Posts Tagged ‘child abuse’

Once you get past the sweeping generalisation that anyone who’d do anything so horrid to our poor kiddies is an inhuman monster, and grow up beyond an automatic guttural lurch of disgust and vengeance at the mere mention of childhood and sexuality in the same breath, you can start to imagine why paedophiles might deserve your compassion.

You’re not supposed to draw a parallel between homosexuality and a predilection for pre-teens, because it’s usually only homophobic idiots who make them. But consider one similarity that can exist.

Many gay people go through much of their life being told by the world, and believing profoundly, that their innate and unavoidable sexual drives are sinful, dirty, wrong, and evil. Some are driven to denial, or celibacy, or suicide. Some try to resist engaging in the sexual practices in question, and fail, and fall further into deep self-loathing. Some come to accept that this is just the way they are.

I daresay a lot of child abusers feel the same. Many try to repress their feelings; many can’t; many convince themselves that there are no ethical issues worth worrying themselves about in what they do, or are driven so strongly that their moral concerns get pushed aside and ignored, at least some of the time.

In neither case is demonisation of individuals a satisfactory solution. Telling people that something inside them corrupts their very being and renders them irredeemably evil is best left to Christianity. So how best to address these sexual drives?

For homosexuality, the answer’s simple (at least in theory; the execution is taking some time). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with same-sex attraction. It can be embraced as fully as any other expression of positive feelings between consenting adults, and all guilt about it can be abandoned entirely. Take the same care as anyone else would for safety and respect for personal autonomy, and you’re grand.

Those who are sexually attracted to children don’t get quite such an easy answer. The actions to which their urges drive them are simply unacceptable. Children cannot knowingly consent to sexual acts. If we tell people who experience such drives that, while we can’t condone them acting on their natural urges, we feel no less respect or love for them as human beings, they’re probably not going to be wholly content to leave it there.

Which is where chemical castration comes in.

There’s a pilot study being conducted at the moment in Nottingham, on around 100 male sex offenders. They’re being treated with a drug which inhibits testosterone production, and early evidence from Europe provides hope about its effects on decreasing recidivism.

(Incidentally, I think the label “chemical castration” is an unfortunate one. I’m not aware of the details of either procedure, but there seems to be about as much connection between this drug treatment and surgical orchidectomy, as there is between male and female “circumcision”.)

I know that not all sex offenders are very like the tortured souls I’ve described. Maybe of them engage in morally reprehensible behaviours without compunction, and concerns have been raised that this procedure won’t kerb underlying violent attitudes. There’s no doubt this is a partial solution at best, but you don’t have to look far among any gay community to find members who fervently wish they could just take a pill to make their “sin” disappear, and be “normal”. It’s hard not to extrapolate and wonder how many child abusers want the same thing, and would jump at the chance to quash the desires that they know only cause anguish, to themselves and others.

The offenders all currently being treated have volunteered, and I suspect this will remain a crucial aspect. Forcing such a biological change on people for society’s benefit is a very touch one to justify, and not a conversation I’m going to attempt here. But there’s a long and noble history behind temporarily hobbling yourself in some small way to stop yourself getting distracted, helping yourself reach your goals when temptation looms by simply taking will-power out of the picture.

Unplug the internet when you’ve got writing to do, so you can’t keep checking Twitter. Give your car keys to a friend, so you can’t drive home no matter how sober you know you are. Take some hormone-suppressing medication so that you don’t even think of luring a child away to do anything inappropriate.

For some people, it might be just what they need.

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That’s the key phrase in this story, the one that should make it abundantly clear why this is entirely unacceptable, even before you learn that a child has died because of it.

I’m not going to spare you the grotesque mental image of a religious leader sucking the blood from the wound he’s just made in the genitalia of an infant. I will, however, spare you the photograph of this process taking place, which is visible at the above link.

The fact that some children, like the newborn described here, occasionally die from complications such as herpes is appalling. It is also, I believe, superfluous to the argument about whether old men should be allowed to slice off part of a newborn’s sexual anatomy and then slobber over the result.

Every day people wonder aloud why atheists care so much about what other people believe, and every day shit like this keeps happening. This is why we care.

Secularism is a commonly misunderstood and underappreciated attitude. Most secularists want religious people to be free to indulge their religious ideas within the widest conceivable bounds of human decency and personal liberty. But that doesn’t mean we have to countenance every barbaric practice that hasn’t yet died out, simply on the basis of its long-standing history as a cultural tradition.

Sometimes we’re not obliged to give a shit about your traditions, or your beliefs, or how you want to raise your children. Sometimes you just need to stop it, right now.

