Tag Archives: child abuse

An Inconvenient Truth About Pedophilia: It’s a Curse, Not a Choice

6028playground_swingA friend sent me this link to a New York Times op-ed on pedophilia, the technical term for the DSM-Vparaphilic mental health diagnosis that describes a person (usually a male), sexually interested only in pre-pubescent children.

Apparently, the DSM itself (the “bible” of mental health professionals) will not describe pedophilia as a sexual orientation, but rather a paraphilic disorder. This is basically a sexual predilection detrimental to the object of the interest, and which causes the sufferer significant distress or difficulty dealing with it. Since pedophiles are solely, sexually focused on prepubescent children, any manifestation of the disorder will be- in essence- harmful and unacceptable. Rightfully, we punish such manifestations, including consumption of child pornography as well as “hands-on” offending.

Regardless, I know of no reputable mental health expert who would call pedophilia a “choice.” When it comes to the persistent, chronic sexual attraction to prepubescent children, what we’re dealing with is more of a burden.

Or more bluntly, a curse.

What’s chosen is behavior.  Sexual behavior involving prepubescent children should remain 1) anathema to what is societally acceptable, and 2) severely punished. I’ve spent a career seeking to do these things.

But the author of the op-ed makes valid points when she discusses the need to understand pedophilia instead of just aiming vitriol and anger toward those saddled with this miserable circumstance. There are, as she notes, people with pedophilia who do not act out in response to deep-seated urges. They understand the concrete wrongness of sexually acting out against children, so they painfully but dutifully deny themselves a sexual life.

In my opinion, with a career of seeking to protect children from child molesters behind me, I believe these successfully restrained people should be commended for this, particularly when their concern is more for the children they might harm as it is for the legal or societal consequences they might face. Certainly, they should not be further marginalized, ostracized, or hated. But regardless of how balanced any appeal to common sense or baseline compassion might be, hatred and viciousness are usually what pedophiles encounter.

And so they remain in the shadows, untreated and more deeply misunderstood.

We still have almost no idea what causes pedophilia; correlations between childhood experiences (abusive or non-abusive) have been at best inconclusive. If it’s genetic, we’ve yet to discover a traceable etiology. We know that the vast majority of victims of childhood sexual abuse do not turn around themselves and abuse later in life or “become” pedophiles. Rather, it seems more ingrained, but we don’t know why or how.  We also know that, while most confirmed abusers will claim past sexual abuse, even the threat of a polygraph exam during treatment will bring those claims far down.

So we’re dealing with a very dangerous mystery. But largely as a society, we’re interested in nothing but punishing pedophiles, regardless of their actual status as offenders. If they have this desire, too many of us seem to believe that they’re worthy of the worst we can legally (or otherwise) dish out to them.

The comments to Dr. Margo Kaplan’s piece in the NYT are enlightening in this regard. While some applaud her for her courage in being a voice of reason, many more seem to fall into a couple of categories that, while understandable to some degree, are irrelevant. First, there are commenters who simply make legally and psychologically incorrect assertions, and lump pedophiles into the far larger subset of child molesters, most of whom are not pedophiles. Second, there are woefully unfocused comments that address the harm done to the victims of pedophiles (or people they assume are pedophiles) with no further thought.

Focusing on victims and prevention of harm is more than understandable; it’s completely appropriate and it needs to continue to be our highest priority. But we must also understand what drives offending- particularly when the drive is so despised that passion chokes that understanding.

Again- most predatory, sexual offenders are not pedophiles. The word is grossly overused and misused. Regardless, there are harmful pedophiles in our midst. We need to stop them, but in order to do so, we need to understand them.

Blind hatred won’t help. Blind hatred never helps anything.

 

 

 

Blackness and Corporal Punishment: Understandable Concerns Against Necessary Intervention

About a week ago I published a piece on what I believe is the essential wrongfulness of corporal punishment. Since then I’ve had several discussions with well-meaning and thoughtful people of color who to tend to agree with me in principle, but who also think I’m failing to appreciate some very important nuances involved. Bluntly, it’s been about how we judge- and are judging particularly in the wake of the Adrian Peterson case- black folk for the kind of parenting that has been deemed sad but also necessary for generations.

I’ve heard that I cannot possibly relate to the experience of a black person in this country, whether now or 300 years ago. This is true. I’ve heard that beating children was often done out of love and desperation until shockingly recently, because deeply loving parents of black boys in particular would rather instill fear in them than bury them, because that fear- of a white woman, a white sheriff, and a host of other things- was not present. I’ve heard that there is a still a basis for some of those fears even today. These things are also true.

