As a minority, the headlines lately have been disgusting. Fear and inequality is rampant in policy and attitude, whether it’s in the news, expressed in a rude internet comment, or worse, in yet another disgusting policy proposal. These attitudes can be summed up in one word: Stigma. Stigma is what’s driving many of the cultural divides and we can do something about it.
My name is Timothy, and I’m an abuse survivor. I’m also an autistic married gay man. This is part 3 of a series of posts about stigma’s impact on sexual violence prevention and how we can explore better options. This part is about how you can fight stigma, within yourself and when you see it expressed from others. If you haven’t read part 2, you can do that here.
How do we develop stigma?
Stigma doesn’t happen overnight. Nobody wakes up one day and says, “I think I’m going to have terrible opinions towards this minority or that minority, just because.” It’s something that develops with experiences, social conditioning, and what we’re exposed to – over time. If we have particularly bad experiences with someone from a group of people, our perceptions of that group will be colored by the experiences more than if we had a positive experience. It’s the same way with customer reviews – customers tend to leave negative comments when they have a bad experience more so than if they have a positive experience. We focus on the negative.
Social conditioning, or how we’re taught to view the world around us, also plays a big role in how stigma develops. If we have a racist family member who constantly talks badly about marginalized people, we’re more likely to internalize those attitudes, even if we realize those attitudes are bad to have. But let’s say you don’t have a racist family member. Let’s say it’s less obvious than that. Let’s say you grew up in a suburban school in a mostly white area, and you had exactly one Black classmate and one indigenous classmate, and you saw most of your peers treating them differently every day at school. You overheard people talking about negative stereotypes casually as if they were fact.
What sorts of beliefs would you have about them when you grow up if you’re not intentional about confronting those attitudes and learning more about these people?
My stories of stigma
Until I started thinking critically – directly – about the subject in college, I held inaccurate beliefs about groups of people, in part because of the very things I just discussed. I grew up in an environment where exposure to diverse groups of people was limited, and when I was in middle school, a Black boy slapped me. Having autism, I didn’t understand the social reasons why, all I knew is that this was how this particular Black youth treated me.
So I avoided Black males where I could, until I got to know a coworker in high school who was a great guy that shook that belief. I’m well past high school, but I still feel bad for this attitude because it was born from ignorance and one bad interaction and I didn’t give that group of people a fair chance to understand how everyone else interacted.
Thankfully, I examined that belief and challenged how I saw Black males, and I also understand the added dynamics and my own ignorance that possibly could have led to the initial situation. Being autistic, I may have missed a social cue – or a racial context clue – that caused the anger in the first place.
I wish that was the only instance, but it wasn’t. There’s one that took much longer for me to realize, which led me down the path of sexual abuse prevention. When I was in high school and college, I absolutely loved the show Law and Order. I loved arguing, making the bad guys pay, and finding creative ways to mete out justice when the rules didn’t work. I also loved watching Special Victims Unit, because, to me, it was teaching me about something taboo, something that was difficult to learn about. TV was a socially acceptable way to do that.
A little backstory before I jump back into the Special Victims Unit. I was sexually abused as a young child. Later, when I was 13 years old, I was slowly realizing that my attractions to my peers were not aging with me. They were staying at the school year before, then at age 14, the year before that. Being autistic, I wasn’t aware that this was even unusual or what it was called, If you’d asked me as a teenager, high schooler, or even as a college student what I thought about pedophiles and told me what they are, I’d have said that’s disgusting and probably the same thing you hear everyone else say about them.
So as I was “learning” things about sexual violence from television and finding out that sexual violence causes so much pain and anguish and that victims often go to the police and the police valiantly swoop in to save the victims from their rapists, I was also slowly discovering that my attractions weren’t exactly normal. I started looking up information, or tried to, and the information I found just gave the same ideas you probably have. We’re disgusting. We’re horrible people. Once we rape a child, and apparently, we will even if we have no desire to or stay away from kids or whatever, we’ll just keep doing it until we’re killed or locked up. We can’t be trusted, we’re just insidious monsters.
And I believed it. I believed it about me, I believed it about other pedophiles. I believed what they were saying and was in a lot of pain, until I saw an episode that messed with my head and I questioned it. The episode is about an 8-year-old boy who had been raped, and while the stars of the show are investigating his rape, a teenager goes to the police station and says that he’s attracted to kids and needs help.
