Friday, March 19, 2021

Reflections on the challenges of “true” community integration post-conviction.

Submitted by Ben

Bloggers’ Note: Readers may recall our blog post of February 19, 2021, titled, Looking for the Best and Preparing for the Worst. It focused on a recent article in Slate that questioned a poetic contribution to a magazine. The question was whether the submission from a person convicted of possessing child sexual abuse materials should be included in a magazine highlighting the work of those serving time in prison.

Ben, who describes himself as a MAP (an acronym standing for minor-attracted person), ex-offender, and former pornography addict, sent an email with a number of thoughts in response. With Ben’s permission, we are re-posting it here to provide the perspective of at least one person of a group whose voices often go unheard and unrecognized. It has been only lightly copy-edited.

I have some thoughts on your very thought-provoking article, about why sex offenders are always excluded, even to the extent of preventing them from expressing their feelings, in a poetic contribution to a magazine.

A lot of it is because acknowledging that these people have a sensitive, human side, makes it harder to 'other' them and treat them as monsters. For many people in the prison system, who are already feeling great levels of shame and stigma, because of their own (non-sexual) offending, it is probably very helpful to have someone they can feel morally superior to. Being able to look down on sex offenders, makes them feel less ashamed of their own crimes.

The general public has a slightly different reaction. Part of their hatred towards all criminals comes from a fear of being a victim of crime. They imagine how they would feel if someone hurt them. When it comes to children, the public asks themselves how they would feel, if someone hurt their child. The answer is scared, angry, and filled with a burning desire for revenge. They then take those feelings and project them onto any sex offender they read about in the news.

Feeding that natural desire, to punish those who may pose a threat to you or your children, are the myths of sex offender dangerousness and incurability. The frequent references to the dark triad and to sexual offender stereotypes are used as explanations. They must be narcissists, or sociopaths, who either do not care about their victims or are incapable of caring. The most common questions people ask themselves about sexual offending are why did they do it and how could they do it. It seems to go against all normal human ethical standards and to defy explanation. When confronted with something they cannot explain, people return to simple to understand concepts, like good and evil, or mental illness. Hence, most SO are categorised as either mad or bad or both. There is very little understanding of the role that childhood trauma plays, in an adult's sexual offending.

Then you have people's own understanding of human sexuality. There are two elements to this. The idea that a person's sexuality is fixed and unchanging, plus the notion that any thoughts, desires, or sexual interests must be acted upon because they are impossible to resist.

Most of the public, when they examine their own sexual thoughts and feelings, understand that have a Jekyll and Hyde quality to them. There is no divide between sexual offenders and the general public, in this respect, only a spectrum of sexual offending. Everyone knows that they have powerful sexual urges inside them. Everyone knows that they lose control of those feelings sometimes. The research shows that people take more risks when sexually aroused, for example. When that is combined with a disinhibitor, like alcohol, you often see offending behavior, like date rape, as a result. The feminist argument that all men are potential rapists, seems to be supported by this evidence. There is no 'other'. Any man, given the right disinhibitors, could potentially act on his sexual feelings, in an immoral and possibly illegal way.

But rather than face this uncomfortable truth, it's far easier for society to pretend that only monsters and others are capable of committing sexual offenses. Most of the public sees themselves as Dr Jekyll. Deep down, they know that Mr. (or Mrs.) Hyde exists inside them, but they tell themselves that Dr Jekyll has Hyde under control. Jekyll’s logic and reason can tame Hyde's wild and impulsive sexuality. However, whilst they might believe this about their own sexual desires, they don't extend that same analysis to other people. They worry that other people don't have the same control that they do. It's a bit like people's relationship with advertising. You tell yourself that other people can be persuaded by it because they are less intelligent and more gullible, but you are immune to it because you can see through the advertiser's lies.

This is why there is so much focus on sex offenders being impulsive. They are regarded like the others, who cannot see through the advertising.  Their Dr. Jekyll is absent, and their Hyde is much closer to the surface, ready to act on the slightest whim or sexual thought.

At the same time, there is another sexual offender stereotype, who confounds the notion of inherent impulsivity. This is the Machiavellian manipulator, who, rather than acting impulsively, plots silently. This manipulator grooms his victims carefully, for many years, before acting. He is the polar opposite of the impulsive, situational offender, who acts without thinking. Nevertheless, the public has successfully incorporated the two opposing typologies into their other, with an extraordinary act of doublethink.  Sex offenders are perceived as both uncontrollable and impulsive, whilst being fiendishly cunning manipulators, at the same time.

Then there is the idea of constant, unchanging, sexual orientations, interests, and preferences. As my [supervising agent] put it to me, once. "Do you prefer football or rugby? Some people just prefer men, some just prefer women."  The subtext of this conversation, which he didn't put into words, was that some people just prefer adults and some people just prefer children and that's just the way it is.

He was tapping into an idea that is very common, and widely held nowadays, which is that a person's sexual preferences, interests, and orientation are not their choices. It's just genetic. Something you are born with and have to live with forever. The reason this matters is that to [supervising agents] and the general public, a person who has a sexual preference for children, will have that preference forever. It will never go away. That means it is incurable. That means the best outcome a sexual offender can ever hope to achieve, is to control those feelings and not act on them. But even the ones who don't act, are still wanting to act and will do so, if they ever get the chance. So, it is a simple equation, in the public mind. Sexual orientation can never be cured, therefore sexual offending can never be cured.

What is the solution to this flawed perception?

Reactions from criminal justice professionals vary. I always try to humanize myself to them, by telling them about my childhood traumas. I explain that I lost all my trust in people, as a result of that trauma and this is why I struggle with intimacy as an adult. I suspect though, that most offenders do not do this. For most offenders, discussing these issues with a police officer, who has just invaded their home, is too stressful and shameful. A lot of sex offenders, whose trust in other people has been catastrophically harmed, by trauma and whose faith in humanity has been so terribly compromised, will see the police as just another person who doesn't care about them and wants to harm them. They may tell the police nothing about their life story or they may get defensive, which will just cause the police officer to regard them as hostile, and thus the police will see them as being a higher risk, as a result. 

Probation listen more and most now understand that offenders have been traumatized. They are slowly beginning to understand the effects of adverse childhood experiences on people's adult offending and they recognize that offenders use minimization and denial, as a defense against shame and not to avoid responsibility for their actions.

But the police listen less because they have been trained to see all SOs as devious and manipulative and because police culture perpetuates the urban myth that all sex offenders are liars. Therefore, police find it harder to listen, since they assume that the offender is only telling them these things, in order to manipulate them.

Nevertheless, the solution is still to humanize sex offenders and tell their stories of trauma and childhood adversity, as often and as loudly as possible, so that they are no longer feared. As the fear goes away, so will the hatred and the othering. Creating empathy for sex offenders, in wider society, will not be easy. You will be accused of being soft on crime, but it must at least be attempted.

Most often, when I read about sexual offending in the media, it tells me nothing about the offender. It only gives details of their crimes. Nobody can empathize with that. But occasionally, we do get glimpses into the offender’s life. I have seen tales of men who offended, after suffering unbearable trauma. A man, who had lost his wife and both children to illness, prior to his offending. Another who had an illness, which left him confined to his home 24 hours a day, and who then offended on the internet. These are not coincidences. Trauma and offending are inextricably linked together. That is the message that must be conveyed.

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