Words are not coming easily to me right now. This is a really difficult subject. But I know it’s important, so I give you dear readers my thoughts on how media reporting can be very insensitive to abuse survivors, particularly for those still recovering from sexual abuse.
A change of topic
This week the topic for #CSAQT, #sexabusechat, and the Google Hangout on Air for Trauma Recovery University was going to be about procrastination. That topic has been pushed back a week, and the topic now is “How to cope with news, the media and triggering stories”.
(Given this acknowledgement, please note that trigger warnings start now.)
I panicked a bit at this abrupt change. I perceived that the impetus for this change was that a number of people in the U.S.-based chat (#sexabusechat) were reeling from the news stories about Josh Duggar. I think the article for him on Wikipedia summed it up best:
In May 2015 it became public that when Duggar was between the ages of 14 and 15 years old, he molested five girls, some of whom were his sisters.
I was reassured by Bobbi Parish that topic focus would remain neutral, and that discussion of specific news stories would be stopped, in order to avoid further triggers for participants.
Now, I have thoughts of my own in regards to patriarchial blowhards having their dirty laundry revealed, which I’ll get to later. What triggered me very hard recently was news stories about women sexually assaulting teenage boys– the likes of Mary Kay LeTourneau, Debi LaFave, Linda Lusk, and Shelley Dufresne– and the media revisiting many of their lives, often with a perspective that I find whitewashed.
I also noted that many Twitter users in the UK, including those attending #CSAQT had their own news stories that they found re-traumatizing and difficult to swallow, including investigations of government officials and entertainment figures, including Jim Saville, Rolf Harris, and in particular of late, Greville Janner.
Please bear with me, dear readers. It is a real challenge for me to articulate my feelings on so much of this, in a way that is not ugly or accusatory. There are so many thoughts, feelings, and experiences I’ve had– many of them that actually shaped my understanding about my abuse, my recovery, and how so many friends and family around me experienced such as well; sometimes as victims, and sometimes as perpetrators.
Accusations and learning the real nature of rape
.In early 1993, I was trying to piece myself back together. I had been accused of raping my girlfriend at the time, by one of her roommates. Now I knew that The Roommate was a survivor of incest, because The Girlfriend told me so. She also had warned me that her roommate was convinced that I would rape her, and we were caught in a compromising position that The Roommate was certain was proof. She demanded that The Girlfriend call police, which she did, although she didn’t press charges. What did me in, so to speak, was that I trusted too many of my peers, trying to assuage my pain, and the rumor mill went into overdrive, which led to my church bishop at the school (this was an LDS-affiliated junior college) withdrawing his endorsement, and my ultimate expulsion. The rumor mill had already been shaming me for my emerging sexuality with women; I have no idea if they were fully aware of my emerging sexuality with men. (That would come two schools later.)
I didn’t understand everything The Girlfriend told me, but a lot of it started falling into place talking with my youngest sister. One story she shared was about one of her friends. She disapproved of her promiscuous choices, but she was sure much of it stemmed from the fact that her friends’ father had been molesting her friend, and that she therefore was confusing sexual activity with affection. It dawned on me then that much of what The Girlfriend was telling me was indicative that her father had molested her, and I told my sister as much. It certainly explained the attitudes she described about her father criticizing her clothing and her beauty– and that her roommates were accordingly protective of her.
Another story that my sister told me around the same time was that a friend of hers had been molested by her brother. She was very upset because there was such a heavy emphasis on her friend “forgiving” her brother, and that said brother was being allowed to serve a mission for our church. She very much felt that such a serious wrong had not been properly addressed.
At that time of my accusations, I felt that I was guilty. This wasn’t the very first time I explored intimacy with a girl, but it was the first time it was explicitly sexual, including heavy petting. But I was repressed enough that I didn’t really know how certain things worked. At the time, I didn’t know what mutual masturbation was. All I knew was, “If I have done this to her, why do I feel like I’m dying inside when she does it to me?” Now, years later, my sister and I further discussed attitudes in our church culture. She described to me an attitude of “boys just can’t help themselves”, with a heavy emphasis of vigilance handed to the girls. I told her that I experienced heavy shame as a young man by contrast, that I was deeply shamed for my sexual curiosity.
