Is Gender Off The Table for New Zealand When It Comes To Sex Crimes With The Young?

 Stacey Reriti. Photo / Mark Mitchell (NZ Herald)

Stacey Reriti. Photo / Mark Mitchell (NZ Herald)

This item wants to draw the reader’s attention to a court decision in New Zealand. The NZ Herald recently offered a story of a female teacher being found guilty of sex with a boy from the age of 10 years of age – Female Teacher Jailed for 10 Years For Sexually Violating Boy. He is now a teenager and it would be safe to say he feels differently about his relationship with the teacher now than he did when aged 10.

Stacey Reriti used to teach at Natone Park School in Porirua – her role in the school was that of both teacher and deputy principal. She was judged to have exploited the boy. Prosecutor Dale LaHood offered the view Reriti’s conduct was especially bad because of the “vulnerability” of the victim. That claim is not unusual in cases involving adults having sexual relations with underage boys; what was untypical was how this statement was being made about a woman.

Reriti’s lawyer Stephen Iorns said his client suffered from a psychiatric illness and that prison would not be good for her. It is not unusual that the prosecution would stress how bad the case was; and the defense would point to how the legal process and what follows a guilty verdict is likely to do more harm to the adult than a reasonable person would want anyone to go through.

What is worth paying special attention to are the comments by the Judge. Justice Mark Woolford equated some of Reriti’s offending with rape. He also said the charge of unlawful sexual connection carried a penalty of up to 20 years’ imprisonment. The Judge’s third comment catches one’s attention: “Because a woman cannot be charged with rape” the actions Reriti and the boy engaged in all resulted in charges of unlawful sexual connection; rape could not legally be on the table.

A great deal can be, and perhaps should be said with news of this court finding. To unpack three things is all we will do here.

First, it is possibly a good thing that in this case gender was seen as having no role to play in finding this adult guilty; usually it does and women gain much less punitive legal outcomes than males for similar criminal acts. I say possibly because objectively speaking I would argue we should be putting less people inside prisons for sex with the young than we currently do. It is my reading of some people’s views that women have been getting off light – men being hit hard for sex with those underage; and women not. But does that call to “level things up” really mean things get better? I am not that sure this is true – time will tell.

Second it shows our laws on rape need to be changed/overhauled – currently a woman can’t be charged with rape (this point of women being excluded as able to be charged with rape was made in the article). The teacher in this case was charged with sexual violation and that charge brings with it similar legal punishments as a charge for rape. However, I am going to argue there is a language game going on here that matters. The term rape has been crafted as a male crime – something men do to women and other males. I think there is an ideological bias here that I want challenged. It isn’t valid to argue men bad; women good. So I want rape to stay as a term denoting bad and unethical conduct, I just want the person who acts as a rapist viewed as potentially male or female.

Third, and this point is complex, the case clearly involves a process of change that has been commented on elsewhere – that 95% of sexual contacts between adults and children aged under 12 are situations where trauma does not happen at the time sexual contact occurs; trauma is experienced when the young person comes to appreciate society’s views and punishment directed at a person involved in such exchanges. This third point suggests we, as a society, can reduce that trauma by changing the way we act. There is a lot that can be discussed following the outcome of this court case.

If this statistic of 95% interests you, then read Susan Clancy’s book The Trauma Myth. It is from this text that this statistic is pulled.

Update: article in the Dominion Post,  “Teacher’s sex abuse convictions upheld,” section A4, Friday 24 March, 2017.

The decision was as upheld, and the sentence reduced from 10 years six months jail to nine years nine months. The reduction was intended to reflect factors presented at the appeal.

Details

Clancy, S. A. (2009). The trauma myth and the truth about the sexual abuse of children – and its aftermath. New York: Basic Books.
Weekes, J. (2015, 27/11). Female teacher jailed for 10 years for sexually violating boy [Online News Item]. New Zealand Herald (New Zealand).

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What Do You Mean, You Don’t Know?

At this point in Western history, an adult who recognises they are attracted to the young is positioned inside their society negatively, especially those societies shaped by Anglophile traditions. The challenge is how to move beyond a negatively framed way of seeing oneself and the desires that are at the core of who one is.

An earlier post on this site argued minor attracted persons (MAP) can look to how others  talk about how they see themselves. Navigating life often involves learning from others – so the idea that the group you belong to needs to reinvent the wheel and solve all problems from within seems to me an unhelpful expectation.

Competing Responsibilities Sociology Conference, 2014

Competing Responsibilities Sociology Conference, 2014

The post I  refer to had a context – a talk by Prof. Nikolas Rose titled “Making us resilient: responsible citizens for uncertain times”, which was the keynote address at a sociology seminar titled Competing Responsibilities: The politics and ethics of responsibility in contemporary life.  His talk did not reference the life situation of the MAP. Rose encouraged people to look for more positive ways of framing talk of the self. A key term he used for that process was the word resilience which he used inside the title of his talk. I argue MAPs need to look at this concept as part of crafting a responsible and ethical way to live their life in 2015. I know Prof. Rose does not agree with this idea because I asked him. His message was directed at people who are not minor attracted; he wanted them to focus on developing resilience, as a positive response to modern life. The ‘resilience’ message is a valuable one for everybody – including those who are minor attracted.

Behaviourist models of human sexuality centre on risk and risk management; prison based programs for those convicted of child sexual abuse and community based versions of the same programs are often informed by behaviouristic models. I argue these programs restrict how individuals see themselves. I need to be very clear here and assure the reader my objective is to promote a process where a person sees it as their responsibility to live and craft an ethical life. It goes without saying MAPs, whether they have convictions for sexual abuse or not, are not asked to contribute to how they manage their lives – they are told how to live, how they must live.

That call for all of us to live ethically – if one is informed by Western philosophical ideas – reaches all the way back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. According to that tradition what I am talking about is how to live a good life. Despite the long time-lapse between those philosophers and where we find ourselves, that challenge has not gone away.

Not limiting itself to commending Prof. Rose’s call to resilience, my post also hinted that valuable insights may be gleaned from writers who comment from within diverse worlds: psychoanalysis, Marxism, philosophy, history, critical theory, etc.

My reading in recent years has included a number of writers and social theorists: Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Elizabeth Roundinesco, Slavoj Zizek, and Alain Badiou – a predominantly French group of intellectuals who published and debated their ideas of freedom, ideology, knowledge, emancipation, health, and sexuality.  What makes this group especially interesting is the way they bring together disparate disciplines in crafting their texts and their ideas.

