Thursday, November 16, 2017

The promise and importance of apology: The need for apologies to be heard and not dismissed.

By Alissa Ackerman, PhD, David Prescott, LICSW, & Kieran McCartan, PhD

Will an authentic apology ever be enough? This is a question we asked ourselves this week in the wake of Louis C.K.’s apology to the women he masturbated in front of. Last Friday, the comedian responded to a report in the New York Times where five women told their stories about his behavior with a written apology which can be read in full here.

In his statement, he acknowledged that what he did was wrong. More importantly, he explained that he justified his behavior because he did not fully understand that his behavior was a real predicament for these five women. He did not fully recognize the power differential he maintained. With this statement he is accepting responsibility for his actions.

Several outlets have published pieces chastising the apology. One in particular that has made rounds on social media can be read here. The piece admonishes Louis C.K. by rewriting the apology to make it, as they say, a real apology. It is true that he does not actually use the words “I am sorry”, but we argue that his admission and acknowledgement is a step toward healing, reconciliation, and transformation. Indeed, people who have experienced sexual abuse are frequently highly sensitive to the language of apologies and can spot insincerity quickly. While the critiques of C.K.s apology raise important points (and the apology doubtless went through several rounds of editing), apology is still an interpersonal process that cannot be meaningfully dictated by outsiders.

Most individuals who experience sexual victimization and/or harassment agree that an apology – an acknowledgement that what happened to them was wrong - is an important step in the healing process. These individuals rarely receive an apology. Perhaps one reason that apologies are hard to come by is that when they are given they are perceived as inauthentic or not good enough. At the same time, sensitivity is required; an apology should never be written in a way that compels the person harmed to accept it or forgive before they are ready.

The Louis C.K. apology offers a teachable moment for anyone who has ever committed a harmful sexual act. It shows that it can be done and it can be powerful. It takes courage to own up to harmful behavior, but doing so offers a space for authentic connection. It is unfortunate that what appears to be a meaningful apology is met with judgement and admonishment – the very things that lead to disconnection. Professionals working with people who have abused often observe that these individuals often have intense trouble expressing their thoughts as eloquently as they and others would like. Sometimes this is due to intellectual and other learning disabilities. At other times it can be due to shame and self-hatred as a result of their actions. In the end, it is the dialog that is the most important.

In previous posts (link them here) we have written about restorative justice and how it might be beneficial in cases involving sexual harm. Restorative justice (RJ) is a framework that focuses on repairing the harm that was caused. The most typical RJ practice, victim-offender mediation, puts the person who caused harm and the person who was harmed in the same room. This can be daunting for survivors of sexual violence, which has made RJ inaccessible in most cases of sexual harm.

Professionals have not made their minds up as to whether RJ is useful in cases of sexual violence, as many believe it can cause secondary trauma for the survivor or allows the individual who offended to relive and “enjoy” the abusive incident(s). Acknowledging that, it is important to remember that in most cases both the individual who caused harm and the one who was harmed will come into contact with each other at some point in the future, as over 80% of sexual abuse cases involve people known to one another. When RJ is used in cases of sexual violence, (i.e. in CoSAs) an apology – usually written and passed via a third party – can be seen as lacking legitimacy. We end up with a challenging paradox of wanting heartfelt and freely given apologies, but do not fully engage in processes that enable this to happen.

If done correctly, one positive outcome of RJ type sessions is the insight gained by the individual who causes harm. RJ can help people understand the impacts of their actions and their offending behavior. It can also help survivors gain an understanding of why they were victimized. For RJ to begin to be effective, the individual who caused harm must admit to their offense(s) and must offer an apology.

It is easy to point fingers at celebrities about which we know little. It is easy to unleash our collective rage at these public figures. However, this outrage does not and will not end sexual violence because most people who act in sexually inappropriate ways do not fully understand that their behavior is harmful.

Louis C.K. is a prime example of this. He justified his behavior and believed that it was acceptable because he asked the women before he masturbated in front of him. He did not understand the impact of his behavior until much later. This in no way excuses his actions, but it provides a framework for understanding the mindsets of many people who act in sexually inappropriate ways.