Now I say I felt guilty because I believed The Roommate’s accusations. About a year later in 1994, I started reaching out on the Internet, and shared my story with a rape survivor. My worldview began to change when she told me I was definitely NOT guilty.
The darkness of child abuse
It was almost another 10 years before I really started coming to grips with my mother abusing me- the sexual abuse at age 6, and the many, many years of emotional abuse.
It would be well over a half decade before I realized even more implications.
Please note, dear readers, that the next part I talk about I describe sparsely, because it’s not my story to tell. But I can certainly empathize a bit with my UK friends.
A few years ago, one of my in-laws was investigated by the FBI, as child porn was discovered on their computer. Please, dear readers, I ask that you suspend harsh judgment. I’ve had to make some very hard decisions, along with my wife Cimmorene, on how photos of our children are to be shared on the Internet, and I feel that it has been harder, based on the implications of this issue. I do not feel danger from this relative (I feel that they have addressed this to the extent that they do not pose a threat), but, I am concerned about other users. I also have a very difficult time accepting nudity of young boys as art– I very firmly believe that even that should be avoided. But I can’t force this relative not to view certain media; I can only make rules about photos of my children. Please understand that I am much more concerned about the company of users said relative keeps, rather than the relative in particular.
I’ve written about fears of pedophilic predators threatening my family on the Internet before. I won’t link to them at this time.
What bothers me about media portrayals
I think the common thread that I will eventually discuss with others in chat is that the media, as I said before, are not reporting matters of sexual abuse in a way that is sensitive to survivors.
For example, what bothered me about media stories concerning women like Mary Kay LeTourneau and Linda Lusk was that certain media outlets, in my opinion, were whitewashing their stories. In particular, ABC News and the news show 20/20 revisited Mary Kay LeTourneau recently. I, Bobbi, and others I know were very upset that Barbara Walters referred to the sexual abuse as “an affair”.
MKLT presented her story as love, not rape. So many years later, it almost seemed like Barbara Walters and 20/20 chose to believe that narrative– “See, she was right. It was about love all along.”
But it’s still rape, although it would seem that that when women sexually assault men, their motives and perspective are rather different than that of male perpetrators. Yet it’s still about power and control, not reciprocal intimacy.
And yes, I do feel like the media all too often serves it up like titillating porn. There seems to be a double standard here. If Mike LaFave is right– that women like his ex-wife Debi do it to reassure themselves of their youth and beauty– then the news stories reinforce that idea. The stories that seem to get the most press show photos of female offenders with well-applied makeup and aesthetically good looks. Sometimes, they are even smiling.
The final analysis
But as I think really hard about it, one thing seems to be consistent. Whether the media reports on men or women committing sexual crimes, they seem to reinforce old gender stereotypes. The male perpetrators are handling the situation, and the female perpetrators are still young and beautiful. If the male perpetrators are not handling the situation, well, they are old, and their mental health is failing.
For the news sites that still allow commenting, some of the worst stereotypes come out in the comments as well. Such comments I remember on teacher sex crimes went something like this:
- “The kid probably initiated it, not the teacher!”
- “I doubt that boy feels victimized. He likely feels lucky!” (Usually, the news story said that that school officials became aware of the incident, because victims were ‘bragging’ to other students.)
Most comments I’ve seen generally don’t condone such ideas, but, I’ve seen at least a few perpetrate such prejudice.
I’m not sure what the ultimate solution is. Hopefully, I will get some insight in the next couple of days, from chatmates and other Twitter friends. I suspect that possible solutions will include setting limits and boundaries as to media consumption, and to strategically determine the best times, places, and circumstances to speak out. It’s possible that some may say that the writing process is one way to do that, as well as a means of coping in healthy ways.