentric white culture. This means that many of us only become fully engaged in dialog when it is in the style and tone with which we (white folks) are most familiar. Of course, if we’re honest, the emotionally charged debate that we are witnessing would not be so plaintive if society had taken effective action a long time ago. Ultimately, it is simply unfair to ask oppressed people to end their own oppression in a fashion crafted by those who have oppressed them.

Another area of urgency for professionals is to abandon the oft-used response of, “Yes, but don’t all lives matter?” Although this has received considerable commentary elsewhere, suffice it to say that this statement comes across as uniquely unemphatic and ignorant of the desperate cry behind Black Lives Matter. As many others have observed, until people can clearly align with Black Lives Matter, “all lives matter” is simply a dodge, at best, around the painful truth of racism.

Currently, some media outlets are calling into question whether structural racism exists. To this end, we believe it’s vital for professionals to familiarize themselves with the research that we attempted to outline in our earlier blog. It is simply unconscionable to question the systematized nature of racism when so much information is immediately available.

Finally, at a time when the dialog is understandably at a fever pitch, one person has recommended approaching racism in the same way as COVID-19.
 1)  Assume you have it
 2) Listen to the experts
3) Go to great lengths not to spread it
4)  Be willing to change your life to end it

While this, too, risks oversimplifying the many issues involved, it could be a place for many white professionals to start. One thing is certain: confronting racism in ourselves is long overdue.

Friday, June 5, 2020

How the pandemic challenges and questions our perspectives on and work with people who have sexually abused.

Please note this is a joint blog with NOTA blog site, Kieran.

Over the last couple of months, we have focused on what the challenges and realities of living in lockdown with COVID-19 are, but this is starting to change as lockdown is ending. What is the new “normal” and how will this impact the prevention, management, and integration back into the community of men convicted of a sexual offence? Now it feels like there are more questions than answers, which can present a daunting challenge! Sometimes we cannot see beyond what we know, but we also know that need that drives change. In the months and years ahead, we will not return to the way things were before, 2021 will bear little resemblance to 2019. The nature of the game and its rules has changed. So, what does this mean in reality?

Here are some points that occur to us as of this week (and who knows what tomorrow may bring?)

Changing perspectives on causes and responses to sexual offences: What COVID-19 has taught the world is that health and wellbeing are connected to everything that we do. A healthy population is an engaged, productive population. Therefore, we need to continue to integrate health and wellbeing into the work that we do in preventing as well as responding to sexual offences. This involves maintaining the public health approach, thinking about the impact of adverse experiences and trauma as well as considering the impact of these in framing desistence and integration. 

Risk management vs management: We talk so much about “risk” and what that means for people with a conviction, not to mention criminal justice agencies, therapists, victims, and the public; but the reality is that the terms risk and risk management mean different things to different people, each of whom has different roles. Ultimately, what we are all saying is that we are helping and supporting people to manage their own behaviour. This reframing is important because the individuals themselves are not always the sole source of risk (an internal locus of risk) but often the circumstances of the outside world are also the source of risk (an external locus of risk). The pandemic has shown once again that circumstances do matter and that they should be incorporated more often in our risk assessment and management. Therefore, how they manage themselves in various and sometimes extreme circumstances as during the pandemic matters.

Changing regimes: We have seen that because of COVID-19 our ways of working have changed, sometimes for the better and other times for the worse. We need to evaluate these changes and learn from them. Does remote working improve prevention, treatment, management, and integration? Or does it make it worse? In what ways? How does it impact relationships with clients? How does it impact staff working, resilience and confidence?

Changing processes and conditions: COVID-19 has taught us that prison may not be the answer with lower risk and people on shorter sentences getting released under supervision. This begs the question whether they needed to go to prison in the first place? Was community management a better approach? And was it adequately considered? Further, what does community management look like in a computer-enabled age? Especially with individuals who may not have access to the internet or technology, because of their conditions of release or the fact that they live in socio-economic areas that suffer from poor internet access. 

