Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Space for us all on the Spectrum of Abuse

Britain has been rocked  by waves of lurid sex and abuse scandals over the last year. But at the end of the day, after we've given our pointing fingers a good workout, can we do something constructive--prevent it from happening; minimize damage to victims, perpetrators, and society--help people find peace and forgiveness?

I've been wringing my hands over this blog entry for months. I have something to say, but at the same time feel like I'm not entitled to speak. I can't begin to fathom the soul of a monstrous abuser, and the "victimization" I've experienced is nothing compared to the criminal abuse others have endured.
I think what finally moved me to post this blog entry was a line from a citizen petition from "MoveOn" a grassroots political organization in the USA. The petition, drafted by Trina McDonald, a U.S. Navy veteran and rape survivor, says:
According to estimates from the Department of Defense, 19,000 service men and women are sexually assaulted while serving in the United States military every year. But 86% of them never report their assault—too often because seeking justice threatens their safety, their job security, and their future. 
I would expect that many of the unreported assaults fall short of criminal behaviour. And the formally hierarchical structure of the military may intensify cultural pressures and change the weightings that go into the calculus each perpetrator and victim makes, raising the stakes. But I think the numbers reflect a large unspoken truth about our society: People abuse others and subject themselves to abusive relationships universally, constantly, and largely without consideration, healthy reflection, discussion, support, advice, or knowledge of the experience of others that could help put the experience in perspective and help them manage the consequences. The scandals and criminal cases differ only by degree and notoriety from what most of us experience in our lives. We are all entitled to a view and a voice.

If I had one wish for something to come out of my speaking out, it would be to encourage broad, rational thinking about relationships in general--especially the middle ground that most of us encounter. I have found that putting myself on the spectrum has increased my empathy and helped me set aside knee-jerk emotional responses, and avoid bandwagons -- lynch-mob mentalities, political correctness, sexual politics, guilt-tripping, shaming and blaming others. Surely a more empathetic society, a more measured view will help us prevent abuse and come to terms with it when it happens.

 My Framework: Thinking about the times I felt like I'd been exploited, and thinking about some of the milder examples of abusive behavior in the press recently, I concluded there's a graded spectrum of relationships, from exploitative to loving; from relationships governed by "the way of nature" to those governed by "the way of grace"--with lots of all-too familiar ground--space for all of us--in the middle.

Here's the schematic I came up with:

A Spectrum of Relationships 

The Way of
The Way of Grace--->

--The Illegal/NoZone--
--The Stupid Idiot Zones--
--The Grace Zone--
Victim Vulnerability

One party is a child, handicapped, frail, weak, physically or mentally incapacitated
One party is young, immature or naïve adult(s); low self-esteem; on the rebound
Both adults, high self-respect, capable, strong, confident,
Nature of Relationship

Lopsided power—One person submissive, beholden, psychologically or physically dependent on the other
Shifting or misperceived balance of power

Equal, mature; Both parties fully empowered; free to choose and refuse.
Deceptive—One party withholding or lying to manipulate the other’s choice
Both parties withholding, lying, manipulating the other’s choice
Open, honest. Both parties can make informed choices.
Impersonal—One party sees and uses the other as an object; a means to personal gratification
Both parties using each other
Mature, loving. Seeing, caring for the whole person & their long-term wellbeing
Type of Behavior

Abusive—Physical or psychological violation, harm, pain, humiliation, undermining, scarring, depriving of sustainance
Unknowingly or unintentionally harmful treatment of others; misunderstanding
Healthy—gentle, tender, mutually pleasurable, kind, helpful, affirming, uplifting
Downward spiral—Repetitive, ongoing, escalating harm, “grooming”; multiple victims
Changing circumstances convert healthy behavior into an unhealthy interaction
Growth—both parties learn and develop in positive ways from the relationship

This table is a representation of how I'd sort relationships--which inevitably mix elements from all three columns-- at different times, if not usually. Or maybe in some aspects, over some issues, but not others. It's just my personal framework. And possibly it's projection on my part to imagine it reflects anything beyond my own views and values.

