Thursday, October 28, 2021

Confusion, Media, Politics, and the Vulnerable People Caught in the Middle.

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

On October 13, 2021, a woman was apparently sexually assaulted on a Philadelphia subway. The typically non-partisan Reuters stated that the attack was “witnessed by as many as 10 passengers, some of whom appeared to film the attack, (and) could have been stopped quickly if one had called 911, police said on Tuesday. The story garnered national attention and was discussed widely in social media. The problem was that it wasn’t entirely true. Within a few days, the Philly Voice stated that:

On Thursday, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer flatly denied that any witnesses filmed the woman's rape with their phones, calling such claims "misinformation" as he tried to refocus the investigation… There is a narrative out there that people sat there on the El train and watched this transpire and took videos of it for their own gratification," Stollsteimer said. "That is simply not true. It did not happen. We have security video from SEPTA that shows that is not the true narrative.”

While the first account emphasized the importance of calling 911 to report crimes, many concluded as a result of the second that law enforcement officials in this instance had proved themselves to be untrustworthy.

Also recently, Loudon County, Virginia, has been the scene of all manners of disputes that are beyond the scope of this blog. The Washington Post described “culture wars” on October 5. Within a week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had referred to the district while expressing concerns about FBI involvement in situations involving threats against school board members. Within this context were allegations of sexual abuse. The details are complicated and beyond the scope of this blog. There were contradictory reports of whether the school board members were aware of the abuse allegations, and by October 24, 2021, media reports indicated that there was plenty of blame to go around. In this instance, if sexual assaults were in fact taking place, the systems in place were either failing outright or courting the worst appearances of failure possible. It is difficult to tell whether the young people involved were being cared for by any sober authority.

The above are not isolated events. Elsewhere in the US, the University of Vermont (UVM) was in the news. Student protests contributed to setting up a review of the institution’s Title IX implementation. There had been concerns that UVM was not handling sexual assaults on campus effectively; the number of large-scale protests was difficult to keep track of. In August, UVM had stated that the results of an outside examination would not be made public. By October 25, 2021, UVM did release a report which largely affirmed their practices, but noted that:

(R)eviewers found that UVM students who interacted with the office “did not fully understand the investigation process, found it confusing, and felt unprepared… In some cases, students misunderstood elements of the reports because of the complicated and legalistic manner in which reports were written,” the report read… Reviewers also noted that the Title IX office failed to complete “almost all” investigations within its goal of 60 days, “most often due to requests from a student’s outside advisor… The report also highlighted gaps in understanding between school officials and students about the nature of consent and culpability. 

Finally, and also during the past month, Liberty University was in the news for reportedly discouraging sexual assault reports. According to National Public Radio, “In a lawsuit, more than a dozen women say Liberty University put them at risk in part because of its code of conduct emphasizing sexual purity. Their lawyer says more women are coming forward.” These media accounts speak for themselves.

It’s difficult to know where to start with all these accounts. These are situations that have occurred across many sides of underlying political, social, and cultural divides and in many corners of the US. They have occurred in contexts where many media outlets are explicit in espousing their various biases. In short, it’s a mess.

These situations highlight that sexual abuse is a complex and challenging issue that strikes at the heart of our communities as well as our sense of self. We often want someone else to blame rather than standing up and owning the issue. More to the point, we are often willing to believe dubious information when it fits our beliefs, attitudes, and stereotypes. As professionals involved in ending sexual violence through effective policy and practice, we have had to conclude after many hours spent poring over media accounts that students, young people, and other vulnerable citizens are themselves being exploited in broader media circuses.

A major bias of the media, especially news organizations, is apparent in the statements that, “If it bleeds it leads” and, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” both of which cause us to consider the truth and neutrality of the media. While there are certainly good reports and honest news stories out there, there are also problematic ones that have a loose affiliation with the truth. Therefore, it’s important that we always question, cross reference, and consider the reality of any story. As professionals we need to be a barometer to good ethical practice and in doing so, we must

 -    Provide insight and critique to media and public narratives

-    Work with other colleagues to make sure that the reality of sexual abuse and nuances of events are not lost.

-    Engage with media and new sources over the reality of the story that they are looking to tell.

-    Always fact check and provide evidence in discussions

-     Prioritize giving assistance to those who have been harmed.

-    Continue to design and study interventions that will prevent further harm

-    Implement effective policies to accomplish all the above (as well as advising and working with those involved in policy formation).

We want to be clear in our assessment that during recent months these goals have been in short supply in the events that we have witnessed, reported, and evidenced. To respond to sexual abuse and prevent future abuse we need to have honest, truthful, and realistic conversations.

