Can we prevent child sexual abuse?

The ongoing coverage about alleged peer sexual assaults at St. Michael’s College coincided with a report on CBC’s The Current about teachers’ sexual predation of Ottawa high school students which had recently come to light. These stories took me back more than 25 years to the day I found out that my son’s high school music teacher, Graham Wishart, had sexually assaulted dozens of boys over the years and had finally been charged.

Both stories raised the same issue for me: can we prevent child sexual abuse?

Over the years, I have contended that we cannot.  A person who, for whatever reason, chooses to act on their desire to manipulate a child into sexual activity, will find a way.  However, there are some measures we can take to potentially thwart abuse; and certainly measures we can take so that a child recognizes sexual abuse for what it is – and discloses.

When I started working for Toronto Public Health as a sexual health educator in 1982, sexual abuse was not on our radar.  When we did start learning about it, I found myself deeply interested.  I read several books and kept up to date with journal articles.  We invited experts to do ongoing training.

School programs began to emerge after the establishment of a special committee on child abuse, most notably, Journey from AMU (All Mixed Up).  But there was disagreement about the appropriate age to begin this education and how to measure its success.

Later programs that identified “stranger danger” and encouraged children to “say no, go and tell”, were eventually discredited.  Most children cannot say no to an adult.  In any case, over 90% of offenders are known to the child and often trusted by them.

Eventually, I designed my own lesson plan for grade five children, the last in a series on the changes of puberty, where we discussed what was OK and not OK in touching.  Then I would read a story I had written about a girl who discloses unwanted attention from her mother’s boyfriend.  This lesson plan was adopted by my colleagues.  We sometimes complemented the lesson with a film called, “No More Secrets”.  Over the years, following those classes, several students disclosed to me.  I would then contact Children’s Aid.

My colleagues and I were also running workshops for parents on raising sexually healthy children.  We would encourage them to add dictionary words for genitals to their children’s vocabulary.  I would include the story told by one parent about how she was unable to stop her abuse because she only knew the term “cookie” for her genitals.  When she told a teacher someone wanted to touch her cookie, she was reminded about sharing.

I also discussed the difference between expected and unexpected child sexual exploration.  I encouraged them to tell their children there should never be any secret touching.  I gave them resources from Boost and sometimes listened privately to their own stories.

When the story about Graham Wishart broke, several dynamics went into play.  There was mixed support for the boy who reported, as there was mixed support for Wishart.  Some teachers and parents rallied around this popular music teacher and closed ranks.  Some students did not rally around the boy who disclosed.

What this tells me is that our society was – and continues to be – remiss.  We do not ensure basic education for parents, teachers and children about child sexual abuse: how to recognize it, how it can take place once or over a period of time; and its potential sequelae.  Today, everyone is familiar with the subsequent trauma which affects some people for the rest of their lives.  Residential schools have certainly brought home that message.

Teachers have been told to curtail their physical expressions of encouragement and support to their students for fear of crossing a line.  Perhaps that has made a positive difference (aside from the negative impact on the emotional attachment to their students).  But, in Ontario, the 2015 revised sexual health curriculum, taught under Human Growth and Development, could have made a substantial change.  However, before lesson plans could be devised and implemented, the curriculum was pulled by the current government.  That curriculum included teaching grade one children dictionary words for all body parts.  It included notions of consent from an early age all the way to high school.

Teachers learn very little about sexual health education in their teacher’s college and university programs.  For years, Toronto Public Health sexual health educators played a major role training them to deliver this programming.  Some of us were also asked to do ongoing training for physical education teachers who were often designated to teach this segment of the curriculum.  But some school boards have been so apprehensive of parental backlash to the revised curriculum that they are shying away from this support.

Where does that leave kids?

Ignorance is dangerous.  Education is powerful.  It is incumbent on all of us – parents, educators, teachers and students – to ensure that we fully understand the dynamics of sexual exploitation and its effects.  We do not want to see students engaged in non-consensual behaviour; and we certainly do not want them to re-victimize someone by filming and posting the crime for others’ entertainment.  We do not want to see teachers exploiting vulnerable students; we do want them to listen to a disclosure, react appropriately and report.  We do not want older adolescents or adults to sexually abuse children.  If they recognize their desire to exploit a child, they need support in curbing the desire to act on it.

We may not be able to prevent sexual abuse in all instances, but we have the tools to turn the tide.

Advertisements

Good sex, forced sex and points in between

Before you click away from one more article on sexual misconduct, what do you think of this: gadgets as the answer to sexual violence?  The article details a number of ingenious repellants to rape.  My first thought was, while a gadget might prevent vaginal rape, the resulting rage may very well provoke physical injury or death.  Surely the answer lies elsewhere.

