Sunday, May 12, 2013

Culture crippled by religion – Failing to respond to sex crimes and other horrors

Trigger Warning: This post discusses issues around abductions, sexual abuse and sexual trauma.

I have not been a victim of violent assault. I am not a victim of prolonged physical, sexual abuse. I have never been abducted or held captive for extended periods of time. I am not writing from a position of authority or experience. BUT I have known and cared about some people that have experienced these things and I know how hard it can be for them to self-advocate at all let alone publicly around issues associated with that kind of trauma. So maybe I am one of the last people that should be writing about this, however, I don’t see many others doing it so I’m going to give it a shot.

This last week has been a rough one for the empathetic idealists among us, and more so for those that have been the victims of abductions, victims of sexual and physical abuse and trauma- in particular for those that have endured prolonged captivity and abuse. First there was the exploitation of Elizabeth Smart in an article that appeared to celebrate her. It wasn’t a traumatic discussion it was a good one but it re-surfaced some hard issues. After the Smart article stirred things up, it was followed closely by media frenzy around the recovery of the three abduction victims in Ohio – complete with horrific details paraded in front of the tragedy-hungry and blissfully ignorant public, and of course no trigger warnings anywhere,

Report after report highlighted how the recovered women will need privacy (while filming them in front of their homes as they walk through swarming crowds) and they will need therapy. What therapy? What is there for these women to help them cope with 10 years of abusive captivity? Very little. PTSD is finally getting some serious attention and acceptance in our social awareness – in large part due to the undeniable impact of wars on our soldiers. Consequently the mental health industry is finally giving PTSD more serious attention, but what these women are going to be dealing with is something deeper and more profound. It’s called Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or C-PTSD. There are no real treatments for this. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) still hasn’t added it to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) - but I'm adding several links later. We are failing these victims and we are failing to do even a small amount of what we could be to protect the next potential victims from the next sexual predators. Why? Why haven’t we made more progress in the prevention of these tragedies? Why haven’t we developed better treatments for those that face a life, after?How could we when we can’t even talk about it- at least not in a productive way. 
The media hounds the victims while quoting their requests for privacy? Where are the statistics and the analysis how people come to be predators? Where are the hotlines and the recovery programs?  Why do we hear so little about what can be done to prevent these things from happening? We seem content to assume that these things just happen and you can’t predict where/when. Why aren’t we teaching our kids, hell, ourselves about the who/what/why/how of these events? What are we trying to protect ourselves from? As usual it’s reality. We don’t like the reality – but here’s some reality:

There are very few good statistics on this. The department of justice report that produced the statics that seem to be the only ones that you can find is from the late 90’s!  Seriously? We haven’t been tracking this stuff better than that? But let’s work with what we’ve got.

 - 115 children (17 and younger – there are no statistics that I can find anywhere on adult abductions) were ‘stereotypically’ kidnapped in one year. By ‘stereotypical kidnapping’ they mean “the particular type of nonfamily abduction that receives the most media attention and involves a stranger or slight acquaintance who detains the child overnight, transports the child at least 50 miles, holds the child for ransom, abducts the child with intent to keep the child permanently, or kills the child.” About half of these children were sexually abused and many of them for extended periods of time, and about 40% of them were killed.

That’s rare, truly, but it’s not as rare as I would have thought considering I only can think of a dozen or so off the top of my head that I have known of in my lifetime. I’m 36 meaning that it is likely that some 4,000 such abductions have probably happened while I’ve been alive, and that’s assuming we have good estimates on this which is doubtful.

Here’s another from that same report:  

A much large number of children, about 58,000, were taken that year for shorter periods of time, mostly by people they knew but not relatives. In those cases, nearly half were sexually assaulted; fewer than 1% were killed. Nearly two-thirds were girls, mostly teens. These are shorter experiences but once again sexual abuse occurred in about half the instances.

These are relatively rare events, we think, but they aren’t as rare as most Americans would like to believe and there are more than a million survivors of these types of abductions and abuse living and trying to cope with the aftermath today. Sadly there aren’t as many survivors as there should be, suicide is a very common occurrence among those dealing with PTSD and even more so for those dealing with C-PTSD. 

So… where does that leave us? I’m not a fear monger. I’m not trying to scare anyone. I just want us to face squarely the reality of the situation we are dealing with. I don’t know about you but as far as I’m concerned, these are startling numbers – to know that some 30,000 children are being abducted, held and sexually abused every year – the simple weight of that suffering is overwhelming – and this is just in the United States!

Why? What has prevented us from addressing this better? Why hasn’t the per-capita numbers improved significantly over the years? How can we begin to deal with it if we can’t even talk about it?

