Category Archives: Media Missteps

An Intolerable Glimmer and an Intolerable Focus on Controlling Women: Why I Still Fight Victim-Centered Rape Prevention

The “glimmer” is one of doubt. It’s the doubt that’s created when we analyze a rape perpetrated on a victim who was drunk, dressed seductively, or engaged in whatever behavior we have adjudged unwise and foolish. It’s a glimmer that allows for the blaming- ever so slightly, but still substantively- of the victim. It’s a glimmer that allows for the exoneration- ever so slightly, but still substantively- of the offender.

That’s what victim-centered rape prevention does. Regardless of how well-intentioned. Regardless of how coldly logical. Regardless of the reservoir of love and benevolence that lies behind it. Regardless. It still serves to create the glimmer. And the glimmer is too much.

See, we can claim we’re not blaming victims all we want when we advise seemingly obvious and demonstrably effective means of prevention. It does not matter; the effect still serves to blame victims and protect offenders. Why? Because sexual violence is a crime different from any other.

Read that again. Rape is categorically, undeniably in a class by itself. When one person attacks another sexually, the crime is analyzed differently than any other. Since criticizing Emily Yoffe’s State pieces earlier this week (her pieces are here and here) , I have received dozens of messages from people who construct analogies to other crimes to describe why her key advice (control your drinking) is simply sound advice and not victim blaming, regardless of how unfair it might seem. Others shake their heads and tell me I can wish for a kinder, fairer world all I want, but they’ll be damned if they won’t tell their daughters and sons exactly “what not to do” in order to protect them.

That’s understandable. But here is an undeniable truth: Leave aside my belief that all that advice, even if it works in many situations, also potentially opens up the hearers to other vectors of attack. For those who would still prefer to create rules and encourage loved ones to follow them in order to best play the odds, I will challenge them on at least one aspect of their thinking: They cannot avoid a charge of victim-blaming by claiming they would give similar advice to anyone in order to avoid, say, robbery (by walking on well-lit streets), or car theft (by locking doors).

Rape isn’t like robbery, car theft, or even murder. Sex, and how we view it, doesn’t allow for that.

The nature of sexuality in our culture (and most others) does not allow for it to be analogized to any other crime. The nuances and complexities of sexual interaction, seduction, flirtation, gender roles, the intensely private and culturally shame-based nature of the whole subject, the relation of the sexual organs to the excretory ones, the continued prizing of “purity,” etc, etc, etc, all combine to make sexual crime one that is always analyzed differently from any other.

So the danger of tipping the scales even a tiny bit and judging victim choices, thus marginally exonerating offenders, is magnified with sexual crime.

Another hard truth: The further we dig into the nature of sexual crime, the further we must dig into the nature of sex itself. And that means taking an honest look at gender roles, expectations, and deep-seated fears and obsessions that have shaped how society judges, treats, confines, punishes and subjugates women.

Read that again also, if you would. Far too much of the debate concerning how women can and should protect themselves from men is polluted with the continuing and still deeply unresolved obsession that men (and some women as well) still have with women as sexual beings. Our major religions, our societal structures, our laws, customs and mores. How many are hyper-focused on controlling female sexuality? When we can answer that question honestly and accurately, we’ll have uncovered much of what is wrong with how we seek to prevent rape.

That, in a nutshell, is why I find even the best intentioned, victim-centered prevention strategists to be ultimately wrong-headed. Try as they might, they are still tipping the scales. They are still creating doubt. As a prosecutor, that’s a thing I was trained very carefully to avoid when justice is on the line.

Emily Yoffe, Like Most Misinformed People, Won’t Get It. Maybe Ever.

Emily Yoffe is frustrated by the backlash against her well-intentioned but ill-considered original Slate piece from last week, but apparently emboldened by the support she’s received from other well intentioned and ill-informed supporters.

Yoffe, like many others, sees a reduction in drinking (on college campuses especially) as the key to reducing sexual assaults against women. Indeed, the answer seems startlingly clear to Ms. Yoffe, as if she’s sounding an alarm that those around her infuriatingly cannot hear:

Women! Stop drinking! You’re making yourselves vulnerable!

It seems so obvious. A woman (or a man for that matter) who decides, for whatever reckless, juvenile, or ill-advised reasons, to drink to excess, is making herself/himself vulnerable in a cruel and unpredictable world. That’s the seemingly clear-as-glass conclusion at which Yoffe and many like her have arrived.