Seriously. A baby died because a religious elder mutilated him and sucked his cock. Fucking stop it.

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You know, I’m a bit uncomfortable with some of this discussion about children being sold as sex slaves.

I know, I know. Me and my crazy hang-ups.

This post on Bound, not Gagged, a blog for sex workers, is worth reading. It provides some context to some of the hyperbole around the issue of child sex trafficking in America.

Because yes, even around something as serious and terrible as child sex trafficking, hyperbole is still possible.

A number of celebrities have recently appeared in short filmed segments as part of a big campaign against this scourge, which has cited a figure of 100,000 to 300,000 for the number of children currently involved in sex trafficking in America. That’s an utterly horrifying idea, and may have motivated some people into some sort of action… but it’s also completely inaccurate.

If you look at those numbers and where they came from, it turns out that this is really nothing more than a guess, not backed up by any particularly vigorous science, as to how many children might potentially be at risk of some sort of abuse, sexual or otherwise.

It takes a monumental and seemingly deliberate misinterpretation of the data to start touting this as the number of children currently involved in the sex trafficking industry.

The author of the post refers to “fetishists” of child sex trafficking – meaning not those vile criminals directly involved in the activity, but those with a tendency to become zealous in their righteous campaigning against it. And it may not be an inappropriate word. It’s a subject which stirs some understandably strong emotions, and there can be a tendency to start assuming the worst, believing every half-credible factoid that comes your way which confirms the worst, and riding a wave of well-meaning indignation for as long as there’s enough (mis)information to fuel it.

A consultant involved in the campaign is quoted as saying:

I don’t frankly care if the number is 200,000, 500,000, or a million, or 100,000 — it needs to be addressed.

Which doesn’t do much to diminish the validity of the “fetishist” label. I can’t help thinking you really should care about numbers. There are more things we can do with numbers than point to how small they are and dismiss the problem, as some campaigners seem to fear is all will happen. Numbers should also have an impact on how we craft our response. If we thought there were a thousand children in sex trafficking in the US, we’d deal with it differently than if we thought there were a million.

And if you think people will only respond with enough concern to a thousand kids in sex slavery if they’re made to think there’s actually a million… well, you’re not giving your fellow humans much credit.

Perhaps part of the objection is that this kind of fact-checking downplays and dismisses the enormity of the crime in question. But if you think that the actual numbers of children suffering sexual abuse, which might be in the thousands rather than hundreds of thousands, are something that people will choose to dismiss or ignore, then you’re doing the other members of your species a rather condescending disservice. We get that it’s still horrible and deserves a response when it’s not exaggerated by a factor of a hundred.

“There are over a hundred thousand child sex slaves in this country!”
“Actually, it’s probably on the order of a thousand.”
“Why are you trying to make it sound like this isn’t an important issue?”
“Not important? Dude, there’s a thousand kids out there in sex trafficking, that doesn’t sound important to you?”

Of course, I’m veering a little close to straw-mannery here, or at least to being uncharitable. Most of the celebs involved were no doubt simply asked if they’d mind giving a little of their time to capitalise on their fame for what is unquestionably a good cause. It’d be a bit harsh to start blaming Justin Timberlake for not looking closely enough at the statistics.

And even the people claiming not to care about numbers are surely well motivated, even if they sometimes let reality get a little blurred in the face of their need to be seen to be acting nobly.

But the issue of truth is not one to be easily discarded. And if addressing something accurately doesn’t also allow us to address it better… Well, then, I just don’t know where we are.

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People don’t trust science.

And why should they? Science is devious stuff. It’s always trying to tell you that your strongly held religious beliefs are wrong, or toying with nature in a way man was never supposed to, or doing something hard to understand with big machines and long words that’s probably going to destroy the planet.

All of which is deeply offensive to the most basic human sensibilities. And worst of all is when scientists – those cold-hearted emotionless robots in white lab coats, or madmen incapable of seeing any beauty in the world who don’t care how much harm their experiments cause – try telling you that they even know what you think better than you do.

I mean, how dare they! Obviously you know your own mind. And if you woke up in the middle of the night and there was an owl on the bedpost with your mother’s face and a demon hovering over you whose genitals were singing Happy Birthday with the voice of Richard Simmons, then you know what you saw. Do these scientists think you’re crazy?

No, they don’t. Most scientists really wouldn’t tell you anything so condescending. But they do think that the human brain can be the epicentre of some pretty weird goings-on, and that the people who cohabit with these brains aren’t always in the best position to interpret what’s going on.

It’s really important to understand that, when scientists suggest that the way things seem to you might not match up perfectly with reality, they’re not being patronising or calling you stupid. There are lots of things that your brain gets wrong, which simply come with being human.