Friday, October 22, 2021

The importance of recognizing and discussing cognitive biases.

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

In recent years, we have seen a worldwide increase in lawsuits involving well-known media figures (e.g., Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, R. Kelly, and Josh Duggar, to name a few). The reaction of the public to these cases suggests double standards regarding (alleged) perpetrators of (sexually) violent behaviour. This week, we would like to illustrate this with a case that caused a stir in Belgium last week.

On October 13, the trial against Flemish television producer, actor, and presenter Bart De Pauw started. He was being accused of stalking and being an “electronic nuisance”. De Pauw has allegedly harassed 13 women (actresses, employees, and interns of his production company) via text messages, among other means. Numerous messages conveyed through the media were of a sexual nature; messages that far exceed the bounds of flirting, according to the lawyer of the women. Some women received dozens or even hundreds of those messages within a short time. According to the chief of the Flemish Radio and Television Broadcasting Organization, (the public broadcaster for radio and television in Flanders, Belgium), it often started as innocent amorous advances, but these escalated into stalking behaviour. The nine women who have declared themselves civil parties say that they are asking for a symbolic compensation and that they are looking for recognition, not money. The trial lasted for two days. The judge will deliver a verdict on November 25.

The case has caused quite a stir in Flanders. After all, De Pauw was a very popular TV figure who had worked on many successful TV programs since the 1980’s. The Flemish population is clearly very divided on this matter, with numerous people supporting the alleged victims, and a very large group of supporters of De Pauw who believe in his innocence, no matter what evidence is presented in the media. Of course, there is also the group in the middle, but that is the group you do not hear very often on social media.

It is not our intention here to pass judgment on the matter; that is the job of the courts. What we want to address here are the various cognitive distortions that very often prevail in our thinking if we are not careful. People tend to judge quickly and often based on very little information, and/or incomplete information.

Firstly, many of us cling tenaciously to the idea that the world is just. One component of this idea is  that people get what they deserve. In the case of criminal acts, this usually implies an assumption that the victim helped to bring the abuse upon themselves and therefore the perpetrator should not be punished, or at least not too severely.

A second frequently occurring thought pattern is the defensive attribution. Here, the degree of similarity and identification plays an important role. The more one can identify with the victim, the less inclined they are to accuse the victim. The converse also applies: the more one can identify with the perpetrator, the more one is inclined to accuse the victim.

A third important distortion that is clearly of importance in this case, is the halo effect. This distortion refers to the tendency to judge a person positively, based on one positive aspect. In other words, the presence of a certain positive quality (in this case, De Pauw’s likeability, generally well-groomed and articulate appearance, and sense of humour) suggests to the observer that other positive qualities will also be present.

These (and many more) cognitive biases may partially explain why we tend to condone transgressions by famous individuals or figures of some standing in our society more readily than when similar behaviour is exhibited by ‘regular’, unknown individuals, what our clients usually are (At the risk of enraging their admirers, Donald Trump and Bill Clinton are other examples from recent history). The fact that De Pauw was, and for many still is, a very popular TV personality clearly plays into the hands of the alleged victims. For decades, De Pauw was a regular on TV, making people laugh and coming across as very approachable and recognizable. He was often described as “one of us.” Many people have expressed their disbelief in reactions on social media. They cannot believe that someone they “know” so well and for so long would be capable of such behaviour. This is an all to common reaction, we have seen this with Jimmy Saville, Harvey Weinstein, and Jerry Sandusky (to name a few). It is such a common reaction that we often have biopics and documentaries titled, or at least prefaced, with phase “hiding in plain sight”.

Interesting to note is that our more familiar clients are often confronted with the opposite pattern: based on their criminal behaviour, their appearance, and/or their often lack of eloquence, deviant – even psychopathic – personality traits and profound perversions are often assumed. Where we ignore or minimize antisocial behaviours and personality traits of a well-known figure, it is precisely these characteristics that become magnified in our clients, making us fail to see the good sides and strengths of these individuals. In the UK there is a reality TV show called Murder Island where members of the public act as detectives to solve a crime written by a leading detective novelist and over seen by former detectives, and in this week’s episode this is exactly what happened. One of the “actors” criminal histories was revealed and suddenly they became the person of interest in mist people’s investigations overnight based, although they often did not acknowledge it, on his criminal history alone.

