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Levitt Panel Addresses Sexual Abuse Myths


Hamilton’s Levitt Center hosted two experts on March 4 for a lecture and discussion on the sexual abuse of minors. Ross Cheit, a professor of political science at Brown University and author of the new book The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children, and Barry Anechiarico, the co-executive director of the Counseling and Psychotherapy Center in Newton, Mass., discussed themes including the stigmatization of the survivors of sexual assault, the effects of punishment versus treatment of convicted sex offenders, and the psychological motivations behind sexual predators.

Cheit began with a brief synopsis of the contents of his book, focusing primarily on the prevalence of what he referred to as backlash against “sex abuse hysteria” in the United States. This backlash is fueled by a number of preconceived notions, or as Cheit calls them, “sexual abuse myths,” that are in conflict with the main body of statistical and scholarly work on the subject. Primary among these myths is that on average child molesters receive exorbitantly long prison sentences, when in reality, according to Cheit’s almost 15 years of research on the topic, child molesters receive not only shorter sentences than those who commit similar grievous crimes (murder, aggravated rape, etc.) but up to one-third of child molesters that are brought to court ultimately receive no sentencing whatsoever.

Cheit also broached the topic of the existence of a “rape culture,” not only in the sense that it has been used traditionally to refer to the stigma surrounding the rape of adult women, but with respect to child-victims of sexual abuse as well. ‘Who are the bystanders on the child’s side? They are the adults, adults who in many cases know or trust the offender, and are in some ways “groomed” by the offender. We have a legal obligation in this country to report known child molestation, but there are very few charges for failure to report sexual abuse on the books, and among those few almost none result in sentencing. Why? Because we identify with those who fail to report the crime.

Victim blaming is another prevalent aspect of the rape culture that Cheit describes surrounding young victims of sexual abuse. Age plays a big part in determining peoples’ attitudes towards a victim of sexual assault. “Once a child is in early adolescence,” Cheit claims, “people become much more willing to ask ‘what was your part in this?”’ Language is also used to minimize the impact of the crime itself. Terminology distinguishing between first degree and second degree sexual abuse, as well as the use of the comparatively lenient term “molestation” (lenient compared to “assault”) can impact the public perception of the crime, as well as drastically decrease the length of sentences for successful convictions.

Barry Anechiarico, who has been providing treatment to sex offenders for 36 years, spoke mainly to the efforts that can be put forward to reduce recidivism amongst the criminal population. In the average case, a sex offender released from prison can have anywhere between a 20% and 40% recidivism rate, or the chance of a relapse into criminal behavior. However, if in addition to a standard sentencing the criminal receives treatment, primarily administered through group therapy and exercises, that rate can drop to as low as 2%. ‘The difference between punishment and treatment is enormous. Punishment is not treatment, although punishment may have a big role to play in preventing crime. Treatment exists to affect recidivism and re-integrate these people into the world.’

Anechiarico also addressed the various risk factors that determine an individual’s proclivity towards sexually deviant behavior. Dynamic factors, he argues, like intimacy deficits, lack of emotional identification with children, hostility towards women, loneliness, social rejection, lack of sexual self-regulation, using sex as a coping mechanism, deviant sexual interests, attitudes supportive of sexual abuse, etc. are much better indicators of risk than the static factors that are most commonly used in risk evaluation, such as age, past criminal behavior and relationship/marital status.

“What puts people at risk?” Anechiarico asked. “Attachment deficits are what put people at risk. What matters is the resources that are available, the relationships that are available to an individual. Our sex offenders have suffered as much if not more than anyone, but they didn’t have the resources to prevent that cumulative trauma from building. From this trauma disorder, one can develop attachment disorders, as well as behavioral, cognitive, emotional, character and neurological disorders.”

There is hope, however. As the statistics surrounding recidivism prove, treatment can be effective. What is most important, Anechiarico argues, is that as many offenders get involved with treatment as possible, that they learn to embrace responsibility for their behavior and recognize their deficits in order to assess their actions more honestly and change substantively for the better.

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