Each of us has been affected by sexual abuse in one way or another. One of the authors, Alissa, is a survivor of sexual violence and participates in restorative justice type sessions with men in community based treatment for sex crimes. To date she has shared her story with close to 200 men, answering their questions about the impacts of sexual victimization and asking them questions about their offenses. She writes: “What I have learned in this work is that approaching individuals with authentic curiosity and non-judgement allows for connection and understanding that would not occur if I showed up with anger… I’ve learned that many of these men have very little understanding of how their actions have impacted the lives of the individuals they’ve harmed. The behavior itself and the harm it causes becomes abstract until a survivor is sitting in front of them outlining in detail how sexual trauma has changed her life. Then they get it.”

Perhaps one way for powerful people to better understand the impacts of the harm they cause when the engage in sexual harassment, sexual assault, or rape is for them to stop talking and start listening. Louis C.K. ends his statement by saying, “I will now step back and take a long time to listen.”

If he, and others in shoes like his, are willing to listen, maybe it is time for us to speak in open, honest, authentic conversations. Instead of pointing fingers, reacting in anger, judging with disgust, we should embrace dialogue and honor that just because someone should have known that their behavior was wrong and harmful, doesn’t mean they actually knew it. Perhaps that starts with an apology and the willingness to listen.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Conflation & misunderstanding: The problem of using language inappropriately

By Kieran McCartan, PhD, David Prescott, LICSW, & Alissa Ackerman, PhD

All too often, media and societal discussions about sexual abuse and harassment focus exclusively on the offence in general and often graphic terms and the related definitions linked to that offence, rather than taking a broader yet nonetheless realistic view of the individual (which is what comprehensive risk formulation, treatment, and community management focus on). Labelling people by offence makes for accessible media coverage, but is problematic in terms of understanding those who cause harm. After all, developing an understanding of the mechanisms of abuse is vital to prevention, rehabilitation, and reintegration (and something that we have discussed before on the blog).

As such, there has been a growing movement around the use of person-first language in describing people who commit sexual harm. That is, rather than stopping at terms such as “sex offender”, many of us have said for years that we should be referring to those who have sexually abused as exactly that: people who have sexually abused. In other words, by labelling behaviour and not people, society can better understand and prevent abuse and harassment. The accurate use of language matters; terminology used inappropriately or out of context it can be damaging, not only in terms of how we work with individuals who have committed sexual harm but also in terms of how we as a society and as individuals come to terms with the many issues involved.   

There are a multitude of ways to describe sexual abuse and harassment; this can be highly problematic. A recent example of this is actor Kevin Spacey’s statement about his sexual advances towards a 14-year-old when Spacey was 24. These actions involved a ten-year age gap and crossing the age of sexual consent barrier, as well as a host of social norms/conventions. Spacey, in discussing the case, referred to himself as being gay in an apparent attempt to draw attention away from the illegal nature of his behaviour, but it conflated the issue. His statement reinforced the mistaken idea that paedophilia is linked to homosexuality, which is not the case on two fronts.

First, paedophilia is not meaningfully linked to homosexuality any more than it is to heterosexuality. An attraction to one gender or another doesn’t define a person as paedophilic (which involves a sexual attraction to children). Second, being sexually attracted to a 14-year-old does not make someone paedophilic, as that term describes someone who is sexually attracted to pre-pubescent children. A person with a sexual interest in pubescent or post-pubescent children generally is often referred to as hebephilic, although the exact definitions are controversial and the subject of considerable scholarly debate. While it might be argued that this is a case of semantics, it’s not! Finally, it is extremely important to note that the act of having sex with someone too young to provide legal consent is itself not the same thing as an entrenched sexual interest in children or pubescent individuals. Behavior is not necessarily the same as a true pattern of sexual interest and arousal.

