In September 2017, a small group of us came together to engage in critical conversations around issues of child sexual abuse. We expressed while laws and legislation, bail restrictions, and sex offender registries, were being discussed regularly in the media and in other public forums there was very little public discourse on the root causes of sexual violence against children. Our group believes a deeper understanding of why men sexually violate children in the first place needs to be a larger part of community and national dialogue in order for sustainable change to occur.
The following are some of the root causes and actions forward we identified:
Violence begets violence. We discussed violent attitudes, beliefs and behaviours as part of a larger socialization process, passed down from person to person; family to family; generation to generation and embedded in culture, media, politics, schools, families; internalized and normalized. For example how the act of beating and shaming our children/youth is considered a normal way of disciplining children both at home and within the educational system even though much of the research over the years shows physical punishment along with the act of shaming as discipline can cause a deep sense of unworthiness, self-hate and powerlessness, leading to violent behaviour as a means of asserting power and regaining a sense of control. We discussed further research also showing that child sexual offenders were at one time in their lives, physically, emotionally and or sexually assaulted when they were children and thus violence lying at the root of the violence they cause others. This led us to look at intergenerational trauma—trauma passed down from one generation to the next; trauma as a result of growing up and exposed to violence on a regular basis. We asked questions such as: What does trauma look like? What effect does trauma have on our physical, mental, psychological, emotional states? Are parents, teachers, adults trained to understand and recognize trauma within themselves children, youth students? Do parents, teachers, adults know how to deal with trauma?
Themes of power and control related to toxic conventional masculinity and the socialization of conventional masculinity. From an early age, boys and girls socialized to believe: Men are superior to women. Men hold the power. Men are the breadwinners. Men are the head of the household. Men are strong and powerful and don’t show emotions (ie boys/men don’t cry). And finally, that men are sexual beings and women sexual objects. We discussed the influence of media, music, internet, television and how they are a big part of this socialization process in relation to conventional masculine traits.
Lack of education around healthy relationships, and in particular around healthy sexual relationships, how many of our children and youth grow up without any formal education around sex. That sex is quite often a taboo topic within our families and schools; that sex is seen as shameful and offensive to talk about with children and youth. And yet we agreed our music, dance, media, humour is full of sexual implications. We agreed many children are learning about sex on the streets, from their peers, from violent movies, and from the internet. We discussed how easily accessible violent pornography is on the internet and this, quite often the sexual template where youth learn about sex; which most often displays women as objects to be humiliated and conquered.
Silence as part of the root cause of sexual violence. We related silence to power issues, children not feeling empowered enough to speak out; lack of self esteem and confidence contributing to this silence, as well as learning from a young age that adults hold the authority and children must obey and not question authority. Because sex has been taught to be shameful subject, quite often kids find it difficult to speak about sex, about emotions around sex, and thus about sexual abuse. We discussed the level of silence at the community level as well; not wanting to get involved in someone else’s business for fear of being attacked, shamed, gossiped about. One member of the group said many people don’t speak out because they believe ‘by silencing something you can destroy it.’
Education of the whole person. We asked the questions: Where do children/youth/adults learn what constitutes a healthy relationship? For example what are healthy boundaries, how do we set boundaries, how do we respect boundaries? What is consent? How do we give or withdraw consent? What is abusive behaviour? What is sexually abusive behaviour? What is rape? We agreed that some youth and adults don’t even know what constitutes rape. What are healthy emotions and feelings around sex?
We also asked, where do we learn love, intimacy, respect, compassion, kindness, empathy, if these are not taught in our homes, schools, communities? We commented that if children and youth are not learning about healthy respectful intimate relationships in their home and school environments then why and how would we expect them to know better.