Why is it relevant to discuss cognitive distortions in the public? For one thing, it is important to realize that the struggles of our clients and their families may differ depending on variables such as their social status. While some people with status can still count on some support and sympathy and, above all, a certain goodwill to recognize the positive aspects of these people, many of our clients cannot. Second, we must continue to emphasize that professionals (clinicians, judges, supervising agents) can also fall into these cognitive traps. After all, nobody is completely immune to these biases. Thirdly, it is important to recognize that this is “labelling” and by labelling people we are less likely to see them as individuals, less likely to view them as being able to change and integrate; therefore, questioning the potential success of treatment.

The problem is that we tend to acknowledge these biases in others, and much less, if at all, in ourselves. Hence, knowledge of these biases raises important questions. Can we, for instance, guarantee that we treat all our clients and patients in the same way, regardless of their socio-economic status, gender, age, and other factors? Is our assessment of their personality, sexual functioning, and risk factors completely free of bias? Third, these biases can also be seen as an important mechanism that drives us to (partially) accuse victims of (sexual) violence.

Referring once again to the De Pauw case, one could see the reactions on social media pouring in, saying that the alleged victims should not have accepted his advances, should not have sent back messages, and that they should have been clearer in drawing the line. These reactions completely ignore the complex dynamics between people who have allegedly abused or been victimized. This is especially the case when there is a power relationship, as well as when victims each (try to) cope with transgressive behaviour in their own way. These reactions will also have an impact on the (alleged) victim’s well-being as well as on their help-seeking behaviour.

Most readers know about the existence of cognitive biases. Of course, knowing about them is one thing, but effectively countering these – certainly in our own thinking – is another, more difficult matter. Cases like de Pauw’s illustrate that we must continue to recognize their existence and impact on the judgment and decision making of all those involved, including professionals.


Thursday, October 14, 2021

The importance of trusting the system – and of having trustworthy systems – in cases of sexual abuse.

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

Working to prevent sexual abuse is a difficult and challenging endeavour. The nature(s) of sexual offending is complex and difficult for people to comprehend at times – why would someone rape? Or sexually assault a child? Professionals in the field often hear that people who commit sexual abuse are mad, bad, or sad, and some of them are, but not all. As we have discussed over many years, sexual abuse is common in society, too common for the people who commit it to be abnormal, random strangers.

People who sexual abuse live and work in our communities and are often people we know. This can present challenges for us as communities, since sexual abuse is so common it has been normalized in some quarters (for example, see previous blog posts regarding abuse within religious institutions, sports, and university campuses). This is not acceptable and should never be.

The seeming acceptability of sexual abuse weakens victims’ motivation to seek justice and get support; they often feel that they will not be heard and will not get what they need from the criminal justice system. In the UK, this has often been the case with police not always investigating cases or pushing cases to the Crown Prosecution Service. In the end, victims feel unheard, unsupported, and disenfranchised.

Over the last couple of months suspicion towards the legal system has gotten worse with the prosecution of Wayne Couzens, a serving police officer, who abducted, raped, and murdered Sarah Everard in London and the Met (London’s police force) response to the case. One wonders whether trust at the institutional level can be rebuilt and what are the consequences for female victims of sexual abuse if they do trust the system, the police, or society to take the offence seriously.

Although it hasn’t received much coverage in the US, the Everard case has galvanized the UK. Sarah Everard was walking alone, home from a friend’s house in London early this year during the height of the national lockdown when she was stopped by Wayne Couzens a serving (but off duty) police officer, who “arrested” her under COVID-19 legislation. He convinced her to get into his “unmarked police car”, which was a rental car, where drove her out of London, raped, and murdered her. The footage was caught on CCTV as was additionally footage of his movements and behaviour.

As the case unfolded, it turned out that Couzens had a history of misogyny, engaging with prostitutes, exposing himself to strangers, and other antisocial behaviour that the police where aware of but did nothing about. It became public during his sentencing (he received a life sentence) that colleagues knew about his actions and referred to him as the “rapist”.

There were warning signs. The response from the Met police force stopped short of a rogue case explanation, but we know that’s not true, as there have been other cases of serving and retired police officers engaging in sexually inappropriate and sexually abusive be haviour. The real is issue for the police is that they did not acknowledge his worrying behaviour which then gives the impression that they do bot take sexual abuse seriously. To make matters worse the Met suggested that women who did not feel safe being stopped by a police officer should be “shouting out to a passerby, running into a house, knocking on a door, waving a bus down or, if you are in the position to do so, calling 999.” This response has been criticized across the board and is seen as the ultimate example of the problem, it suggests that the Met police force does not think that it needs to change, does not take responsibility for what happened, and (again) suggests that victims are responsible for their own safeguarding. This case has has completely undermined trust in the police in the UK and makes victims less likely to report sexual abuse cases, and if they do make them less likely to pursue convictions.