As more complaints and issues arise, we will start to see that Kevin Spacey (like Jimmy Saville and others) does not exhibit the traits necessary for a diagnosis of hebephilia or paedophilia. Rather his actions may be related to other motivations. In other words, his motivation may well be the act and not the type of victim. At a societal level, we have started to discuss the issue from the wrong perspective. It has never been more important to separate fact from fiction, and science from the apparent science fiction that makes up too much of public discourse.

We need to report and discuss sexual abuse, harassment, and victimisation using the correct terminology so that individuals who commit sexual harm and those who experience it get the necessary response that helps them; mislabelling can cause negative personal and social responses. The reality is that individuals who sexually offend have differing aetiologies. They need different degrees of support in treatment, have different types of cognitive distortions/barriers, need different interventions and face different challenges reintegration (i.e. accommodation, employment, etc); therefore, it is essential that we all understand what we are talking about, use the same language and consider the individual as the defining factor, not their offence.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

ATSA Annual Conference 2017

By Kieran McCartan, PhD, David Prescott, LICSW, & Alissa Ackerman, PhD

The annual ATSA conference took place from the 25TH – 28TH of October in Kansas City. The conference was a real mix of research, practice and engagement with international colleagues from countries including the USA, Canada, UK,  Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Germany, Hong Kong, Netherlands, Belgium and Israel to name a few. In this blog we are going to take you on a whistle stop tour of the event.

The two of plenary sessions that bookended the conference addressed the challenges of the work that we do in preventing and responding to sexual harm. Patty Wetterling opened the conference with a very emotive and personal narrative about her story and experiences. Maia Christopher, Pamela Mejia and Nicole Pittman closed the conference with a debate on how we engage with the media and the public around sexual harm. These two plenaries highlighted how far we have come and how much we still have to do. They provided a positive message and a timely reminder.

ATSA 2017 kicked off with another public engagement event prior to the start of the conference.  It was hosted by the Kauffman centre in Kansas City and had speakers discussing the myths around sexual perpetration (Kieran McCartan, UWE), the reality of sex offender treatment (Michael Miner, University of Minnesota), the challenges of working with juveniles that sexual harm (Rene McCreary, Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault) and the reality as well as impact of registration and disclosure (Seth Wescott, Clinical Associates). After the presentations there was a great question & answer session that reinforced the importance of the event and the topics discussed. Also this year we had the first ATSA gives back event where by ATSA members volunteered in the community with organisations that support victims of sexual harm, this year it was with Sunflower House.

Kieran attended an international roundtable on risk management which included speakers from 9 countries, including, UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Belgium, Italy, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands. The roundtable was well attended, highlighting the similarities and differences in sex offender management internationally, reinforcing the need to greater knowledge exchange and professional collaboration. This reflected the core theme of the conference, balance, and reinforced the range of topics covered in the pre-conferences and main workshops, including topics like, the broad spectrum of people who commit sexual harm (adults, adolescence, people with learning difficulties and mental illnesses), different types of therapy (group therapy, one-one one sessions), risk management, community reintegration, risk assessment, desistence, RNR/Good Lives, sex offender policy and media engagement.

The notion of balance reinforced the importance of knowledge exchange and professional collaborations which includes the recognition that user voices are key to preventing sexual abuse and reducing harm when victimization does occur. This was the biggest take away for Alissa as she reflected on the ATSA conference. She collaborated and co-presented on four talks that drove home the importance of knowledge exchange that transcends academic and clinical knowledge.

These presentations included: 1) voices of individuals who have sexually harmed who continually live in fear (with Danielle Harris and Jill Levenson); 2) “Survivor Scholars” who utilize their personal experiences and professional expertise to impact policy and prevention efforts (with Alexa Sardina); 3) effectively using vicarious restorative justice to help individuals who have sexually harmed and individuals who have experienced sexual harm to gain empathy, insight, and a common humanity (with Jill Levenson), and 4) Using professional expertise to answer questions from the general public in a way that is accessible and meaningful (with Danielle Harris, Gwen Willis, and Jill Levenson).

