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Posts Tagged ‘sexual abuse’

If you’re in favour of the continued criminalisation of drugs, and you support law enforcement’s efforts to punish those people you’re defining as criminals, be aware of something.

People are doing what you want, in your name, on your mission, in a way that is cruel, unconscionable, vicious, and should make you feel ill.

A New Mexico woman claims she suffered for weeks after a Bernalillo County corrections officer strip-searched her and sprayed mace in her vagina.

Sadism” is exactly the right word, in fact.

This isn’t an unfortunate side effect of a necessary policy. This isn’t a tragic but unavoidable consequence of a general strategy which it’s important we maintain. And this sure as fuck isn’t an isolated incident.

This is just abuse. There’s not even a morally commendable goal being worked towards in unpalatable ways. If anything’s evil, this is.

Now, if you support drug criminalisation policies, you didn’t do this. You haven’t assaulted anyone. You didn’t ask for any police officers to sexually assault anyone on your behalf.

But you really should look into some ways of supporting the policies you want to see enacted, which won’t tacitly endorse the whimsical torture of the innocent.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Is it conceivable, even in theory, that a “war on drugs” might be effective in its goals without shit like this being commonplace?

2. How many individual instances of hard drug use do you think lead directly to physical effects more traumatic and unpleasant than being subjected to a forced anal probe or being pepper-sprayed in the vagina?

3. What the fuck is wrong with America, seriously, I mean, Jesus, you know?

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This right here is what I mean about the police.

If you’re a cop and you sexually assault a kid in Texas, you will serve less time behind bars than if you are a woman who has consensual sex with adults; you’re better off having a badge and a rape conviction than a vagina and consent.

It’s not that the police are all terrible people who do bad things. The fact that a particular police officer sexually molested a young girl is, I suspect, largely independent of his career choices.

But the police, as an institution, have a role of particular power and privilege in society which isn’t questioned enough. The prevailing attitudes around them seem to be such that they get off lighter for serious abuses of trust and power than the rest of us would.

Their authority makes it harder for accusations to be made against them, and for prosecutions like this to be successfully brought. There needs to be a sea change in the relationship between cops and everyone else. Part of that change is saying fuck the police, without losing our humanity.

Hey, remember when I was mostly just interested in how a lot of other people believe in God?

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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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This article from TIME begins with the phrase “The latest sex-abuse case to rock the Catholic Church”.

After checking the date and seeing that it was posted just over a week ago, I still wasn’t sure if this was going to be actual news, or just yet another in a long list of old stories I’ve already heard about.

A headline about a sex-abuse case that rocked, say, Microsoft, would be an eye-catching novelty. The slightly exciting and immoral sex lives of footballers are still making massive news at a time when nobody could possibly be surprised by something as dull as celebrity infidelity.

But the Catholic Church being involved in the institutional molestation of children? Eh, I heard about that already.

Father Riccardo Seppia was allegedly recorded on tape saying the following words to a Moroccan drug dealer:

I do not want 16-year-old boys but younger. Fourteen-year-olds are O.K. Look for needy boys who have family issues.

He is also said to have traded cocaine and money for sexual encounters with boys.

This is all particularly embarrassing for the Cardinal of Father Seppia’s archdiocese, who has recently been working with the Pope on “reforms to respond to prior scandals of pedophile priests”.

Yeah.

I think for something to invoke outrage, it needs to be somehow shocking. And this just isn’t, these days. Which is sad.

But don’t let’s get sidetracked from the important issues here. There are some monasteries out there were the monks and nuns are said to engage in regular sessions of dancing. Now that’s the kind of ungodly abomination that the Pope needs to put a stop to immediately. It’s a matter of priorities, people.

And remember the advice of Bill Donohue of the Catholic League: what really matters is that it’s not technically pedophilia, because many of these victims were post-pubescent.

Just in case you were forming an unfairly low opinion of the Catholic priests who’ve been using drugs to pay for 14-year-olds to have sex with.

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