Improving Partnership & collaboration: It has become obvious through lockdown that working together, in a collective evidence-informed way is possible. Therefore, we need to up the stakes in terms of partnership working, communication and collaboration between the public and the system, across all levels of prevention and forms of (risk) management; we need -more than ever- to be on the same page to take on all these old and new challenges. 

Friday, May 29, 2020

Child Sexual Abuse Imagery in the Pandemic: Taking the Public Health Direction as We Emerge Into the New “Normal”

By David S. Prescott, LICSW, Kieran McCartan, PhD, & Kasia Uzieblo, PhD

With endorsements by former Prime Minister Theresa May and Eric Schmidt, an Executive Chairman for Google, Internet Watch Foundations (IWF), a charity organization that works to remove child abuse imagery from the internet, reports having had nearly 133,000 such webpages of taken down in 2019. IWF’s 2019 data is sobering: 46% of the imagery they report to law enforcement was of children age ten or younger, 92% was of females, and 1% was of children aged two or younger. Twenty percent showed sexual activity between adults and children, “including rape or sexual torture including self-penetration.” Another 20% included images of non-penetrative sexual activity. What is less clear at present is to what extent these findings from this spring have outpaced the same period last year. IWF’s data from 2019 shows the greatest growth in indecent images of children not falling in the above categories. In the UK this has lead Simon Bailey, police lead on child sexual exploitation online, to state that we cannot simply arrest our way out of the issue of child sexual exploitation material (CSEM) and online sexual exploitation. We need another approach.

With an unseen number of people around the world confined to their homes, a significant rise in these numbers is expected. Unfortunately, these worries are being confirmed. Last week, The Daily Mail, a British newspaper reported that during the months of March and April of this year, there were 8.8 million attempts to view child abuse images online from the UK. The increase is not unique the UK.  Countries around the world are sounding the alarm: they report a staggering demand for child abuse images. For instance, a recent study by the India Child Protection Fund noted an increase of almost 200% in access to these images since a nationwide lockdown was implemented. A higher demand prompts higher production rates, as observed in countries like the Philippines. Untold millions of families lost their income during the lockdown, creating an incentive for peddling child abuse images. Stop it Now! Flanders (Belgium) signals another worrisome pattern in help-seeking behavior. Before the pandemic most calls (80%) came from people who were worried about their own behavior, whereas 20% came from worried family members and friends. Now an opposite pattern is being observed, with 65% calls coming from others.

Picking up where recent blogs have left off, it is clear that these numbers, like the activities they describe, are completely unacceptable. Understanding them is nearly paradoxical: On one hand, they make clear what professionals in the field have known for years: that sexual abuse is not perpetrated by a small number of individuals but is best considered from a public-health perspective. On the other hand, the numbers are so vast that it is easy to lose sight of the harm done to the individuals involved, calling to mind the famous quote from Joseph Stalin that “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

All of this raises the question of how we can start to combat the challenges of CSEM and online sexual abuse in the new world order. This is difficult because we do not know what the new normal will be, but what we do know is that online platforms and the internet will be a significant element in moving forward. It’s about collaboration! The notion of the internet as unregulated space will have to change significantly as we have seen new forms of problematic and anti-social behavior creeping in, like “Zoombombing” that won’t simply go away. We think that more than just a criminal justice approach is needed to combat and prevent online sexual abuse. Any solution requires a multidisciplinary public health approach.  Instead of responding to the offence, we need to think about how we intervene pre-offence (primary and secondary prevention) and post offence (tertiary and quandary prevention), as well as a range of social groups/frames (individual, personal, community and societal). Currently, we focus on the individual and societal elements, sending out strong primary and tertiary prevention messages, but we need to do more in helping those at risk to abuse. The access and impact of CSEM as well as online abuse is going to continue in an adapted way. Like everything else in a pandemic, life and behavior find new ways to adapt and thrive. Let’s take stock, reevaluate, and move forward with purpose.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Emerging lessons from pornography in the pandemic

