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Keynote Address, 19th Annual NAPN Conference

The following is a speech given by Ken Singer, LCSW, at the 19th Annual National Adolescent Perpetration Conference held in Cherry Hill, NJ on May 19, 2003. This was delivered to the 300 attendees, social workers, psychologists, youth workers, probation officers, prosecutors, and other professionals who work with sexually abusive youth in a professional capacity.

Ken is a board member of MaleSurvivor and executive director of NJ Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, the conference host.

Good morning….

Most of us recognize that sexual victimization in childhood plays an important role in the later development of sexually abusive behaviors. We know that sexually acting out is one way that some people compensate for the damage of earlier abuse done to them. In other words, confirming the victim to victimizer concept. My esteemed colleague and friend, David Burton from the University of Michigan, and his associates, have done significant research in this area. Earlier researchers, cited in some of David's recent articles, contributed to the greater understanding that sexual victimization, particularly of young boys, is a significant factor in later sexually abusive behaviors of adolescents and adults.

Therefore, our efforts to treat sexually abusive youth must include addressing their victimization issues. We have a duty to work with the victimization issues for the young adolescent boys and girls in treatment or under supervision with us in order to prevent additional sexual victimization.

Working with adolescent abusers, we often see the damage done to these youth, who are now in treatment for hurting others. We try to give them the tools to make good choices for themselves in the hope that they will live productive lives. We help them address the traumas they experienced, whether from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.

Addressing the victimization issues for these youth is an important part of their healing process. We hope that they will learn or increase their understanding of empathy by getting in touch with their own pain and consequences from the abuse done to them.

Of course, we know how sexually abusive youth can twist even the concept of empathy. People who sexually abuse others can go to great lengths to justify or rationalize their behaviors. We probably all have some example of how people can make it ok to abuse another. This is my favorite story about the distorted use of the concept of empathy---- We were talking about empathy in group at a residential treatment program where I worked about ten years ago.

The kids were at different levels of intellect and amount of time in treatment. Charlie, a pretty bright 16 year old who's MO was performing oral sex on prepubescent boys, eagerly volunteered that his offense was actually based on empathy. Puzzled, I asked how he made that connection. He said, “You tell us that we should put ourselves in the victim's place and ask, ‘would I want someone to do that to me?'' “Yes,” I said, “so how do you consider that to be empathy?” “Well,” Charlie replied, “I put myself in my victim's place and said, ‘who wouldn't want his penis sucked'”?

Charlie was corrected by several other boys who pointed out to him the obvious differences in age and understanding, as well as the long-term effects that premature sexualization can do to a child.

If we work with adult offenders, we have an opportunity to hear about the effects of their childhood abuse. Unfortunately, it is often in the context of their abusive behaviors.

If we work with female survivors, we can learn about some of the damage and troubles in their lives caused by the abuse. However, males and females are different, not only in our physical equipment, but also in our socialization, among many other factors.

If we had the chance to talk to non-offending male survivors, now that would really be something.

About a month ago, in preparation for this talk, I posted a message on the MaleSurvivor discussion forum, a bulletin board for survivors and their family and friends.

I asked if there were any survivors who would share their experiences with the attendees at this conference. “What would you like 300 or so professionals to hear about what it was like for you to be abused as a child, by an adolescent?”

I received more than a dozen replies from men who were abused as kids by adolescent boys and girls. With their permission, I'm going to share with you some of these responses in a few minutes.

Hearing male experiences of child sexual abuse is important for several reasons. It is highly unlikely that a youth who has committed a sexual offense has not, himself, experienced some form of abuse or neglect. While we demand accountability for their actions, we need to address the underlying causes that contributed to their hurtful acts in an effort to prevent future abuse.

Understanding the abuse experience enables us to see the humanity and vulnerability in the sexually abusive kids we work with. If we write them off as thugs, degenerates, rapists, child molesters, sex offenders or other negative labels, not only do we objectify them as they objectified their victims, but we fail to separate who they are from what they did.

We want to give a message of hope. Adolescence is a difficult stage. It is fraught with immature beliefs and behaviors. Adolescents often tend to view the world in catastrophic terms—the breakup of a relationship means the end of happiness forever, denial of parental permission to attend a party means total control of the adolescent's social life, etc, etc.

When the adolescent struggles with the effects of his childhood victimization, his normal developmental tasks are complicated from the confusion generated by the abuse. When we address his victimization, we help him clarify some of those tasks that may have been contaminated by the abuse done to him.

And when he better understands and feels what it is like to be victimized, he can better understand the crucial concept of empathy. To help illustrate this concept, here is my second “war story”.

When I first got into this field more than 20 years ago, my staff and I went to our state adult sex offender prison. We met a man named Ed who was getting paroled soon. He seemed to really understand treatment and offered to visit our newly formed adult outpatient group after he was released.

The first time Ed came, he listened carefully to the six or seven men new to treatment talk about their offenses. They were doing the usual cognitive distortions that abusers do early in treatment. Near the end of group, Ed said he wanted to share an observation about them. He said, “The problem with you guys… is that you don't know what it's like to be at the other end of your dick.”

It was graphic and sobering for the group, and the leaders, to hear. To me, it means that we need to be more than just aware of what was done to the victim. We need to hear, as firsthand as we can, what the experience is like.

So, what do some of the child victims of adolescent abusers want us to know? The following quotes are from men who were victimized as children by adolescents. This is what they want you to hear.