Whatever. Under this scheme, the more elements from the red zone, the less healthy the relationship. I would guess victims of red-zone relationships would be more hurt and struggle more to recover. Perpetrators of predominantly red zone relationships more urgently need to have their behavior reversed. They need re-education, therapy, reform. Those are easy things to say.

Harder is admitting that we all err. We all take actions, ranging from completely unintentional to completely intentional and more or less wisely considered, that actively place us on this spectrum, either as perpetrators or as (potential or actual) victims. I don't say this by way of blaming or shaming. I claim this from my own confession. My underlying belief is that we restore ourselves and our relationships through honest self-examination conducted with deep consideration of others. This, followed by reparation of damage, and forgiveness for ourselves and those who've harmed us return us to the present and a more hopeful future.

  Confessions of a Victim

 The embarrassing personal history that is the foundation of my experience  of abuse in relationships would actually begin with a relationship mostly on the "grace" end of the spectrum.

Mike was 30; I was 15. He was a ex-Army paratrooper back from Vietnam, now driving a schoolbus. I rode that bus, getting on at the first stop in the morning and choosing the warmest seat--behind the driver, who had a heater next to his seat. We chatted every day. He was also friends with other kids, but I was his favorite.

At some point I must have given him my phone number. After school got out in June, the family of one of the other kids on the bus route invited him to house-sit while they were on vacation. He phoned and invited me over. The house-sit was at Thornoaks, within walking distance of our home. I told my Mom I was going. She offered to drive me there.

The last thing I wanted was for her to meet Mike. He was African-American. He was a grown-up. She wouldn't have allowed this unsupervised visit. I can't remember what lies I told her to allow me to walk. Probably that I would be back at a certain time. Or maybe that others would be there. Mom was clearly suspicious.

Kids today are much more mature at age 15 than I was back in 1968. For that matter, other 15-year-olds back in 1968 were more mature than I was. I was nervous going over to Thornoaks. Once there I chatted nervously with Mike. I can't remember if I went inside the house. It was a warm, lovely evening. I told Mike I couldn't stay long. He must have seen I was nervous.

Before I left he gave me a 45-rpm record, autographed by the Four Tops (who were friends of his). He kissed me. He said he'd been wanting to do that for a long time. I remember the softness of his lips. I don't remember feeling aroused--just a bit scared. I thanked him for the 45 and we said goodbye. I scooted home. I don't think I saw him again.

I've wondered about him many times in the years since. It would have been so easy for him to have exploited me. I was young and ignorant of the nuances of sexual expectations. We never spoke of faith or beliefs. But he was a good man. Wherever you are, Mike Patterson, bless you.

Fast forward 15-plus years through boyfriends, engagement, marriage at age 22... In this next scene, I'm in my 30s. There were two incidents, both occurring just as or after I'd left academic institutions. On these two occasions, four years apart, my department superiors expressed inappropriate personal affections, shall we say.

"Do you want to close the door?" one had suggested softly from his desk on my last day at the department. A goodbye chat. A kiss. I was attracted to him. I was thrilled. But we were both married. From the safety of my new home in another state I wrote him a gushy schoolgirlish letter, and that was where it ended. I don't think I saw him or heard from him again.

The next encounter with a department superior was more inappropriate. I had evidently learned nothing from the previous encounter. I was curious.  At least I came to my senses quickly, realizing the turn of events was not good--for either of us. But, like one duped by a conman, I was mortified by my own stupidity. I wanted to appear sophisticated, nonchalant, "adult." I was complicit and remained silent. After all, as foolish as I felt afterwards, I had participated of my own free will. Perhaps if I'd said or done something about what happened, it might have changed both our lives for the better. Might I have chosen relationships more wisely in subsequent years? Would he? As it was, until writing this blog entry, I just regretted our relationship privately and never saw him again.

