Recently a media item on NZTV2 20/20 caught my attention – The Silent Victim. The programme’s focus was on the families and partners of child sex offenders. In the media piece two women were interviewed: first a woman who, after her male partner was convicted of sexually abusing a girl, made the decision to remain with him and speak about what that process and situation were like for her; the second person interviewed was Shelly Lomas, a psychologist with Wellstop.
The first woman and her husband were given fictitious names – Sally and James. The way the media piece was put together Sally was presented as a brave woman – a person deserving not only a listening ear, but also admiration. That message of respect for Sally is strongly positive and gains my whole hearted support.
There were two occasions during the interview when this position of admiration for her was put in question. The first was in how Sally’s situation was framed. Her story was offered as a very unusual love story, one where if it were us the love would have stopped long ago. The second occasion was when Sally stated unequivocally that she loved James, he was in her words “an intelligent and genuinely nice guy”. The interviewer repositioned what Sally was saying by adding, “Yes, but do you trust him?”
Sally and James had been married about a decade prior to his sexual offending. She viewed her husband positively, and when asked, judged the sex life for them as a couple, before the offending, as average. The offending happened when a young female guest came into the family home.
Sally offered a number of personal insights that came out of her experience. Two of these were really significant. First the girl who was involved with James – and we know nothing about details – was experienced by Sally as a competitor for James’ affections, and in the competition Sally believed she had lost. She offered what is typical for a woman lensing news of a sexual affair through the model of sexual monogamy – the belief that for a second person to be loved by their current partner, and for that person to become sexually involved with one’s partner, is to have failed as a lover. With this as her belief Sally was drawn into entertaining self-destructive behaviours, although it seems from what is offered inside the 20/20 program, she never acted on those feelings. One could again blame James for all this, but I don’t think Sally did. The ‘monogamy model’ positions a woman, or any person in a relationship who finds out their sexual partner has sexual links to someone else, in a potentially harmful way. It is a particular way of interpreting sexual desire and its place inside a life that can be very unhelpful. Sally appears to have seen past this limitation. Her talk about herself and how she felt suggests she decided that fidelity, faithfulness amid change, is the better aspect to stress inside a committed relationship that sees itself as shaped by love.
Sally did more than offer self-reflections, she challenged the viewer. She offered an outsider a riddle inside a question – what if someone you admire deeply sexually offends, what would you do, how would you feel? It is easy to see why this woman was viewed inside the 20/20 programme as brave.
Sally also talked of the issue of shame. Unsurprisingly Sally experienced shame when news of her husband’s offending became public. Out of that sprang a question, would it change for her if she left him? Her answer was no, the shame would remain. It was her view the message “leave him” is the message of society and the wider community. At the same time she understood that message can be resisted, her personal experience told her that the wider community may be wrong.
This idea the community and wider society can get things wrong about how to manage the sex offender came through the interview with the second woman as well. Shelly Lomas of Wellstop saw the modern response to sex offender as blocking the possibility of things getting better. It is her view all the mechanisms and strategies for helping the sex offender deal better with life are dismantled by punitive attitudes and social isolation; the sex offender is denied the capacity or even the possibility of hope. Shelly expressed strongly the belief this approach was for her counterintuitive – “How do people expect to make change when you shut down all the processes that you and I would ordinarily use to evolve and move to a better place?”
The final insight Sally referenced was the role of human doubt inside what it means to be in love with a person. She was asked, as one might expect, “What if James sexually abused a second time, would you leave him then?” Her answer was “I don’t know.” In 2008 John Patrick Shanley directed a movie in which Meryl Streep played the part of a religious woman in the employ of the Catholic Church – Sister Aloysius Beauvier. Eventually it became clear Beauvier was on the war path to push a priest out of the parish where she worked. The character of the priest – Father Brendan Flynn, was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The movie was called Doubt and it was about sexual abuse inside the Catholic Church. At the end of the movie Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the character Streep gave life to, cupped her face in her hands following her success at getting the man moved on and said, loudly crying, “But I have such doubts.”
