Leaving Neverland

    So I was on MainStreet, the CBC afternoon radio programme on Thursday March 7, 2019.

    They were asking me questions about how victims may respond to their sexual abuse.  The Q&A was in response to a call in segment that they had about the recently aired (or streamed) documentary, Leaving Neverland, that centres on the stories of two men who describe the relationships they had with and the abuse they were subjected to by their friend and abuser Michael Jackson.

    Being drawn into the discussion by MainStreet’s invitation left me thinking about the difficulty that the Jackson case raises.  Because Jackson was a globally beloved figure whose artistic legacy literally changed the world and the lives of countless millions, people are having a hard time reconciling his positive influence with the now well articulated and very credible stories that paint him as a serial child sexual abuser.  The truth is more chilling than most people are able to absorb.  It is likely that Jackson was both of these things.

    Sexual abusers take many forms.  The idea of sexual abuser typologies is a bit controversial because there is a line of thinking that has taught us that all sex offending is about power and control.  This idea promotes the image of a large, powerful, mean, controlling, forceful individual who achieves their aims through threat and violence.  It is important to understand that this is not always or often the case. 

    Most, if not all sexual abusers are broken people.  They are themselves victims of violence or of mal-attachment, disrupted psycho-social and psycho-sexual development.  Some are seeking to meet their needs through the “relationships” that they cultivate with their victims.  When I listen to the descriptions that the victims in the documentary tell, it makes me think of an immature sexual abuser:  An individual who is childlike.  Someone whose psycho-social development was disrupted, such that a large part of their identity remains in a child-like state.  From that state, the individual seeks friendships with their “peers”:  Children who are developmentally at the age with which they identify.  The image of Jackson as a grown man, huddled in the corner, crying because his 7 year old friend and his family are leaving to go home is a scene with which all parents are familiar.  Of course, we’ve had to coax our 7 year olds out of that state, not our grown children.

    The problem with immature sexual abusers is that they have the emotional state and needs of young children, but the libidos and sexual urges of grown people.  And it is natural for grown people to have their “relationships” be the places where they discover and meet their sexual needs.  This, of course, does not justify having sex with children.  It does however help us to understand how these abusers work.  Understanding that is key to both prevention and treatment.  Both of the mothers in the documentary allowed the “relationship” between Jackson and their children to develop because of the innocence that Jackson demonstrated.  That child like innocence was not evidence of safety, however.  Quite the opposite, it was evidence of the lack of sexual maturity necessary to maintain proper boundaries with children. 

    But let’s not blame the mothers.  Because most sex offenders don’t have horns and tails we don’t readily recognize them.  In fact, we love and trust them and give them access to our children.  And though I hesitate to say that many of these sex offenders don’t know they are harming their victims, I will say that their ability to perceive the reality of what they are doing is disrupted. 

    Immature sexual abusers are sympathetic characters, but treating them is not something we do just to serve them.  We treat them to reduce the likelihood that they will perpetrate.  Imagine if Jackson had someone in his life that could have led him to proper treatment early in his life instead of facilitating his access to children and their families.  Not only could the suffering of his victims been avoided, but also Jackson’s suffering could have been avoided.  Perhaps even his life could have been saved. -



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