By David S. Prescott, Kieran McCartan, & Kasia Uzieblo

The first author was reminiscing about experiences at Grateful Dead concerts way back in days gone by. While much of their concert experiences are now legendary, there were two elements in particular that completely changed the way people think about music and its performance. The first were the spinners, who sought out far-flung parts of the arena to dance, seemingly in their own world. Even more thought-provoking were the deafheads, deaf people attending concerts simply for the experience, sometimes holding balloons through which they could feel the vibrations of the music. It all may seem ridiculous from the outside looking in (why attend a concert if you can’t see or hear the act?), but the band later created entire sections for them, providing additional speakers for the spinners. And by doing so, the band redefined its actions in response to what they were learning about their followers.

Although it may seem a strange analogy, clearly the pornography industry is also evolving in response to trends in the pandemic era. A recent in-depth examination by The Economist is fascinating:  During the past month, pornography usage at Pornhub (the world’s largest site, that offers user data as part of its marketing) has remained 22% higher than average, while significant spikes were noted in various countries with the pandemic’s onslaught in March. Spending on porn-related sites has nearly doubled. Traffic on “premium” portions of otherwise free sites is higher than ever. Is this really just about having more time to access porn during shelter-in-place orders or a full lockdown? Additionally, Pornhub’s “giving back” (or increasing traffic, depending on your perspective) gave free access to its premium accounts to some of the most impacted countries during lockdown (including, but not limited to, Italy, Spain, and France). Therefore, not only were people more willing to access pornography during the pandemic they were also more able to do so. All of this raises further questions of where exploitation begins and ends in these circumstances.

At the same time, there are increasing trends where porn performers are engaging in more direct marketing, eschewing directors, and others viewed as middlemen. This involves filming themselves with smartphones and the like and uploading the results to adult social media sites. While economically this makes sense (why lose money to a middleman if you can do without them), it also has the effect of bringing the audience closer to the performer. It is also possible that it creates a kind of authenticity to the experience (something we have blogged about previously). In the current business model, viewers willing to spend extra can get personalized performances for example, with the performer speaking to them by name, etc.). These trends have led  to increased divergence in the market with more amateur material being produced, innovations in the production of material, but also an increase in revenge porn and recorded sexual abuse; therefore, as with other industries, a reshaping of the pornography industry. At a time when so many people are rightly concerned about abuse, it seems strange that the abuses of revenge porn and related issues of consent have not become more prominent in public dialog.

As we have stated many times throughout the history of this blog, there are many aspects to the debates about pornography by people who have abused and by society beyond. Recalling the well-known therapeutic axiom that one must always “meet the client where they’re at” in treatment, however, it seems that these changes to how sexually explicit media is delivered is worthwhile to understand. Clearly, the emerging structure of sexually explicit adult social media sites demonstrate that there is more to porn than sex acts, just as there can be more to a concert than the music and the partying.

Furthermore, the sheer volume of sexually explicit media being consumed and the money spent (especially when there is already so much free porn) highlights that the desires of people consuming it are more complex than many might have believed in the past. In the end, the theme of viewers wanting to experience some form of connection to the performers, no matter how illusory it may be, is hard to miss. In the case of men who sexually abuse others, it can be easy to miss just how important this theme of connection and relatedness to others can be, especially when their histories of violating connections can be so florid.

We must ask ourselves, as we emerge from lockdown towards whatever the new normal will be, what does all of this mean for the production, use, and consumption of pornography? Will this period be looked back on as a blip, a holding pattern, or a time of redefinition? Thinking about the impact on sex, sexuality, relationships, and paraphilia. Have people discovered, or confirmed, suspicious about their sex and asexuality preferences? How will this impact themselves and others moving forward? We need to try and rationalize the current surge in pornography use as we move towards the new normal, therefore some key questions might be;
-     What pornography was I looking at during lockdown?
-      How much pornography did I consume at this time? Was it more than before?
-      How did my interpersonal and intimate relationships change over lockdown?
-      Did the pornography that I looked at change? 
-      Am I more interested in the new pornography that I am viewing? 
-      How do I feel about lockdown ending and “normal” relationships resuming?