Father Flynn early in the movie gave a well thought through homily to the local Catholic community, pointing out that doubt is a position from inside which interpersonal and even political relationships can grow and deepen – he was referencing the period following the assassination of President JF Kennedy. He was, of course, arguing how certitude can be a deeply problematic model on which to forge a life, or the path for whole communities as well. The various versions of fundamentalist worldviews that surround us today, ranging from fundamentalist Islam to strident statements by Richard Dawkins, serve to reinforce the view offered in Father Flynn’s homily.
Voices of people who are not frequently offered the chance to speak are situations that grab my attention, plus there is a theme in this 20/20 media piece that seeks from wider society an extended hand of human compassion. In what is written here there is a separation between what is said by the women interviewed and how the item has been managed by those who put together this media item. To the two women who are interviewed I deliberately extend a message of respect, they deserve that in my view; the makers of the media piece are judged less positively.
You have heard the saying, “How did a nice woman like you get to be in a bad place like this?” The media piece gave an answer to this by stressing how all the women in the group being referenced in this story experience suffering because of their partners’ offending. The sub-text being offered in this media piece is negative in how men are referenced.
The 20/20 item gained a place on my Facebook wall and I chose to support the process where these voices are given space inside our public discussions. ‘The Silent Victim’ opened with the idea that people have experiences that need to be considered, but these people daren’t speak out for fear of persecution. Because ‘The Silent Victim’ showed it understood how some voices are blocked and suffer because of this, I was looking for more: just where will this compassion take us? Will we be asked to extend that empathetic skill set to the sexual offender? The answer seems to be a clear no.
That clear no for me was sad, but the programme’s shortcomings did not end there. Again I stress, a critical eye is focused on how the media item was assembled, not the women who were interviewed, or the views they offered. The profile of the sex offender was male; I saw no acknowledgement that sexual offending against children could be attached to the profile of a woman. And this piece was written as if same sex couples did not exist. Allowing for an untruth to be believed – that all sex offenders are men – the partner of the offender could also be male. Two important pieces of New Zealand legislation are crucial: the Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986 legalising consentual sex between men aged 16 and over, and the very recent law allowing same sex couples to marry – Marriage (Definition of Marraige) Amendment Act 2013. The media item’s ‘heterosexual normalism’ seems seriously out of step with what is happening in the real world.
It could be asked was this feature I am calling heterosexual normalism merely an oversight by those who put together this media item, a forgetfulness? Perhaps, but another explanation, one that is much more problematic, could be at play. The program is clearly wanting to show compassion and empathy towards the families and partners of sex offenders. It may also be inspired by a strongly feminist ideology that is zoological, by that I mean a form of feminism that is deterministic and is really only about women as opposed to a different kind of feminism where men are included in that better world one is working to create. If same sex male couples had been included then the empathy the program wants to push for would be directed to men as well as women, a position a zoological version of feminism would not want to engage.
The last element of one-sidedness and distortion that I found regrettable in this piece rests with the West’s newest social and cultural blind spot. There was no space offered to the idea that sexual contacts across generations could be positioned inside friendship, or how such encounters could be framed positively. I would not be at all surprised if a reader felt I had just taken a step too far, but take it I will.
In my view The Silent Victim is in fact the same old same old. I am disappointed because I view these moments as opportunities, chances to do some good. I am glad that Sally’s narrative has been given some public space, and the move to get New Zealand society to consider the situations of those impacted by sex abuse, NZ prisons, and what comes after the person is released. All this matters a great deal. But still the negative attitudes to the sex offender, the profiling of men as the real source of women’s personal suffering, these messages are not simply tedious – they’re dangerous.
Late post: This item in Salon was offered to me by a British friend after the above article was put on my blog site. On the page it had this publication information: Thursday, Dec 1, 2011 05:30 AM NZST.
Married to a Pedophile – Salon.com