This is a guest post by Sarah Morehead. She is Operations Chief and writer for Removing the Fig Leaf, a new sex-positive project on Patheos that explores unpacking the baggage of religion in sexuality.
Put away your pitchforks for a minute and hear me out. We’ve all seen it happen and maybe even participated in the diatribe ourselves. A convicted sex offender is sentenced and the shouts of “Monster!” and “You deserve what you’ll get in prison!” (and worse) erupt from our networks.
Just yesterday, we learned that Jared Fogle (former spokesman for Subway) was assaulted in prison, where he’s serving time for possessing child pornography and engaging in “commercial sex acts with underage minors,” as the government filing put it. My friends (theists and atheists alike, incidentally) gleefully cheered the “justice” and “karma being served.” Twitter, as you might expect, was also ablaze in celebration:
Now, I’d wager most folks on my News Feed consider themselves to be “good people,” and I’d agree with most of them. And I, for one, don’t think anyone deserves to be assaulted or the victim of violence whether they’re “good people” or not. Our hearts break for any victim of sexual assault — and when it’s a child, or children, we want to circle our wagons and do our best to protect them. But does advocating vigilante justice help or hurt children in the long run? In a public post on my Facebook page, and similar posts on friends walls, I explained my problems with this reaction. In short, we were countering one form of violence with another, and we were creating a warped profile of child predators.
In that exchange and several others, I heard a similar reaction: You’ve never had a child molested, have you?
Well… They don’t know what I’ve been going through for the past several months and how my response still hasn’t changed.
Last fall, detectives, social workers, case managers, police, and sheriffs from city, county, and state agencies investigated and interviewed my family after receiving a mandatory report from one of my children’s health care providers. They sat me down after their interviews were complete and informed me that my children had, for quite some time, been sexually assaulted by a deeply loved family member. I will never forget their pained and measured faces as they carefully explained what they believed happened.
I also remember the gripping and gagging nausea. The unspeakable physical pain that ricocheted through my body as their carefully selected words violated the sanity of my brain. I collapsed back into the chair I was already sitting in, my own body incapable of bearing the weight of my children’s suffering. I doubled over, retching and dry heaving, desperately trying not to vomit. As the descriptions became more and more graphic, their words contorted with my children’s faces in my brain. They offered to stop, but I insisted they continue. I had to hear every detail, to embrace this searing agony in desperate penance that somehow my sudden pain would balance out what my children had gone through. I was sobbing, pleading with them for a shred of hope that this was a terrible, awful misunderstanding.
“… he’s my best friend…”
“… Not them.”
“… Not him.”
“… Not me.”
“… Not us.”
My emotions were all over the map, but the rage. Oh the rage… It boiled and swirled into a cold fury as my mind processed the information. This was someone I knew and trusted and loved. With my every suffocating breath there grew an unfathomable desperation, a visceral need for so much more than justice. I wanted cold, hard, calculating Jerry-Bruckheimer-meets-Natural Born Killers-level retribution and I wanted it NOW.
But life was in an upheaval, and there was no time for emotion. Just basic, day-to-day survival. I walked out of that room, shaking and numb. My children ran to me, showing off their new blankets and stuffed animals meant to soothe the trauma of sharing unwelcome memories that, to this day, make them scream in their sleep. As they jumped into my arms, the thought occurred to me that I couldn’t let them sense my anger. I could focus on them or my rage, and they needed everything I could give them.
I had, and still have, moments of indescribable grief, sadness, anger, and a myriad other awful emotions that creep in when you’re alone with your thoughts at 3:00 a.m. It will take years of coping, adjusting, and grieving for me and my children to come to grips with the magnitude of what had happened. I’m relieved that the truth is out. But it’s not easy, and I don’t know when, or even if, I will ever be able to manage forgiveness.
But I don’t have a “let’s love and respect the predator” attitude either. I don’t. Nor would I ask anyone to forgive their (or their children’s) abuser. I can’t. I won’t. We can embrace our emotions while simultaneously condemning violence as retribution. When we justify violence for the sake of catharsis, we are reacting on a level that is no different than the rationale of the abusers themselves: I couldn’t stop myself… I was overcome with emotion…
Cheering the abuse of sex offenders may feel good in the moment — it’s the only thing we feel like we can do in the face of feeling utterly helpless — but it dehumanizes offenders into monsters deserving of violence, which (albeit unintentionally) creates a perfect scenario for future sex offenders to pluck future victims. After all, if offenders act like “nice guys,” they won’t risk being seen as “monsters” like priests, or Jared Fogle, or Jerry Sandusky, and their victims (and their families) will be summarily dismissed and disbelieved.
The problem with that logic is that both Fogle and Sandusky, not to mention countless others, were all known as “nice guys” before they were convicted of sexually abusing children.
