The following is a personal narrative that may be difficult for some readers. We hope that it will produce a nuanced discussion about sexual abuse and how the state and the field of psychology often fail children in fundamental ways. Because it involves children, we are publishing it anonymously at the request of the author.
I am a historian of gender and sexuality shocked by the twenty-first century. I knew from my reading of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality that the nineteenth century represented a turning point in the history of sexual regulation, knowledge production, and identity formation. Foucault contended that legal and medical “experts” became agents of the state, employing confessional techniques to incite, scrutinize, and classify as deviant nonconventional sexual acts and desires. Yet as a parent of an impulsive ADHD child, I was horrified to learn that the Foucauldian world of pathologizing “non-normative” sexual acts remains the industry standard for treating sexually deviant youth. Foucault’s past is, as he claimed, still our present.
My son is a charismatic boundary crosser who accessed online pornography sites on more than one occasion, sparked by an innocent inaugural search for Pokemon “dragon balls.” As a thirteen year old with a school issued computer, he found ways to “research” interesting topics like oral sex; the school’s controls did not include blocking 17+ YouTube content and my son’s gifted friend obliged his buddies by hacking the school’s system.
I only learned about these experiments after my son violated the trust of family members by convincing his five-year-old male cousin that they should suck each other’s penises. The victim, my nephew, was troubled by what they had done and told his mother about my son’s proposition. My son initially denied that he had done more than speak inappropriate words but eventually admitted inappropriate acts.
For a variety of reasons, we could not contain the incident within the family. When I was informed of my son’s offending behavior, the reporting therapist insisted that my son must also have been abused. We turned to our family therapist for help. A mandated reporter, she dutifully reported my son’s offense to the state. As someone who worked closely with my son’s school, moreover, she felt a conflict of interest and broke up with us. Perhaps, too, she was thinking nervously of her recent assessment of my son in which she encouraged activities with younger children to help develop his maturity.
The family therapist turned us over to a forensic psychiatrist for evaluation. He concluded that my son had indeed acted out sexually with his cousin and recommended therapy with a specialist. He also required us to inform my son’s school about the incident and created a household safety plan to protect my daughter from possible molestation. He, too, reported my son to the state. Intimidated by the dire possibility that the state would remove my son from our home if we did not do as instructed, we became earnestly compliant. Before I rolled over, however, I pointed out to the evaluator that he had mistakenly coded my thirteen-year-old son’s offense as that of a “non-parental” adult rather than as a child. When he sheepishly acknowledged the error, my son officially became a sexually impulsive youth rather than a sexual offender.
Little comforted, I stopped sleeping through the night. For months I woke up soaked in sweat, grieving the damage done to my nephew and his family and fearing my son’s fate. My worries were not overblown. Enraged, my nephew’s parents refused contact with me or any of my children, including my non-offending son and daughter. My son’s school, which he had attended since first grade, repaid our candid notification with expulsion. We searched in vain for therapists who treated youth sex offenders, learning that very few were willing to risk the liability of working with these children.
Finally, we found someone who seemed like a good fit. He lived nearby and he worked with both child and adult offenders. He required us to purchase a workbook, designed for children ranging from age ten to seventeen. The workbook’s premise was “once a sex offender, always a sex offender.” In the workbook’s parental guide, it explained that even child offenders should prepare for a lifetime of fighting off urges to re-offend. As I paged through the book, I was horrified to see graphic descriptions of teens having sex in the woods and plying victims with alcohol. There was even an entire chapter on grooming victims. A teen interested in learning how to become a sex offender need look no further; this was the true “Anarchist’s Cookbook,” a how-to guide for sexual boundary crossers. I confronted my son’s therapist, and for a short time we agreed on a more appropriate type of therapy.
Two months later, however, my son’s therapist announced he would be administering a test to determine whether my son harbored atypical sexual desires. Known as the “Abel Screen,” the test is a commercial product commonly used as a diagnostic tool but with next to no scientific vetting. It involves showing the test subject a series of suggestive photos before requiring him to answer questions about his sexual desires. The amount of time the subject spends looking at each image is then cross-checked against the answers to determine if a) the subject has “atypical” desires, and b) the subject is lying. The longer his glance lingers, the greater the implied sexual interest.
The Abel Screen is considered progressive compared to previous tests because the people in the images are fully clothed although provocatively posed. It is also considered less invasive than the alternative, still used with adult offenders, in which the test subject’s penis is inserted into a pressure tube that measures changes in size as the subject views salacious images.
Shocked to learn that the industry standard was straight out of Foucault’s nineteenth century, I asked the therapist what would happen if my son “passed” the Abel Screen. “I would assume that he had found a way to circumvent the test,” he responded, “and I would re-administer it.” This remains the common protocol for treating youth offenders, even though the tiny rate of youth recidivism suggests that the addiction model for explaining adult offenses might not be appropriate for children.
That was the last we saw of this therapist. Nine months later, we are still pariahs in the eyes of my nephew’s family. My son attends a new school and for better or for worse has substituted asexuality for a healthy pubertal interest in sex. His current therapist believes in a regime of volunteer work in soup kitchens and Outward Bound to help foster empathy and compassion. As a family we will never be the same. As a historian, I am more convinced than ever that Foucault’s nightmarish depiction of the pathologization and state regulation of nonconventional sexual acts—even those of children–remain alive and well in our present.