The major voice informing this post is Slavoj Zizek. Of particular interest is his talk of knowledge, in particular his recommendation that we look into what he calls the science of not knowing as a part of a general theory of epistemology.  What is striking is the paradoxical way Zizek talks, and it is perhaps this feature that draws his audience  into what he has to offer.

Slavoj Zizek's talk on "Not Knowing" (YouTube)

Slavoj Zizek’s talk on “Not Knowing” (YouTube)

In his video clip, “Ideology and Modalities of Not Knowing. 2014”, Zizek explains “Ideology is not only what it says, it is also the complex network of solicited transgressions”. He offers an example from his army training.  There were things that were prohibited and there were accompanying messages about those prohibitions: if you did not transgress those prohibitions, then you would be viewed as an idiot.  He offered the example of how a soldier would be told, Don’t get drunk.  That soldier, if he did not go drinking with his comrades on a regular basis, would be viewed as failing his fellow officers and even as being unpatriotic.

Zizek argues all human communities have rules.  Accompanying those rules are what could loosely be called meta-rules – a guide to how the rules can be broken and under what conditions.  He takes a special interest in these meta-rules – and so do I.  Zizek begins by asking how the rules help reveal how ideological systems work, then via a question from his audience he explains how this rules/meta-rule idea can be seen when talking about knowledge.

In this post I am taking a further step – how might one talk about the rules/meta-rules relationship when looking at human sexuality.  I see here an opportunity to use Zizek’s thinking as a tool box rather than simply quoting what he says about sex.

The behaviourist will tell you that the key issue is: for the pedophile to not have sex with children.  A behaviourist perspective will focus on the management of sexual arousal and the management of risk.

Zizek’s argues there is a crisis that needs responding to – but it is not the crisis we read in the media. My interest is to ask the question, using Zizek’s toolbox, if we have a crisis for human sexuality – one of the issues being sexual contacts across generations – then how would it be talked about? My rendering of this issue does differ from how the behaviourists frame the discussion.

Zizek offers his view on the question of rules with the added point that the ‘not knowing’ feature of his epistemology includes modalities. The first one involves these rules paired with other rules – usually unspoken and unacknowledged – telling us how rules can be broken and in what circumstances. A second modality, another version of the same thing, is where you are offered an opportunity but the unspoken rule is you must not take it. Now let’s  unpack how this modality runs when talking about sex.

Zizek gave an example from his days in the army. At the beginning of their training a soldier is taught various things and after a short period of time there might be a public ceremony where they would make a public statement about becoming a member of the army.  They would also be offered the chance to sign the book stating their commitment. Of course the signing is positioned as a moment of free choice. This opportunity includes the ability to say no, I won’t sign.  Zizek recounts an army cadet who asked was he free when signing and was told yes. He then said “I don’t sign”. The trainers were angry; they felt the cadet had ‘broken a central rule’. They issued a written order – sign the book freely. The situation looks absurd, even humorous, but the important point is the army officials were very serious. For them it was no joke!

The behaviourist approach regarding minor attraction is to focus on a prohibition – you must not have sex with children; and more than this, in your thinking about them, you must not explore that idea as positive. For the behaviourist – and others, I suspect – this is how they would frame today’s crisis: don’t have sex across generations. Using Zizek’s talk of rules we can frame the situation differently. Yes, there is a crisis but it is not this one. The real crisis is the possibility that people might be given the choice – that you actually are free to decide, and it is this, I argue, that frightens people. This is our current crisis; you have an opportunity, you are expected to say no, freely, but now it becomes necessary for us to acknowledge some may say yes.

This post is not offering is a full history of all human choices regarding this matter; that would be bold and an unfair request for a reader to make. What is offered is a way of seeing how this practice of not knowing has been brought into the light.

Zizek mentions how the issue of not knowing has been highlighted by the Wikileaks situation and the disclosures by Edward Snowden.  Zizek argues that while some detail is being made available to us, it has not been a process where at one time we knew nothing and now we know it all.  He argues the crisis for democracy is the cessation of the ability to say we don’t know.  Zizek puts it to us we always suspected our leaders acted the way Julian Assange and Edward Snowden position them.  The crisis is now we can’t say we don’t know.  To cement his argument Zizek links this situation of the crisis to Jacques Lacan’s view that most of us ‘don’t want to know’.  Lacan questions the assumption that  we are all curious animals who, at our core, desperately want to know things.  Lacan argues, in some areas of life and in certain situations we desperately want to send the message, “I don’t know” or “I did not know this”.  This is, in Lacan’s view, a crisis situation for many.

For Western cultures in the period before the 1970s the situation ran along these lines: a person is offered opportunities where they could have sex with children, but these are opportunities to which the person must always say no.  In this period there were people who said yes.  The meta-rule required that this be part of what is not known.

At that time there was no imagined future where one might be offered a real choice in this matter; nor was it perceived there was a new wave of social optimism unfolding where such choice could be publicly acknowledged.  Furthermore, before the 1970s this view was the preferred understanding of how everything worked.  There was an overarching set of rules, one where you were told what you could and couldn’t do.  Interestingly we felt free, but it was deemed a freedom we must not act on.  We were free, as long as we never said no to the prohibition.  Just like Zizek’s cadet who was ordered to freely sign the book, this was all done freely.

With the 1960s and 1970s I argue freedom and our general social fabric experienced a jolt – we asked in a very broad way, are we really free?  The disruption of two world wars, shifts in bodies of knowledge about sexuality, gay liberation, the rise of equal rights for women – the mix is complex.  We had preferred not to know we were being told what to do, we considered ourselves free and indeed expressed strong political, philosophical and even religious ideas about why this mattered.  But with the 1970s, to keep that old view about ourselves became harder to sustain.  It was this that defined the crisis for Western societies and Western cultures.

"... very few victims reported any fear, shock, force or violence at the time the abuse occurred." p.22

“… very few victims reported any fear, shock, force or violence at the time the abuse occurred.” p.22

I argue intergenerational sexually-expressed friendships were impacted by those shifts.  Along with the narratives of sexual emancipation came narratives of abuse and exploitation.  Those stories have multiplied greatly, and have become increasingly valued narratives inside our culture.