In the end, we are left with massive societal questions. The same article also discusses how STRASS, the French union for sex workers estimates that out of roughly 35,000 sex workers in France, 1.3 have moved to online activities, and of that only 10 % are making ends meet. While there have been historical assumptions about victimization histories, trafficking, and other coercion into these activities by men, the current situation shows how exploitation of one sort or another appears present at nearly every level of sexually explicit media production. It is impossible to predict where this is all going, but the current trends can teach us something about the people we see in treatment, including both those who have abused and those who have been abused.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

"But they must have known!" Effectively working with non-abusing parents.

By Anna Glinski (Deputy Director for Knowledge and Practice Development at the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse).

This blog was first published by the CSA Centre on the 18th March 2020  – Kieran.
Imagine for a minute how it would feel to receive a knock on the door from a police officer and social worker, who proceeds to inform you that an allegation of sexual abuse has been made against someone close to you, a family member, your partner, a friend – someone, you trust - would you believe it?  What if the allegation was made by your son or daughter?  Would you be able to think clearly enough to make some speedy decisions about what needed to happen next?  I suspect not.  More likely, you would be overwhelmed with feelings of shock, anger, confusion and disbelief. 
Effective multi-agency working with non-abusing parents is absolutely key to the future welfare and safety of the child. Research indicates that feeling believed by your main caregiver is one of the strongest mediators of the long term mental health issues caused by sexual abuse. This parent/caregiver will need to play a central role in protecting their children from the person of concern, implementing safety plans and managing risks; and, they will need to support their child with the immediate and longer-term impacts of their abuse. These are hefty responsibilities for someone who is also coming to terms with the fact their child has been abused by someone they may have loved and trusted and is also likely to be experiencing other pressures as a result.
After the shock
The consequences of believing someone in your family has abused a child (either on or offline) can be enormous: shame, guilt, feelings of responsibility, an end of a relationship, the loss of a home or an income and loss of support. And fear - fear of losing your child or your partner, of a hostile response from friends and family, of what people will think of you, of loss of autonomy, of retribution from your partner. For many, it is not surprising that denial kicks in: a normal and functional defence that allows us to protect ourselves against something that is painful and distressing. As Still observes in her useful book on assessing and intervening with non-abusing parents“It is not uncommon to see the mother in a state of confusion and ambivalence, swinging on a pendulum between believing the child completely one minute and not the next, or believing some but not all of it: ‘I can believe this, but I cannot believe that’.”
For those from Black, Asian and minority communities, or with English as a second language, or whose residence in this country is threatened, there may be additional and significant consequences for what has happened. Additionally, for those who have experienced sexual abuse themselves this process is likely to be even more complex, confusing and painful. And what if one of your children has abused the other/s?
Working effectively with non-abusing parents
For professionals to give the best opportunity to non-abusing parents to be able to fulfil the tasks of support and protection, every interaction should be in the context of building their strength and resilience, offering support and understanding through an empowering approach. The limited research that does exist indicates that non-abusing parents and carers often do not receive the necessary empathy, time, support or information to help. They can feel judged by professionals, ‘they must have known’ (while battling with their own guilt about what has happened).
We know that there are parents who sexually abuse their children, or who do not act protectively when they become aware of the abuse of their child, and this needs to be properly investigated. However, non-abusing parents are too often perceived to have been actively involved in the abuse. As Chaffin states “From a trauma processing perspective, features such as denial, unfocused anger, minimisation of the problem and ambivalence toward both the alleged victim and abuser would be considered part of the course, rather than evidence of toxic parenting or deep-seated psychopathology.”