A year later I would astound myself with even greater stupidity: I allowed myself to be "taken" by a foot fetishist. Going home on the Sheridan bus in Chicago after work, it was just getting dark. As I stepped off the bus, a man called after me, saying he noticed that there was gum on my shoe. He offered to remove it.

It never occurred to me that this could be anything but a kind, if bizarre, offer. He bent down, cupped his hand tenderly under the arch of my right foot and poked at the sole of my slip-off shoe. A few seconds later he declared the problem solved. I thanked him and headed toward home.

That wasn't quite the end of it. When I was a few yards away, he chased after me. He said he hadn't gotten it all. Again he slipped his hand under my foot and fiddled with my shoe. He told me that he worked in the shoe store back at the intersection, and if I ever needed shoes, I should come see him!

When I got back to my apartment, I examined my right shoe under a light. There was absolutely no trace of gum; just a bit of what looked like spit. DOH! How could I have been so stupid?

Priests, Lords, and Bishops

My sordid tales fall somewhere in the idiot zone, not unlike the fumblings described in the Guardian news story of allegations against Cardinal Keith O'Brien. The vitriolic critic of gay marriage has now resigned and apologized for not meeting the standards of behavior expected of Roman Catholic priests. I would also place in this middle zone the "inappropriate sexual advances" that Lord Rennard is accused of having made toward several women.

The Guardian news story on Lord Rennard sets his alleged abuse in the context of similar experiences of "Neanderthal behaviour among prominent parliamentarians" -- including chasing women around the office and invitations to come up to hotel rooms:
Channel 4 News last week quoted a former woman Lib Dem parliamentary candidate as saying that Rennard "shoved his hand down the back of my dress" when she posed with him for a photograph. The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, added: "I felt really humiliated, and very undermined and very shameful." 
The article points out the importance of contacts and party loyalty in politics, saying that political careers may add to women's reluctance to report abusive behavior. Similarly, The Guardian's story of one of the Cardinal O'Brien's accusers reflects the forces of authority and power that place his exploitation in the same realm:
"Priest C" was a young priest the cardinal was counselling over personal problems. Priest C's statement claims that O'Brien used night prayers as an excuse for inappropriate contact.... over a period of time...
O'Brien is, says Priest C, very charismatic, and being sought out by the superior who was supposed to be guiding him was both troubling and flattering. Those involved believe the cardinal abused his position. "You have to understand," explains the ex-priest, "the relationship between a bishop and a priest. At your ordination, you take a vow to be obedient to him. He's more than your boss, more than the CEO of your company. He has immense power over you. He can move you, freeze you out, bring you into the fold … he controls every aspect of your life."
Or consider the Roman Catholic priest in Leeds recently found guilty of  sexual asault for "forcefully kissing" and touching the buttocks of a 17-year old girl in church on Easter. Evidently the priest subsequently turned up at the girl's home and professed his sexual attraction to her. In the course of the trial it emerged that the priest had secretly married some years before. (I wouldn't be surprised if there had been common factors in the formation of their relationship.) The priest's wife had testified that he'd told her about the young woman. The story she heard was quite different than the one the jury believed.

After very serious criminal sexual abuse scandals, like the horrific Rochdale and the Savile cases, the UK is changing police practices. The pendulum is swinging back toward seriously listening to victims with allegations of abuse. The U.K.'s Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, said in a speech  that the Savile and Rochdale abuse went unchecked because over-cautious police put "too much focus on the victims' credibility and not enough on the suspects." I'm hopeful this change will encourage victims to come forward so that police can stop perpetrators before they can rack up a record like Saville's.

But I don't think this is sufficient. I think society's response needs to be more sophisticated, nuanced, pro-active, deep, and should approach abuse from all angles. This includes recognizing that not all abuse is the same. On my color chart, there might be intensity points for the various factors (different rows in the chart) adding or subtracting from the seriousness of the offence, for example. Differences in intensity should mean differences in the consequences for victims and perpetrators and the processes involved in coming to terms with what has happened.