My perspective is that of a former special victims prosecutor, so I suppose I must ask myself: Haven’t I seen countless cases in which objectively “bad” victim behavior (like heavy drinking) “led to victims being raped?”

Here’s the naked truth: I have worked with victims- male and female- who were raped during or after behavior that might have been judged unwise. But I have never seen a victim who was raped because of that behavior. I’ve only seen victims who were raped for the one, single, incontrovertible reason that all victims are raped:

Because someone chose to rape them. 

This is where Yoffe gets lost. Granted, it’s a subtle distinction and one I also had to absorb over time. It was a brilliant and irreverent PhD psychologist (Nikki Vallerie) who finally clued me in to a simple and profound truth: There is no vulnerability without danger.

A woman can skip through a big city park at midnight in a G-string made of sewn-together $100 bills. She will not be vulnerable- in other words, she won’t be at risk for the slightest victimization of any kind- even a criticism of her clothing choice- unless someone in her environment means to victimize her.

Let that sink in. No one is at risk, regardless of what they do or don’t do, if no one around them means them harm.

But the Yoffe’s of the world believe they’ve figured it all out and claim victory when it comes to policing bad or reckless behavior, believing the key to preventing most- if not all- sexual violence means the prevention of such behavior because of the “dangerous world” we all inhabit.

Indeed, the world is a dangerous place. But here are two critical areas where Yoffe and her ilk fail in their analysis and admonitions.

1. Women (and men) can be (and are) sexually victimized in the most “innocent” of circumstances, i.e., a day-time study group, a church function, an alcohol-free event or movie date. So warnings against “late night, drunken date rape” only protect victims from one type of rape- and could actually expose them to further harm as they’ll be unprepared for any other scenario other than what they’ve been warned against.

2. Rapists thrive on and celebrate- whether or not they do so consciously- the very rules of “wise and protective behavior” that Yoffe and her compatriots have so fervently and self-righteously promulgated.

The reasons are simple, and devastating.

First, as I alluded to before, a laundry list of things not to do will simply clear the path for the rapist who will rape after church, on a simple, alcohol-free DVD movie date, after a study session, or pretty much whenever he can isolate a victim who believes she (or he) has protected her/himself in every imaginable way from harm.

Second, the man who chooses to a rape a person who has “broken” a finger-wagging protective rule that society soberly approves of, knows full well that he’ll most likely never be accused of that crime.

Why? Because, thanks to the self-satisfying proclamations of the Yoffes of the world, his victim broke a rule and “got herself raped.”

Therefore, and as he well knows, she might not even be believed if she does report. But she’ll definitely be blamed even if she is. That will most likely keep her quiet. And so it goes.

Want to stop rape? Focus on rapists.


The “Re-homing” of Children Issue: A Response

Last week, I was contacted privately by an individual who was familiar with “re-homing,” also through an Internet group that included the participation of adoptive parents, some of whom were seeking to get rid of their children, and prospective “parents” looking to procure them.

The person who contacted me is also an adoptive parent, appears to be a dedicated one, and largely regrets any cooperation she might have given to the “re-homing” process. But while she acknowledges the failures and the risks, she still believes there is justification for the attempts some make at abandoning children to others with power of attorney, largely from the perspective of a desperate parent with a dangerous or unmanageable adoptive child. Since she contacted me privately I will not identify her and will do my best to avoid referring to facts that might also do so. But I believe a portion of my response to her is relevant to a further examination of the issue of “re-homing” and how dangerous and utterly thoughtless it can be. So here it is:

I understand your position that not enough resources exist for adoptive parents who find themselves with children who have theretofore unknown problems (or ones hidden from them) that make them not only unmanageable, but also perhaps a danger to themselves and their families. Still, I have little sympathy for adoptive parents in this situation who resolve it by dumping their children (I will not use the phrase “re-homing” without mocking quotes) with strangers and in the most dangerous of potential circumstances.

Adoption is among the most profoundly sobering decisions a prospective parent can make. I’m sure you understand this better than I as you have actually taken this step and appear to be doing so with love and decency. In my view, no prospective parent should ever consider adoption without also having the resources to address every possible type of problem, foreseeable and unforeseeable. If an adopted child becomes a danger to themselves, the parents or other siblings, and must be removed from the parents’ home, then the parents need to be financially prepared to seek institutional care for them, if necessary, but not while disowning them. If the best interests of the child and the family both appear to be in dissolving the adoptive relationship, then it should be attempted only through a formal, legally recognized process. 