I get it. If they’re monsters, it’s easier to think we’ll spot the next one. It’s takes a much smaller emotional toll to think they’re monsters than believing that, aside from these crimes, they’re just like everyone else. But that same mentality discourages children from disclosing sexual abuse, because who’s going to believe what their abuser did when he’s just a “nice guy” who “loves kids” and “would never do things like that”?
Paul Mones, an attorney for victims of sexual abuse, who has fought against large institutions like the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts, wrote:
The great curve ball of sexual abuse that most folks completely miss, is simply this: in order to be successful at what they do, child molesters have to bend over backwards to be kind, caring and generous — not just their victims — but everyone within their targeted victim’s universe.
The “Nice Guy” is actually a known sex offender personality. In fact, they’re referred to as a “particularly insidious sub-category of acquaintance offenders.” They’re “sometimes referred to as the ‘pillar of the community’ or ‘man of the year’ offenders”:
These are offenders who are friendly, normal, helpful, giving, loving people who no one would suspect are harboring sexual attractions to children. These cases are very difficult to investigate because a number of these offenders have high social status or are authority figures, such as: “teachers, camp counselors, coaches, clergy members, law-enforcement officers, doctors, judges… Such offenders are in a better position to seduce and manipulate victims and escape responsibility.” And, equally important, “[t]hey are usually believed when they deny any allegations.” Both their status in the community and their affable personalities make it difficult to make a case against them for sexual victimization of children. “Convicting an acquaintance child molester who is a ‘pillar of the community’ is almost impossible based only on the testimony of one confused 5-year-old girl or one delinquent adolescent boy.”
Prior to being convicted, we don’t want to believe a child who says a “nice guy” is a sex offender. “Nice guys” are our friends or loved ones. We work with them. We volunteer alongside them. We say things like “this doesn’t sound like the guy I know!” and question the character or intentions of the victims or their families. Maybe it’s a custody fight. Maybe it’s a bad breakup. Maybe the victim was coached to lie (though false accusations of child sexual abuse are rare, not to mention logically improbable when multiple agencies come to similar conclusions in their investigations). But once the molesters are apprehended, and many times before they’ve ever been convicted, we’re quick to declare them monsters deserving of violent rape and murder.
I understand that feelings become conflicted. Our emotions begin to substitute for logical thought. After all, how can this person, whom we’ve known and loved, also be capable of such atrocities? And if they’re capable of such atrocities, how could we possibly have known or loved them? What does that say about them? About us?
When we remember abusers as guys who loved to go fishing, who cuddled up on the couch reading books to their kids, who bragged about their wives on Facebook, who seemed generous in so many ways, we don’t want to believe they’re also capable of abusing children we’ve loved since birth. It’s true that those wonderful aspects of their personality exist. But we’re also responsible for accepting another reality. A reality presented by investigators, social workers, therapists, lawyers, and judges.
Because both are equally and awfully true: Sex offenders can be nice people. Nice people can be sex offenders.
The guy in prison for sexual assault of a child probably had a strong network of friends and community who loved him dearly. And he still did these horrible things to children. One doesn’t invalidate the other. It’s only when we separate the two that it becomes harder for their victims to be heard.
As a parent with first-hand awareness of this nightmare, I firmly believe that actively speaking out against acts of violence against predators will help other children never have to hear the words “But he’s so nice!” when they dare to tell someone they trust what’s happened to them. And to be clear, I am NOT saying the actions of predators shouldn’t have consequences — they should, and society should be protected from them. And if you’ve been abused, or you’re the parent of a child who has been abused, no one gets to tell you how to feel, or whether or not you should forgive the abuser, or when or how to get “over it.” Ever. Period. It’s okay to be angry, sad, raging, vengeful — those feelings are yours and yours alone. It’s what makes us human.
But we can be Humanists while being human.
Revenge should NOT be the standard of “how it works” in prison. It is not justice, it is criminal. And it is heartbreaking to see celebrations of violence against another human. Sexual predators need to be studied, rehabilitated if possible, and kept safe and productive if allowing them to return to society isn’t appropriate.
Applauding violence towards criminals only reinforces the idea that they’re “scary monsters” who deserve to be brutalized. As if only monsters could ever hurt children.
“Nice guy” offenders depend on people believing that. By cheering on Jared Fogle’s prison assault, we encourage that mentality.
So let Jared be human, because sex-offenders are human, whether we want them to be or not. And yes, be angry if you need to. Be really fucking angry. Or sad. Or anything else you feel when you think about these things. I am. I do. I feel all of it and so much more. But we can be rational, too. We have a responsibility to behave better than the criminals, but by allowing violence to satiate our emotions, we end up no different than them.
Sarah Morehead is a single “mom of many,” a well-known secular activist, and a feminist. Sarah speaks nationwide on issues involving religion and sexuality, addressing the many practical and emotional challenges faced when leaving fundamentalism. You can reach her on Twitter and Facebook.