The prominence given to the ‘sex abuse industry’ tells us that it is more than merely one discourse among many; it behaves as if it is the benchmark against which all narratives of this sort are measured.  In terms of what this post argues our current position is not one of “now we know all”; what persists, in fact, is our version of not knowing.

We have always known, or at least suspected, that some of those relationships between the young and the older involved consent, friendship and reciprocity.  To this knowledge we say “I don’t know.”

My text speaks to the narratives which, for a short time, emerged but seem to have subsequently been shut down. There were friendships in which rules were broken.  We knew some adults had sex with children.  Public accounts of allegations of sex with children in day care centres multiplied.  Groups were formed – like the Pedophile Information Exchange (PIE) in England.  It became increasingly difficult to hold to the view, “We don’t know”.  By the 1990s, with the help of the media, we were telling ourselves our eyes were opened, and now we knew better.  The knowing, however, focuses on abuse narratives.  The knowing, I argue, still retains a piece of the earlier modality.  To this day, in public discourse, we act as if we don’t know about the non-abusive and non-exploitative intergenerational exchanges.

The sexual profile of the pedophile has never been so much a part of media talk and most recently there seems to be a desperate desire to explain the origins of the pedophile sexual orientation just as there were similar efforts to explain the homosexual male in the 1990s.

The ideological grip of heterosexism has been dislodged.  Sexual variety is experienced as part of the way things are.  The idea of ‘what is normal’ functions to limit what we say yes to, but we can’t say that variety and complexity experienced at the level of the individual as desire, is unknown to us.

The real root of our crisis I argue is the possibility of a different life, a different set of choices.  A minor attracted person can and even should be encouraged to make a life; that life can and should be ethically crafted; that life can and should be seen as free.  It is not about permission to have sex with children.  We have always known for some the choice might well be to say yes to opportunities to form friendships and be ‘all that one can be’ and respond to that call to ‘be one’s best self’.  This aspirational view ultimately doesn’t tell us what to do.  As societies and cultures we are confronted with people who on the face of it are not like us – but they are in fact just like us – the gay male, the lesbian, the minor attracted, the diversity is striking.

We can’t say we don’t know any more.  Everyone is in fact called to be ethical, free, responsible members of our societies and cultures.  Our understanding of sex, sex roles, gender and gender identity offers a more detailed picture of sexuality.  Human desire is part of an ethical journey for same-sex couples, for heterosexual couples – these are our new version of normal.  But for  the individuals inside our societies for whom age is a component of how desire functions, for this group we must now wrestle with how to manage this also.

"Future can be a reference to the one who comes, whose  arrival is totally unexpected. For me that is the real future."

“Future can be a reference to the one who comes, whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me that is the real future.”

I am not arguing all this is settled, or that it is straightforward.  What is interesting and challenging is that here one can take the notions of rule and knowing used by Slavoj Zizek and attempt a process that could be called a type of unmasking.  Zizek argues that in politics we can’t go back, we can’t really say we do not know our leaders spy on us and tell us lies.  I don’t think that situation is quite the same in the area of sexuality.  The preference to not know something – all the while of course we do actual know – can be very strong.  For quite some time we might choose to tell ourselves that minor attraction is beyond our understanding; that, I think, has to be left to what is our future.  My preference is for an an inclusiveness; that preference is a possible future.  That comment offered by Jacques Derrida seems worth citing: our real future, the one that matters, remains what is likely to be unexpected and unplanned

Further Reading:

  • Clancy, S. A. (2009). The trauma myth and the truth about the sexual abuse of children – and its aftermath. New York: Basic Books.
  • Cohen, S. (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Third Edition). London and New York: Routledge.
  • Ditum, S. (2015, 13 April). Why are we so desperate to find a genetic explanation for sex offenders? [Newspaper article]. New Statesman (United Kingdom), Online Magazine ed.
  • Dunham, A. (2014, 18 August). ‘Paedophiles should commit suicide’: Expert. The Local: Spains News in English (Spain), Online Newspaper ed., sec. Society. Retrieved from http://www.thelocal.es/20140818/paedophiles-should-commit-suicide-official
  • Hunter, J. (2008). The Political Use and Abuse of the “Pedophile.” Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 55(No. 3), 350-387. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00918360802345073
  • Rose, N. (2014, 15th to 17th August). Making us resilient: Responsible citizens for uncertain times. [One of two keynote talks.]. In Keynote Talk. Competing Responsibilities Conference, Rutherford House, Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand.
  • Seto, M. C. (2012, Feb). Is pedophilia a sexual orientation? Arch Sex Behav, 41(1), 231-6.
  • Sharpe, M. Jacques Lacan (1901-1981). In J. D. Fieser, Bradley (Ed.), Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource.
  • Sonenschein, D. (1998). Pedophiles on Parade: Volume 1 & 2, ‘The Monster in The Media’ and ‘The Popular Imagery of Moral Histeria’. San Antonio, USA: Sonenscheirn, David.
  • Zizek, S. Ideology and Modalities of Not Knowing. 2014 [You Tube item]. In European Graduate School Video Lectures. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBa-pCmuBHU#t=15

We see what we want to see

Source for image for The Imitation Game gained on the Variety film review - details offered below.

Source for image for The Imitation Game gained on the Variety film review – details offered below.

A friend recently invited me to a screening of “The Imitation Game”, a movie that offers a portrait of “mathematician, cryptanalyst and war hero Alan Turing”, as one reviewer describes him.

Susan Sontag, in her essay Against Interpretation, worked to make readers more aware of what she saw as a false claim to be merely describing something or that modern Western self-belief that one can remove subjectivity and have only some bare-bones way of writing.  She felt that was just one more rule-bound way of writing, claiming “there are no rules telling me how to write.”

Sontag’s self-awareness as a writer and a critic is precisely what I want to work with here.  If a Jewish patron were to see The Imitation Game, they would very likely see more than the story of Alan Turning the wronged cryptanalyst; the ‘wrong’ here would for them necessarily and inescapably involve an understanding of what went on in the death camps of Nazi Germany.

We would be unlikely to find a survivor from Turing’s time in the movie theatre; if I were to talk of Turing as a wronged homosexual some of my readers would nod their heads in agreement.  It would be interesting to locate – or, better put, acknowledge – what other current-day wrongs can be mapped onto Turing’s story.