Optical illusions are a good example. These parallel lines ought to look more skewed than they really are. These white dots should appear to blink on and off somewhat disorientingly as you move your eyes around the picture. It’s to do with the way your brain processes visual information, and it’s fun finding out ways you can fool yourself.

Then there’s dreams. Chances are, your subconscious regularly makes up completely bizarre imaginary scenarios out of nowhere, and presents you with an entirely fictional version of reality – and often stops you from noticing that anything is out of the ordinary. This is so common that it’s considered unusual for anyone to say they never experience it.

But while certain very common and popularly recognised phenomena are generally accepted as just being quirks of the squishy grey stuff between our ears, some such quirks aren’t so familiar. There are some ways in which we just feel that our brains shouldn’t be able to let us down – it’s unthinkable that we shouldn’t be able to trust our own perception and intuition in certain areas. Which is why some things are harder to accept, and people may be inclined to respond to such suggestions by saying “I’m not crazy”.

And yet numerous other such phenomena are real and well understood. Some of these I’ve written about before: sleep paralysis, where you more or less continue dreaming but also can’t move; the ideomotor effect, where you find your body making tiny movements without you choosing to do so; pareidolia, where even a random mess of nonsense can throw up something that looks like an underlying pattern once in a while; and a wide range of logical fallacies, which show just how bad we can be at analysing data rationally if we’re not careful. And ignoring any of these cognitive oddities can lead you to get things wrong.

If you’re unaware of dreams, you might get some very funny looks from your co-workers on Monday when you describe how your teeth all fell out one night over the weekend but were magically back in place by the morning.

If you weren’t that hot on statistics, you might think that you’ve discovered a miraculous new remedy, when actually you just rubbed pineapple juice into your elbows three times a day until your cold got better anyway.

And if you aren’t familiar with false memory syndrome, then… well, things can get pretty horrifying.

In a way, it feels intuitive to expect your memory to be entirely accurate. If you remember something happening, that must be because it happened. What other reason could there be? But most of us regularly remember dreams, even though they didn’t happen. And most of us have, at some point, misremembered the way something took place, or disagreed with someone else about the exact details of a past event. Why would that ever happen, if human memory wasn’t prone to making serious mistakes?

The fact is, as in the case of dreams or optical illusions, we’re sometimes obliged to follow the data and mistrust what our brains tell us, in the case of memory too.

The most disturbing example of this relates to the sexual abuse of children.

Now, I need to be careful after a sentence like that. Clearly one extremely disturbing thing surrounding this topic is the actual sexual abuse of children. This is by no means a trivial or minor side issue, and I wouldn’t want any of my surrounding discussion to come across as apologist or dismissive of any serious cases of this.

And yet, precisely because it’s such a serious and heated issue, the occasions when people get unfairly tangled up in it are themselves especially serious, and merit particular scrutiny.

With that in mind, the history of false memory syndrome as regards childhood sexual abuse is quite horrific.

In fact, the whole idea of repressed memories that need “recovering” in therapy is controversial. People who’ve suffered through a childhood trauma often experience something like post-traumatic stress disorder, where the problem isn’t that they can’t remember what happened, but that they keep remembering it, and re-living it, constantly. If you don’t remember a particular childhood trauma, that’s probably because it didn’t happen to you…

…but that won’t necessarily stop you from “recovering” the memories in therapy anyway.

An article by Elizabeth Loftus reports some very disturbing specifics. A woman seeing a psychiatrist in 1986 became convinced that she had suffered serious physical and sexual abuse as a child, and that she was uncovering memories of “having been in a satanic cult, of eating babies, of being raped, of having sex with animals and of being forced to watch the murder of her eight-year-old friend”. Another woman, after therapy sessions with a church counsellor, “remembered” having been repeatedly raped by her father and forced to perform abortions on herself twice. On medical examination, it was shown that she had never been pregnant, and was apparently still a virgin. (I know the latter point isn’t always obvious from examination, but it was clear she hadn’t undergone anything like the several years of regular sexual assault that she was reporting.)

These two women both sued their therapists, and received seven-figure out-of-court settlements, and they’re not alone. But the damage this sort of intervention can do if the results are taken at face value is almost unimaginable. Meredith Maran has had to deal with the fact that her family spent years in turmoil because of her accusations that her father had abused her. In her case, this entirely false impression didn’t even result from any therapy sessions or hypnotic suggestion, but apparently just from being immersed in a sort of “incest survivor culture” for so long.

I don’t want to downplay the fact that, for many people, all kinds of abuse, sexual or physical or psychological, in childhood or adolescence or adulthood, is a very real and terrible problem. These people don’t need things made even worse for them by an exacerbation of any victim-blaming culture, or the worry that they’ll be accused of making it all up if they speak up and ask for help.

