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.