A CONVERSATION WITH DR MITCH WHITMAN
Some people have the lousiest jobs. Take Mitch Whitman, for example. He works with disturbed kids. Severely disturbed kids. The sort they even throw out of remedial groups! He also works with sexually abused women and men – plus the individuals who abuse them. In fact, dealing with sexual abusers is his specialty. Mitch now divides his time between therapy centres in Canada, Thailand and the United States. We first met him several years ago, while he was running seminars in NZ – and we talked with him again just recently, hoping to learn more about a group of people few of us understand.
Grapevine: When it comes to people sexually abusing children, a common reaction is: “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key!”
Mitch Whitman: Revulsion and anger is normal and healthy. And yes, our first thought may be “Just lock ‘em up!” But if that’s a prison sentence with no option for treatment, the problem will likely just get worse. If we’re not willing to lock them up forever, then we need to consider how we might work with them – inside the prison or outside.
KIDS AREN’T VICTIM-PROOF:
Sex-offenders are smarter than them, they’re bigger, they’re more powerful. An offender can easily gain access to and overcome the resistance of a child. So we can do only so much preventatively, working with kids.
GV: How many kids does a child molester affect?
Mitch: This varies depending on the type of offence, whether the perpetrator is male or female, whether the child or teenager is a girl or a boy, what their relationship is, and how much access is involved. Some offenders have one victim, others have dozens. In one well known study, paedophiles – who represent the minority of sex offenders, given that their sexual interest is exclusively pre-pubescent children – committed an average of 128 offenses. Most of the outpatient sex-offenders I’ve worked with had between two-to-six minors in their offending history.
The important thing to know is: if we can identify and stop a perpetrator, we can protect large numbers of potential victims.
GV: Do these people feel bad about what they’ve done?
Mitch: Most feel bad immediately following the actual molestation. They feel some guilt, they feel shame, they’ve probably told themselves, “I wasn’t going to do this again – and here I’ve done it.” But those feelings don’t last very long. They push them away.
Healthy people, when they’ve done something wrong, can work hard at making sure they don’t do it again. They plan not to do it. But the sexual offender has continually done those things. It’s a habitual pattern that’s difficult for him to stop.
GV: You say ‘him’. It’s mainly men who are sexual abusers?
Mitch: I tend to use the male pronoun, but not all offenders are men. Probably 20-25% are women.
GV: That many?
Mitch: Yes, that many. And these women offenders molest both boys and girls. I should also mention juvenile offenders. Most men – and women – begin sexually deviant behaviour in their teenage years or earlier. In fact, between 30-50% of those who abuse children or adolescents are themselves children or adolescents.
GV: So how do we discover who’s doing it?
Mitch: With great difficulty! Most of the time we find out about offenders because children talk. At first they may say something like, “I don’t feel very good about so-and-so.” And, as we ask the child more, gradually it comes out. It’s very rare that an offender will come to a counsellor and say, “I have a problem – I molest kids.” It’s almost always been because someone has told – or because someone has seen it happen.
GV: Why on earth do they do it?
Mitch: Well, it’s not just that they “act out” sexually toward kids. That’s what we can see – but behind that behaviour is a distorted way of thinking and a failure to deal well with feelings. Like, angry feelings – expressed as a need to control another person.
GV: So it’s not just lust? They’re not just wanting sex?
Mitch: Disturbed sexual arousal is one motivator. But inadequate social relationships, personality disorders, or unmet emotional needs may also be factors. They may feel lonely, or they may feel inadequate in normal adult relationships. So they form relationships with those who are more vulnerable – with children.
Children are more easily accepting of such adults. And offenders work hard to make the child accept them and grow close to them. It’s called the ‘grooming’ process – the things they do that lead up to the actual offence.
So the typical child sex offender will have fairly low self-esteem. He won’t feel good about himself. He will assume that if people found out what he was really like on the inside, they would reject him. So he tends to be withdrawn or passive. Sometimes you see an offender who is fairly sociable on the outside. But if you get close, you may find that you really don’t know him at all. He has an interior life that he doesn’t let anyone see. That way his distorted thinking and feelings can continue on unchallenged.
A GOOD GUY:
A very frightening thing about the sexual offender is that he sometimes comes across as a good guy. He’s often the pillar of the community. He may be a teacher, doctor, lawyer, minister, somebody who’s well-educated.
Or she may be a babysitter, or a day-care provider. There’s no profile that specifically fits every offender. They come from a wide range of social and economic backgrounds, professions, abilities – and lack of abilities.