David found himself involved in five presentations, of which four were collaborations with others: Gwen Willis, Jill Levenson, Robin Wilson, Marshalee McQueen, Erin Bresee, Liam Ennis, Laurie Rose Kepros, and Kevin Nunes. Likewise, AUDIOphilia was back, having performed at virtually all the opening night receptions in 2004. On this occasion, the band featured, Robin Wilson, Liam Ennis, Kevin Nunes, Andrew Harris, Tony Beech and David Prescott.This is particularly salient in respect to Tony Beech as he is retiring and ATSA 2017 will be one of his last academic appearances; Tony has been central to the sexual abuse research community across his career and will be missed.  As a membership organization, ATSA has its very roots in collaboration, dating back to the 1980s when researchers and practitioners first assembled to share their perspectives, resources, and ideas.

The primary take-away from these experiences for all of us is the importance of working together towards common goals… “creating balance” as the conference theme described it. The ATSA conference, and the ability of so many people to come together, is an excellent illustration of the saying, “Alone, I travel faster; together we travel further.” Some of the themes in these presentations included the role of certainty and uncertainty in assessment, treatment, and legal proceedings; applications of motivational interviewing and the good lives model; and new perspectives and approaches in trauma-informed care.

In the end, we are all at our best when we can discuss the issues of the day, acknowledge differences, come together to establish new ideas and goals, and make them happen; next year its Vancouver, Canada!!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A changing of the guard...

Dear Blog readers,

We have recently had some changes here at the Sexual Abuse Blog with Jon Brandt stepping down from active blogging. Myself and David would like to take this opportunity to thank Jon for all his hard work on the blog over the last number of years. Jon's blogs have always been insightful, critical and pertinent. We wish him luck for the future and will always positively receive any future blogs that he would like to submit. So farewell, rather than goodbye!

We would like to take this opportunity to welcome a new blogger joining our team, Dr Alissa Ackerman (Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, California State University, Fullerton). Alissa research's sex offender policy, management, sexual violence prevention and restorative as well as transformative justice with sex offenders. Myself and David are looking forward to blogging with Alissa and looking forward to the new perspective that she will bring to the team.

We have a blog on the recent ATSA conference coming later this week and some interesting as well as diverse blogs in the pipeline.

Talk soon,

Kieran, David and Alissa.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

"Safer Communities & Better Lives" - Realizing the Narrative

Note: Since 2010, Chief Bloggers, Robin Wilson and I, along with Associate Bloggers, David Prescott and Jon Brandt, and dozens of guest bloggers, have turned out 239 blogs with over 300,000 total page views.  As a clinician and writer, Jon Brandt has been contributing to the Sexual Abuse Blog and The Forum newsletter since 2012.  With today’s blog, Jon is stepping down as an ATSA blogger, but readers will see occasional guest blogs and other writing from Jon in the future.  - Kieran

While it’s not an official moto of ATSA, the first time I heard someone describe the quest for, “safer communities and better lives,” I remember thinking isn’t that the essence of what we should all be striving for?  Regardless of our role in the prevention and treatment of sexual abuse, it seems the catchphrase of Safer Communities & Better Lives could help to realize more successful outcomes – for every victim, for and every offender, for their families and friends, and for communities.  When we underreact or overreact to sexual misconduct, the result might be neither safer communities nor better lives.  What’s being missed is not just equitable balance, but the fact that safer communities and better lives are not mutually exclusive.  We can realize BOTH Safer Communities AND Better Lives.  “Creating Balance” is the theme of ATSA’s 36th Annual Conference.

“When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Current social rules and laws around interpersonal sexual behavior have roots in 20th Century sexual mores, widespread myths about sexual offending, and the co-occurring faulty narratives.  Hardly a day goes by without a media story about egregious sexual misconduct.  But it’s encouraging that, in the 21st Century, such reports frequently result in a social media firestorm, like “#MeToo.”  Consider how we can create more productive dialogue for more effective interventions and prevention with these…

Ten Narratives for Achieving Safer Communities & Better Lives

1.  Victim advocates, treatment providers, and other stakeholders are becoming unified for the same common goal: the prevention of sexual abuse.