Underneath it all, I’ve perceived this tone from several people of color, assuming I can put it fairly into my own words: It should not be the added prerogative of a (still) white-controlled society and criminal justice system to decide that black folk are even more criminally liable than they were before, this time for parenting as they have seen necessary for generations- particularly when it was that oppressive white society that created the need for such discipline in the first place.

In plain speech, how the hell is it just or correct that the centuries-old terrorism of white people over black people now gets to be used against them when they beat their children out of the love and fear that said terrorism created?

I really can’t argue with that. But I have to.

First, although the criminal justice system I used to actively participate in was then and is still deeply flawed, it’s the only one we have. Every decision maker in the system- cops, prosecutors, judges, probation officers, etc, need to be aware of the institutional racism and bias we can’t even fully recognize in ourselves. Although this certainly doesn’t apply to people of color in the system itself (black jurists and investigators, etc) as much as it does to people like me, it can apply to some extent. Bias is universal. We all need to be kept in check one way or another.

I don’t believe that all forms of corporal punishment should be outlawed in any event. I just think it’s wrong and unnecessary in any form. But the laws in place in every state I know of (the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse has some excellent compilations of state statutes) are fairly reasonable where the line between discipline and abuse is concerned. When crossed, it should be addressed by the civil child protection system and the criminal law.

Secondly, to confront child abuse is to understand that culture and tradition, however justified or necessary, can be used as a cruel cover. Simply put, there are people of every imaginable ethnic background who beat children not out of fear, but because they are lazy parents, or worse, because they are acting cruelly as a result of a variety of reasons, from misplaced rage to pure amusement, and using cultural support as a convenient excuse.

To the extent that anyone is unfairly using the once necessary and unfortunate but largely love-based traditions of black families against them (legally or otherwise), I agree there is a problem. The devil is in the details, but those circumstances can and should be considered when we respond to what we call child abuse. We’ve found enough reasons to jail black men in particular. I can appreciate why it seems so deeply offensive for people who look like me to suggest yet another reason for doing so.

But first and foremost, the infliction of physical pain on every child should be stopped and condemned if not made categorically illegal. History and truth matter. But children matter more.

Adrian Peterson, Culture, and Why Wrong is Still Wrong

Corporal punishment is wrong. Brutal corporal punishment of the kind Adrian Peterson is suspected of wielding against a 4 year-old child is both wrong and thankfully illegal.

But what about cultural norms- like the one espoused by Charles Barkley recently- that claim acceptance for ‘whipping,’ and imply that an unfair standard could be wielded against a traditionally oppressed minority? The answer is that those concerns are understandable. But ultimately they are excuses. And cultural excuses do not legally or morally excuse child abuse.

I was spanked (and occasionally, although rarely, worse). It was the wrong thing to do. I hold no resentment against my parents for it; they were doing the best they could with the resources and insight they had at the time. They have been honorable, loving and supportive otherwise, and gave us the tools we needed to navigate life in a largely healthy and successful manner. But the fact remains: Hitting us was unnecessary, and ultimately did more harm than good.

I have friends who remain conflicted about the value of spanking (either in terms of how it influenced them or how it might be appropriate for their children). One concern I hear is that the choice to spank could lead them to be considered ‘criminals.’ Or, if they were spanked, that their parents- most of whom were loving and decent otherwise- could be considered ‘criminal’ in retrospect.

But the issue is not a legal one when it comes to spanking within limits. This remains lawful in all states and will likely continue as such. The ‘limits’ are usually that visible marks may not be left. Generally, you can cause pain or discomfort with a hand or an object such as a paddle, but you cannot significantly bruise or scar your child.

Many of us had parents who did bruise or scar us, though. Often, they were decent, loving parents in every other important respect. But if they exceeded the limits of what is criminal today, they were dreadfully wrong, period. Of course they’re not in danger of criminal liability in most cases, and in most cases they shouldn’t be. But we can still acknowledge their failings, albeit in the context of a very different life. For those of us who were spanked within legal limits, in a planned, non-angry context (the ‘gold standard’ for corporal punishment), we can be confident and thankful that we were, in all likelihood, not deeply or permanently harmed by the experience.

Regardless, that experience is not necessary. And the risks outweigh the benefits.

The bottom line seems to be that there is conflicting evidence on whether spanking is hurtful and leads to more aggression, anger, dysfunction, etc. But I know of no evidence suggesting that hitting children has measurably positive outcomes, particularly in light of the physical and psychological risks (my mentor Victor Vieth wrote a great law review article on the subject).