GV: So they could be anybody? That’s scary.
Mitch: Yes. And it means we’re often looking at someone who has a double life. Outwardly, there’s this person we normally appreciate and admire. But on the inside there’s this other person who is capable of committing such a crime against children.
GV: This ‘grooming’ you mentioned – it sounds like the offender would normally abuse children he or she knows.
Mitch: You’re right. In over 90% of child sexual abuse cases, the offender is known by the victim.
GV: That’s even more scary!
Mitch: Yes, it is. Every now and then, the news carries a story of someone who literally jumps out of the bushes, holds a knife against a child’s throat and sexually assaults the child. But if we were to direct our prevention programmes to those who jump out of bushes, we would be dealing with less than 10% of actual abusers.
About 34% of people who sexually abuse children are family members – and 59% are acquaintances or friends. Some familiar relationships entail greater risks. Step-fathers, for example, are five times more likely to molest their children than biological fathers. So the risk to a child increases if he or she is not the birth-child.
GV: When an offender is discovered, is there any treatment that will change him or her?
Mitch: We’re not robots. And I believe that people who have made bad choices are capable of making good choices, too. So change is theoretically possible. There are those, however, who don’t want to change, who say, “I don’t have a problem – and it’s none of your business.” That kind of person is not a good candidate for counselling and help!
But the person who says, “I know I’ve done wrong, I know I need help, and I’m willing to work at changing my life” – for that person there’s the possibility of learning control. No offenders – at the beginning – admit to everything they’ve done. They will always deny in some way, always minimize, always rationalize their behaviour when they’re caught. It’s only after we’ve worked through all those defence mechanisms that we can begin to learn what’s been happening.
GV: So tell us – how do you go about treating an offender?
Mitch: We have to dig out the feelings – the feelings he has not dealt with in healthy ways. What distortions are there in the way he thinks? As well as controlling the behaviour, he must begin to change those ways of thinking.
It’s a hard road. It takes perhaps two to four years of very specialised, intensive therapy to get an offender to the point where we can release him into the community, confident that he will continue to do the counselling for himself. Because if he thinks, “Right, I’m done with my counselling, now I can forget all that” – then he’ll probably molest again. If, however, he uses the skills he’s learned and continues to protect children by staying away from them, then he’ll probably offer a minimal risk of re-offending.
THE RISK IS ALWAYS THERE:
I don’t believe there’s a cure for the child molester. After all, there’s no cure for temptation. We have to choose not to get sexually involved with someone. That doesn’t mean they’re planning to, or want to – but they’re capable of re-offending.
In certain conditions – when they’re depressed, when they’re tired, when their other relationships aren’t going well – they’re capable of doing it again. And they must always be on guard.
GV: You mentioned that they learn skills. What sort of skills?
Mitch: Skills that help them manage their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. One thing we do in counselling, for example, is ‘cognitive restructuring’ – which means ‘changing the way you think’. It helps them identify distorted thinking, and replace those distortions with what is true. An offender might try to justify his behaviour by saying, “I’ll only do it this one more time.” I get him to say to himself, “Wait a minute, that’s not true. I’ve done it ‘one more time’ many times. And I’ll probably do it again if I don’t stop right now.” He must learn to say in his own mind, “Stop! What I’m thinking is not okay.” And he must then think about something positive …
Another simpler skill is learning to identify your pattern of behaviour, to recognise when you’re feeling bad about yourself, when you’re feeling depressed, when you’re starting to withdraw from people. You learn to see needs in yourself, and then get those needs met in the right kind of way – rather than molesting a child.
GV: Which is obviously why it takes so long? Those are big changes …
Mitch: One offender I worked with likened the process to a Lego set with all its different parts. “When I first came to counselling,” he said, “I couldn’t make sense of it. We were talking about our original families, about how messed-up they’d been, about the way we think and feel and behave. And I couldn’t see what those things had to do with my molesting kids.
“But now I’m starting to put those Lego blocks together, and I see how they each fit.
“I used to think that if I made a mistake it was the worst thing in the world – I might as well give up and do everything wrong! But that meant I set myself up to molest my daughter once again. Now that I know this, I can say, ‘Yes, I made a mistake – but that doesn’t mean I have to do it again.’
“I also realise that in my original family I wasn’t affirmed – and I need to be affirmed. I need to have somebody say, ‘I really appreciate you.’ I didn’t understand this before. And the way I got that affirmation was to demand it of a child in secretive and seductive ways. I don’t need to do that now.”