2.   Sexual violations occur on a continuum, requiring different responses and interventions.

3.   Sexual violations flourish in darkness and secrecy; it’s difficult for sexual abuse to exist when everyone is talking about the meaning of respectful interpersonal sexual conduct, even kids.

4.   We can’t expect young people to know all the rules and laws for interpersonal sex.  As a public health concern, education and dialogue must be integrated into our educational systems.

5.   When sexual violations occur between children, they typically occur through different pathways than adults, and require different responses.  We need to get the message right.

6.   In the interests of sexual safety, we are better at separating people from their families than we are at putting families back together again.  All parties to sexual abuse need help for personal recovery, and to restore healthy relationships.

7.   The public widely believes that: “sex offenders” are intrinsically evil, recidivism is “frightening and high,” and the answer is incarceration.  Evil is not a diagnosis, and punishment is not a cure.  Overwhelmingly, offenders want help for recovery.  We know how to do that.

8.   Public policies and civil regulations for “sex offenders” resemble the Dark Ages practices of public scorn and banishment.  “They” come from “us” - they are our sons, brothers, fathers, neighbors…  and they come from all walks of society.

9.   Effective Interventions can be found in the empirical guidance of Risk, Need, and Responsivity, and in strength-based principles of recovery, such as Good Lives.

10.  Misguided policies and practices come from misinformation.  When people are educated about sexual abuse we can realize Safer Communities & Better LivesIt takes a village.

Several years ago, knowing that half of all sexual assaults are infused with alcohol, and that men are responsible for the majority of sexual violations, I wrote, “Is it possible that every guy is a six-pack of beer and one bad judgement away from being a sex offender?”  A lot of men told me they cringed when they read that.  As long as boys become men, “male” is a robust risk factor associated with sexual violations. 

The “Rule of 90” is a handy way to change the narrative about sexual abuse: 
  • About 95% of sexual abuse is committed by males.  We need to better understand social, cultural, and biological etiologies of sexual abuse.   There are many stakeholders, but men need to own this, and mentor boys.
  • About 95% of sexual offenses are committed by previously unknown offenders.  Resources committed to known offenders could be better spent on primary prevention. 

Perhaps it could be called the rule of 95, but the “Rule of 90” allows some wiggle room for errors in data and reporting.  Even if we can’t achieve accuracy on the rate of sexual reoffending, we know that the prevalence of sexual misconduct, around the world, is indeed, frightening and high.  Myths about recidivism being “frightening and high,” continues to drive misguided policies and practices.
“For every complicated social problem there is an easy solution, which won’t work.” -  H. L. Mencken

Laws rooted in fear and anger propagate anger and fear.  Civil regulations (i.e. sex offender registries, residence restrictions, and sexual offender civil commitment) are rooted in erroneous rates of recidivism, strain the true cost-benefit ratio of effectiveness, and contribute to false narratives about community safety.  There is strong evidence that civil regulations are unwarranted, and growing concerns in US courts that some regulations of “sex offenders” violate the US Constitution.
The US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has endorsed the false narrative of “frightening and high” rates of sexual recidivism, but recently issued a surprising, unanimous ruling to limit government overreach in the management of “sex offenders.”  Packingham v. North Carolina has nationwide implications for the right to Internet access.  In another compelling ruling, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Does v. Snyder, issued a scathing rebuke of Michigan’s civil regulations.  In unanimously finding Michigan’s SORA laws unconstitutional, Circuit Judge Alice Batchelder wrote, “Tellingly, nothing the parties have pointed to in the record suggests that the residential restrictions have any beneficial effect on recidivism rates…  [It] brands registrants as moral lepers solely on the basis of a prior conviction.  It consigns them to years, if not a lifetime, of existence on the margins.”  In 2017, SCOTUS let Snyder stand.  The Boston College Law Review writes, “Snyder is a shining example of a court actually engaging with scientific evidence that refutes moralized judgments about a particularly disfavored group.”  Judicial courage can change the narrative, but the courts alone cannot fix systemic problems.

