Epstein and R. Kelly: How We React Is Wrong

What you think you know about people who sexually abuse and exploit children is wrong. So is what you think you know about punishment and how we should handle the issue. Yes, there are people who act in predatory ways. Of course Epstein’s actions were wrong. But most of the news about Epstein and the fallout from his arrest is wrongheaded and focuses on the aftermath, not all the ways that we, as a society, collectively fail victims of sexual violence.

The Cases

You can do a search and read any number of news articles about the detailed specifics if you like, but Epstein already served 13 months in jail for previous sex crimes, where he had to register in a few states as a sex offender, but avoided registering in another. He was arrested this week after authorities filed federal “sex trafficking” charges, alleging that Epstein transported teenage girls across state lines to sexually assault and rape them. The media reports on the matter are a range of atrocious to downright disappointing.

Many outlets refer to him as a pedophile, when a pedophile is someone with pedophilia, not someone who harms children, and in so doing minimizes his actions. Many outlets have called his victims “underage women,” avoiding the fact that these are, in fact, teenagers as young as 14 years old. Many outlets spread and spark outrage over the plea deal where he avoided registering as a sex offender, even though all the available evidence shows that even if he had, it would not have protected his victims from his predatory behavior.

The case of R. Kelly is similar: He is already facing many charges of child sexual abuse and exploitation in Illinois, and was recently arrested again on federal “sex trafficking” charges. These charges are a misnomer: Most of the time the media and police report on “sex trafficking,” they are actually referring to cases where women voluntarily engage in sex work. The term basically confuses three things: Human slavery, sexual exploitation, and sex work. You can read more about that issue of terminology here.

The Problem

The problem is that both of these cases focus on what happens after someone commits a sexual crime. They do not even touch the issue of how they could have been prevented beforehand. They frame the issue as the media always does: These men are predators, who will inevitably rack up more and more victims unless they are locked up and the key tossed in the garbage. While that framing may be true for a small fraction of sex crime victims, it is not true for most.

I have discussed that in detail before, but the short version is this: Most of what you have heard about sex crime is a myth. People who commit these crimes rarely, if ever, repeat themselves, and are better served by community reentry programs and independent, evidence-based therapy than they are by lengthy prison sentences. Focusing on harsh penalties after the fact is missing the point, and often causes more harm to the friends and loved ones of people who commit sexual crimes, people who are completely innocent of wrongdoing.

Prevention In A Nutshell

The prevention of sexual crime, like most issues, is more nuanced and complex because it forces us to look at an emotion-laden topic with critical thinking. Nothing in prevention is about minimizing the harm that sexual crimes causes, because with prevention, the focus is on what we can do to ensure that the crimes do not happen in the first place. In other words, reducing the number of victims that suffer from sexual crime before that crime happens at all. So, with that as the framework, let me outline some of the ways by which we can prevent sexual crime:

  1. Comprehensive sex/sexuality/consent education: Research consistently shows that sexual minorities are disproportionately affected by crime in general. Even the CDC acknowledges this. We also know that a significant portion of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by juveniles for a wide variety of reasons. Comprehensive sex education definition. Comprehensive sexuality education examples.
  2. Trauma-informed care for people with adverse childhood experiences: We know that many people who commit sexual crimes have adverse childhood experiences in their backgrounds. No, that does not mean we should pity them, it means we have time to intervene before they commit a sexual crime by getting help to people who have had these experiences.
  3. Better mental health resources for minor attracted people: Contrary to public perception, minor attracted people cannot simply “go get help” from a qualified therapist, because there are many therapists who refuse to treat this population. Many therapists also believe myths, and do not understand how various mandatory reporting laws apply to this population. We know that minor attracted people discover their attractions around age 14, which is when they should be getting help. For more on stigma and how it interferes with minor attracted people getting help, as according to research, click here. It is also helpful to keep in mind that only about one-third of child sexual abuse and 60% of image-based offenses are perpetrated by minor attracted people.
  4. Bystander intervention training: Bystander intervention is when the average person (that would be YOU) learns to spot problematic behavior (like sexual harassment) that the bystander (again, that would be YOU) speaks up about to intervene. A free brochure on bystander intervention is available here and to learn more about it, you can click here. Bystander intervention is something everyone can do to prevent sexual violence.

What Can I Do To Help?

If you are a member of the media, please click here. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has a great set of resources for you to check out. If you are a member of the public, learning about some of the messaging around prevention – and why I take some of the public stances that I and many other advocates do – is valuable and helpful, even if you do not intend to advocate, this is a comprehensive resource. Learning about some of the research-based facts and correcting misinformation as you come across it is also helpful. Contacting your political leaders, local, state, and nationwide via phone and telling them you support research-based prevention interventions like bystander intervention, mental health resources, and comprehensive sexual education is also helpful. For a simple tool to find all of your political leaders in the United States with just your address, click here.

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