Clearly making a distinction between pedophile vs someone who is committing acts of sexual violence against women and children because of root causes identified above. We discussed pedophilia as a psychiatric disorder, a sickness. We agreed if we insist on looking at pedophilia as evil, demonic, then those plagued with this sickness will be forever plagued. But if we as a society are able to see it as an illness, then perhaps these men who inflict such atrocious acts of violence on small children would be able to admit they have a terrible sickness and seek help rather then hide in shame and continue committing these violent acts against young children. We also asked where could these sick people find help, and if there was any psychological help on the island for this illness. And could this be accessed within our prisons.
After analyzing some identified root causes of child sexual abuse and sexual violence, we discussed the need for programs in schools and communities that provide people with access to life skills, skills that help people understand emotions and feelings, how to experience and accept the full range of our emotions, how to teach our boys that it is okay to be vulnerable, to show emotions other then anger; how to solve conflict non-violently, how to communicate with one another respectfully, compassionately; how to unlearn violent behaviours that have been learnt from an early age, how to love the whole of ourselves even the shadow sides so that healing can occur. We mentioned that there were very few safe spaces to talk about feelings, especially for men and that we needed our men to come together and share in this work of education and healing.
We felt that there needed to be more consciousness-raising in the schools around building cultures of peace through education which incorporated much of what we discussed above.
The following are actions/strategies the group discussed throughout the dialogue:
- Developing safe inclusive community spaces to discuss conventional masculinity as one of the root causes of sexual violence;
- Educational forums/opportunities to understand power in order to redefine power from a ‘power over’ conventional paradigm to an alterative more inclusive and non-violent paradigm i.e. ‘power with’ (the power to create change with one another); ‘power to’ (the power to create change); ‘power within’ (the power we all hold within ourselves);
- Developing educational tools through video to help teach peacebuilding skills and strategies;
- Implement restorative justice programs in the prisons and juvenile correctional centers;
- Develop a community/school toolkit addressing and teaching life skills around intimacy, vulnerability, sexuality, conflict, communication;
- Develop Teacher Training programs in conscious disciplining, an alternative to corporal punishment, learning new ways of disciplining than the old ways of shaming and beating;
- Developing programs for prisoners after they come out of prison, that enables them to rehabilitate back into their communities;
- Implement peace education in schools, communities, workplaces providing participatory educational spaces for people to understand what is peace, conflict, violence so we can start unlearning normalized and internalized violence and relearning peacebuilding skills and strategies;
- Developing community spaces/gatherings for more critical dialogue around sexual violence looking at root causes and strategies to address root causes;
- Continue programs such as ‘Man to Man’ programs and develop more national inclusive safe spaces where men can come and discuss and learn about their own violence and learn ways to unlearn the violence, hold one another accountable for the violence they see themselves and other men perpetuating in society;
- Develop a series of intervention programs, activities under the theme of building healthy relationships and implement within various contexts such as schools, workplaces, prisons, juvenile centers, communities;
- Identify creative art strategies like dance, theatre, song writing to create awareness and educate around the issues of sexual violence;
- Start critical conversations on root causes of sexual violence against children and actions forward within our own personal circles of friends whether on social media or in workplace or at home;
- Write a blog post or a letter to local newspaper, a story, a poem around these issues and share publiclly;
- Education around what pedophilia is and identify how this can be addressed within the prison system
After sharing the many examples of child sexual abuse we knew happening in our own communities, schools, families, the sheer number of stories and cases island-wide meant, for us, this was not evil driven but deeply embedded within our society. We recognize that these men aren’t monsters, but are fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins who are enacting monstrous behaviour. It is important we separate the behaviour from the person for any real individual and societal change to occur.
We all agreed that this is not an easy conversation to have, as it involves a level of compassion that is difficult to feel for men perpetuating such violent crimes against children. However, by analyzing why this is happening has helped us to ignite compassion and continue having the dialogue and search for ways forward.
As a side note, our group also recognizes that women too are capable of sexually abusing children. However we decided to focus our critical conversations on men in this gathering because sexual violence against children committed by men is a world wide epidemic, and the present day charges here in Grenada have been against men. However we recognize that many of the root causes and actions forward discussed are applicable to all persons regardless of gender orientation.
Concerned Citizens Collective