I have a vague memory of being a small child and seeing an arrested pedophile on the local news, the kind of perp walk footage we’ve all seen a million times before, the accused pale and blinking like an insect, utilizing nearby props to block his face. I don’t remember who the man was or what case he may have been involved in. I do remember feeling somehow, strangely, sorry for him.
My childhood home lacked sexual boundaries. There was never touching, but there was looking and leering and inappropriate comments. Maybe my feelings were the misguided instinct of a child to protect a perpetrator. Or maybe it was the shame of a young girl who had already begun to numb out using masturbation and pornography, whose fantasy life marked her as deeply, irrevocably wrong in her Southern Baptist environment. Maybe it was the fear that my own unruly sexuality would lead me to ruin.
On Friday night, Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse. “Good,” I thought, reading the news. “Good.”
In the moments after the verdict, Twitter exploded with shared vitriol.
"Jerry Sandusky will go from this (__*__) to this (__0__) very soon!"
"Sandusky will not like his new showers. #noLube #Oz #RapeLife"
"Jerry Sandusky is on suicide watch. Personally, I'd love to watch him commit suicide."
"Jerry Sandusky deserves life in prison but with no showers.& no food. Also he should be assraped. Every day."
Many others have already pointed out the hypocrisy of espousing rape as a punishment for the horrible crime of rape. Rape is never justice. Still, I understand their anger, don't deny them their righteous rage on behalf defenseless children.
But most of the victims I know don't feel this way. Instead of anger, they feel sadness. They cry, then say thing like, “The Sandusky thing is really stirring things up for me.” They feel confused. "Sandusky verdict sending me into weirdo headspace," wrote my best friend, molested as a young teen, in a message he sent to me Friday night.
So how do I feel when I think about Jerry Sandusky? Sickened, certainly. Harming a child is the most vile crime I can conceive of. Harming an underprivileged, at-risk child (the population I have chosen to allot my charitable resources to) in the guise of helping them is simply incomprehensible to me.
I was 13 when I was raped – a child, but older than Sandusky’s victims and subject to a single hour-long ordeal. Still, I have felt at times that my grief is bottomless, that to truly comprehend more than the tiniest exposed corner would break my brain and sever me permanently from the realm of sanity. This is why victims black out – the trauma could literally kill us. It’s a crime that destroys a person in exchange for something as selfish and impermanent as an orgasm. It’s a crime that leads to addiction, suicide and more abuse.
So I feel sickened, saddened. I would lay down my own life to protect any child from what Sandusky's victims have gone through. And yet, I do not find hate, though I sit quietly and search myself.
For years, I have been in sexual recovery, trying to heal the trauma inflicted upon me at a young age and the compulsive sexuality I developed to deal with it. A vast majority of us in these rooms are victims of childhood sexual abuse. It’s the only place where I regularly hear men speak up about sex abuse, where I am constantly reminded that rape is not a gendered issue. I have seen large men sob hopelessly for minutes at a time, until most of the room has joined them.
In these same rooms, I have heard recovering sex offenders speak, sat next to them, held their hands during our closing prayer. It’s not easy to hear their stories. I grow short of breath, I bury my head in hands, I feel frozen on the edge of tears. As uncomfortable as it is for me to share space with these men, I know how badly they need to be there. In 12-step recovery, victims who go on to hurt others and victims who go on to hurt themselves are two sides of the same coin, and we recover together.
I believe that pedophiles are sick people. The very incomprehensibility of their crimes seems evidence that their brains are not healthy.
The American Psychiatric Association has included pedophilia in its “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” since 1968. Pedophiles are not necessarily child molesters. One is defined by their fantasies and urges, the other by their actions. Reformed child molesters would still be pedophiles. There is no cure for pedophilia.
According to Ray Blanchard, PhD, “People do not choose to be attracted to children or adults any more than they choose to be attracted to males or females. If there is any choice in the situation, it is in how pedophiles manage their lives once they become fully aware of the direction of their sexual interests and the societal prohibitions against expressing them."
We manage our own fear by labeling offenders as evil, monstrous, in a category reassuringly separate from ther rest of us. But I have been close to these men, held their warm-blooded hands, seen their undeniable humanity. About one in four females and one in six males are sexually abused by their 18th birthday -- this is a human problem, one that happens all around us. And many, many, of those sexually abused children will go on to offend themselve. Where is the line between victim and monster, at what point does one shape-shift into the other?
I don't have the answers.
But the men I have met are doing their best to manage a sickness that could easily cripple them with shame. They admit their wrongdoing, use the hard drive full of child pornography or the public arrest as an impetus to change.
We must see these men as human, because monsters cannot recover, would not be capable even if they had the courage to show themselves. If we care about preventing future victims, we must allow these men to come forward, to seek help. It does not mean their crimes are excused. We are all accountable for our actions. Debts must be paid.
But what of the man who offends and serves his time? If there is no redemption, why should he do the grueling work required to prevent another offense?
I have read that female victims of sexual abuse tend to internalize the pain, acting out in ways that hurt ourselves, while men are more likely to externalize their trauma by hurting others.
I am lucky that I hurt mostly myself with my disease, althought there is always collateral damage -- men I used, lied to, cheated on, treated as emotionless objects. I am responsible for my small crimes, as sex offenders are for their horrific ones. Neither of us are entitled to forgiveness.
I am glad Sandusky will spend the rest of his life in prison -- for his victim's sake, and his own. I hope some part of him is relieved.