While writing this blog piece I noted that in the reviews, some from well-known sites, the reference to Turing’s homosexuality was often not explicit, as if the reader would take it for granted.  What is going on here represents a further social marker of change – the homosexual man is in the process of being socially repositioned.  Western societies and cultures now find themselves ‘after’ a period of emancipation; they live inside what sociologists call a phase of normalization.  The homosexual man is just like all men: he is now ‘included’ and the putting right of the wrong includes no longer having his sexuality referenced.  In other parts of the world – in certain African states and in Putin’s Russia, for example – Turing’s experience of prejudice and socially-configured hostility is playing out as violence sanctioned by church and state.

I’d be doing a bad job if I failed to acknowledge inside mainstream Western societies and cultures there are other voices, other messages – and the gay lobby, I suspect, is well aware of this.

What I find perplexing is a subtext which insists that the Turing story is only about gay men, that to do what I am doing now is somehow not valid.  As a critic and a film viewer I would want to leave open how a movie might be interpreted.  Jews, persons of colour, and women have every right to see themselves inside this movie’s depiction of individuals who are wronged.

What I experienced whilst watching The Imitation Game was that feeling you have when you see what you want to see – Morten Tyldum‘s Turing is  there, of course – but what is most striking is that whatever piques one’s interest is there as well.  What I saw was not limited to the story of a homosexual man; I also felt an empathy for the experience of those who are currently labelled ‘paedophile’.

One begins to hear all the reasons why this can’t be the case – mustn’t be the case.  Turing was brilliant; that is not what one expects to see inside the profile of the paedophile, is it?  Well, actually, the modern gay movement knows only too well most gay men aren’t brilliant either, but they expect to be afforded respect as persons on the basis of the consumerized, value-added Alan Turing the film serves up to us.

Second objection would be: but we see homosexuals differently today; we know better.  Funny that – seems to me that’s what the movie is on about: how a society can get things so wrong.  For those who are unaware of the work of John Money, he was a New Zealand sexologist (1921–2006); one of his professional concerns was what he referred to as ‘paedophilic genius’ (discussed inside Pedophilia: Biosocial Dimensions).  Money gave Lewis Carroll and JM Barrie as examples of paedophilic genius.

As with the homosexual man in the 1950s – and (as discussed above) in some non-Western countries today – social stigma all too often blocks and hides the contribution and giftedness of the ‘deviant’/’pervert’/’child sex-abuser’. I know some readers will be very angry with what I say next: in my lifetime, Michael Jackson would have to be the West’s poster-boy when it comes to paedophilic genius (Tom O’Carroll has authored a text under the name of Carl Toms called “Michael Jackson’s Dangerous Liaisons: Arvizo, Barnes, Bhatti, Chandler, Culkin… The A-Z of All the King’s Boys“).

The homosexual story is a good teacher when it comes to understanding how stigma works and what is at stake when it operates in full swing.  Those of a more academic bent might take a look at Stanley Cohen’s “Folk Devils and Moral Panics” (The 1972 version of this book is referenced below; the link offered in this paragraph is the 2011 Routledge Classic of the same book.)

Sociologists refer to stigma in terms of social distance. A recent study – “Stigmatization of People with Pedophilia: Two Comparative Surveys” – looked at stigma and the paedophile noting that in our current societies and cultures the paedophile is the most strongly negative profile inside our spaces.  This condemnation – and even hatred – is practiced inside our societies, perhaps because people tell themselves this social practice keeps children safe; Jahnke, Imhoff and Hoyer argue this is not the case; in fact the very opposite may be true – stigmatization of the paedophile may make child sexual abuse more likely.  The abstract for this paper states, “The strongest predictors of social distance towards people with paedophilia were affective reactions to this group (anger and, inversely, associated, pity) and the political attitude of right-wing authoritarianism …)”.

Given that we see what we want to see, was what I felt when watching that film an example of personal delusion?  I don’t think so; in my view, seeing what you want to see sits at the heart of all art.  If that is the way things work, then failing to admit this is where real delusion lives.

What I think is important is not how one’s sense of empathy for Alan Turing as a gay man might map onto the paedophile.  The real issue is seeing the ‘person’ who would want to punish Turing in his lifetime.  The key question is, Does that person – the one who sees a subhuman object they can kick, punish, imprison for being ‘that way‘ – live in our world today?  My sense of things is that yes, that person is very much alive … and kicking.

Put “The Imitation Game” on your list of films to watch – see what you see.


DETAILS:

  • Cohen, S. (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Third Edition). London and New York: Routledge
  • Downing, L., Morland, I., & Sullivan, N. (2015, 4/01). Pervert or sexual libertarian?: Meet John Money, “the father of f***ology” [Excerpt from the Book “Fuckology: Critical Essays on John Money’s Diagnostic Concepts”]. Salon (USA). Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2015/01/04/pervert_or_sexual_libertarian_meet_john_money_the_father_of_fology/
  • Jahnke, S., Imhoff, R., & Hoyer, J. (2015, 20 June). Stigmatization of People with Pedophilia: Two Comparative Surveys. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(1), 21-
  • Pedophilia: Biosocial Demensions. (1990) (J. R. Felerman, Ed.).
  • Songtag, S. (2001). Against Interpretation. USA: Picador.
  • Staff Writer. (2014). The Imitation Game [Web commentator on Film and TV shows.]. In Rotten Tomatoes (Movie Info).
  • Toms, C. (2010). Michael Jackson’s Dangerous Liaisons: Arvizo, Barnes, Bhatti, Chandler, Culkin. The A-Z of All the King’s Boys. Leicester, United Kingdom: Troubador.
  • Tyldum, M. (2014). The Imitation Game [Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Mark Strong.]. U.S.-U.K.) A Weinstein Co. (in U.S.)/StudioCanal (in U.K.) release and presentation of A Black Bear Pictures/Bristol Automotive production. (International sales: FilmNation Entertainment, Los Angeles.) (113 minutes). Retrieved from http://variety.com/2014/film/reviews/telluride-film-review-the-imitation-game-1201294590/

Historic sex abuse cases

Taken from piece in MailOnline (See below for details).

Taken from piece in MailOnline, Source details/link given below.

Recently the British media offered yet another example of how things work for them and for us when telling a story. The news item was about Chris Denning and how he has been put in prison, again, for sexual abuse of the young. In this blog piece I am not writing about how they got it right or got it wrong; what interests me is the experience of the processes that typically shapes a historic sex assault case in countries like England, America, and yes New Zealand 2014/15. People may find these historic sex cases difficult and ‘annoying’ but in a way they are very much how we are as a society.