The article reminded me of the teaching tool I used in high schools – the continuum of consent.  I would draw a line on the board.  At the right end of the continuum, I wrote violent sexual assault.  Starting at the left side of the continuum, I wrote mutual consent, then playful seduction, coercion and so on back in the direction of forcible sex.  The current tsunami of sexual misconduct allegations lives here in the centre of the continuum: coercion due to male entitlement and power.

On a call-in show today, I heard the phrase “feminist agenda” regarding the latest misconduct allegations against local politicians.  The caller blamed media’s political leanings and feminists for ruining careers.  Callers also wanted to know why women do not just walk away from a bad situation.  “She was of age”, is the argument.  Susan Cole writes, “…women tend to want to ‘solve’ the situation rather than remove themselves”.  She adds, “How about talking?  Ask a woman what she wants and when she answers, take her seriously”.

But even mutual consent on the left of the continuum is not always straightforward.

After an early dismissal from jury selection the other day, a young woman recognized me from puberty classes I had taught about two decades before.  She said she had thought of me lately as she was trying to figure out what consent means. To celebrate this unexpected gift of time, we decided to continue to chat over coffee.

She believes one should ask for consent every time.  I asked her, “every time what?  Every time you kiss, every time you seem to be heading towards intercourse?”  She is married and said that her husband knows her so well that consent for any intimate activity is unspoken.

As an educator, my question is, how do we promote affirmative, ongoing consent for adolescents, for adults who have just met, and, yes, even for couples that have been together for years? How do we engage all genders to desire true intimacy and the communication skills to find it?

People who were brought up in a society where rape culture is prevalent may experience misguided expectations leading to miscommunication: mixed signals coupled with a lack of self awareness and clarity.  Even if one has overtly agreed to a particular form of sexual intimacy, there may still be discomfort, distaste or regret during the act – or afterwards.

Zosia Bielski quotes Karen B. K. Chan, a Toronto-based sex and emotional-literacy educator. “We have been saying for a while now that consent is a low bar. It is the lowest bar there is. After that, we need to talk about sexual pleasure and good sex – sex that you actually want to have…” .  Her article raises the notion of good sex .

Lili Loufbourow takes up the issue writing about pain during vaginal sex.

Research shows that 30 percent of women report pain during vaginal sex, 72 percent report pain during anal sex, and ‘large proportions’ don’t tell their partners when sex hurts.”

During classes on sexual assault I would pose the following question: Is it OK to say no at any time?  In other words, is it ever OK to interrupt sexual activity once it has started?  Most students were ready to acknowledge that one could.  The question remains, do we actually do this?

While there may not be pain during a sexual activity, there may not be pleasure either; for example, it may be boring.  If it is not pleasurable, what is the point of continuing?  We agree to sexual activities for a variety of reasons; and we may not be proud of all of them.  We may acquiesce because it is expected, or because of our partner’s needs; we may not want to hurt their feelings; we may not want to jeopardize the relationship; we may hope that it will start to feel better soon – as it sometimes does.  While we may have progressed beyond the Victorian dictum “close your eyes and think of England”, we want a great deal more.  Why should we have to work ourselves into a state of desire with a partner who is unaware of its absence?

I remember an incident with a long-term partner.  I had lost interest in the proceedings and told him so.  He got very angry, sat up in bed and said in a menacing voice, “But I want to”.  That incident could have ended up quite differently than our turning away from each other in distress and anger.

The WHO definition of sexual health includes “the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence”.   No gadget will get you there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Murder by misogyny? June 25, 2014

mi∙sog∙y∙ny  noun.  1. a hatred of women (Merriam-Webster).

Laci Green, self-described sex-ed activist, uses the phrase “misogyny as murder” in her YouTube rant about the May 2014 murder of six people and wounding of 13 others by Elliott Rodger in California. People seeking out the definitive answer to “how could this have happened” fall all along the blame continuum that runs from blaming his family life and early mental health issues, to the medications that he was prescribed, to his blatant hatred of women, and to easy access to guns and ammunition. The latter is of course refuted by the gun lobbyists who continue to assert that guns don’t kill, people do—citing their right to bear arms. Interestingly, in their effort to deflect attention from Rodger’s modus operandi, some gun lobbyists have put all the blame on prescription medication.

Rodger’s particular form of male entitlement—expecting the world to work entirely in his favour—is exemplified by his hate-filled video in which he blamed women for his persistent state of virginity. Yet despite this evidence, we will never really know the reason why he carried out this heinous crime. Despite all the “ink spilled” over his and similar crimes, it is time for a more nuanced discussion that does not attribute blame to a single issue, although misogyny continues to figure large in this picture. It is also time to start putting together a prevention package.