In the case of the foot-fetishist, for example,  I, the victim, was not enfeebled by age or physical condition -- only by stupidity. There was no lopsided power relationship or a violation of longstanding trust, but the perpetrator was deceptive and did objectify and use me for his own gratification. The interaction didn't actually harm me and it was not ongoing. I can't say what happened to the perpetrator.  It was what it was. I hope I am a bit wiser for the experience.

When there is actual criminal abuse, well into the red zone in all or most of the columns on my chart, communities need to be sure that victims get the care and support they need to minimize psychological damage and come to terms with the trauma of serious abuse. Research is finding better ways to do this.

Care for Victims: For garden-variety inappropriate behavior, I think something different is needed. The orange-yellow-to-green zones on my chart probably aren't in the realm of police concern. But that doesn't mean we should do nothing. What's helped me minimize ongoing pain from idiot-zone interactions is mindfulness and forgiveness -- of others and myself-- based on acceptance of the fact that every human is prone to do stupid things. What's happened is now beyond our control, but what we make of it isn't. Two good quotes come to mind:
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  ~Shakespeare 
"We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how to respond to them" ~ Epictetus
I choose to laugh about being had by a foot-fetishist. Because feet don't figure as private parts for me, there was no psychological damage, beyond the sting of feeling stupid. I forgive myself that and learn from it. And the same for my inappropriate interactions with departmental superiors. As the meme on FaceBook said,
"Maturity is knowing you were an idiot in the past; wisdom is knowing you'll be an idiot in the future; and common sense is knowing you should try not to be one now."
I think for victims, making great fuss about these incidents -- beyond acknowledging their inappropriateness  -- may actually deepen rather than heal wounds. In poring over minute details, reliving the experience, explaining the wrong and hurt, you build a case and magnify and prolong both your pain and the cruelty of your abuser. The incident becomes more conspicuous and shameful, disconnecting you, not reconciling you to your world.

Another Facebook quote:
"When you forgive, you release yourself from a painful burden. Forgiveness doesn't mean what happened was OK, and it doesn't mean that person should still be welcome in your life. It just means you have made peace with the pain, and are ready to let it go."
Reversing the Course of Abusers: I think that the priests who made the allegations against Cardinal O'Brien were right to do so. O'Brien may not have been committing criminal acts, but he was in violation of his vows, and after his outspoken criticism of homosexuality, deserved to be called out for his hypocrisy, if nothing else. Likewise the women who have made allegations against Lord Rennard. Society holds politicians and priests to a high standard of behavior. If the allegations are true, these men took advantage of their positions of power to exploit others, and seemed to be unaware of or indifferent to the harm their behavior was causing. I hope that by exposing the abuse to public condemnation, the victims have stopped the perpetrators' exploitative behavior.

I also hope that bringing abuse to public attention won't be at too great a personal cost to the people making the allegations. They are brave, but I worry that the ordeal of public exposure, church tribunals, court cases -- actually may make it harder for the victims recover inner peace.

I worry most about perpetrators who did exploit others but choose to fight the allegations. Does the battle actually make it more difficult for them to see how they were wrong, then attempt to put things right, and come to terms? I know little about it, but have been impressed by examples of facilitated reconciliation.

Prevention: As parents, teachers, and friends of potential victims and perpetrators -- we need to inoculate against abusing and being abused.  Of course we should teach our kids -- even teenagers -- not to go with strangers. That it's not okay for anyone -- even a priest or a relative -- to expose or ask them to expose areas of the body that should be covered by underwear. And if someone says not to tell, you need to tell.

We need to teach our teenagers that relationships should strive for the grace zone. They should be freely chosen, never compelled by differences in inebriation, age, status, self-respect, or physical strength. In a relationship of equals it's less likely that either person will exploit the other. And relationships should be honest, gentle, ennobling, and all about discovering and loving the whole person--not objectifying and using them for sexual gratification or other selfish personal gain.