What are often referred to as historic sex charges involve allegations an adult has broken laws when the actions taken are very much in the past; in Chris Denning’s case the period was some thirty years ago – during the 1970s and 1980s. When events are located in the past they are rendered via our gaze, our looking back. How that rendering is done is what this post will seek to discuss.

Many fail to understand this process which generates feelings of betrayal and anger. This experience is not only possible for those who believe a child or youth has been sexually abused, it can also be how those who identify with the accused can experience the process.

Working with accounts of past events is hardly a new riddle to unpack. In my past professional life working with religious texts was central to what I did and through this work I have become familiar with how language and interpretation of items which sit in our past has been at the centre of fierce social debates. Religious texts are a central part of society, and have been so for our culture for as long as we have records.  In my lifetime I can see how working with texts has been shaped by discussions inside literary studies, philosophy, psychology, put briefly all the knowledge fields have had a say about how such texts can be rendered – the process is on-going. What I argue here first came into view for me because these ways of thinking were deployed when discussing accounts of early Christianity, and now I can see the very same ideas impact on how one does history and how one constructs a text for a law court – text is everywhere; in a radical sense, all texts are shaped by the same processes – they are made, read, and rendered.

For a time there was a belief we could, with discipline, retrieve an account of the past that was freed of our prejudices and such accounts could be seen as stable. I recall reading Michel Foucault argue such a discipline sits at the heart of what an intellectual and the academic world is tasked to do. In Religion this discipline was discussed under the headings of hermeneutics and exegesis. In our current time one of the interesting differences between the Muslim and Christian traditions  is how Christianity has found a new sense of itself by allowing these literary tools to help the reader discuss and access the texts Christians see as important to them. Muslims see their texts – often shared texts with the Christians – as important to them as well; however they have so far resisted bringing together the discussions that live inside secular discussions of literature, history, and philosophy and their readings of the Koran. From where I am now I see both what Foucault was arguing for – a disciplined accessing of the past and a rendering of that as an object of study – and a different set of readings shaped by postmodernism. Simply put we understand that we are continuing to tell ourselves stories and that this is just what we do.

For those readers who are unfamiliar with religious texts or just prefer a secular example for a discussion of how to write and how to read let’s look at modern literature. Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell is a tale many of us are familiar with and it provides an interesting way of pointing to some of the debates focused on what is history and how to approach accounts offered to us about the past. The novel by Orwell is clearly a caricature and through the story we are offered pointers about ‘truth-telling’. I argue here that to point to an object is to imply its opposite. Orwell’s novel offers, along with it’s fictional tale, a belief we can do history. He shows us as a reader there are ways we use to decide how and if an account offered to us is legitimate. Orwell’s novel refers to institutions, social practices, and a view of knowledge where the reader can see these accounts of the past are reworked and rejigged – the principles of newspeak. At the very same time as this is offered to the reader its opposite sits silently in the background; accounts of the past can be rendered that are trustworthy.

Orwell and Foucault are not the only names to throw into the ring when discussing how accounts can be assessed. Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard spring to mind, and whole groups as well, Marxists, the French Nouveau Philosophies of the 1970s, Feminists, religious factions, pop and media culture, the list is extensive. The point is not so much who is right in some absolute sense, the issue is how accounts are made, read, the rules that govern discourse. We have in such a short space of time shifted how we decide what can be trusted when making judgements about any account we view inside Western culture.

In the mid-1970s television became a new way authors could access their readers. The old pathways of legitimation were pushed to one side as a TV interview with an author was capable of moving a book from obscurity to being a best seller. Now, 2015, it can be argued this is what is happening with the Internet, and why the media cultures which have become so central to how we live have become so powerful. Engage a person or a group in a debate inside these spaces and one has the sense one has lost control of what might happen. The rule has become ‘enter these spaces at your own risk’. It is my view those in the academic world, and in the legal spaces as well, share a common failing. The features of pop-culture and the world of media are often under-estimated in how these spaces gives expression and direction to both who we are and who we are becoming.

Our legal courtrooms are no exception to what is being argued here. A court of law may well task itself with the business of finding out what happened in the past, involving the competing claims made by prosecution and defence. In fact two things are happening, we can see how we both want to believe we can get to the truth – that the past can be a rendered as an object we can view and make judgements about – and we are aware of how constructed our accounts of life are. The picture is, for all this complexity, still incomplete.

Michel Foucault has argued discourses have rules. You cannot say just anything, not just anyone can speak. Where one is looking at a case like that of Chris Denning the rules in play block the very possibility of speaking inside the legal spaces as if he is ‘just like us’ – at the heart of the profile of the sex offender is how his humanity is not to be ‘believed’, any more than one would be free to construct an account of Osama Ben Laden as ‘just like us’.

Where an adult has had sexual relations with the young, and those relationships violate our laws about sex with the young, efforts to reconstruct the past as it may be understood by the adult involved are unlikely to succeed. Notions of friendship, consent, love, they are all blocked. Because of the rules that govern current discourse – to use Foucault’s way of viewing this process – one is not able to speak and in a sense that past the accused has in their head never happened. The rules Foucault speaks of are fluid, ever changing, and some spaces operate differently than others. The law court, the media spaces, blog sites, a discussion at a pub, a talk in our homes with friends, all offer different rules, but there are patterns, blockages – ‘you can’t say that …’, templates.

In a way analogous to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four what we have that guides our lives is both a textual process governed by rules, and its opposite. It is not as if, in an objectively real sense, what Chris Denning as an convicted sex offender has had as a set of experiences has been made to disappear.  With discipline one might well reconstruct an account Denning could look at and say, yes, that is what happened. However the tale we tell ourselves about those who have sexual contact with the young has a template that is dark, condemnatory and punitive. Yes, sexual assault does happen in the sense that unwanted sexual encounters take place, exploitation is a component of our social relations as people. My point is many do find the historic sex case difficult to experience because of all of what I am unpacking here, especially the person standing in the dock. (What contributes to this experience is far more than the simplistic question ‘Did you do it?’; to pose the question ‘What happened? is more open.)

As a closing remark let me say the blog discussion offered by Tom O’Carroll about the Chris Denning case is an interesting rendering of the past. It includes many bits that are unlikely to ever find themselves living inside the courtroom. Hopefully someone will find a way to allow Denning to view that discussion, he might enjoy the read.