GV: But hang on – couldn’t this just become a game of finding excuses?
Mitch: Only if we let it. When an offender gets to the point where he takes control of his thinking, there’s one thing I continually grind into him: he is responsible for his own behaviour! It’s nobody else’s fault. It’s not his mother’s or father’s fault. It’s not the child’s fault. It’s not the community’s fault. It’s not God’s fault. It’s his fault! He has molested the child. He is responsible.
GV: You said earlier that feeling repulsed by the whole thing is normal. So if we personally know an offender, how should we behave toward him?
Mitch: As a therapist, I need to be compassionate. I hate what sexual offenders do. It’s a sin against a child and against God and against the community. It’s even a sin against the offender himself – what he’s doing hurts him too. But I want to offer him the possibility of change – that he can be different.
BETTER OFF DEAD?
Occasionally I have met someone who has done something really awful, and my reaction has been anger and a wish for some kind of quick pay-back justice. However, I have to move beyond that – I need to see the person, not just what the person has done.
GV: It must be awful to discover that your husband or your wife is abusing your child. Is there any way to foresee that the person you’re considering as a partner could be like that?
Mitch: Good question. It’s a shock to find out that someone you’ve loved for years has a double life. You experience strong feelings of betrayal and of being deceived. But it’s very difficult to foresee this possibility in someone you’re developing a relationship with. We don’t have a ‘profile of an offender’ – with 20 different items to look for. He can be very deceptive.
A mother living on her own, lacking support and not coping is more likely to be targeted by offenders than someone who is emotionally healthy, who is bright and assertive and aware of such possibilities. And a woman who has been a victim herself of sexual abuse runs more risk of connecting with somebody who’s a potential offender – that’s been demonstrated over and over again.
So, being aware of your own vulnerabilities and blind spots can be the best protection. It will help you make better choices about the people you allow into intimate relationships with yourself – or to take care of your children.
GV: In other words, there’s no simple answer …
Mitch: There’s not. But there are some indicators. For example, when a person is using pornography, especially child pornography. Pornography is a desensitizer. Inhibitions are lowered, and the person who uses it is more likely to see others as sexual objects.
Another area for caution is if the person abuses drugs or alcohol. These break down natural cautions, and allow bad judgment to be more frequent.
Another indicator: if the person is unable to control his anger. Or if he or she comes from an abusive or neglecting home. If they’ve never done anything about it, never got counselling, don’t recognise what happened, or say things like, “That was the past – it’s no longer a problem!” … then take care.
On the other hand, if he or she says, “Here’s what my family was like … these were the influences on my life … here’s how I coped … and here are the changes I’m making …” then that indicates a healthy person who’s dealing with it.
And, of course, the other warning signs: a person who’s been convicted of a sex offence in the past. Or who you know has sexually abused a child in the past – or has fantasies about doing so.
GV: What should you do if you discover that your husband or wife is abusing your child?
Mitch: From what I know of offenders, without some kind of outside pressure, some kind of intervention, somebody saying, “You’re not allowed to do that anymore!” … that person will not stop. It should be reported to the authorities – the police or Department of Social Welfare. They’re the people best equipped to deal with the situation, to offer counselling and some possibility for proper assessment and legal intervention.
PRICE TO PAY:
I realise there’s a cost in reporting, and that’s frightening. It means disruption to the family, exposure to the community … your partner perhaps going to jail, and the resulting financial burden. But not bringing it out into the open is most damaging for a child.
We need the secret to be out! That offers hope of healing for the victim – as well as for the offender. And it opens up the way for change.
Unfortunately, most child sex abuse is not reported.
GV: Are there things you can do to reduce the risk of your partner one day abusing your child?
Mitch: It’s no guarantee, but it helps to have your partner closely involved with the child in all areas of that child’s life. So, if someone takes normal childcare responsibilities – soothing a child who is crying, changing nappies, looking after the child when he’s sick, or when he needs to be disciplined – that person will develop a broad experience, relating to the child in a wide range of situations. And be less likely to see the child only as a sexual object.
GV: Presumably that explains why a step-parent is more often an abuser. He or she meets the child at an older age …
Mitch: Right. The most obvious problem occurs if you’re a man entering a family where there’s a teenage girl – who, just because of normal adolescent sexuality, is very attractive. If you see her in her pyjamas or nightgown or in a variety of situations around the home where there aren’t the barriers that there are in public, you may have feelings of sexual arousal … and will have to figure out what you do about them.
