Tag Archives: children

What’s to Blame for Josh Duggar? Institutionalism, not Christianity

What we know: Josh Duggar’s admission is great fodder against Duggar Family Values, which include anti-gay stances as well as assertions that “non-traditional” values endanger children.

What we don’t know: What created the awful urges in Josh to begin with. Those opposed to what this powerful family both believes and attempts to influence politically are triumphantly declaring things like home-schooling and hyper-religiosity to be petri dishes for the kind of sexual deviance Josh displayed as a teenager.

They’re probably wrong.

As deliciously tempting as it is for some on my side of the political spectrum to demonize the Duggars and their way of life as some sort of catalyst for awful behavior, there’s little psychological evidence to support that. In fact, Josh’s deviance was most likely not (in and of itself) the product of home schooling or any other religious dogma or tradition the Duggars took part in. Sexual deviance, as far we know at this point, does not generate that way. More likely, Josh was (or is) deviant for reasons we don’t understand, but that are probably innate (“nature”) and/or the product of his environment (“nurture”), but in a different way than we normally observe.

I am no soothsayer, but what I’ve come to understand after a career of dealing with this pathology is that it is simply everywhere. The conservative numbers (1 in 3 girls and about 1 in 6 boys) remain replicable, reliable and constant. Sexual abuse happens everywhere: Among the religious and non-religious. Among the rich, the poor, the city dweller, the farmer, etc., etc., etc. The sexual abuse of children, whether by teenagers like Josh Duggar or by more mature adults, happens continuously and universally.

Therefore, the question better asked is not “what made this happen?” but “what allowed it to flourish and continue in that particular situation?” In the case of the world of “19 and Counting,” we should look, as always, to an institution.

In Josh Duggar’s world, the institution of dogmatic, insular Christianity provided him two things: First, It made it easier for him not only to offend, but to get away with offending. Second, it did so in a manner that leaves him today free of legal consequences, still married, and still employable. Here’s how:

Whatever Josh was (or is), he grew up in a male-dominated world where “the father is the head of the family as Christ is the head of the Church.” Firstly, his was an environment that exalted a Christian-based order that, among other things, clamped down on any opposition or suggestion of “rebellion.” This very likely discouraged his victims from reporting his actions to other family members or anyone who might have made a difference. Rebellion, after all, can be perceived as anything that upsets the proverbial apple cart. This was a fact probably not lost on Josh himself as he chose his victims.

Secondly, this same Christian-based worldview necessitated, as it does with any religiously based orthodoxy, an “in-house” solution to conflict or deviant behavior within the environment. Why? Because it reinforces the idea that the religion itself has within it the answer to every problem- there is never a need to consult outside sources which are doubtlessly less pure and enlightened.

But even more dangerous is the insistence on handling matters of “conflict” within the religious environment so that the outside world will not perceive flaws or weaknesses within its structure. The Duggars likely perceive themselves, as many do in their circumstances, as holdouts against a world moving in a direction they neither trust nor respect. The last thing they want that outside world to perceive is a weakness within their structure.

It’s important to understand how these things explain (but do not excuse) the Duggar’s response to a heartbreaking and haunting problem, and why offenders like Josh Duggar can flourish in environments otherwise mortally opposed to behavior like his. But it’s equally important to understand what they don’t explain.

They don’t explain Josh’s deviance to begin with. That’s a question we dare not breezily discard with the easy answer of demonizing religion. Or culture. Or anything else. Because as far as we know, deviance poisons all of these equally.

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.




A Firemarm versus A Pencil

A common meme of gun rights enthusiasts is that if you’re going to blame guns for homicides, then you might as well blame pencils for making spelling errors.

It’s an utterly true statement. It’s also utterly meaningless.

If your three year-old picks up an unattended pencil and makes a spelling error, it’s unlikely your world will change much. In fact it’s unlikely the entire world will change much, unless your child is tasked with creating, say, a final draft of a national constitution not subject to editing. That’s not likely.