What should the Met have done? How can they rebuild trust and accountability? There are several enquiries going on currently into what was known by who, for how long and what was, or was not, done about it. But these all take too long and there needs to be a short/medium term response. The police need to:

-       Admit that they mishandled the case.

-      Accept that there are issues with members of the police, the same way that there are members of any organisation, and pledge to do more about it internally.

-      Consider how they assess potential candidates to the police as well as monitor and check in with serving officers.

-      Recognize their severe public relations problem and spend time in communities finding out what their perceptions of the police and surrounding expectations are as well as how they can change them.

-      Confront misogyny within the police, the way that they have started to deal with race and ethnicity, and develop realistic standards hat officers must attend to.

While we recognize that there are good and proactive police officers and that this case is a rare, extreme example it does highlight that there needs to be more done around misogyny, sexism, and attitudes to sexual abuse within the police. Victims need to know that they will be supported by the police and that reporting sexual abuse is more than a paper exercise.


Thursday, October 7, 2021

ATSA 2021 Conference

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

Last week, for the second year, the ATSA annual conference took place virtually. Although the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be gradually stabilizing, it continues to surround us and has had a deep impact on conference experiences. Although travel is starting up again, international travel is still challenging, meaning that conference attendance is reduced, particularly for international delegates. The 2021 online platform has evolved from last year’s version: It has become more accessible, with more resources and more presentations. All things considered, the ATSA conference team was able to accomplish much more this year.

Some attendees will note some technology glitches such as occasional sound issues and confusion with surveys. In our view, glitches are part of the conference experience. David, for example, recalled the time a workshop room in a conference was flooded and the day’s sessions had to be relocated. On other occasions, there have been times when a presenter’s microphone would end up connected to the PA system in the next room. Add to that the other logistical challenges that can occur, and the only thing missing was the unanticipated meetings of old and new friends in the hallways of conference venues. As we recently blogged, there are good reasons we look forward to in-person conferences. This was the best alternative possible.

In contrast to last year, all the talks and workshops being captured and made available on-demand as the time difference was a significant challenge for international attendees. The conference had a full day of pre-con sessions on Wednesday with the conference proper happening on Thursday and Friday. There were two plenary addresses (Mark Olver and Michiel de Vries RobbĂ© first, followed by Jill Levenson) and over 72 workshop sessions with over 100 individual presentations, 20 poster presentations, online discussion/interest groups, an exhibition hall, chat lounge, online bookstore, and a virtual hospitality suite. A pre-recorded awards ceremony congratulating the Pre-Doctoral Research Grant Recipients (Emily Calobrisi, Christian Mannfolk, Lee Vargen, Anna Vasaturo), the ASA Fellows (12 in total this year), the distinguished contribution award (Jacqueline Page), and career achievements of Ron Langevin, who (among other achievements) started the journal that became today’s Sexual Abuse.  

The platform was easy to access and navigate, with the on-demand function allowing people to attend as many workshops as possible after the fact, which is particularly relevant for international delegates because of the time difference (for instance, Kieran is based in the UK and eight hours ahead and Kasia is based in Belgium, a full nine hours ahead). Additionally, it means that attendees can view as many workshops as they please, as the on-demand service is available for 30 days after the end of the conference. What follows are some of our individual conference highlights.

David was particularly impressed by the format of the Tuesday members-only plenary address, which featured James Cantor interviewing and interacting with Ainslie Heasman, Craig Harper, and Rob Olver. The discussion was lively, the pace was engaging, and the information would not have been available in any other format.

One of the most obvious highlights was the improved poster presentations and sessions, being able to watch the video footage, view the poster, and have an online Q&A with the authors was brilliant. Attendees felt that they could experience these sessions at their own pace, take them in, and not feel rushed. This is part of the online conference experience that improved upon the in-person version. As such, it begs the question, do we need to adapt the traditional poster sessions?

In sum, ATSA 2021, delivered remotely, was a well-oiled machine that learned from 2020’s experience. The ATSA staff and conference team did a brilliant job of pulling together a successful conference, in an innovative way, that allowed the ATSA family to reconnect in troubling times. Although many of us long to see our international colleagues back, many also indicate that these online editions made attending possible given that they couldn’t afford to travel before. These new attendees beg ATSA to organize another online conference or a hybrid conference. So, as we look to ATSA 2022 we start to think about what that holds, with a preliminary announcement that it will be in person in Los Angeles, but will it all be in person or a hybrid approach?