DETAILS:

What are we running from?

stifled - peanuts 02

Cartoon taken from a site on Peanuts. (click image to access)

My last post on this blog was dated August 2014.  It is now the first week of December, so why the long gap?  There have been a number of drafts on various topics, none of which made it to the Internet.  Was it just that life got busy?  Two things shaped my activities: first an effort to read material that takes time to process, and second the current sociopolitical climate − characterised by hegemonic ideology − affords little opportunity for contributions from writers on issues relating to the minor attracted person.

A mood can develop that tells the author this process is blocked − social, cultural and political spaces become increasingly rigid and a single view of things dominates.  In such a climate the writing process is gradually stifled.  An earlier post dealt with the topic of hegemony; here, the concept informs this idea of closed spaces.

The question, Why write? can be answered a number of ways; here are two possible responses.  One can write for oneself, quietly putting the assembled text away in one’s desk drawer with no intention to share it − ‘private writing’, a form of art for art’s sake.  Another answer to the question − another style of writing, and it is this one that shapes this blog − is a belief in the value of ongoing public exchange.  There is no attempt here to argue any way of writing is more important; what is rejected is any suggestion of a hierarchy inside writing.  George Orwell’s Winston Smith, hiding in the corner of his room, writing in his notebook, is every bit as powerful as the ubiquitous Stephen Fry.

We can use terms like author, reader, content, narrative about all kinds of writing.  We can even talk of multiple authors and multiple readers − Roland Barthes’ essay on the death of the author vigorously argues that texts are more than mere record-keeping.

So what is Take a Risk NZ seeking to achieve?

When working as a family therapist a method that was both intelligent and helpful was known as the Milan School approach.  Its strength is a commitment to what would be labelled today as a postmodern understanding of how things are.  The kind of question you ended up asking a client might be, Did you say that because you should, because you must, or because you could?  The dialogue this blog engages in links with all three possible responses to that question.  There should be, must be, and can be an exchange of ideas and views in order for the world we live inside of, and create, to have the chance of getting better and, in fact, being better. This view is bold and it does have risks.

The perspective this blog site promotes is being stifled right now. This site is a voice that wants to say a minor attracted person is genuinely an equal member inside his or her society, that sexual orientation for this individual, indeed for the social group such a social profile establishes, requires they be part of how a life is made.

Considering this experience of low oxygen levels there have been some reflections. First there is this idea of what defines one’s understanding of the notion, ‘future’. Inside public discussions about minor attracted persons this idea often involves a discussion of safety, desire that must be resisted, and is framed as dangerous – at the core of child sexual abuse.  It might involve the accusing voice of the probation officer when an inmate is negotiating life after release from prison. Here, ‘future’ is about tomorrow, what may happen; threat and blame are in the air; the focus is on the programmed, the scheduled, the foreseeable.

In an earlier post that discussed a seminar on inmates who are re-entering the community two kinds of approaches surfaced. One management style was to put all the emphasis on warning the individual that they must keep the rules, any mistakes will be met with punishment, and a return to the prison was an ever-present threat.  Another style was to stress human connection, support from others, a need to build bonds between the inmate − now outside the prison − and the wider community.  It was this second view that gained my support and now, again, a non-punitive and less violent approach is favoured.

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida offers a view of future that is ‘l’avenir (to come)’, the arrival of a person or an event which is totally unexpected, unforeseen.  For Derrida that is the real future.  So it is the unpredictable which needs to be our focus; when that thing or that person you did not foresee comes into your life, the issue becomes our response. This is a process guided by openness and tolerance, not fear and danger. In my previous post the topic was resilience.  Traditions like those of psychoanalysis, philosophy, and critical theory may have more to offer the minor attracted person than the voices coming out of such fields as behavioural psychology and criminology.

Cool at 13

Image used in the media piece by Jan Hofffman.

A different issue surfaced inside my abandoned attempt to respond to a media piece by Jan Hofffman, a New York Times blog writer.  Her piece titled “Cool at 13, Adrift at 23” positioned the young who find themselves befriending those who are older than themselves as pseudomature.  Hofffman took work done by a group of psychologists and repositioned their message to suit her target audiences. First she wanted to encourage those who remember admiring that cool youth with dark sunglasses and gelled hair to drop any feelings of admiration and see this youth as flawed.  Second, she wanted to congratulate the parents who observed how their kids were a bit dull and stayed home watching DVDs on doing a great job and tell them they shouldn’t worry.  I read Hoffman’s piece as further evidence of just how conservative our society and culture was becoming.

Among recent items to grab my attention are two television documentaries. One is about a child sex abuser treatment unit in New Zealand, and the second a documentary, ‘The Paedophile Next Door’, aired on Channel 4.

Kia Marama Unit 02

Kia Marama Rehabilitation Unit

The New Zealand documentary (a repeat screening) focused on the Kia Marama Rehabilitation Unit, in which actor Colin Moynihan took on the task of performing a role – to live inside the psyche of a child sex offender.  The viewer was offered clips of interviews with staff at the unit – trainers and administrators guided by a behavioural psychology model; various men who were clients of the unit – men with convictions for sex abuse of children; Colin’s wife, who expressed concern about what taking on such a task might do to him;  and finally clips where Colin spoke about his experience of the role.

A number of years ago I spend an entire year attending each new show at Wellington’s Circa Theatre.  After one particular performance a group of us were invited to interview the actors.  One of my questions seems relevant to what Colin Moynihan had elected to do: Does adopting a character in a play change you; are you shaped by what the character offers such that when the play ends you are not the same?  The group explained that was not how it was for them.  Circa offers world class theatre; what they deliver is of a very high standard.  For an actor there is nothing particularly unusual about playing a strong character.  Colin, his wife, and the staff at the Kia Marama Rehabilitation Unit all believed Colin faced a risk which the Circa actors would not have considered real.  It might be interesting to ask Colin Moynihan to sit down with other actors and discuss my question.

As one might have expected the words the ‘clients’ are made to speak are highly scripted, and a viewer could easily ask, Is what these men are saying here really how things are for them?  I have worked as a Family Therapist; my assessment is this was not therapy.  Issues relating to personal integrity and damage to the clients remain unanswered.  The real clients here were clearly not the men who had been in prison; the clients here are the wider society.  It was their problems and anxieties which were being dealt with in the Kia Marama Rehabilitation Unit.

