Adolescent sexual offending is a deeply complex issue, one which poses fundamental challenges to us on a personal and a social level, and one which has the potential to expand upon our understanding of what is going on in our society.
Only hurt and pain
For me, sexual offending has always been a deeply personal issue, one steeped in contradictions, confusion, and emotions. Until very recently, sexual offending meant only hurt and pain to people close to me. It has been about individuals, and really only individual victims. I could not and did not want to consider individual perpetrators beyond blaming them for the pain they had inflicted. Yet my understanding of sexual offending has changed and begun to evolve. As I have matured and become more exposed to its occurrence and its effects, I have begun to understand the offending as a social issue, a community issue, with causes and effects that reflect upon us as a society.
As an adolescent girl, I understood sexual offending as something that strange men might do to me. It was about unclear warnings from my mother and stilted, confusing discussions in my sex education classes. What these strangers might do to me was never made explicit, and although I did not understand it I knew that it was wrong. The strongest emotions I can remember in relation to sexual offending are embarrassment and shame; it was something secret.
In high school I understood sexual offending as being about sex. It was about strangers forcing young women to have intercourse. It was about men who could not control their urges. It was rape in a back alley. Sexual offending also began to be about my friends. It was rumours of a girl in class who had been raped; a "friend" who had gotten drunk at a party and ignored the quiet "no" uttered by the girl he was with; the confusing whispers about incest and abuse in families.
At university I began to understand sexual offending as more about power than about sex. It was an expression of women's oppression, an inevitable part of a patriarchal society. It was fear of the campus at night, an awareness of acquaintance rape, "no means no" campaigns. I began to understand it as something that happened between individuals who knew one another, not strangers on a dark street. At the same time that my understanding was becoming more political and more social, it was also becoming more personal. Sexual offending was happening to my friends, and it was only from this perspective that I could understand it. I understood it in terms of effects in that sexual offending was about the victims, about the pain and hurt and destruction within their lives. On many levels I felt I could not and did not want to see it from the perspective of the offenders. I could not understand it in terms of causes. I perceived the offenders as sick and evil individuals, as social deviants. I could only despise the people who had offended against people close to me, wanting them to pay somehow, to feel the same pain they had inflicted. As such, I was unable to reconcile my abstract understanding of sexual offending as social and political with my personal experiences and subsequent biases.
From victims to survivors
This one-sided understanding began to change as I watched my friends grow from victims to become survivors and then fully thriving human beings. I watched these individuals who, despite fundamental attacks on their trust, love, and integrity, continued to develop into kinder, gentler, more caring and loving beings than I could possibly imagine.
This exceptional resilience has helped me to move beyond being angry and vengeful. It has helped me to look at the offending behaviour and to try to understand what may motivate such behaviour and how we can help individuals move beyond it.
I continue to struggle to reconcile my social understanding with my personal and emotional biases, to reconcile my commitment to my friends with my obligations to the offenders. Yet this struggle has enabled me to look more honestly at the personal, social, and political dimensions that the issue holds for me. My understanding has evolved so that offenders are no longer simply evil deviants but rather social beings who are a reflection of the society that I live in and act to perpetuate. This evolution has enabled me to move from embarrassment and secrecy, beyond anger and labelling, to a place where I can try to understand and work to address the complexity of the issue from many perspectives.
This feature reprinted from the Journal of Child and Youth Care, Canada.