Thursday, April 29, 2021

Where do we go from here?

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

The world watched last week as Derek Chauvin was convicted for the murder of George Floyd. Tragically, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was shot minutes before the ruling was announced. A few days later, Kenosha, Wisconsin police officials announced that the officer who shot Jacob Black in the back would not face any discipline.  While many felt relieved in the wake of the George Floyd ruling, we all know much more needs to be done to bring an end to the violence in our communities; violence that studies find disproportionately affects people of color. It is not an easy topic to address succinctly in a blog post, and yet it is a critical time in our field’s history as we work to prevent abuse. What makes this such a difficult area for open dialog?

At first glance, there may not appear to be an obvious connection between the experience of people of color in respect to violence and sexual abuse, but there is.  One of the biggest common denominators in the lives of people convicted of a violent offense (including sexual abuse, which is a form of violence) is their frequent dual status as both past victim and current perpetrator. International research on the risk factors related to offending indicates that people who commit violent crime have a greater likelihood of having experienced past trauma and/or adverse childhood experiences. These experiences have impacted their development and lifestyle.

Too often, we choose to ignore these individuals’ backgrounds and vulnerabilities, focusing instead on their behavior. This is approach fails because we are looking at the severity of the crime and not the nuance of the person. The challenge is how we talk about violence, including sexual abuse, across diverse communities where experiences and practices, and opinions about violence are vastly different. The important word here is “community,” because there are several communities with differing perceptions all grappling with their response to violence and sexual abuse. These include the geographical community, the victims’ community, the political and press community, and the professional community. This diversity highlights the importance of an intersectional approach to understanding and responding to violence and sexual abuse. There are many challenges: Kieran grew up in Northern Ireland during the peace process and saw firsthand how challenging it was to change social norms, ideals, and cultural beliefs. The important thing to remember is that violence and sexual abuse, in all their forms, are community issues and that we need an engaged and united community to tackle them.

From a professional perspective, changing social and cultural norms, as well as beliefs, can present additional challenges. Being on the front lines of social justice means recognizing flaws within the system while working steadily and proactively to reduce them. Our clients suffer, often in silence, understanding that they are measured on scales that may be biased against them, particularly with factors like a past criminal record and substance abuse.  Meanwhile, too many professionals of color have their own experiences with such biases, maybe even with violence, and may have reactions to these events that they can’t share openly with others. Far too often, we are blind not only to our clients’ everyday challenges but to those of our colleagues, too.

It is encouraging that so many conferences in recent years have had pre-conference workshops and keynote addresses that examine the backstories behind racial bias and violence. The apparent dearth of open dialog about these matters elsewhere is unfortunate, even as it is understandable. The intersection of sexual abuse, discrimination, racism, and prejudice creates a perfect storm that can cripple professional teamwork. If we as a global community don’t feel comfortable talking about these issues with our most trusted friends and colleagues, why would professionals in the field be any different? Individual professionals are members of many communities and may only discuss these issues within receptive communities, but that part is easy. We need to make the hard choice to talk about these issues across all of the communities we belong to so we can learn from each other’s experiences and perspectives in order to develop a better understanding of these different communities and their experiences. This presents its own challenges because

-     people often enter such dialogs with firmly entrenched opinions and beliefs;

-    people tend to make assumptions about what others have to say without asking for clarification;

-    many people listen to others primarily with the goal of responding and making their own points;

-    people often fail to listen to others with the goal of truly understanding; and

-     one of our colleagues expressed it well several years ago when he said that professionals should     assume ethical intent and practice among our colleagues until we see evidence to the contrary. Otherwise, it is too easy for discussions to go off the rails.

This places all of us in a quandary: On one hand, the expression that “silence equals violence” may never have been more true. On the other hand, it is not difficult to imagine being pilloried for speaking up and speaking out.

Too many of us were raised with conversational taboos on certain subjects (religion, spirituality, and politics come immediately to mind).  The unfortunate result is that many people have never learned how to have difficult discussions. The challenge in having difficult conversations is significant, but the payoff can be significant as well. Social change takes time.  While we should not expect it to happen overnight, it’s vital that we keep trying.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Another exposé: “Why Do We Let Corporations Profit from Rape Videos?’

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

The past several weeks have seen many events in America that have the potential to influence the work of professionals in our field, both nationally and internationally. Many have been horrific, such as the rising tide of gun violence and the grief, anger, the outrage felt around the world in response to the murder of George Floyd and, despite the trial of Derek Chauvin and its historic outcome, the ongoing killings by police officers. Each new headline is a reminder that the people we serve often experience the world very differently than many professionals do. We all find ourselves in a dilemma: If we are to heal in the wake of world events, we need to be able to talk about them on the one hand, and on the other hand, many people are either too anxious to dialog and/or too exhausted to try.

With this in mind, a New York Times exposé appeared this week focusing on the porn industry. Where erstwhile journalistic investigations once examined the conditions of professional production of sexually explicit materials, the Times’ focus is on how the so-called “tube sites” of the modern era are run. These include Pornhub and several other sites that followed the YouTube example (readers might recall that YouTube’s original slogan was “broadcast yourself”).

In this article, Nicholas Kristof describes many examples of what until recently was commonly referred to as “revenge porn” (that term does not appear in this article, presumably because of recognition that there are other motivations than revenge, including profit and the perceived thrill in causing harm to others). These are situations in which (mostly) women are coerced or cajoled into producing sexually explicit media which are then uploaded to the tube sites. In many (but by no means all) cases, the person who is victimized in this way is underage. As Kristof observes, the video may be brief, “but the attack on dignity becomes interminable.” He provides numerous examples of people who pleaded unsuccessfully to have their videos taken down.

