Friday, May 21, 2021

Double standards in our acceptance of sexual abuse.

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

In April a four-part documentary about the life of André Hazes, one of the most famous artists of The Netherlands, who passed away in 2004, was broadcasted in the Netherlands. This year André Hazes would have turned 70. Hence, it was deemed that it was a good moment to look back on the special life of the singer. The documentary was special in many ways. Haze was described as a man of extremes, who on the one hand enjoyed the attention, but who at the same time was extremely insecure, lonely, jealous, and self-destructive. The documentary depicted many well-known stories about the artist. But one story that was never revealed before, stood out.

Rachel Hazes, his wife, gave testimony stating that they met when she was 12 years old. When she was 15, she became the babysitter at André (34 years) and his then-wife Ellen’s home. Although it was a public secret that André and Rachel had feelings for each other when Rachel was very young, it was not known that they also shared the bed in that period. Rachel describes their first sexual experience together as follows:

“Ellen was not at home, I had gone to bed. And then André came into my bedroom at some point. Then something happened, so to speak. Then we really had sex for the first time. André was my first boyfriend with whom I made love…It caught me off guard. I had no intention of going to bed with André…When I was 15, I was not thinking about that. It really happened to me.”

When Ellen discovered that André had an affair with the 15-year-old Rachel, Rachel decided to break off contact with him. They met each other again five years later at one of André’s concerts, started a relationship. They married when she was 21 and he was 40.

When one of the authors, Kasia Uzieblo, saw this testimony, she expected outcries from the community, an avalanche of negative, angry, and condemnatory responses online. But she was surprised that this was not the case. There were a few reactions on social media, condemning André’s behaviour, calling him a pervert, a pedophile, but besides of that: deafening silence. This observation led to a discussion with colleagues from NL-ATSA, who was, like Kasia, bewildered.

Of course, it is not our intention to state that aversive reactions on stories like that should be promoted or stimulated, on the contrary. Stigmatization of people who have committed a sexual offence or of those exhibiting sexual interests in minors is a societal problem, given that it hampers their resocialization process, and it leads to their isolation with all the consequences thereof. Nor is it our intention to state that relationships between adults and minors should be approved.

But the lack of reactions, in this case, is again proof of our double standards in our acceptance of sexual abuse: Whereas we are very quick to condemn the average man when who engages in sexually violent behaviour, we do not do so, or to a much lesser extent, in the case of well-known people of social standing. In our clinical practice we also encounter men who are convicted of sexual abuse, but who maintain that it was not abuse, that the minor and he had an intimate relationship that could have developed into something lasting if he had not been arrested. One of the authors recalls, for instance, such a case in which the victim who was 14-15 years old at the time of the offence, also stated that she had a profound relationship with the ‘offender’, and that her parents approved this relationship. There were indeed indications that her ‘partner’ who eventually received a prison sentence, was regularly invited into their house and was even allowed to stay overnight.

So, this makes one wonder, what is different between André and other people who have committed a sexual offence? Does it all come down to social status? Do we have a blind spot for people who are socially significant yet who cross boundaries? Is it easier for us to dismiss this behavior as we think that we know these people, that we identify with them, and maybe idealize them? Do we want to victim blame or negate allegations because it means that we may need to look at ourselves and our values, beliefs, and/or attitudes? It is easier for us to point the finger at the stranger in the street who commits sexually transgressive behaviour than it is to condemn similar behaviour of someone with societal status because we do know and/or identify with that individual. It is simply striking that sexually transgressive behaviours committed by someone known can be easily minimized and even ignored by society, often -but certainly not always- until stark and significant evidence is presented. To illustrate, one person commented as follows in the section below Rachel’s story stated: “Everybody makes mistakes.” Why is it that we emphasize the talents, the strengths of these famous individuals but do not for anyone who commits a sexual offence? Why do we, like in André’s case, use the talents of famous people as an excuse, or justification to minimize their transgressive behaviours. We can see their strengths in a way that we do not with the “run of the mill” individual who has committed sexual abuse, which runs contrary to the goals of treatment, rehabilitation, and reintegration.

Additionally, the case of André provides us with an escape clause as he went on to marry Rachel and therefore it's easier for us to say that it is not abuse as they ended up together in the end. But the question that we need to ask about that narrative, as we would with anyone else, is that is this a case of grooming, manipulation, and coercive control/brainwashing? Or have our societal values and views regarding age differences between partners become too restrictive over time? Are we nowadays too quick to label sexual relations that do not fall within our current norms as deviant and criminal?

The truth is that we are struggling with cases like this. We do not really know what attitude to take with cases like these.

Our clients also observe these double standards and doubts, which may, in turn, facilitate or strengthen cognitive distortions (“if others do it and don’t get punished nor condemned, this behavior is OK”), and/or feelings of hopelessness, anger, and inequality (“Why me and not them”). Which can increase the likelihood of reoffending and damage community integration strategies.

Professionals need to play a role in leading the conversation that all people who commit sexual abuse have both similar risk and protective factors which do not necessarily change with social status, but what social status does is change access to victims and increase opportunities to dismiss/disregard allegations.

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