If you give in to those feelings and begin to think about what you’d like to do sexually, then that can lead to acting out your thoughts. You need the self-control to say, “This is wrong. I won’t encourage these ideas.”
If the feelings continue, you need to talk to someone, admit that you’re having difficulty, get it out in the open so you’re not trying to keep it to yourself. Then you’re less likely to abuse because you’re not keeping a secret.
GV: So step one is facing up to it?
Mitch: Yes. Having sexual feelings about a child within the new family is always possible – because we’re sexual beings. You don’t need to get overwhelmed by that, or be fearful or paranoid. But you do need to face it and deal with it. That may mean talking about it with your spouse, or a friend, or a counsellor. (It takes a fairly healthy wife to be able to handle it.) But so long as you hide it and keep it as just your own problem, it’s very difficult to sort out.
Explain to yourself, “Just because I have the thought doesn’t mean I’m a sexual offender. It doesn’t mean I’m actually going to do it. It just means the thought is there.” Any normal person can have sexual thoughts that, if we acted out, would hurt someone. So we don’t do it.
GV: Well, what makes the difference between an average person who has sexual feelings – and a sexual offender? Where’s the line drawn?
Mitch: The sexual offender wants to increase those feelings, wants to encourage the thoughts, wants to set things up and act out on them. Frankly, fantasising about having sex with a child or teenager is very dangerous – because fantasy acts as a ‘rehearsal’ of what could happen in the future.
Now, fantasy is often paired with masturbation. And when we put the two together – when we put sexual arousal with a given thought – it imprints on the mind in a very strong way.
BEWARE OF REHEARSING:
Having the thought is one step. But masturbating while thinking of sex with a child is an unacceptable step. Get enough of those deviant imprintings, and you’re more likely to act them. And if you can’t sort it out on your own, you should seek help.
GV: How can we prevent sexual abuse without increasing mistrust of the other good adults who deal with our kids – the sports coach, the Scout leader, and so on?
Mitch: Unfortunately, we have to assume that there are offenders out there who will molest kids. And we need to give kids the opportunity to talk about what’s going on. We need to help kids feel more comfortable about their bodies.
A good term is ‘special parts’. They’re not bad parts or ugly parts – just special parts. And we should use the right names for those parts.
When we talk about touching, useful terms are ‘good touching’ (that’s normal affection – hugging and so on) … ‘bad touching’ (kicking and hitting and fighting) … and ‘secret touching’. It’s the touching of special parts in secret, when nobody else knows, that’s wrong.
‘Secret touching’ leaves us with feelings we think we must keep inside and not tell anyone about. We can help kids understand that feelings are okay. But there are certain feelings they need to be aware of and maybe talk to somebody about – like when they feel confused or bad or guilty or ashamed. And then add to that list: when they feel something’s wrong but a certain person’s telling them they mustn’t talk about it. If this happens, they should go and tell someone else.
So the child can understand that it’s okay for Daddy to change nappies and bath little Suzie, and for the doctor to check out the special parts – because it’s not secret. The point is, if someone wants it kept secret, that’s when they should go and tell.
[See Grapevine’s comic ‘Secret Touching’ in this magazine – designed to help parents deal with this very issue.]
GV: It’s sad we have to go through all that.
Mitch: It certainly is. I don’t want to live my life paranoid about someone molesting my child, but it could happen. So I need to be wise about who I allow my kids to be with, and aware of that potential. And I need to help my child know when something’s not right – and then tell me or the teacher or a police officer or somebody that he or she trusts. And if that person doesn’t understand – tell someone else!
It’s like watching out for counterfeit money. If we know what the genuine notes are like, when a counterfeit comes along it won’t feel right. If kids know what healthy relationships are, then when something doesn’t feel right, they need to know they can tell someone.
And, of course, it’s not just strangers. If it’s someone they know, they should still tell – because 90% of abuse is done by people the child knows.
GV: So the best thing we parents can do?
Mitch: Talk with our kids! Which means we have to spend time with them … get to know them … and talk to them about sex in healthy ways, appropriate to their age. Our kids do have questions. They are curious. They are sexual beings – and they hear about it out there.
If we’re not helping them sort out all the sexual messages they get from TV, from the Internet, and from their friends … if we’re not protecting them from our culture’s preoccupation with sex and sexuality … then we’re allowing those other sources to be the primary (or the only) influences on their sexual ideas and feelings.
This is not just a family problem. It’s a community problem. And it’s up to us …