Marc said:
Remember how at seven or eight years of age you looked up to your sixteen year old cousin who decided that getting his rocks off in the basement was more important than your happiness in life?

Jeff wrote:
I was molested and raped by a teenager. I don't really know his age, but I suspect he was somewhere around thirteen. He gained my trust by paying me attention, and asked me if he could show me a game. I was five when it began, and over the next couple of years, the boy exposed me to sex a little at a time. When he moved away, I found that I liked how it felt to play those games, so I introduced a friend to them, and then a cousin. I remember when I found out that I had been having sex, I was completely shocked and ashamed. It felt awful to have victimized the other kids, and yet another part was too thrilling and exciting to ignore. By the time I was sixteen I had done almost everything you can imagine, from homosexual encounters to bestiality.

I learned to objectify and sexualize everyone in my life. I was unable to be intimate with anyone because I had this dark past I was always hiding and lying about. I had to keep my lovers at an arm's length so they wouldn't find out how sick I was, and it cost me one relationship after another. Being faithful and truthful were beyond me, and I cheated… either emotionally or physically… more times than I can count.

There are no words that can capture the effect this boy had on my life. He took my innocence, and I have never been able to feel normal again. Every part of my life has been touched by what he did. My world is sexualized, and I cannot be fulfilled in a relationship. Even with therapy, I am only in control of things by a thread, and must continually guard against slipping back into porn and adultery. Sexual abuse changes lives forever.

This is from James:
I was abused by my adolescent sister, who is five years older than I. I thought I was an equal partner in the abuse. In fact, when she ended it, I didn't want to stop. This is part of the manipulation of abuse.

Society just doesn't view early sexualization of boys by girls as any real problem. This is part of what made it so hard for me to realize that I had been abused.

My definitions and feelings of love, attraction and sex are skewed from 'normal.'

These feelings (which I, perhaps inappropriately, called love or lust) are almost hard-wired into my brain. If I had a 'normal' sexual upbringing, my feelings would have grown naturally. But I didn't, and the feelings didn't, and there they are, like a tree that has bent to grow around a rock or a wall in its path. I might be able to remove the rock, but I cannot go back and change the way the tree grew.

Michael , who describes himself as a 44 year old virgin who was abused by his teenaged uncle, said: I dated a few girls after graduation, but no sex.....the last girl I dated for a year, but it hurt her really bad that I would not sleep with her.... so I just quit dating anybody about 18 years ago......

Victor , a married man in his 50s said: I was sexually abused by two teenage babysitters, one when I was 6 or 7, one when I was 8 or 9; also at this time by an aunt in late adolescence.

This contributed to “how oversexualized & sexually addicted I became. This in turn resulted in treating girls & women as sex objects. Also in being sexually promiscuous at a very early age.”

James T. , a 47-year-old married father of three writes: Your audience should understand how absolutely numb, confused, frightened, and shamed we are by what we experienced at the hands of our adolescent perpetrators. They should also understand how we hid the shame from others, and ourselves. … Your listeners should be counseled to tread softly, however matter-of-factly, around us. I, for one, will test, and re-test, before I jump into the same boat with anyone trying to help me. I'm not so much afraid that I will be injured by the professional helper as much as I am watchful that s/he will "get it." I want to know that I'm UNDERSTOOD.

It's really hard to listen to the descriptions of the damage caused by kids—like the kids we work with. And this is just a small sample of the comments these men posted on the website. I feel really bad for them.. and you… to have to hear the awful effects of abuse by the kids we work with.

I had a hunch that descriptions of hurt and damage would be the result of my original request to the survivors. So, I added a second request. I wanted to end this talk on a positive note. I said I want to say something about resilience of survivors despite what happened to them. To give hope to the kids who were abused, that it doesn't mean that life will be full of pain, addictions, failed relationships, etc.

What makes survivors strong?

Here are some of the responses:

Michael said: I so wish I could give you something positive, but I feel nothing positive in my life.... I guess it was positive that I was able to control my sick sexual urges and I did not abuse any children even though I had thoughts in that regard. I know I am very grateful that I did not pass along this curse.

Dave describes a number of techniques he used over the years and concludes, “I survived therefore I was strong.”

Victor states: What makes survivors strong is their own will to survive, their own inner strength, their own true being & self. It is out of that a survivor seeks support, therapy, help, health, happiness, or any other good thing.

James concludes: “If we work at it, there is great empathy for others' pain and difficulties… There is a spirit of innocence, re-found with as much hope as when it was interrupted by the abuse. There are dreams awakened, fears banished and abilities re-discovered.”

And, finally, Joe writes: “There's an essential core of goodness that doesn't die in abuse. It's the source of our strength, and our wellspring of hope in the worst moments. At some level, we just don't give up on ourselves. That's why we survive; that's why we attempt to recover.”

Yesterday, as I was in a crowded elevator here in the hotel, an older woman looked at my name badge and asked what was this conference all about. I said, “It's for people who work with adolescents who sexually abuse others.” As the words left my lips, I thought, “I probably should have said, ‘we sell bowling ball polishing equipment' or something boring like that. To my surprise, she said, “That sounds like difficult work. You must find it very rewarding.” I smiled and said, “It is, and it gives us hope.”

I encourage each of you, as you work with these kids who have hurt others so badly, and who have also been hurt themselves… to look for that “essential core of goodness” within each of them. And with our help, they can stop hurting others and begin the path to their own healing.

Thank you