And the police tell him they can’t help him. You wish the episode would just end there because it’s bad enough, but it doesn’t. The teenager’s dad finds out, and rapes the teenager with a broomhandle and you find out that the little boy was raped by his older brother (who was being raped by his dad), not the teenager. So they arrest the older brother and his dad, and the teenager’s dad, and the credits roll. The teenager ends up in the hospital, being outed and presumably never getting any help.
That episode aired as a rerun in college, and it was an awful experience. I was outraged, and I couldn’t tell anyone about it. Years after, I began researching sexual violence perpetration and prevention – both after sexual assault happens and before – and what I learned was that just about everything I thought I knew through Special Victims Unit was utter trash. Most people who go to the police aren’t saved by them.
Most people don’t go to the police, and if they do, just 16% wind up with an arrest. The police aren’t the allies most people think they are to most sexual assault victim/survivors and there are a variety of reasons people don’t go to the police. The police aren’t an adequate response to sexual violence and in many cases the police are actually responsible for a lot of sexual assault.
What I learned from is that the common “knowledge” about sexual violence is decades out of date to what we know about the reality of the problem and how we can solve it. The biggest barrier is stigma. People don’t know or want to know the realities. The realities are so depressing and the solutions are so radical that most people wind up feeling hopeless to do something to help. People don’t want to be involved because they’re afraid of how they’ll be viewed. It doesn’t have to be that way.
About child sexual abuse
You don’t need to dive into research to know enough about sexual violence and child sexual abuse to break the misconceptions about it. I’ve studied the topic independently for the last 8 years, and I think there’s a lot that non-profit organizations want you to know that is too much for the average person to take. Here’s the nutshell version that you can read in less than 3 minutes and be informed on the subject.
You don’t need to know the details or the stories. What you do need to know is that most people who harm children this way are people the child and those around them know and trust, whether they’re adults or older children (over a third are older children). They’re people that the victims don’t want to see ruined – in many cases victims just want the abuse to end. Perpetrators harm not because they think they’re hurting anyone, but because they lack the resources and support to make better choices. In many cases, they don’t know that what they’re doing is wrong or harmful.
This is why nonprofit organizations suggest policy changes that allow for comprehensive sex/sexuality and consent education – not just about the mechanics of sex, the social mechanics and forming healthy boundaries around acceptable and unacceptable behavior. It’s also why some nonprofits – like Prostasia Foundation – make it a point to support minorities that need more resources. More resources means fewer bad choices means less capacity for abusive behavior like child sexual abuse, because as minorities, their access to resources is limited and they are suffering through trauma and need support to process that trauma.
You can help
You can help break stigma and you can do that by challenging where you’re getting your information from and asking if it’s the complete picture. The next time you read an article or listen to a podcast, ask yourself beforehand if they’re presenting all the perspectives relevant to the topic. Are they giving fair time to everyone impacted by the topic? If the article is about homelessness, are they talking to people who are homeless? If it’s talking about sexual violence prevention, what kind of prevention is it talking about, and are they just getting perspectives from police, or are they hearing from victims, perpetrators, community members, and nonprofits also?
Asking the tough questions when you’re consuming media is a great way to challenge stigma you may be exposed to. Another great way to challenge stigma is to evaluate your beliefs. Do you believe negative things about groups of people? Where do those beliefs come from, and have you been exposed to just some of those people, or have you been exposed to a wide spectrum of them that can adequately represent the entire group? If we’re asking these questions, we can understand when we might be biased against a group for a few bad experiences.
Breaking stigma can also mean having casual conversations when someone makes an out-of-line comment about a group of people. Let’s say you’re with a family member and they were angered by someone and said “They should go back where they came from,” there are many ways you can approach this without being confrontational. You can ask how you know they’re not from around here. You can ask where you think that is. You could say that your family member’s ancestors originally came from England, and ask if that means they should return to England (which no longer exists, it’s the UK now).
Fighting stigma starts with noticing when we’ve been told things about a group of people that don’t come from that group of people. That means we need to look for biased articles, biased people, and biased thinking, and look for ways to expose ourselves to a more objective reality. I’m not saying you should feel bad for people like me. I’m saying you should evaluate what you’ve been told about any group of people if that information doesn’t include that group’s voice. That’s what fighting stigma is: Thinking critically about what we’ve been told so we can decide if they really are monsters or…just humans, like you.