We need to be clear – as other professionals have noted – that the actions of the people uploading these videos are acts of violence; referring to it as pornography diminishes the experience of those harmed. It's important to note that posting “revenge porn” is committing an offense, it is not necessarily linked to a paraphilia or mental illness. We need to be careful about not pathologizing people when it's not appropriate. In many cases “revenge porn” speaks more to society's attitudes and understandings of sex, consent, and sexual harassment.

Many questions about these tube sites follow, which have implications for the ethics of sex, relationships, and business. As on many other occasions, we have more questions than answers. For example:

·         When is consent truly consensual? How is consenting to sex being recorded different from consenting to sex?

·         Can this consent be withdrawn as it can be with research, mental health treatment, or medical interventions?

·         How should businesses account for the harm that they cause under these circumstances?

·         What can we learn about human relationships from all of this? How many sacrifices do people make, in the moment, for their relationships that they will later regret? How do we raise young men to be more than the video equivalent of trophy hunters? And how to we raise our girls to remain attentive all the time and to be assertive, also towards boys who are older and whom they admire?

·         How do we prevent violence while protecting free speech?

·         How do we enable freedoms more broadly while keeping vulnerable individuals safe?

Another issue raised by this article is the apparent lack of empathy and concern in our society. The businesses are in it for the money; that much is clear. Nevertheless, one wonders who is running these businesses. Are all of these people as callous they seem? Do they only have an eye for the money? How can they look the other way? And what about the viewers?

The video of the rape of Heather Legarde, described in the article, has been watched by 200,000 people. One in eight videos on three major tube sites depicts sexual violence or nonconsensual conduct; hence, there is an audience for these videos. These figures should give us all goosebumps. This is not just a small fraction of society that seeks out these videos for sexual pleasure. It appears there is a double standard here, one worthy of examination. We are all repulsed by people downloading and watching images of child sexual abuse.; isn’t this equally serious? Shouldn’t society invest in preventing this cruelty through education, sanctions, and other means to give a clear signal that this is not acceptable? And finally, what about us? Where do professionals fit into this? What can we do?

The first author posted a link to this article in a number of places around social media and received only two replies in total. The article has not gotten the attention that Kristof’s first article did. Are we witnessing a process of desensitization to the harm that people experience? Is it all becoming part of the much-discussed ‘new’ normal?




Friday, April 2, 2021

Do not forget the middleperson: Preventing abuse one stakeholder at a time.

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

One of the authors (Kieran) was giving a research seminar at another university in the UK last week; the talk was on his research relating to the prevention of sexual abuse and how community engagement and bystander intervention fit into it. In the discussion afterward, he was asked, “How do you get politicians on board to prevent sexual abuse?” In some ways this is a “stock” answer for many:  you talk about community and personal values, you have a story that humanizes, you think of re-election, and what will play well in the public arena. But in answering, Kieran realized not only was that the wrong answer, but it was also the wrong question. The real question is, “How do you get governments to buy into the prevention of sexual abuse?” The answer, which is frustratingly easy, and hard, is you communicate and work with the middle person (in the UK that is portfolio leads, policy leads, and civil servants).

The realities of politics are that that politicians can be transient, which is particularly important to remember if you are a minister with a portfolio and ambition. Generally, politicians are not given roles based on their knowledge and skills, they are often given roles based on their position in the party or their relationship to the leader. While it might make sense to the public that the Minister for Health should have a background in health care, for example, this is rarely the case. What this means in practice that new ministers must learn their portfolios on the move with little time to process material at any great depth. Therefore, they are relying on, some more than others (fortunately or unfortunately as the case may be in different circumstances), on existing staff’s knowledge, networks, and ability. In this instance, it is very apparent that while the minister is important, these middle people are also important, and might be even more important. Adding to the complexity is that politicians around the world also sometimes take their staff with them or let much go, with the result that the “institutional memory” in some sectors of government can change. 

The middle people in most instances are primarily policymakers, researchers, and civil servants. They have often been worked within the government for years, often outlasting ministers and some outlasting administrators. They understand how the system works, the types of information required by ministers and the timeframe, as well as the format needed to get it across the line. Therefore, the question should be about how to best work with the middle person so that you can make sure that your message is heard by the right minister at the right time. Not surprisingly these middle people have different wants and needs than the ministers that they work for. To them it’s about trust, reliability, being able to frame a complex story in a straightforward way, being quick to respond, and being able to frame the message within the policy and practice of the ministry at that time. Being on the side, or at least in conversation, with the middle person means that your message is more likely to be heard by the minister. It does not guarantee that you will get the outcome you want, but you are more likely to get heard.

How does this play out with respect to the prevention of sexual abuse and the safe community integration of people with a conviction for sexual abuse? We need to convince portfolio leads, policymakers, and civil servants that the prevention and responses to sexual abuse are variable, that they are cost and time effective, that they align with the administration’s policies, that they are fit for purpose (i.e., that they will reduce offending and victimization), that they are supported by the professional community and will not alienate victims. Which is a challenge to do in one conversation, you need many. You need to build a relationship and be the go-to authority.

Politicians will make their own decisions, in line with party politics and manifestos, but the middle person is the person that will (hopefully) make the politicians listen and who will be there to balance the message and bring others on board. How we work with them will help determine their influence on the key decision-makers.