Judges, prosecutors, probation officers and corrections agents may have little leeway with imposing mandated civil regulations, but they typically have great discretion over prosecution, sentencing, release, and conditions of probation or parole.  False narratives of “frightening and high,” that drive policies and practices, can be overcome with empirical evidence.  ATSA members who know the research can inform our allied professionals, and help to ensure that empirically-based practices are applied to every client.

“Do the best you can until you know better, then, when you know better, do better.”   -  Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou’s famous quote doesn’t suggest that when we know better we “can” do better, but implies that when we know better we “should” do better.  ATSA is in a unique position to change the narrativeSafer Communities & Better Lives will come from researchers who are providing the empirical evidence that we need to establish best practices, from clinicians, who are on the frontlines of treatment, and from many allied professions who are working to ensure justice and equitable outcomes for victims, offenders, and their families.  People who work in this field are not apologists for “sex offenders.”  Treatment for those who have sexually offended does not come at the expense of victims; it honors them.

Treatment is effective.  Evidence indicates that a strong therapeutic alliance, sensitivity to trauma-informed care, principles of positive psychology (e.g. motivational Interviewing, Good Lives), and individualized supervision, contribute vastly more to successful recovery than confinement, onerous conditions of probation, or ineffective civil regulations.  Civil regulations are especially harmful to kids.  Too often, it seems, perceptions of “safer communities” come at the expense of “better lives.”   Isn’t it likely that Better Lives and Safer Communities could be mutually beneficial, if not synergistic?

“Everything will be okay in the end; if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”   -  John Lennon

A colleague on the ATSA listserv recently observed, about the evolving state of our field, “If we are not appalled at what we did 20 years ago, we have not worked hard enough to be better.”  Perhaps we should tweak that sentiment a bit…  if we suspect that current policies and practices are contradicted by existing research, let’s not wait 20 years to be appalled.  Now would be a good time to bring policies and practices in line with empirical evidence.  If challenging status quo feels professionally risky, perhaps too far ahead of colleagues where one practices, ATSA’s got your back.  We need only to know the research, step into our fears, and follow the lead of ATSA experts.  There’s a whole bunch of them in Kansas City this week.  By working together, and Creating Balance, we can truly realize Safer Communities & Better Lives.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”  -  Margaret Mead
I am very grateful to Robin Wilson and ATSA for the privilege and opportunity to be an ATSA blogger.  And much appreciation to current co-bloggers, Kieran McCartan and David Prescott, for the team effort to bring (hopefully) thought-provoking blogs to ATSA members.  It’s been a great run, but “it’s not the end.”
All the best,

Jon Brandt, MSW, LICSW

Friday, October 20, 2017

Changing the social norms on sexual abuse, sexual assault, and sexualised behaviour

By Kieran McCartan, PhD, David Prescott, LICSW, & Jon Brown, MSc

The recent, often deeply courageous statements and disclosures about sexual abuse, sexual assault, and sexualised behaviour on social media over the last week since the start of the Harvey Weinstein allegations should not shock us. They conform what we already knew, that there is a normalisation of sexual abuse and harassment in our culture.

Over the last couple of years there has been a steady expansion in the number of people affected by sexualised behaviour coming forward, some related to historical cases while some is contemporary. What this indicates is that people feel more confident in coming forward, more confident that they will be believed as well as supported, more confident that the system will respond appropriately and better able to engage socially on the topic. At the same time, there is no denying the bravery behind each disclosure; the stakes are as high as they are unpredictable.

Consequently, the movement towards greater transparency and disclosure brings a multiplier effect. That is, the more that people come forward and talk about sexual harm, the more it’s exposed and – therefore – the more that abuse gets reported. As a society, we start to realise that our idealised social norm of “no abuse” is not the reality, that sexual harm is occurring on a daily basis across our communities locally, nationally and globally; therefore, we need to work harder and smarter in responding to it.

