Preventing Performative Rage: Who bears the burden of protecting children?

A young boy stands at the bottom of a large set of sunlit stairs

The obvious answer to the above is – well – everyone. Every person is responsible for ensuring the safety and well-being of the most vulnerable among us. But how safe are we and our children if we (the people who engage in this work) are not allowed to be their complete selves? There is a strong push to “cancel” anyone who says anything these days that is not “mainstream” or “acceptable.” But who decides what’s mainstream or acceptable? This post (and another version posted on my personal blog), will delve into the cancel culture that has swarmed around the people doing some of the most challenging work in child sexual abuse prevention. There are other relevant blog posts written by colleagues of mine available for further reading on this topic, if you are interested. They are linked at the bottom. My goal for this piece is to highlight that if we do not work together, we only make it easier for children to be victimized. To me, that is simply unacceptable.

Before I continue, let us remember we all want the same thing. We all – that’s right, even sex offender treatment providers, therapists who work with non-offending individuals, researchers and scholars who want to understand the why and how of sexual abuse – we all have one goal that drives our work: we want to protect children from harm and ensure that everyone can exercise their right to a happy, healthy life. We want to protect children from harm (yes, you read that correctly). Lately, it appears that this message is getting lost in the commotion of silencing and canceling those with whom we disagree.

So, let’s get to the nitty gritty. Cancel culture does not do what its users intend. It does not keep children safe, rather it has a paradoxical effect: it tends to increase the likelihood that abuse occurs and makes it more difficult for victims and survivors to come forward to seek help. Cancel culture also makes it nearly impossible to engage in any meaningful preventive work due to its chilling effect on helping individuals in search of support to receive it. What is “cancel culture,” you ask? Well, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, cancel culture is “the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling (or mass shaming) as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.” In practice, it is the process of shutting down something that is believed to violate social norms. When one is on the receiving end (being “canceled”), it feels like you are drowning in angry noise. I find it suitably ironic that despite writing a piece on cancel culture among child sexual abuse prevention scholars, I have not yet been a target of directed canceling. That is not to say I have not upset others with my opinions and work, nor that I am in any way better or more successful than those who have been targeted; it is just that for whatever reason, the haters have not found me yet. I assume I will get there someday and this forces me to undertake some unusual online safety precautions that my colleagues in not-so-controversial fields do not.

How do we do better? Forget the performative rage, forget the ire. Listen to what the experts tell you; listen to what the evidence-base is and how it helps. We’ve all experienced performative rage before – this is when you feel you should be angry toward something that violates your perceived sense of social norm. It is also related to virtue-signaling, that is “talking the talk” but not following up with action. I find this happens quite frequently in the field of sexual abuse prevention – society talks a good game (we all want to protect children), but when it comes to supporting and funding evidence-based programs that actually protect children, we fall short. Why?

Cancel culture is a big culprit. There is a palpable fear of being targeted among my colleagues. We learn early in our careers that to talk about our work openly is to invite anger and fear and hatred. When asked about our work, we often give superficial or tangential responses like “I work in children protection” or “I’m a therapist” or “I’m a sexual abuse prevention scholar.” These phrases are safe and likely to result in positive feedback. Few who are open about their work are still employed in the same positions, often they are pressured into resigning due to public misunderstanding of and pushback against their work. The cases of Old Dominion University and colleagues posting videos on Youtube tell a very telling tale. The fact that I am still in mine is a testament to my university’s support and my carefully crafted professional persona. Terrifying into silence the people who do this work will only serve to make it easier for abuse to continue. If anger is a must, then be angry at a system that allows the abuse to happen in the first place. Be angry at a system that doesn’t believe survivors when they speak up. Be angry at a system that will only react to abuse, rather than acting to prevent abuse.

How do we successfully prevent sexual abuse? We support the doers – the people who work with survivors to prevent deeper trauma, the people who work with those who perpetrate abuse to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and the people who advocate for and work with those who might be at risk to engage in abusive behavior. We fight for a world where there are resources to ensure that no child is ever harmed.

I know I will invest my anger in addressing these issues and being part of the solution. Will you join me and Prostasia Foundation in the fight to eradicate child sexual abuse?

Editor’s note: the author provided the following selection of suggested additional reading

David Ley, PhD: Weaponized Ethics Complaints Against Clinicians
David Prescott, LICSW: A Closer Look at the Minor-Attracted Controversy
Kasia Uzieblo, PhD: To Cancel or Not to Cancel: Should This Be the Question?

Notable Replies

  1. Exactly, love and support are what we need to use to prevent more child sexual abuse, not hatred and stigma.

    If you want to give emotional support to someone, but don’t really know how, I found an article that could help you with that:

  2. This is probably the hardest pill to swallow; even among many of us who find it easy to sympathize with non-offenders, it’s hard to think about supporting treating offenders with anything but hate even if you don’t have to personally sympathize with them.

    But the uncomfortable truth is, even hatred towards and desire to severely punish actual offenders who actually hurt people is probably counterproductive. How many times do we see a survivor coming forward, only for people to accuse them of trying to 'ruin (their abuser)‘s life’, or specifically common with CSA within a family, for the family to defend the abuser because the abuser is also family and they still want them to be happy?

    How many times do abusers swear their victim to silence, urging them not to tell anyone because of how much trouble they’d get into, playing the ‘please don’t ruin my life’ card? Imagine how little weight this would carry in a world that openly reassures everyone that no, reporting your abuser will not ruin their life, so even if you care about them, even if they’re begging you not to, speak up anyway; we’re going to help them, not hurt them.

    More and more I’m starting to feel like we should actually try to ruin the abuser’s life as little as possible; the minimum amount required to protect other potential victims from them. Not for the abuser’s sake, but for their victim’s sake, so they can speak up without fear. You can’t be accused of ruining anyone’s life if speaking up actually doesn’t lead to anyone’s life being ruined.

  3. This is probably the most compelling and poetic way I’ve ever seen this point worded

  4. Everything you’ve said here reminds me of my analysis here: Review of Shut Up and Dance - #10 by Giacobbe

    The final scene where our tortured and traumatized main protagonist’s life is completely and totally ruined is haunting. The entire sequence (the whole episode, really) lives rent-free in my head:

    What did you do, Kenny?! They’re saying it’s kids! That you’ve been looking at kids! And Lindsey saw it, there’s a video of you, all of her friends have got it! KIDS, Kenny! Tell me it’s not…

    There’s also this great summary edit of the episode that earns its 9.9m views!:

    This and White Bear are perfect examples of why vigilante justice and overly-cruel punishments are barbaric. Torturing criminals serves no other purpose than to satisfy our own need for “righteous vengeance”. That’s not justice, that’s vigilante mob savagery best left in the days of Hammurabi…

  5. I will say though that I don’t want to make anyone feel demonized for being angry at their abusers (or abusers in general), even to the point of fantasizing about unnecessary violent punishments against them. As long as it stays thoughts, and words spoken in a contained space that people can’t stumble across without seeing a warning and choosing to disregard it, my support for that is a corollary of my general belief that thoughts are not actions.

    Haven’t watched Black Mirror but read your review; I’ve been looking for more media with a more nuanced depiction of MAPs! (Though still haven’t found any depicting non-offenders, outside of some very obscure fics on AO3 :'D) What struck me is that they made a big deal of the fact that Kenny was masturbating to the CSAM, when he’s contributing to child abuse just by accessing the material regardless of what he does while viewing it. Recording him masturbating was completely unnecessary, but ofc it contributes to the outrage knowing that he does -.-

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