Wouldn’t it always be fun if when going through this exercise of mine I could always be nice, amusing, gentle and lyrical. But I’ve found that inspecting the basic tenets of Buddhism can throw some curve balls at you. Thinking about illicit sex is one such.
Illicit sex is defined on a continuum that runs from violence with a sexual component, through seduction with nefarious intent, to sexual harassment, to infidelity, to plain old-fashion sexism. It is a continuum that brings all sorts of suffering. What can we do to protect ourselves and our loved ones from harm? How should we treat the perpetrators? Buddhism requires us to treat both the victim and the perpetrator with compassion. But in order to do so, we have to have a good analysis of why illicit sex occurs and what its effects are. And we have to understand what compassion is, in general and in regards any specific event.
The oddest thing happened. As soon as I started thinking about the nature of illicit sex it became a topic of conversation around me. People kept asking me what I thought about the situation on Mayne Island where a known sex offender, a child sex tourist, is building a residence for himself. The amount of concern, distress and intellectual umbrage I have heard expressed has been impressive. The two most memorable statements, made from completely different points of view, have been, “Killing’s too good for them,” and, “How can we protect the children?”(You may want to listen to B.C. Almanac on CBC radio for June 2nd for a particular view on the subject.)
Sexual child abuse comes in many forms that run from the extreme causing death to the more common, physically non-violent form. Let me be clear, child abuse in all its forms is always violent. But when no physical violence other than the sex act itself occurs the violence is predominantly to the psyche.
A Quote from Wikipedia: The effects of child sexual abuse include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, propensity to further victimization in adulthood, and physical injury to the child, among other problems. Sexual abuse by a family member is a form of incest, and can result in more serious and long-term psychological trauma, especially in the case of parental incest.
Another qoute: Approximately 15% to 25% of women and 5% to 15% of men were sexually abused when they were children. Most sexual abuse offenders are acquainted with their victims; approximately 30% are relatives of the child, most often brothers, fathers, uncles or cousins; around 60% are other acquaintances such as ‘friends’ of the family, babysitters, or neighbors; strangers are the offenders in approximately 10% of child sexual abuse cases.
Think what you want about the accuracy of Wikipedia, it gives blunt numbers, whereas other sources, i.e. research statements, are necessarily more conditional, as befitting the intellectual constraints imposed on a scientific paper (see this for an example).
I give these few quotes and sources in order to show how necessary it is for us to figure out how to best abuse-proof our kids, and also, to show that we need to figure out how to prevent people from becoming abusers.
A question that has haunted me for some time: why does it often take an abused child years, decades to voice the fact that they were abused? Why should such a simple act as rubbing body parts together have such profoundly negative effects on an abused person’s life? — and negative effects are surely what happens, as outlined above.
The whole topic of child abuse is fraught with conflicting cultural attitudes. The most damaging attitude floating around is the often voiced defensive posture and the sometimes legally expressed belief that the child had agreed to have sexual relations with the abuser. A case in point happened in a famous Canadian court case where the judge stated that the abused person was partially implicated in his abuse in that he traded sex for favours from the abuser. The day after the verdict, the abused child, by then a grown adult, threw himself off a bridge.
I am aware of one case where a child, a boy, about four or five years old, after numerous sexual encounters, was told by his abuser that girls were better. The child was subsequently ignored by the man. The boy, knowing that he wanted the love of this relative, apparently the only adult to have spent any ‘quality’ time with the boy, found himself for the next many decades longing to become, thinking he should become a female. The longing only disappeared when he realized that he had always felt self-loathing for being a male because he felt his maleness made him not good enough to love.
I think the boy picked up the idea of not being good enough not only from the male relative’s verbal rejection but from the male relative’s own feeling about himself, which was likely self-loathing. Self-loathing transferred one generation to another through some kind of genetically programmed mimicry. We learn from the examples around us. We internalize the emotional realities of our role models.
An abused child also becomes aware of our culture’s general disapproval for anyone who engages in sex outside of marriage. Go read Saint Paul’s opinion that marriage is the only way to save yourself from the damnation of sex.
Self-hatred and self-loathing in all their various forms hinder the abused person in all their future endeavours. There are only a few people who can succeed in spite of their bad self-image.
Another reason sexually abused people might not like to reveal themselves is that perpetrators, for the most part, are themselves sexually abused children, albeit grown older. Given the faulty logic rampant in our culture’s attitudes and expressions, the child would naturally think they are going to be perceived as abusers, or as potential abusers, if they ever tell their story. There is no logical reason to assume that if you were sexually abused you will go on to become an abuser: there are many many more who are abused than who are abusers.
Compassion for the abused child is an easy thing to feel. But it is not so easy to help them overcome their understandable fear and unfortunate guilt.
What about Buddhistic compassion for the perpetrator? If we have compassion for the sexually abused child, how do we feel towards the perpetrator when we know that he or she was once an abused child?
Try to look on the act of abusing someone as an expression of an emotional disease (admittedly a disease of great magnitude with great negative effect upon the body and mind of others). What do we do with people who have horrid diseases that have horrendous symptoms? Do we get mad at them? Do we kill them? We do not. If the disease is contagious and cannot be cured, we isolate the infected. Other times, due to the lesser severity of a disease, we inoculate the population in order to make them immune.
Infected people need to be identified, and the people most vulnerable to the effects of the infection need to be kept away from the infected until they are strong enough to fend off the disease themselves. At no point should we mistake someone who was affected by early contact with the disease, but who fended it off and who did not become a further point of contagion, for someone who succumbed and became infectious. Just because a person has been abused is no reason to think that they are a danger. A sad fact of life is that we can only know the abusers (the murderers, the thieves) after they have done the deed. They best way we have to prevent child abuse is by teaching the children how to avoid illicit encounters.
On Mayne Island the perpetrator has been identified. Parents will not let their youngest children near him. Children there who have somewhat independent lives need to have him pointed out to them, they need to be taught to stay away from him, and they need to be taught the reasons for doing so. As for the rest of us, we need to feel compassion for the man in his pain, even while we try to prevent him from projecting it onto others. Better still, our compassion might take the form of trying to find a way of curing him.
Unfortunately, in our time, we have not yet figured out much about what makes someone tick, nor what do about it once their tick is broken? (In this time of cultural greed we no longer support much in the way of research) Compassion is in not condemning the man (condemn only the disease). In the case of sexual abuse of children, compassion can be expressed by personal education and by supporting psychiatric research in the hope of finally finding a cure for the disease so we can prevent it from flourishing.