Sunday, July 30, 2006

From the "creepy weirdo" files...

Yesterday, I read this article in my local paper. It’s about a small-town English teacher who, apparently, rigged a camera in his bathroom so that he could watch and record his daughter’s 12 and 13 year old friends taking showers. What’s more, he also supposedly owned a collection of voyeur-type photographs looking down the tops of very young girls. This is in addition to the cache of “Barely Legal” style porn he kept and his history of being reprimanded for calling one of his ninth-grade students “sexy”. Clearly, all these things suggest a man who is, at the very least, a sick bastard. If he is found guilty—and it seems like a pretty safe bet that he will be—I hope he goes away for awhile.

But punishment is not what I want to talk about here. What interests me in cases like these are the failures in detection. Why weren’t this man’s predilections discovered earlier? Could there have been a way to intervene before he indulged his awful fantasies? It is not controversial to say that people who are sexually attracted to children and teenagers often choose to work in capacities that give them access to the objects of their desire. It is just as banal to say that most environments where children are present—schools, day care centers, etc.—are hyper-vigilant to the possibility of sexual abuse. Yet this abuse still happens. It’s rare, of course, but in a culture where “catch-the-perv-LIVE!” specials get top ratings and child-care workers consider it an unacceptable risk to be left alone with their charges, it seems like such violations should be even rarer. But what happens instead is that everyday people are hampered more than the sexual predators—on the one hand, you have well-intentioned teachers, aides, etc. who have become paranoid about false accusations, while on the other you have parents who fear, often unreasonably, that their children are the next to be victimized. Too often, when an incident of abuse like this one occurs, it only deeps the paranoia of the former and the anxiety of the latter. In other words, we don’t learn how to recognize and deal with the actual victimizers, we only entrench our anxieties.

But is this perhaps the best we can expect? Child molestation is understood to be the worst crime a person can commit. And the weightier the crime, the weightier the accusation. Most people I know would rather be considered a murderer than be suspected of molesting kids. That accusation has the power to end careers and derail lives. Since it is such a powerful thing, people in authority seldom toss it around lightly.

I think of it this way: I work in a place where children are present. If I heard one of my co-workers call a twelve year-old “sexy”, I would be appalled and disgusted, pretty much no matter what context the comment came in. Because such a statement would indicate, at the absolute least, a profound lapse in judgement, I would have to report what I had overheard to my higher-ups. But what would I do if I was one of my higher-ups? Should they fire an otherwise-good employee for calling a kid “sexy”? Presumably, they would be ignorant of the rest of this guy’s sordid hangups—the stash of teenage smut, the voyeur thing, etc., etc. Do they have grounds to dismiss somebody for one remark? Should they? It seems to me like they’re stuck in a hard spot. They can fire him and risk stalling someone’s career and jeopardizing his future (as well as perhaps provoking a lawsuit or two) or they can give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they’ll shuttle him off to some counseling, maybe they’ll hit him with a bit of probation, but it’ll all be on the hush-hush. Obviously, in this case, they made the wrong decision. But, honestly, I don’t know if I would make a different one if I were in their place.

Part of the problem, I think, is that it can be awfully hard to pin down the significance of certain behaviors. If you or I were to call a twelve year-old “sexy”, it would be a tasteless joke, wrongheaded stab at irony, a mistake, something like that. When this guy did it, he meant it. If you or I touched a kid on the shoulder, we’d be doing it to be friendly, to be comforting, or whatever. If a child molester does it, he’s doing it for manipulation, intimidation, and thrills. The act is the same, it’s the final intention that’s different. An innocent thing can, when done by a twisted person, become something far more sinister. How do we differentiate between the two? Can we?

I suppose that there will never be a perfect solution to this. We can’t come up with a test to give all prospective child-care workers to determine if they’re sexual predators or not. Even if we had a test like that, most child molesters would be able to fake it out easily. What needs to be done—and here I’m speaking generally, and not about this particular case—is that people need to be attuned to patterns of behavior. We don’t need to be excessively fearful—the vast majority of children will never come anywhere near a sexual predator, but we shouldn’t be blindly trusting, either. If students repeatedly complain that some teacher makes them feel uncomfortable, there might be something there. If the teacher spends his evenings in internet chatrooms secretly communicating with god-knows-who, there might be something there. If that same teacher’s wife finds a heap of Catholic schoolgirl porno, there might be something there. It has to be added up.

The trouble is that these things are so easy to put together in retrospect. It’s much more difficult to intervene before sick fantasies become real and unspeakable fetishes take their first victims. At what point does suspicion go from being a paranoid, cruel thing to being necessary? I have no idea. It’s a hard call.