Eddie, a minor attracted person with no sexual contacts with any child, is committed to keeping this profile. (Interviewed inside The Paedophile Next Door.)

The second television documentary went to air on Channel 4 and was titled “The Paedophile Next Door”.  Tom O’Carroll discusses the item in his latest blog post, titled “Inadmissible Testimony”.  The item’s makers interviewed O’Carroll but did not use any of the resulting material.  What the group was looking for was a voice that is not Tom O’Carroll.  This Channel 4 piece is more complex than the New Zealand documentary.  Viewers discussing the programme – in social media spaces like Twitter and in the more select group who visit Tom O’Carroll’s blog – match that complexity with large numbers of responses.  The comments on Tom’s post extend into the hundreds.

The documentary-makers’ decision not to include any material from their interview with Tom O’Carroll may be seen as a shift in how the discourse on paedophilia is moving in Britain.  The preoccupation with the 1970s and 1980s persists – people like Tom O’Carroll (or, more to the point, PIE) working for social change are still referenced inside media discussion – however, the next step involves a turn where that past is the past and things have moved on.  The discourse now revolves around two topics that often appear as a pair: brain architecture and the ‘virtuous paedophile’.

What is really at stake here is neither a call to virtue nor an absence of transgression – rather, it is a quest for a way the minor attracted person can minimize the risk of violence and death at the hands of others.  Of course this all hinges on the person acquiescing to society’s requirement that they be open to ‘treatment’.

I am not here making any attempt to look into a crystal ball and make predictions; the issue here is the persistence of a refusal to allow the sexuality of the minor attracted person to be explored.  The position being argued here is that treatment is not sexual understanding.

Hand in hand with this, the violence and hatred people are capable of directing towards others go unacknowledged as problematic in their own right.  Gays may well have successfully introduced the notion of ‘homophobia’ as a way of reframing an issue of moral righteousness.

For a moment we glimpsed how we are: we tell ourselves lies, claiming all that is dark and dangerous lives within those we, the righteous, seek to punish. All too often what gives us permission to do unspeakable harm to others involves various phobias and fears.  No sooner had this insight surfaced than violent behaviour and dangerous rage morphed into hatred of the paedophile, and societies (particularly in the West) found themselves back on track.  We may need to augment what we have learned with a new word – ‘paedophobia’.

So two aspects of what it means to be human are going unexplored – the sexuality of the minor attracted person and the self-righteous violent rage that can be performed in public.  The beheadings by Islamic extremists can’t be viewed as radically different from what the rest of us are capable of once this kind of insight is acknowledged.

Both the TV documentaries – the New Zealand piece on Kia Marama and Channel 4’s presentation on paedophilia in England – show a heavily scripted and tightly controlled public voice.  The social construction of ‘the paedophile/sex offender’ has found a place in modern discourse … and it appears the virtuous paedophile has been invited to the table.  The talk grows in volume month by month.  But there are other voices – some of them feeling stifled – who, rejecting those limited options, are determined to create their own speech and not merely mouth the scripts handed to them.

That paedophile profile offered to us in the media, those probation reports drafted by behavioural psychologists setting the conditions for ongoing supervision of released prison inmates, and the criminological discourse treating incarcerated sex offenders as if they represent all who are attracted to the young … none of these dominant and highly influential voices really resemble the varied and genuinely diverse voices of minor attracted people who live within our societies and cultures.

In the current environment, this blog has two interests: first, a concern about what is generated and what circulates inside our societies and cultures that links with the experience of the minor attracted person; second, an attentiveness to those voices that are original and that disrupt the socially constructed discourse.  In recent times, all the talk is about sex abuse and the dangerous person.  The emergent profile offered to us in media discussions – labelled paedophile or sex offender, and often a man – is sad, remorseful, guilt-ridden and contrite (even if he hasn’t done anything), pathetic and pitiable, but needing treatment.  This virtuous paedophile may well mark a new moment in the discourse but this is not really a marker of significant change – it does not ask, and nor will it be, a step towards an emergent sexuality for the minor attracted person in the way things happened for homosexual men in the 1960s and the 1970s.

So, with this post, has the block to dialogue been cleared?  The reader can decide that question.  But Jacques Derrida is right: we can best understand the term ‘future’ as pointing to the thing or person whose arrival is unexpected – in a real sense experienced as ‘other’.  Such a future is well worth valuing, and inside that unplanned-for and unexpected set of events, perhaps we will from time to time catch another glimpse of ourselves as we really are.

 

References:

 

 

 

 

What you start as may matter to you; what you become matters more.

resilienceWhat does it mean to be a good person? Or more to the point, what does it take to be seen as a good person? Here in New Zealand in 2014, these are vital questions and they relate to so many current issues – politics, the economy, inequality, child abuse. The list goes on.

The behaviours of our social and political leaders are at times ethically bankrupt. There is growing inequality between rich and poor, and between the diverse cultures that make us up as a nation. Child poverty and child abuse are crucial problems, and they justify the attention they receive in the media and in public forums. At the same time as all this is happening for us as a wider society, the minor attracted person is being sent the very clear message that nothing they do can be viewed as constructive or worthwhile, ethical or good.

In modern Western culture and society the pedophile (minor attracted person) is dehumanised. The message to such a person is he/she may as well as give up. (See Dunham’s media piece, details below.) In a conversation I had with a man who is minor attracted – he is not living in New Zealand – he made the following point: “This is the message some send the pedophile – Why do anything to help others, as a pedophile society sends the pedophile the message, you can do no good. If there is a burning building with people in danger, don’t bother saving anyone, if you do anything good, the credit you gain will be short-lived. When people know what you are, that good you did will evaporate.” The people you help in that burning house may be lucky because you helped them but you will gain no thanks. This chap does not see himself this way – he is certainly not going to harm anyone – but his words are a wake-up call. He was telling me how things are; this is the thinking of so many about the pedophile, and in saying this I am challenged to include those nice educated types.

You might think things are different in an academic context. After all, these people are educated; they don’t consume media pieces in an unthinking way. The language people use in academic settings may well be different, and the arrogant and hostile attitudes are less likely to be expressed there, but these spaces are no more optimistic. It is this lesson that I think was handed to me recently at a talk I attended here in Wellington. On an internal level I have taken this on board. I find myself changing, not because things are better – more humane; no I am changing because I find myself more able to acknowledge the way things are.