Professionals have an important role in understanding non-abusing parents’ reactions, providing support to enable them to process what has happened and ensuring that children are safeguarded. Effective assessment is an important part of this. The safety of children is imperative and so even though denial is understandable, children still need to be safeguarded as soon as possible.
The CSA Centre’s work on effectiveness in services for children and young people who have been sexually abused identified that suitable services to non-abusing parents are essential to children’s safety and recovery. This built on earlier findings by the NSPCC  which highlighted the importance of keeping children safe and well by working with non-abusing parents. When a child is sexually abused, we must first ask ourselves what that child needs, including their needs in the context of their family.
Facilitating necessary discussion
Sexual abuse can be hard to talk about even for professionals and so the likelihood of family members being able to talk about what has happened without being supported to do so, is low. As helping professionals we have the skills to talk about difficult matters and to help others do the same.
Professionals need to facilitate discussion, and therefore healing and recovery, between non-abusing parents and family members of a child who has been sexually abused. Sexual abuse thrives in secrecy, and in not doing so we risk colluding with this silence, and miss the opportunity to repair family relationships, and to address feelings of guilt, responsibility, anger, distress, jealousy, blame and torn loyalties which so often exist when a child is abused within the family. Just think how much useful intervention we could provide by giving the opportunity, for example, to a non-abusing parent to say they feel sorry to their child for what happened to them; to tell them that they didn’t know it was happening and if they did they would have intervened; to tell their child that what has happened as a result of their disclosure is not their fault but the fault of their abuser?
In my practice experience, so many survivors have spoken about the harm the abuse caused not just to them individually, but to every relationship within their family. As such, I believe we have a duty to use our skills and roles with families to attend to this integral part of their lives.
Educating families about the signs, indicators and impact of sexual abuse is equally as vital for prevention and effective response, and there are already some excellent online resources available for them, and the professionals supporting them. 
  • Parents protect has a wealth of guidance and resources for professionals and families, including a sexual abuse learning programme
  • Stop it now supports adults to play their part in prevention through providing sound information and educating members of the public. People who are worried about their own or someone else’s sexual behaviour can call their helpline too. 
  • The upstream project is a Scottish resource (though available and relevant to other areas) which offers tools and support on identifying, preventing and acting upon child sexual abuse. In terms of keeping children safe from harm on the internet.
  • In terms of keeping children safe from harm on the internet Think u know offers advice to children, young people, parents/carers and professionals.
  • Mosac provides supportive services for non-abusing parents and carers whose children have been sexually abused.
Working with non-abusing parents will be a key consideration in the CSA Centre’s future work to develop useful resources and guidance to support professionals in working with children, young people and their families, whether or not their allegations of sexual abuse is proceeding through the criminal justice route.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Prehabilitation & sexual abuse prevention

By Sarah Christofferson, PhD, Kieran McCartan, PhD, & David Prescott, LICSW

The field of sexual abuse has gone through a theoretical and multi-disciplinary shift over the last 10 to 15 years, whereby we have moved from talking about responding to sexual offences through a criminal justice-only approach to a more holistic, health-based approach that includes prevention as well. The language of sexual abuse prevention has moved practice landscapes, allowing us to better incorporate research, learning and practice from the allied fields of social work, social care, criminology, sociology, health and public health, to name a few, which has improved how we conceptualize and understand sexual abuse. As a field we now talk about prevention, the service user voice, multi-disciplinary/multi-agency working, first person language, Adverse Childhood Experiences, trauma informed practice/care, and consider working with at-risk populations good practice. Therefore, reinforcing what everyone working in treatment/interventions already knows, that sexual offending is a life course issue rooted in experiential pathways that needs a holistic response to help people manage their behavior. So, what is the next big thing to be adapted into the field of sexual abuse prevention from health? Prehabilitation!