Zoe Mintz’s article in the International Business Times is not, in my opinion, part of that package. She states, “In the field of ‘threat assessment’, which is dedicated to studying school shootings and other school-based attacks, notable outcroppings in personal histories is known as ‘leakage.’ An individual may indicate his distress long before the crime is committed…Elliot Rodger created YouTube videos and a 140-page manifesto that shed light on his mind-set before the killings.”  She never once mentions misogyny, aside from this oblique reference to Rodger’s “mind-set.”

On the other hand, Anne Theriault’s response to male entitlement in her May 31st Belle Jar blog explores the negative feelings she experienced about her own late entry into partnered sex:

“And you know what? Literally at no time ever did I think, gee, I should go on a killing spree.

I never felt entitled to men’s bodies just because I wanted them.

I never blamed all men everywhere for my inability to get it on.

Never. Not once.”

I agree with Laci Green and Anne Theriault. We need to begin building our prevention package by addressing male sexual entitlement. Readers of this blog may be tired of hearing it, but healthy sexuality education begins at home. This is where societal mores begin, and where they begin to change. From infancy, relaxing and blurring rigid gender roles, expectations and responsibilities promotes much more than the achievement of a child’s full potential; it is an integral part of crime prevention.

Boys need to learn about girls’ essential humanity to develop into empathic individuals. Girls need to learn how to have agency in their lives. Young people need to fully comprehend the horror of denying and violating that agency.

I was profoundly shocked to read more than one story these past few years about sexual assaults of young women that had been filmed and posted on the Internet. Why did they not empathize with the victim/survivor? Perhaps because rape culture promotes sexual violence as entertainment. Reasoning that it was crucial to teach students the potential reactions and harms suffered by someone who is sexually assaulted, I included a list of these after-effects in sexual health education materials intended for the use of educators across the country. I only hope that they accept the challenge of this particular call to arms.

Few would dispute that a sense of male entitlement and rage has fuelled sexual assault, physical assault and murder. Rape culture starts with the objectification of women, promoting both the notion of the right to unlimited access to women’s bodies and its subsequent violent expression. This twisted ideology will flourish as long as we continue to ignore its impact; namely, distrust and fear, and ultimately, criminal acts. Interestingly, those very social media platforms that allow the promotion of rape culture have found their match on Twitter (See #YesAllWomen).

The International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict extends this analysis to a broader context: the use of women (and men) as pawns of war. The “othering” of one’s enemies was raised decades ago in Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will (1975). It is much easier to hurt, and kill, what has been objectified. The recent kidnapping of Nigerian girls and young women may very well result in sexual abuse, as Boko Haram has threatened to sell them in “marriage.”

The theme of women as property is echoed in the rallying cry of men who kill their partners, “If I can’t have you, no one can.” I have often quoted Maya Angelou to students over the years:

“Jealousy in romance is like salt in food. A little can enhance the savor, but too much can spoil the pleasure and, under certain circumstances, can be life-threatening.”

Elliott Rodger was steeped in misogyny, blaming and hating women for not wanting to be with him. Aside from his legal access to firearms and ammunition, as mentioned above, the question has also been raised about his use of anti-depressant medication. Because psychotropic medications alter brain chemistry, an overdosing of—or a rapid withdrawal—from a number of medications in this class can lead to behaviour that is out of character for the person taking them. This may include erratic or even homicidal behaviours. Although the latter may be rare, for the many people who take these medications and feel they are being helped by them, it is often hard to believe in or make that connection.

Consider the following conclusion to the online article published in PLoS Medicine, “Antidepressants and Violence: Problems at the Interface of Medicine and Law”:

“The association of antidepressant treatment with aggression and violence reported here calls for more clinical trial and epidemiological data to be made available and for good clinical descriptions of the adverse outcomes of treatment. Legal systems are likely to continue to be faced with cases of violence associated with the use of psychotropic drugs, and it may fall to the courts to demand access to currently unavailable data. The problem is international and calls for an international response.”

Which brings me back to that other prescription, the one for prevention. We need:

  • improved education for health care providers about psychotropic medications, and better monitoring of their patients;
  • sexual health education that promotes equity in all its forms;
  • campaigns targeting male entitlement that engage men as allies (#AllMenCan);
  • comprehensive gun control on both sides of the border.

Rx: #NotOneMore.

Additional Resource:

Robert Whitaker on Psychiatric Drugs, The Sunday Edition on CBC Radio