The mother of a young son put it this way (in the wake of the convictions of Steubenville, Ohio, athletes for gang-raping a young woman):
"A toddler can learn how to use words of kindness.  It’s never too early to teach empathy, compassion, and awareness. ... Give your sons the tools they need to understand that sexuality is a powerful thing, one that they are solely responsible for.  Give them a framework for understanding that sex carries an enormous responsibility—not just to themselves, but to their partners.  Does your son know what rape is?  Does he know what it means?  Does he know that it’s not just creepy smelly guys who hide in alleys who are responsible for rape?  That it’s his peers?  Discuss the ways that a woman can give consent.  Pull the curtains back on the grey areas, and demand that your son learns how to protect himself and his partner."
[Update addition: A brilliant blog by @Soraya L. Chemaly on teaching pre-schoolers respect for others -- behaviors that will serve them (and the world) well for life: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/soraya-chemaly/the-problem-with-boys-will-be-boys_b_3186555.html Quote from this article:
the world would be a different kind of place if children were taught to respect other children's rights from the start. Rights to be, to do, to look certain ways and not others. And that teaching children these things has profound implications for society. Anyone who has studied or worked in the field of domestic violence can tell you that the "overarching attitudinal characteristic" of abusive men is entitlement and the belief that they have rights without responsibility to or respect for others. Similar attitudes feed our steady stream of sexual assault and rape.
For Christians, Jesus showed us what we should aim for: Love others as he loved Mary Magdalen, the possessed, lepers, the woman taken in adultery, and as he described the love of the good Samaritan. But none of us are Jesus. We are going to fall short of this standard. We will be victimized. We will abuse others. That is where self-examination, regret, repentance, vulnerability, apology, forgiveness, and acceptance come into their own. I see these as the best, most sacred, perhaps only ways to move ourselves and our world into the grace zone.

In the air: So maybe this is what it takes to finally get me to publish. This morning I woke up to a BBC radio report on the increasing use of "community resolutions." Reporter Danny Shaw used a freedom-of-information-act request to find out how many police forces in England and Wales are using the informal procedures to resolve cases--rather than issuing cautions or filing charges. Community resolutions might entail the wrongdoer apologizing or repairing damage for example; cautions and charges result in a criminal record.

Evidently 10,160 uses of community resolutions in 2012 involved acts of violence, contravening guidelines from the Association of Chief Police Officers saying they should be used for less serious infractions, including "minor assaults without injury." The number is a jolting rise over 792 uses of community resolution of violence in 2008. A member of the shadow cabinet (i.e. representative of the opposition party) weighs in with her outrage. The general impression conveyed is that police are using community resolutions because, as budgets are slashed, they save much-needed time, money, personel, and paperwork.

But what really got my attention was stashed at the end of the article:

   Acpo's Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan said guidelines were in place to help forces decide where the use of community resolutions might be appropriate.
   "But in every case, this decision will be victim-led and above all reflect their views and wishes," he said.
   "At times it may be necessary, and appropriate, to use such informal resolutions to deal with more serious cases.
   "Going through a restorative justice meeting has also been proven to have more impact on an offender than a prison sentence or a court punishment alone, as they see the consequences of their actions and so want to make changes in their future behaviour."
   The Restorative Justice Council - "the national voice for restorative practice" - said it should be "available for all victims of crime who want it, subject to a risk assessment by a trained restorative justice professional".
   "When offered alongside the right sentence for the offender, restorative justice can meet the needs of victims of the most serious crimes," director Lizzie Nelson said.
I realize I may be bringing apples to bear on the oranges of personal relationships, and I am the first to acknowledge I know very little about criminal justice in my adopted homeland. But isn't it possible that victim-led resolution -- with strong support from professionals who can spot the influences and pressures bearing down on victims -- may be the best way out of the orange-zone and on toward the green?

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