What lingers in distinct cultural and groups and minorities, of course, is this uncomfortable notion: A form of discipline that many among them have practiced for ages will now be criminalized by the majority population. Particularly since that majority lacks a pattern of respect and fair-dealing with the minority, this is understandable. To some in minority communities (many of which are disadvantaged and disenfranchised), the threat of a powerful and moneyed majority seeking to criminalize them further for what’s always been done strikes them as unseemly, to say the least. There are also members of strict religious communities who cite scripture in support of hitting children. They, too, will understandably be concerned about a secular majority imposing its views on them despite what they believe is God-ordained.

I don’t blame either group one bit.

But still, hitting children is wrong. Objectively and essentially so. In extreme forms, like the one doled out to a toddler by Peterson, it’s rightfully condemned and legally prohibited. In mild forms, it will likely not be criminalized in the U.S. for a long time, if ever. But either way, it should be condemned and phased out permanently, regardless of cultural identity or religious imperative. The reason is simple: There is one thing which must trump cultural or religious sentiment- the welfare of individual children.

 

 

Worth Knowing in the Dylan Farrow Case: The Actual Risk of Suggestibility With Children

Tom Lyon, A law professor at the University of Southern California, has a remarkably valuable dual background when it comes to legal child protection: He’s both an attorney and a psychologist. Among the most influential contributions he’s made is this article, plainly titled “Let’s Not Exaggerate the Suggestibility of Children.”

In a child sexual abuse case, suggesting the complainant was either coached to adopt fantasy as reality, or simply did so out of confusion between the two, is a popular defense tactic. It’s particularly attractive because it doesn’t involve judging the victim or accusing her of lying.  She can be viewed as, in a sense, as much a victim as the state is claiming, but in an entirely different way.

This has, not surprisingly, been suggested over and over again regarding the allegations made by Dylan Farrow, adopted daughter of Woody Allen. Countless observers, and indeed Allen himself, have suggested that Dylan is not a devious liar, but instead a sad pawn, indoctrinated to believe a false memory in the context of a vicious divorce and custody battle.

For this reason, it’s important to understand what respected research has to say on the subject of- in fact- how suggestible children are. I’d encourage you to read the article itself if you’re interested; it’s written for a general audience and not dense or jargon-filled. But in a nutshell, here’s what the research reveals:

1. Very young children (3 and 4, which is about as young as a child can be forensically interviewed except in exceptional circumstances) can be led to adopt false memories or incorrect versions of events. But this only occurs after extreme efforts such as a very long passage of time between the actual event and the interviews, and repeated interviews over time with constant introduction of false memories. And even with these efforts, a majority of these same, very young children will maintain the actual version of events and resist efforts to conflate fantasy and reality.

2. The danger of children conflating fantasy and reality drops off sharply at around 5 or 6 years of age.

3. By the age of 10, children meeting normal developmental milestones are no more susceptible to adopting false memories than adults.

Even more interesting: The first research done on children and susceptibility (often called the “first wave”) was done by respected psychologists, but also child protection advocates and researchers who believed children were not nearly as susceptible as popular culture largely accepted. The so-called “second wave” research was conducted by equally respected psychologists who thought the first-wave researchers were being too rosy in their assessments and set out to demonstrate that children can be made to adopt incorrect or even wholly false versions of events if efforts are strong enough. They succeeded, but generally with extremely young children and through efforts that are virtually unheard of in child abuse cases. 

The bottom line is that yes, mostly toddler-aged children can be led to adopt false memories with repeated, methodical, and highly suggestive attempts to confuse them after a considerable amount of time has passed between the event and the repeated interviews. But even with these tactics, a majority of children will still maintain a a correct version of events.

Dylan Farrow was seven when she allegedly endured what she clearly describes now, at 28, as sexual abuse at the hands of Woody Allen. Describing her as a liar and a willful tool of her embittered mother even after 21 years is arguable, as it always will be. Anyone can lie, and some can lie very convincingly.

But claiming that she was simply, easily and permanently led to create a false memory- at the level of detail she now relates- is a claim utterly unsupported by the very best research on the subject, about half of it conducted by skeptical researchers suspicious of children’s abilities.

Those who believe Allen is innocent may be right; I will never know and neither will they. But neither they nor Allen himself have a right to claim that Dylan was easily confused and now sadly tied to that confusion. To believe Allen is innocent is, in all likelihood, to reject the detailed account Dylan has given, and to reject her as a liar; the worst kind.

Period.