In recent years the first author, along with her New Zealand based team including Gwenda Willis, Jacinta Cording, and Waikaremoana Waitoki, have started to consider the role of prehabilitation in helping individuals concerned about their sexuality or possible risk of committing a sexual offence. Prehabilitation reflects the bridging of therapeutic services typically offered as rehabilitation (e.g., in a prison or other justice system context after the point of conviction), with an earlier preventative approach. The term prehabilitation is not new but is new to our field. It comes from the medical literature and is tied into preparation for a stressor, such as major surgery, which can be debilitating and therefore the patient needs to prepare their body in advance to reduce the negative consequences. In such settings, prehabilitation has been described as a process of enhancing functional capacity to enable an individual to withstand these kinds of challenges (Banugo & Amaako, 2017; Ditmyer et al., 2002). Translating this to a sexual abuse prevention frame, prehabilitation can therefore be viewed as a strength training of sorts for people who experience problematic sexual interests – assisting them to enhance their functional capacity to cope with these interests, and associated stressors, in nonharmful ways (Beggs Christofferson, 2019).

So where does sexual abuse prehabilitation occur currently in the field? Prevention Project Dunkelfeld, in Germany, is a well-known example. Whether or not they have ever committed an offence, individuals with diagnosable pedophilic or hebephilic interests can self-refer to Dunkelfeld and receive therapy on a confidential basis (Beier et al., 2015). In some other parts of the world, therapy for this same purpose may be offered by independent practitioners or (less frequently) publically funded clinics, or as a brief in-person follow-up to helpline services such as Stop It Now! (Heasman & Foreman, 2019). Except for Dunkelfeld, evaluations of these kinds of services are rare, partly due to the anonymous nature of delivery.

Stand Strong, Walk Tall: Prehabilitation for a Better Future (SSWT; Christofferson et al., 2020) is a newly developed prehabilitative intervention from the New Zealand team, designed to provide access to effective services for people in the community who experience sexual interest in children. The target population is broader than Dunkelfeld – not limited to those with a diagnosis but open to any adult seeking help in relation to sexual interest in children/minors (a subsequent adaptation for youth is slated as a future priority). Design took a bottom-up approach – seeking to understand and cater to the needs of minor-attracted members of the general population, rather than simply transposing justice-setting rehabilitation approaches into an earlier prevention context. Whilst goal setting for treatment in SSWT is undertaken collaboratively with each client, taking an individualized case formulation approach and incorporating the client’s valued life goals, key broad targets of the SSWT intervention are alluded to in the name:

Stand Strong denotes self-efficacy and self-regulation building aspects;

Walk Tall denotes self-acceptance, dealing with the stigma often faced by those with sexual interest in children and tackling self-stigmatization; also a sense of forward momentum;

Better Future carries a double reference:
 the better future clients can expect because of engaging with prehabilitation; 
-  the better future we are all collectively striving towards, of a society free from child sexual abuse.

The SSWT intervention framework is informed by broad theoretical underpinnings including the strengths-based Good Lives approach, the principles of risk, need and responsivity, etiological and process models of child sexual abuse, all supported by the Hauora Māori Clinical Guide for effective bicultural practice (Pitama et al., 2017). The intervention is evidence-based; in addition to the theoretical foundations the content, targets, and delivery are further informed by the growing empirical research base regarding the target population (often referred to in the literature as minor-attracted persons or MAPs), along with the principles of feedback-informed treatment and trauma-informed care. Importantly, SSWT is by design a joint treatment and research initiative, with evaluation planning directly built in. The assessment protocols will enable not only robust evaluation but also contributions to the knowledge base regarding those who experience sexual interest in children, their treatment needs, and effective interventions. Pilot delivery is planned to commence across New Zealand and Norway during 2020.

The hope is that SSWT and similar prehabilitation efforts may offer a missing link, in the context of a behavior that all of us would like to see eradicated (child sexual abuse), system responses traditionally focusing on post-offence recidivism reduction as opposed to preventing initial offending, and a minor-attracted population in need who are often unable to access effective interventions outside of the justice system.