But, at the same time, our appreciation for critical thought shouldn’t just fly out the window because a serious accusation has been made.

A self-help book that was recently being promoted by the Church of England was criticised by scientists for its failure to take false memory syndrome into account. It told readers things like “If you are unable to remember any specific instances… but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did”. They’re putting forward “a feeling” as solid evidence that you were sexually assaulted as a child and just don’t remember it. This is incredibly reckless and irresponsible, especially given how much we now understand about the role of suggestibility in forming false memories that seem entirely real.

The main thing to take away is that memories don’t always relate to genuine events with perfectly reliable consistency. We have good evidence that the recollection of perfectly ordinary and totally sane people can be completely wrong, despite how real and reliable such memories feel. This is not a dangerous thing to know. It is not intrinsically antagonistic to genuine abuse victims for us to be aware of this. Understanding false memory syndrome should only give us a better chance of approaching the truth, by letting us more closely estimate the likelihood of the testimony being false, when assessing unlikely claims about demonic cults and baby-eating.

Helpful sources and further reading:

The Skeptic’s Dictionary
Chris French in the Guardian
Cracked (what, you thought I was being scholarly?)
The British False Memory Society
The False Memory Syndrome Foundation

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Turns out the Pope is unequivocally against child abuse. Well, that is reassuring. He must be a man of truly impeccable moral fibre to take such a bold stand.

Dubai bans cross-dressing. Well, that’s the headline, but the second paragraph says that anyone “who behaved like the opposite gender in public” is in trouble. I hope the actual law defines its terms a little more clearly, otherwise there could be big problems. Also, this was supposedly sparked by a British couple being caught having sex on a public beach. Quite how the horrific evil of a bloke in a dress relates to this, I cannot tell. Also, no way is “tranvesiticism” a word.

Some Bishops are accused of promoting a “false teaching that justifies sin in the name of Christianity”. Yeah, those damn sinners who insist on working on the Sabbath, eating figs, wearing garments made of two different kinds of cloth… oh wait, not those kinds of “unbiblical” practices. The ones you don’t like. About women and gays. Gotcha.

Another Nazi very nearly bagged and ready to be brought to captivity, where he will be placed in a zoo and encouraged not to breed. I just love the idea that there are people in the world today who fill out official forms to read “Occupation: Nazi-hunter”. It just makes you picture a guy with one of those big game hunter hats, creeping through foliage with a tranquiliser gun following swastika-tracks, doesn’t it?

And through Pharyngula, news that the mayor of Aberystwyth in Wales wants to overturn a ban on the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which was imposed by the town in 1979 when the film was first released, and is technically still in place. Yes, it’s been a while, and it may seem an odd time to be doing something about this now all of a sudden. One of the precipitating factors may be that the mayor, Sue Jones-Davies, was in the film. She played Judith Iscariot, Brian’s girlfriend. That’s her there, in a somewhat NSFW state of attire at around 2:02. Awesome.

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Two primary school girls in Melbourne were among those sexually abused by a Catholic priest over a five-year period. It started for them twenty years ago; the elder of the two was 26 years old when she committed suicide earlier this year.

In 1996, the priest who had repeatedly raped these girls was convicted of the abuse of twelve children aged between 8 and 14, between 1946 and 1977. Unless that’s a dramatic typo in the article, that means he’d been molesting children since before my father was born. And that it was nearly five decades before he was ever convicted of a crime.

But that’s not – wait, no, that’s totally the worst part. But if you thought it’d be hard to further fuck up a situation in which a supposed bastion of moral rectitude has been raping eight-year-olds for half a century… oh, ye of little faith.

The father of these two girls, having spent eight years of legal wrangling to win some kind of financial compensation – compensation which is capped, in a system introduced by the Cardinal who was Archbishop of Melbourne during the years in question, at A$50,000 (£24,000) – is still less than wholly mollified. He wants an apology from the Pope, and from this Cardinal.

Bishop Anthony Fisher is a spokesman for something called World Youth Day, a generally positive-sounding festival currently going on in Sydney. His response when asked for an opinion on all this reads as follows:

“Happily, I think most of Australia was enjoying, delighting in the beauty and goodness of these young people, rather than dwelling crankily, as a few people are doing, on old wounds.”

Dwelling crankily. On old wounds.

A father whose two daughters were driven to alcohol addiction and suicide by years of sexual abuse is being described, by the spokesman for a major Catholic Church event and a Bishop in the Church, as being “cranky” for still talking about this.

Oh. Your. Fucking. God.

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