While the most recent conversation about the reality and impact of sexual harm focuses on Hollywood, it reflects what we have seen in the world of sport, social care, religious organisations, politics, and education. Once we started to have the conversation about sexual harm, we realised that all same thing was happening cross organisationally, cross culturally, and internationally. The story is all too familiar: it is about power and control, it’s about taking advantage, it is about perceptive social norms, low level sexism and social acceptability. It is about similar people and actions in different contexts! If we think about the parallels between the different contexts we are talking about men (mainly, but not always) in powerful roles that can take advantage of individuals (mainly women, but not always because men have come forward too) desires to achieve something (achieve in an industry or promise of a better life) and offer them a way to achieve it with caveats (sexual abuse, blackmail manipulation) resulting in the victims being placed in an impossible situation that is often perceived as the norm (identified through their multi experiences of the same thing at different times in the same industry and similar stories from their peers) that gets internalised, accepted and normalised. Once we started talking about institutionalised sexual harm in care homes and sport, why did we not think that it would be the same in other areas?

The question is how do we respond? Just like Jimmy Saville, Jerry Sandusky, and too many members of the Catholic Church, Harvey Weinstein is not the only sexual predator in entertainment. This is larger societal issue and taps into the roots of our normative social practices, relationships, boundaries and values.

Perhaps most difficult to consider is that many of those for whom there is strong evidence of wrongdoing – Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, and many others – are or have been respected as public figures. Whatever one’s leanings, the truth about who has abused can be deeply painful. Indeed, that is one of the many ways that abuse is pernicious and harmful.

Our current situation will not change overnight. The brave people standing up to post “#metoo” are a great start as their actions reveal the scale and impact of the issue at street level. We need to turn this outpouring into a constructive response that prevents sexual harm and changes the support social norms. Violence, including sexual abuse, is just not acceptable. If we’ve learned anything over the past two decades, it’s that sometimes the most practical action one can take is to speak up and speak out. We need to promote the message of a zero tolerance approach to all forms of sexual abuse and violence wherever it is happening and we need to promote and support prevention approaches that will address the problem at the earliest possible opportunity, in schools, in families and in our communities. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

We can do better at preventing & responding to sexual abuse on college campuses: The impact of Title IX Rollbacks.

By Becky Palmer, MS, & Jenny Coleman, MA, LMHC.

The United States Department of Education (DoE) withdrew statements of policy and guidance for colleges and universities on Sexual Violence in September 2017. The DoE also issued new guidelines that substantially changes the interpretation provided under the previous administration.  These new guidelines will be available for comment in the near future.  Title IX’s intent is  to help keep all students safe by allowing them to live without fear of violence—by charging colleges and universities with providing prompt and equitable responses to sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual violence. While indeed a tall order, the use of Title IX has been remarkable as a pioneer effort to combine what we know about the impacts of violence and trauma with the ability to pursue certain rights, such as education—understanding that no one really can work or study when they are afraid or hurt. Although Title IX initially gained popularity in 1972 through its use to address gender-based discrimination in sports, it has provided a critical foundation to address other barriers based on gender that interfere with one’s equal opportunities and rights.

In 2011, the Dear Colleague Letter ( was issued across campuses, calling for adherence and timely responsiveness to Title IX’s policies. .  We’re not sure why it became important to rescind this letter’s directives for quick and equitable responses.

The Campus Advocacy & Prevention Professionals Association (CAPPA) wrote in their CAPPA Position Statement on Title IX Implementation for Campus Sexual Assault: 

“Prevention professionals have at their fingertips solid evidence-informed strategies for educating students in this realm. These are focused on what decades of scholarship tell us about what factors are associated with harming others, especially in late adolescents and young adults, who comprise the majority of our students. These include both individual-level risk factors like a preference for impersonal sex and hostile masculinity, as well as community-level risk factors like general tolerance for sexual violence and weak community sanctions for sexual violence. It is our responsibility as student affairs and allied professionals to address the full range of risk factors in order to enable our students to live safely and thrive, not just on our campuses but in their family systems and post-education lives.”