Readers interested in learning more about Stand Strong, Walk Tall are welcome to contact the first author, at

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Online pornography use during the COVID-19 pandemic: Should we worry? Part II.

By Kasia Uzieblo & David Prescott

Note: This blog is broken into two sections. This post is part 2, with part 1 having appeared previously. Kieran

In the last blog we argued that an increase of sexualized coping might be one of the knock-on effects of the current pandemic chaos. Another question that might arise is whether an increase in pornography use predicts an increase in sexual offending behavior? There seems to be no robust empirical findings to substantiate this assumed relation. A recent review by Mellor and Duff (2019) indicates that no consistent relationship exists between early exposure to pornography and sexual offending, and between exposure to pornography and offending shortly after exposure in males. Hence, the common assumption that behaviors being observed in pornography elicits sexual offending behavior seems to lack robust empirical evidence to the present. However, individual differences can still occur: the use of pornography during an offence is more common among people who sexually abuse children compared to those who abuse adults, and there appears to be a link between recidivism and pornography use in high risk offenders.

A third issue that is not depicted in the Pornhub statistiscs (but is nonetheless a major reason for concern) is the increase of online searches for child sexual exploitation material (CSEM) since the start of the crisis as observed by Europol. This rise doesn’t imply that there are suddenly more people with pedophilic interests. It might, however, indicate that there are people having trouble coping with current stressors which might motivate them to explore illegal online material. A recent study by Knack, Holmes, and Federoff (2020) found that people experiencing sexual frustration, certain sexual interests, and poor coping strategies in response to negative affect resulting from loneliness, boredom and stress motivate the use of CSEM. Schulz, Bergen, Schuhmann, and Hoyer (2017) also identified social anxiety, loneliness and problematic internet use as motivators for using the internet to solicit with minors. Hence, several similar mechanisms that underlie excessive pornography use, might also be of relevance here.

A final question comes to mind. Could there be an evolutionary component to the increase in pornography use during crises? Perhaps with the potential for loss of life, people experience a biologically based urge for procreation beyond their awareness – one aimed at helping our species to survive. Of course, in the absence of empirical study, this is simply conjecture, but it points to the idea that many forces may be at play in the current crisis.

Taken together, these increased numbers of pornography use are not worrisome in themselves. Many people now have more time to satisfy their curiosity by exploring new sexual content online. For others it may serve as an adaptive way to cope with stressors and sexual desire. In order to best prevent sexual violence, professionals can be aware that the current worldwide lockdown measures together with related job, family, and other stressors can also increase a problematic use of online pornography in people who feel distressed, anxious, lonely, powerless, and who lack adaptive coping behaviors.

The current situation poses a serious challenge to practitioners. How can we identify, reach out, and help people who are vulnerable to developing maladaptive coping behaviors? How can we provide online and/or offline help and assistance in coping with distress related to the Coronavirus crisis? It is certainly a time in which everybody, including practitioners, should be vigilant for signs of problematic coping behaviors, including excessive pornography use and the use of CSEM. It’s also a time in which prevention programs as Stop it Now! should receive more attention in practice, media and on relevant websites. The most important thing is to let people know that help is out there, even in these unseen, harsh times we are currently in.


Knack, N., Holmes, D., & Fedoroff, J. P. (2020). Motivational pathways underlying the onset and maintenance of viewing child pornography on the Internet. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 1–17.

Mellor, E., & Duff, S. (2019). The use of pornography and the relationship between pornography exposure and sexual offending in males: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 46, 116–126.

Schulz, A., Bergen, E., Schuhmann, P., & Hoyer, J. (2017). Social Anxiety and Loneliness in Adults who Solicit Minors Online. Sexual Abuse: Journal of Research and Treatment,  29(6), 519-540.