Let’s start with the perpetrators. The paradigm we seem to have is that these ‘rare’ events are the result of a very few aberrations of humanity. That these predators are so far removed from the ‘norm’ and uncommon that there is nothing to do but teach our kids not to accept candy from strangers and hope for the best. How can we dismiss the fact that these predators are a part of the spectrum of humanity? Why do we refuse to consider them as such – we don’t like to, we aren’t like that, sure. It’s uncomfortable to consider them as ‘one of us’ but that doesn’t make it any less so. I don’t think that discomfort is the real core of the problem, however. I think the real blame lies at the paradigm we have had over the centuries about the ‘souls’ of mankind. That’s right –I’m pointing, once again, at religion. I can't lay this totally at the steps of our nation's churches but our 'natural' tendency to categorize and dismiss 'others' is fully capitalized on and feed on it, perpetuate it, encourage it. We have only just now started to really face the fact that we are biological machines. We ARE our bodies, the stuff of our ‘self’ is our brains and our hormones but the pervasive sense of ‘spirit’ makes this a difficult truth to accept. Couple that with dogma about ‘good’ and ‘evil’ mix in the ‘being made in God’s image’ bit and you have a very large population that still has a really hard time dealing with the idea that this is a medical, biological phenomena that can be studied, understood, probably screened for and treated. Imagine preventative medical screenings to find these sicknesses and treat or at least defend against them! These predators only are able to do what they do in the shadows our society creates for them. We don’t what to think of them as our neighbors, our family, but they are and we need to be willing to talk about it frankly, scientifically and rationally – if we are going to make any progress about fixing it.

Secondly – the survivors. We need to get serious about researching and understanding the mechanisms of trauma, of re-trauma and find some real treatments. The outlook for someone with PTSD is a hard one, for someone with C-PTSD it is rather bleak, indeed. There are some resources, but they are few and far between – I link some below. We have a long way to go and it’s not praying or the healing power of Jesus that’s going to do it. We need to invest in mental health science and we need to accept these people, mostly women, as the real and human people that they are. We need medicines that can interrupt the adrenaline/trauma experience without wiping out a person’s ability to react to the world. We need behavior therapy that doesn’t involve re-traumatizing the patients. We can do better. One thing we can do right now is to start making trigger warnings at least as important to us as warnings about ‘foul’ language or the harmless, healthy discussions of sexuality that we are hyper-attentive to. If we are going to discuss the details of an abuse case in the news – let’s not re-traumatize millions of people unnecessarily. Trigger warnings on the screen would be easy as a news ticker or a channel logo.

Finally – the rest of us.  We need to accept the reality of the spectrum of human sexuality without taboo and disdain. We HAVE to be able to talk about it. We HAVE to have comprehensive sexual education. We MUST bring sexuality out of the social shadows and into the open air. We have to be able to see our sexuality for what it is, a force that can be wonderful and it can also be scary but either way it …is….powerful and a central driving force in almost everyone’s life. The more clear and reasonable we can be when we talk to our children (and each other) about it, the better we will all be – the faster we will be able to move into an era where we can heal all bullshit that comes from having a religiously motivated fear and disgust of the topic - all the damage that the idea of ‘normal’ has done to us and our children. 

If we keep treating this like someone else's problem the solution will remain as invisible as they have been. 

links to C-PTSD reserach:

links to online resources groups/help for C-PTSD:



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I really appreciate your willingness to try to tackle the many issues you've raised here; in particular, your advocacy around better research, solutions, and support for people trying to navigate PTSD and C-PTSD is so important.

    I do have a few clarifying statements I'd like to add:

    Firstly, I want to make sure it's understood that neither PTSD nor C-PTSD are a certainty for survivors of trauma. My understanding is that Elizabeth Smart suffers from neither. Certain factors make individuals more prone to developing these psychological injuries--and I think one of the primary factors in recovery for Smart was that she was surrounded, protected, and nurtured by a strong and supportive religious community. She was able to transition into a place of safety, love, and normalcy after her experience.

    This brings me to my second point, which is that I think the indictment of religion is out of place here. Certainly tribalism, "othering," and any dehumanizing values we promote culturally lead to an overall apathy about the struggles faced by people outside of our immediate circle of concern, but this kind of tribalism occurs absent of religion--and where religious groups are functioning as healthy human communities, they are well-positioned to help people like the Ohio survivors. Of course, I'd like to believe that Humanist communities could be even more well-positioned, but we're not doing much on this front.

    Finally, I think we have to be extraordinarily cautious in our discussion about sexual predators. It is very safe in our culture to dehumanize sex offenders and to feed a myopic view that validates the Mean World dystopia. I'm troubled, for example, by sex offender lists and registries; I don't know that they've ever proven useful, and they create a class of citizens disdained by the public as deviant rather than creating opportunities for healing and growth. My Humanist values lead me to desire restorative justice.

    Again, I'm grateful you have opened this conversation about something our culture struggles to discuss in a healthy way, and I love your overarching theme: We should be working toward tackling this with more science, and less shame!

  3. "Why haven’t we made more progress in the prevention of these tragedies?"

    To this, and to many of your other "whys," I think the answer is twofold:

    1) Psychology is, in some ways, at the stage medicine was in when doctors were bloodletting and talking about humors;

    2) Our society places little emphasis on psychological health. We generally make an effort to teach people intellectual skills like math or reading, but leave emotional skills untouched. Schools - religious or otherwise - do not focus on emotional skill; they may try to influence it, but they generally don't educate people about emotional techniques, about the process of living with yourself. If we can have classes about something as subjective as literature, why can't we have classes on how to handle rejection, success, trauma, whatever? I don't mean therapy groups after the fact, but efforts to train people how to use their resources in case of need, not because of it, the same way you learn algebra - just in case, and because it's inherently enlightening to participate in the exercise.

    I see a little action towards emotional education in the conflict resolution, bully-reduction and anger management classes taught in some places. For better psychology, we probably should have been born in a few hundred years.