Reflection: A World Without Sexual Harm
Updated: Jun 27, 2021
For three years, I’ve been writing letters to a man who’s currently in prison for forcible sodomy with a child. In my nonlegal terms, I’d call that rape. Of a child.
The thing is, to me, this man who committed devastating sexual harm is also Rob, the one who tells me he dreams at night of flying, like his arms are wings. Rob and I have mutual friends in prison and he’s the one who, a week before their birthdays, will message me, reminding me in case I forgot so that I can send them a card. He wants his friends to be celebrated. He’s the one who asks me for writing assignments to deepen his craft.
Believing in ending sexual harm for all is complicated. Not that belief, no. That one’s clear. But what that actually means, what it looks like in practice. On the podcast this week, sex crimes expert Alissa Ackerman (who’s a survivor of sexual harm herself, who was raped at 16) talks about human connection, about seeing the humanity on all sides of sexual violence, meaning seeing the humanity in the survivor, of course, and even in the person who committed often egregious acts of harm. We can’t restore the world from sexual harm, she believes, unless we extend compassion to them, too.
Alissa has spent over a decade researching sex crimes and talking to people who have committed these offenses. And what she’s seen is that the punishments we put in place for those convicted of sexual harm do not work. And she’s not the only one who can point to their own similar research. “What I found in my research was that none of the policies that we use have any impact on rates of sexual harm,”—she told me, including putting those convicted of sexual harm on sex offense registries—“but that [these policies] cause more harm to people who are on registries and their families and to survivors.”
In other words, if the purpose of a sex offender registry is to keep us and our children safer, it’s not working. If anything, it’s leading to more isolation, more social stigma, and almost impossible access to housing and employment, all of which makes it the breeding ground for committing more harm. We heal in community; we’re held accountable in community. If we truly want to end sexual harm, which is what most survivors, when you talk to them, want, we have to pay attention to this research. We have to really listen, understand, and shape policy around it.
There is no justification for sexual violence, let’s just be clear. None of this is a condoning of harm. It’s not okay, ever. And we can’t end it without understanding why it happens. Alissa told me, “What we know from the research is that most people who sexually offend, especially those who sexually offend against children,” like my friend Rob, “have incredibly high rates of childhood trauma. So there’s this saying that hurt people hurt people. It’s very, very true. So, yes, I do a lot of work with survivors, but most of the people I work with who have offended are also trauma survivors and that helps me have a little more compassion for them.”
If you want to end victimization, you can’t just work with survivors. We also have to look to the source, which is the people who harm.
Before meeting Rob, I had spent years outraged at the ubiquity of sexual violence. I am still outraged, as I believe we have a right to be. I supported organizations who worked with survivors, actively donating profits from my business and listening to women’s stories of violence and survival. And, so, I have had to reckon with this, with my outrage, with my anger, and with my letters to Rob. Can both be true at once: anger and compassion? Fury and forgiveness?
I believe the answer is yes. Because this existence we’re living, it’s complicated. Nuanced. The harm and wrongness of sexual violence is clear, undebatable. And there is humanity in each of us.
None of the harm Rob caused is justified or okay. And there’s more we can seek to understand from his story. When I brought this up to him, how I was struggling to reckon with my outrage and my friendship with him, he promised to write me a few responses. And he did. He wrote a letter to those he harmed, which he sent me. In it, he didn’t try to shirk the blame; he held it. It wasn’t until later, when I asked him about his childhood, that he told me this, not as a justification but simply because I asked:
I was very young when my mom gave my two brothers and me up for adoption, maybe 4 or so. Then I went through 8 homes in 5 years…
…Foster care left me raw, angry, heartbroken. The most prominent feeling and memory of my youth was a sense of abandonment, of feeling unwanted…Expecting to move at any time, I never truly unpacked any of my belongings…
…The father that abused me would beat me raw with a belt. He swung wildly, hitting my back, legs, and thighs. I didn’t know it then but he had a drinking problem and took his rage out on me…The most heartbreaking loss, and strangest encounter with a family, was with a family I lived with for a year. It was the longest time I had been in one place…There was an incident with my older foster sister. She was 5 years older than me, and we had a sexual encounter. More than one, actually. I was 8 at the time.
I don’t have the answers. I am also not Rob’s victim, so maybe this is why I can see him beyond the harm he caused. Maybe this is why I can try to see his humanity.
To end sexual harm, I believe we have to. We have to lean in close.
Toward the end of our conversation, Alissa spoke about this path she’s on and being called a “rape apologist.” She told me, “I have no doubt that I am on the right path, which is why I don’t care if people call me names….I know in my heart [this work] is the right thing to do, so I don’t fear it.”
Listen to Alissa speak her truth in the full episode here, or anywhere you get your podcasts.