But a three year-old picking up the unattended firearm of a pathetically, inexcusably negligent parent who relishes in ostentatiously carrying it in public but then casually leaves it like junk mail on a counter?

Even that toddler will know the difference. Particularly when he reaches for and manipulates the thing that isn’t a pencil.

Maryville: Less Likely A Cover-up, More Likely a Prosecutor Not Up to the Challenge

A travesty of justice likely took place in 2012 in Maryville, Missouri regarding the rape of a 14 year-old girl by a high school senior. Because the defendant comes from a political family with ties to the local DA, charges of a conspiracy to scuttle charges have captured media attention as much as any aspect of the crime. While salacious and disturbing, I’m willing to bet they aren’t true.

That’s not to say I don’t think the defendant, now a college student who was apparently still tweeting misogynistic messages until fairly recently, didn’t benefit from who he was and where he came from. The victim and her family were also likely disadvantaged by being “outsiders” from another community. But at this point, my guess is the reality is more mundane. I don’t think the case was derailed by a coordinated effort involving the DA and law enforcement to protect Matthew Barnett because of his ties to a former legislator and sitting Congressman.

Far more likely, Robert Rice, the DA responsible for dropping first felony and then misdemeanor charges, simply felt unprepared and discouraged from taking them to trial. If so, he’s far from alone in not knowing how to make the most of good police work and common sense in a sexual abuse case involving alcohol and adolescent behavior.

I’m careful here, as I am in every case I comment on, to stress that I’ve neither considered the case the way Rice has, nor am I familiar with his jury pool and legal culture.

That said, it appears he had quite a bit to go on.

Victim Daisy Coleman was found by her mother, freezing on her porch and still intoxicated; Barnett and the group that drove her home abandoned her outside of her house in 22 degree weather. Her mother saw signs of physical distress to her ano-genital area, and an immediate report was made, the child taken to a hospital. Seven hours after her last drink, her blood alcohol content (BAC) was .13%. Inexperienced drinkers cannot generally reach a .13 without serious signs of intoxication, and she was likely much higher at the time she was raped. Barnett admitted to sexual intercourse on Daisy. A friend apparently video-taped the act. Other witnesses, including Daisy’s 13 year-old friend who was also raped (her 15 year-old assailant confessed as much), reported that Daisy was between crying and incoherent as they left Barnett’s home, and had to be carried from the bedroom. Evidence of drinking was collected the following day.

The case looks- in any legal environment in the U.S. and I have seen most of them- eminently triable. Rice was benefitted by quick and competent police work, a confession to sexual contact, and a concerned mother rightfully terrified and appalled. He dropped charges anyway. Rice says he dropped them at least in part because the Coleman’s asserted 5th Amendment privileges before a deposition, but Melinda Coleman, Daisy’s mother, insists that this was 1) only after felony charges had already been dropped and 2) a short-lived decision that she reversed the next day, agreeing to cooperate. Rice’s other reasoning involves what he calls a lack of evidence and what appeared to him as “incorrigible teenagers” drinking and having sex. If that’s truly how he feels, he has a tragic misunderstanding of the dynamics of sexual assault.

First, I’m not sure what 5th Amendment privileges could have been asserted that Rice could not have proffered immunity for in order to pursue a far more serious case. Second, if Rice thinks his case was too light on evidence to bring in good faith to a jury, I can only say that myself and others- often in very challenging legal environments- have successfully taken cases forward with less.

Rice has done the right thing by asking a judge to appoint a special prosecutor and re-open the case. The Colemans appear ready to cooperate, and I hope the new prosecutor views the case differently, assuming what I know is accurate and complete.

Whatever happens, I believe Rice’s declaration that “there wasn’t any prosecuting attorney who could take that case to trial” should be publicly proven both defeatist and inaccurate. But I’m not willing at this point to believe his motivations are worse than that.

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.