Thursday, December 14, 2017

Leper or Messiah?: Words do Matter

By Christopher Lobanov-Rostovsky
Leper or Messiah? The answer is neither.
So when we talk about the adults…mainly men…who are sexually exploiting the vulnerable young people around them, what is the right question? That is too often becoming lost in all of the current media coverage in the United States related to sexual exploitation. 
It is truly unbelievable for someone who has worked in this field for 30 years to see all that has happened in the last 30+ days. I have devoted my professional life to stopping sexual violence in all of its forms by counseling those who commit sexual offenses. I never truly thought I would see the day where society would be so openly having this discussion. So I have decided that it is time to add my voice and perspective to the growing public conversation.
The horror of sexual violence is as old as society itself. We refer to it as sexual abuse, exploitation, or harassment, and use labels like pedophile, predator, and victim. For those who don’t really want to face the issue, it can be easier to see it as all being the same. And yet in my 30 years of experience, I have seen how this issue is infinitely more complex. So what was the question again? Is senatorial candidate Roy Moore more like the father of the Messiah, as a supporter has described him, or a pedophile (sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children), as others have said? Neither is accurate.
So what is the truth? For the first time in history, a large number of people in this country, including the women reporting Roy Moore for sexual exploitation, feel empowered to come forward with their stories of sexual exploitation. The media is publicizing these stories which has the ability to facilitate change of individual behavior and the underlying culture.
Given this media coverage, the challenge to ALL of us is to learn how to talk about this. I would like to offer a few suggestions about how to have these very difficult conversations in a way that is respectful and hopefully engages all of us. In doing so, we must allow for the attention to ultimately remain focused on those with the courage to come forward and those they accuse:
1)      All of us who are reading these stories would benefit from an accurate reporting, understanding and discussion of these unfolding events. Use of emotional-laden terms like pedophile, which does not appear to be applicable in the Moore case, distract from understanding what occurred. Correct information will help us have this conversation in a constructive and productive fashion.    
Potential Media Reporting:
“Senatorial candidate Roy Moore has been accused by multiple women of engaging in sexually exploitive behavior. One of the women reported being the victim of what would constitute sexual assault as the behavior would be a crime if committed within the statute of limitations. The other women described the exploitation as consisting of dating them while they were still minors, but above the age of legal consent in Alabama, when candidate Moore was in his thirties. All of the women described trauma related to their experiences with candidate Moore.”
2)      When people come forward with their personal stories of sexual exploitation, we should offer them support and validate their experience. This does not mean we automatically accept at face value what they are saying as proof of a crime and convict the accused without proper due process. Trauma does not always express itself in a straight forward and direct manner. We need to initially support individuals who come forward to share their experiences without judgment.  
Potential Response to Those Who Choose to Share Their Sexual Exploitation Publicly:
“I support the strength and bravery of (person reporting sexual exploitation) for coming forward and sharing his/her story. I would encourage (accused name) to step away from his/her role as (fill in position) to seek assistance in addressing this allegation.”
3)      Finally, how should someone accused of sexual exploitation respond? We have seen many different responses over the past month (outright denial, inability to recall, justifying the behavior, taking responsibility for how the person reporting sexual exploitation may have misinterpreted the actions which were not meant to harm or offend, etc.). A short statement of accountability without trying to explain or excuse would best serve both the person accused of sexual exploitation, as well as the person making the allegation.
Potential Accused Response:
“I, (fill in name), take full accountability for my actions involving (name of person reporting sexual exploitation) and the harm this behavior has caused. I will be stepping away from my role as (fill in position) in order to address my behavior and what I can do to cause no further harm to (name of the person reporting sexual exploitation) or anyone similarly in the future.”    
While it is important for society to have this larger conversation about sexual exploitation, it is equally important that we allow space for the accused and the person reporting the sexual exploitation to address what happened. For the person making the allegation, this may include learning how to manage trauma and live with what happened. For the person accused of sexual exploitation, this may include an opportunity to be accountable for the behavior and receive treatment to better understand the behavior and prevent its recurrence. IF we are going to support healing and accountability, then we must do it in the right way. Leper or Messiah is too easy. It lets us all off the hook in terms of truly listening and hearing how to do our part before it happens to any other young people. So let’s have the conversation and learn from it. What do YOU say?   

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