The talk was part of a sociology conference – titled Competing Responsibilities: The politics and ethics of responsibility in contemporary life. I want to be very honest and careful in what I offer here. No one was nasty, no words spoken were like those of some blogger or media person slagging off at “those pedophile bastards”. However beneath the text of what was said and done the mood really was ‘just give up’. Leaving the conference venue, I realized how disappointed I am with the academic community here in New Zealand.

In his keynote address (Making us resilient: responsible citizens for uncertain times) Prof. Nikolas Rose discussed what I considered to be a good idea – he said that notions of risk management can be more positively reframed inside the idea of resilience. Modern life is full of talk of risk management – and this blogsite is named with that in mind – but the problem is that such ideas imply anxiety. With the social construct ‘pedophile’ anxiety blossoms into moral panic. Professor Rose’s words seemed very wise indeed.

Resilience is a term used when talking about helping victims of sexual abuse. Prof. Rose’s talk offered an archeology of the term resilience, together with a critical analysis. He even went on to ask, Where to next? It was in the spirit of this approach that I asked my question: When looking for a less anxiety driven and more positive view of our world can we use resilience in relation to the minor attracted person? After all, that person is required to manage a life in a very hostile society.

Prof. Rose’s response to my question was disappointing. To express an optimism where a minor attracted person can be invited to become more resilient to what is currently happening both for them and for those they are connected to – friends, family – is a non-starter, even in the academic world.

Prof. Rose’s response to my question had three steps. First he wanted to set aside the reference to pedophilia – ‘after all it is a bit of a bombshell topic’. He commented next that it would be problematic to take a soldier about to go into battle and kill people – to become the cause of considerable suffering to others – and attempt to use the term ‘resilient’ when talking about that soldier. Of course I and those in the lecture hall understood what he was saying: This is how people fear a pedophile would behave. So for Prof. Rose, and others, the pedophile is primarily a dangerous person. Rose spoke of the concern he had the pedophile might develop a suit of body armour that made them less likely to see or acknowledge the harm they do. Clearly my proposition that a pedophile be even considered to be involved in a life where being an ethical subject is central is out of the question.

The third step in Prof. Rose’s answer was to speak of his concern – and I would join him here – that some British celebrities have been made into demons and monsters, and how unfair this is. But notice what is central here is the idea that the wrong people are being made demons. It is really about the sights on your gun being out of whack; it is not about putting the gun down and nor is it an acknowledgement that dehumanizing people is a problem in its own right.

A sociologist is always going to resist being turned into a psychologist. In his talk Prof. Rose explained that resilience is more than a reference to an individual’s character or internal disposition. Resilience also involves a set of social relations that surround the individual and that this wider dimension, often a concern for a sociologist, was frequently underestimated in academic critiques of modern life. I found myself taking on board what he was arguing for.

When talk occurs in public spaces about pedophilia and sexual abuse of the young, one sometimes hears references to the need to promote resilience in the child. Listening to Prof. Rose I began to see how one could apply the concept of resilience to discuss the other party in such situations – How can the term resilience be used when talking of the adult who is minor attracted and is seeking to construct for themselves an ethic of conduct that wishes to act responsibly and also strives to own their self-making?

A second aspect is precisely what Prof. Rose was arguing for – how the social relations that surround the individual are as important as that person’s character. As things stand now the minor attracted person finds themselves stigmatised and excluded from society. How does the individual grappling with this process remain socially connected, a part of society? Resilience is sometimes referred to as a capacity to bounce back; it is here one can say the minor attracted person needs to push back against their social exclusion, to see it less as risk management and more as resilience.

My perspective and that of Prof. Rose were clearly very different. I see the minor attracted person experiencing suffering and isolation in modern life; the language of resilience might offer a more positive way to formulate a path forward. For Prof. Rose the minor attracted person simply has no permission to use ‘resilience’ in this way.

There is a set of rules at play here – including a rule about how to break the rules. (For further discussion of this point see Foucault’s text “Fearless Speech”, details offered below.) When it comes to talking about the minor attracted person, a speaker can find themselves saying something that draws a strong negative reaction. That response may well be an indicator a discursive rule has been broken. In theory my asking the question in the context of an academic conference was legitimate but the flaw in my thinking was soon apparent – in relation to the minor attracted person, talk in an academic forum is very similar to talk in a non-academic setting.

Prof. Rose did show a humanitarian feeling for certain individuals: he expressed concern about the allegations and media talk that surrounded Rolf Harris and others. Rose’s message clearly pointed to the poor use of the term ‘pedophile’ in the media coverage, but he seemed not to be showing any real insight or even interest in the life situation of the minor attracted person. He is one of many who I suspect see that beating up on old men (see Guardian article) is not the thing to do, but one would be unwise to see this humanitarian concern for the older person signals the arrival of that compassion I keep waiting for.

I have changed. My attendance at the lecture was not a mistake. I can see how things are, but I am not giving up.

As things stand, a valid question would be: Where can we source other perspectives that present as more open to what is at stake in these relationships and situations.

In this blog post the academic setting references have largely been those of sociology, psychology, linguistics and media studies. If we look at the disciplines of psychotherapy, literature, and critical theory, they include reference to the management of desire as part of managing a life. It is my view now that such ideas as these, alongisde those of Prof. Rose and his ideas of resilience, the minor attracted person, the young, and the rest of us can find a way forward.

Details:

  • Dunham A. ‘Paedophiles should commit suicide’: expert. The Local: Spains News in English. 2014, 18 August. Spain. Online Newspaper.
  • Foucault M. Fearless Speech. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), Distributed by MIT Press; 2001.
  • Harris gets jail sentence of five years nine months. The New Zealand Heald. 2014, 4 July. New Zealand. Online Newspaper. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11287931
  • Lawyer says age of consent should be lowered to end ‘persecution of old men’. (2013, Thursday 9 May 2013 12.22 BST). The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/may/09/lawyer-age-consent-persecution-men
  • Rose N. Making us resilient: responsible citizens for uncertain times. In: Keynote Talk. Rutherford House, Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand. 15th to 17th August; 2014. Competing Responsibilities Conference.

Do Sally and James have your support?

 

Sally and James are asking for social and community support (Parents Forever logo).

Sally and James are asking for social and community support (Parents Forever logo).

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.

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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: .

Married to a Pedophile – Salon.com