You may not know well the tactics of predators who seek out children to exploit, harm or kill, but I can assure you that a “re-homing” platform is among the most powerful and gratifying vectors to what they would consider perfect victims. I say “perfect” because a predator could scarcely imagine a better scenario than parents desperate to pawn off an unwanted child- most likely a child who is emotionally and/or physically compromised to the point where they are virtually powerless to seek help or redress from any type of abuse.  It is a fact that child predators, like all things that hunt, seek the path of least resistance and greatest security. The legal ability to abandon a vulnerable (indeed, perhaps even objectively unlikable) child to a complete stranger with a pro-forma legal document is the clearest imaginable example of those two favored circumstances.

This fact alone makes “rehoming” reckless, cruel, and thoroughly abhorrent, even without considering the less sensational risks of simply unprepared and hopeful parents accepting a “re-homed” child and being even less able to properly care for her or him. Within the “re-homing” universe, what is the incentive for the abandoning parent to be honest about the true extent of the child’s problems (or potential dangers to others) to begin with? The system is about dumping human beings on others, plain and simple. No one should get near it. You shouldn’t have either. 

In a letter you shared with me, you rhetorically asked this question to the author of the original Reuters story: “Why are parents resorting to informal networking groups to help them with adoptions that are failing? Because there are no resources.  Because of societies preconceived notions that these kids just need love, a good family, etc. and all will be well.  Tell that to the mother who finds her daughter raping a sibling with a pencil, tell that to the father who finds out his daughter is giving blow jobs to his 4 year old.  Tell that to the family who has to sleep with their bedroom doors locked because they fear for their lives.”

What I would tell a family in a situation like the ones you describe above is that they are still parents, not renters of human beings. They may have to lock doors. They may have to maintain distance between individuals within the house for the safety of everyone. They may have to very carefully seek out institutional care for their wounded child. They may have to seriously curtail or refine their own goals, dreams and priorities. I don’t claim to know the difficulty of parenting, either my own child or an adoptive one. But I know quite well to not make such a monumental decision without being ready to accept and deal with everything that might befall me- and the rest of my family- if I choose to do so.

“Re-Homing.” Child Abandonment Becomes a Predator’s Providence

Reuters Investigates has released a stomach-turning series on children offered on Internet forms by adoptive parents wanting rid of them. They find ready takers, often abusive predators, and abandon them with power-of-attorney documents. The dumping happens in most cases after little or no vetting of the “new parents,” and often takes place in parking lots. It’s called “re-homing,” a term sometimes used regarding transferring unmanageable pets.

Quick aside: My only criticism of the piece is the unfortunate tendency of the authors to ape the language of the perpetrators and refer to this system of abandonment as “re-homing.”

As a prosecutor, I was in the business of gradating evil, and and so I’ll offer a rough hierarchy of such to this “system:”  Atop is the human virus Nicole Eason and her pedophile and abusive associates. Eason, a miserably failed parent and life-long child abuser, has been on the receiving end of the abandonment process as much as possible. Below her and her fellow scorpions on this hierarchy are the adoptive parents willing to abandon children to strangers after a brief exchange of emails and photos. Below them, having unerringly followed the well-intentioned-paved road to hell, are those who have “moderated” the forums involving child “re-homing” in the first place.

The willingness of participants on all three levels to be interviewed, frankly, shocks me almost as much as what they did. Eason makes statements about cruelty and violence against children (she calls it parenting) the way one might describe a golf swing. The individuals on the other side of this reckless and selfish transaction- the ones who first procured children through the often grueling process of legal adoption and then dumped them- should move our entire society to revisit how we’re assigning adoption candidates in the first place. Above a fully recognizable photograph of Glenna Mueller, for instance (a “professional parent” who survives on government subsidies provided for children she adopts), is this quote about a child she abandoned to the grotesque couple of Randy Winslow (a pedophile and child pornography trader) and Nicole Eason:

“I was a little concerned about Randy,” Mueller recalls today. “He never said anything. He spent time with (the boy) and played with him but didn’t interact with me…. But as long as they were on the up-and-up I was OK with them taking him. It was like, get him out of here.”

Perhaps I should have more sympathy for the abandoning adoptive parents- the stories of whom are a part of the piece- apparently finding themselves desperate enough to dump their children with people like Eason. But I don’t. At least one family interviewed admitted they could have turned their charge over to protective services, but would have had to pay child support for her until she was 18. So instead they trusted Eason and her partner, both of whom gave them the creeps when they came for her, but sent her anyway. Others, including a police officer, claimed to be genuinely deceived by Eason. But I suspect he, like most of them, largely saw what he wanted to see and ran with it.