As members of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA)’s Prevention Committee we know through experience  that we can make a difference when there is accessible, and knowledgeable support and treatment – especially when problematic behaviors are identified early. We can offer help to young adults struggling with their own sexual behaviors, personal boundaries,  and troubling concerns; and campuses can become  more safe for all students.   Training is a crucial element of providing equitable responses.  We understand that it is unfair and ineffective for college administration to be held accountable to create a safe environment without being given the training, preparation, and tools to know what to look for in high risk situations, how to assess risk in reports of misconduct or assault, or how to even engage its population in responsible bystander interventions and self-care behaviors. The answer isn’t to diminish the call to action of Title IX but rather to build its capacity to actually create sustainable change and reduce sexual violence and its harm on everyone impacted.

We can do better; Secretary DeVos is right – talking about sexual assault is a difficult and uncomfortable conversation, yet one that we are morally responsible to have and to get right. It is imperative to have conversations that illuminate our understanding of what it will take to create safe environments for all students. As a society at large, and as institutions of higher learning responsible for the safety of an estimated 20 million enrolled students, we have an ethical obligation to do better than eliminate the very processes that hold us accountable for the safety and well-being of anyone seeking an education.

We can do better; as Title IX provides a map for strengthening campus’s ability to practice and support safe and healthy boundaries and behaviors. Rather than disregarding or even eliminating Title IX’s responsibilities to provide responsible, honorable and protective responses to any concern of sexual harm, officials and campus leadership need to collectively guide the creation and maintenance of  learning environments that promote respect, empathy, understanding and above all – safety.

We can do better;  through ensuring that officials conducting investigations and hearing processes are provided annual and ongoing training on evidence informed understanding of what may contribute to sexual abuse, dating violence, domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault and stalking.  All students do deserve a fair and impartial process.  It is important to ensure that practices pertaining to investigations and hearings are fair.  We need to respond with balance, without labeling individuals as sexual predators or "monsterizing" anyone accused of sexual misconduct in ways that they can't recover from. We need to develop resources that allow both the accuser and the accused to continue their education while the investigation continues and ensures that punishments are not administered before a finding has been achieved. Schools are already required to do this through Title IX guidance and the Clery Act. The Clery Act requires that “proceedings must afford a “prompt, fair, and impartial process from the initial investigation to the final result” – with trained and non-biased officials.

We can do better; we must use what we know about college campus life to institute proactive and protective measures, resources and responses. We know that the college campus culture is one that may lend itself to acts of heightened impulsivity and more risk taking behaviors. The youth and young adults on these campuses are still experiencing intellectual, emotional and physical development changes that may contribute to other (environmental, social and personal) risks that may lead to sexually harmful behaviors.

In campus culture, there are risks of many forms of sexual misconduct, and if schools use the opportunity to intervene earlier, then everyone will benefit. Colleges and universities have the opportunity to intervene in all forms and all levels of sexual misconduct with responses that are individualized yet hold to standards of safety, well-being and equality. By taking early advantage of these opportunities, we can set a different social norm that does not wait until a sexual assault or rape is reported.   In fact, schools are responsible for understanding and addressing this, and do all they can do to "eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects”, as stated in Title IX. Prevention must be part of a school’s obligation. (Citation: .

We can do better; for courageous survivors of sexual assault seeking responses that are not only validating and respectful, but also address security needs. Sexual assault remains vastly under-reported we need to understand that there are many victims of sexual assaults both on and off our college campuses, deserving of justice and respect.

We can do better; by recognizing that medical and mental health services for students are critical for safety planning. Treatment and recovery supports for victims will only help strengthen a campus community, and for any youth or adult recognizing their own risk of harm to others and who bravely seeks out help, providing skilled resources is part of any comprehensive prevention plan. Treatment services and resources for individuals with sexual behavior problems can help individuals move forward with their lives and allow them to interact as productive members of society. 

We can do better; by having productive conversations that are informed by research, best practices and experience. Listening to every person affected by violence informs all of us of both compassionate and restorative steps to pursue, not only focusing on retribution. We know restorative justice brings about healing and change unlike retributive justice which brings only punishment.

We can do better; we know this is not the time to scale back Title IX requirements. Rather it is time to fully embrace and embed a commitment to improve our practices and dedicate our resources and knowledge to improving the safety, liberty, and well-being of everyone across all environments, including institutions for high learning.

We can do better!