If there is any reservoir of sympathy for a player here, if might be for people like Megan Exon, a moderator for a time of the forums that feed adoptive children to waiting vampires like Eason and Winslow. Exon, who had no training in adoptions or social work, thought it a nice idea to “introduce” parties interested in trading children. She appears stupidly naive, not cynical or predatory. But whatever her intentions, she facilitated abuse and emotional torture, and all knowingly under the radar of the child protection system. Predators view these forums like providence itself; they could scarcely script a more perfect scenario than helpless, often compromised children with guardians seeking to pawn them off.

I’ve written before on this subject and been challenged for not fully appreciating what adoptive parents go through when hope-filled adoptions become nightmares. That may be. But whatever the suffering of these adoptive parents, it doesn’t approach the suffering of the children they chose to bring into their lives. Sending them out of their lives, like trash and to monsters, isn’t making that suffering any less bearable.

On Adolescent Sexual Exploitation: Room for Nuance, Not for Compromise

I should be more nuanced on the nettlesome issue of adolescent sexuality, I’m told. It’s not cut and dry, and my tone is often unyielding. Perhaps.

I limit myself to 700 words in this space out of respect for my readership and in acknowledgement of the hundreds of other demands on their time and opportunities to spend it. If I had more space, I’d be more circumspect and more exploratory of opposing points of view, at least where I thought arguments had merit. No one comes close to possessing all the answers on human sexuality, what is objectively abusive, and what should be considered punishable by law. I’m no exception.

In fairness, the issue of adolescent and adult sexual contact is particularly difficult to categorize uniformly. I sat on a Huffington Post Live panel last month where I discussed the issue with three well-known psychologists, all of whom agreed (as do I) that the “age of consent” to sexual intercourse in US jurisdictions has less to do with inherent rightness and more to do with an arbitrary cut-off for various cultural, historical and political reasons. I’ve known 15 year-old kids who could make thoughtful, informed and logical choices about sexual contact, and 25 year-old developmentally normal adults who absolutely could not. The age of consent in most of the US hovers around the age of majority, another number we’ve picked to differentiate the comparatively protected world of a child from the colder and more unforgiving one navigated by adults.

When it comes to sexual contact between even older minors and adults, though, there are at least a few key points that, for me, make these “relationships” exploitive and toxic far more often than my detractors who see Americans in particular as “hysterical,” “Victorian”, etc. In no particular order:

1. The issue is usually less about age and more about power, control, and authority. I would not likely advocate for sex-offender registration or a felony conviction for an adult within a few years age of his or her minor sexual partner- assuming a relationship based on more or less equal footing. Stacey Rambold, the Montana teacher whose paltry sentence recently sparked outrage, was  [slightly] less culpable in my mind for being 35 years the senior of his victim than he was for being her educator. Teachers have power over students both in terms of what they can practically affect in their lives and superior insights about navigating adult life. We properly condemn and criminalize crossing this line. It’s not wrong because it’s illegal. It’s illegal because it’s wrong.

2. The still organically forming adolescent brain should at least be a factor in how we view a minor’s ability to engage equally with an especially far older adult. Nothing magical happens within the brain to end adolescence at 18. But the fact is, teenagers are more impulsive, more brash and less self-controlled and than adults. Adults should know better and act thusly. 18 is still arbitrary. But it’s not baseless.

3. What we have traditionally viewed as basically “harmless” where adult-child sexual contact is concerned is continually being challenged and rightfully so. The elite Horace Mann school in New York City, like countless institutions the world over, was apparently rife with sexual abuse by teachers on minor students for literally decades. To the extent people knew of it, I’m sure some considered it a quirk of the place, the price paid for such a dynamic and interesting faculty, a simple right of passage, or any number of things. Far too many of the victims of this “quirk” think differently, and are now responding in droves, decades after being seriously harmed with impunity.

There is room for nuance, particularly with regard to the application of the criminal law. I was never a mindless hammer in a court of law and I have welcomed the insight of the psychological community when trying to do justice in this regard. Increasingly, I believe my still-active colleagues are doing the same thing.

But I won’t yield so quickly to counter-arguments on the “harmlessness” of “fuzzier” sexual boundaries between adults and children. For one, I know better. For another, I know the motives of a dangerous few who are making them. See NAMBLA for a reference.