Webinar presenter Dr. Tasha Menaker of the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence answered a number of your questions after her presentation, "Understanding Sexual Assault Perpetration: Dynamics, Tactics and the Psychology of Sex Offenders." Here are some of her responses.
Audience Question: Can you repeat the name of the person you referenced the youtube video, the person who does the interview?
Dr. Tasha Menaker: It's Anna Salter. If you Google or search on YouTube 'Anna Salter sex offender interviews', all her interviews will come up. She has an array of interviews with offenders including those who commit child molestation, those who perpetrated against adults and those who've done both. She also has a book that includes transcripts from her interviews and elaborates on the topic more and gives tips on how to protect yourself and your children from sexual perpetrators, and that book is called Predators.
Audience Question: You also mentioned a Netflix documentary, what was the title?
Dr. Tasha Menaker: The documentary's called "The Keepers."
Audience Question: Sexual assault victims often don't disclose the offenses, they may take weeks, months, or even years or never disclose. What can be done to lessen that stigma?
Dr. Tasha Menaker: There are a lot of things that we can do to lessen the stigma around sexual assault. It really needs to be a multi-level response. First of all, as a society, we need to do better about responding appropriately when someone does come forward. Engaging in active listening, validating that person's emotions. If you're in a position where you can say to them, "I believe you," that can be very valuable. If you're a responder and you're not in a position where you can say something of that nature, at least engage in a way to convey belief. Even if it's just nodding your head, making eye contact and engaging in active listening. When survivors feel like they have supportive places to go to, I think more people will be more comfortable to come forward.
We really need to, on a bigger picture, collectively work to interrupt victim-blaming, when we hear it happen, and challenge rape myths when those occur. It's a myth, for example, that most people who report sexual assault are lying. Only about two to ten percent of sexual assault reports are false. If someone makes a statement like that, "Oh, they're probably lying, or most victims of sexual assault are lying" — kind of challenging that myth with a fact and saying, "Actually, only two to ten percent…". Similarly, with victim blaming, when we hear people making victim blaming statements, implying that someone provoked sexual assault because of how they were acting, how they were dressed, because they were drinking — challenging that and saying, "The only person at fault for sexual violence is the perpetrator". We need to work together to create a culture where people feel safe to talk about these negative experiences.
Audience Question: What does research say on the likelihood that a juvenile offender will grow up to continue that sexual assault perpetration as an adult?
Dr. Tasha Menaker: I'm not as versed in the research on juvenile sex offending so I can't answer that with confidence. But my email address is up so if you'd like to follow up with me, I'd be happy to engage in that research to get the answer.
Audience Question: You talked about screening domestic violence victims for sexual assault coercion, what are some of the best questions or ways to do that? To make the person feel comfortable to open up and talk about it?
Dr. Tasha Menaker: From a perspective of a service provider, what we've heard from providers we've worked within the community is that even when they ask up front during intake, a person often questions about whether they've experienced sexual violence… usually the person will deny that sexual violence occurred. It's true that when asking someone flat out if they've experienced any type of sexual violence, they may not be forthcoming. What's more effective usually is letting that person know, "We also have resources for people who have experienced sexual violence if that's something you're interested in." Give that person time to process whether what they've experienced is sexual violence. They know that resources are available and usually they'll come forward later to disclose, knowing that help is available for them for that type of offense.
If someone did want to ask a question specific to sexual violence it would be better perhaps not to call it rape or sexual violence but, "Did your partner also do anything sexually that you did not want to do? Or engage in any sexual behavior that was unwanted on your end?" Something that's a little bit softer, for lack of a better word. A lot of times survivors don't recognize rape as rape.
Audience Question: It was mentioned that a sex offender may attack their victim to regain power, is it the same for a serial rapist? Do they keep offending to regain control as well?
Dr. Tasha Menaker: Often that's the case but it really will depend on the offender. I'll talk more in the second part of this series about different hypothesized typologies around sex offending. One of those typologies is what is called in the research the 'power and control rapist.' That is the rapist that is purely motivated by regaining power and control and feeling powerful in their life as a whole. For some perpetrators that might absolutely be true, and for others, they might have other motivations.
Audience Question: Is there a difference percentage-wise between the pressures or the types of tactics that are used between males and females?
Dr. Tasha Menaker: Yes, there is. There's an excellent article that disentangles that a little bit and I don't remember the numbers off the top of my head. For example, I provided a statistic saying that 28 percent of the time physical force is used by perpetrators. That is a whole, putting together both male and female perpetrators. If you break that apart by gender, less than 1% of the time women used physical force.
In each of those perpetration tactics, we do see gender differences in the frequency by which those tactics are used.
Audience Question: How about fathers who watch pornography with their sons? Is the father possibly assaulting or grooming his son? I never consider this normal, however, I didn't necessarily think he was sexually assaulting or abusing him.
Dr. Tasha Menaker: That depends a little bit on the context and that's one of the difficult things when we're looking at sexual offending behavior. It's very difficult to identify red flags for perpetrators because offenders are so diverse and contexts are so complicated and nuanced. I think I would have some additional questions. I would be curious about the age of the sons, I think it would depend kind of on conversations the father and son are having about that pornography, the content depicted in that pornography. I would say I think if the pornography is demonstrating what a reasonable person would consider to be healthy sexuality, reciprocal sexual interaction, and father and son are having a critical analysis to some degree of what's happening, if it's used as an educational tool, that would be different from a father showing his young underaged son pornography where the motivation is more unclear.
Audience Question: To what extent do you think sex offenders have the level of awareness and sincerity needed for us to accept their responses at face value for statistical purposes?
Dr. Tasha Menaker: This is purely my opinion, I do think that many sex offenders have a self-awareness of the nature and harm of their behavior. I think this is especially true for people who perpetrate against children, especially those people who have a preferential sexual attraction to children. Based on my reading at least, I often read that these offenders are very aware throughout their lifespan that they have what society sees as an inappropriate sexual preference and it causes a lot of psychological issues for people including high rates of suicidal ideation and attempts. Again, it would depend on the offender but I do believe that many offenders have insights into their behavior and often want to change their behavior. It's probably those people who are going to be more willing to participate in research of this kind. That's certainly a limitation of the data.
Audience Question: Regarding sexual molestation, a perpetrator in a family can manipulate a child into staying silent. Back in the day, sex was not really discussed in families. Do you think it's more openly discussed today than it was in the past?
Dr. Tasha Menaker: I think it's a little bit more openly discussed today than it was in the past but we still have a lot of work to do. It's a great point for when we're talking about prevention. I think today many people still feel that sex education is about having "the talk" at some point in their child's life and really best practice is to have a series of conversations about sex and sexuality and pornography starting at a young age. I can recommend a good resource, a website called EducateEmpowerKids.org. They provide workbooks and readings for parents to start talking to their kids about sex, sexuality, and pornography, starting as early as age three. At three you're only talking about healthy boundaries, bodily autonomy and things like that. It's important for parents and people who have children in their lives to create that safe space so that child comes to you first when they have questions, if they see pornography with a peer, or they accidentally see pornography, which is not uncommon in this day and age because of technological advances and the fact that many of our children have tablets and phones — so it's very easy to come across pornography nowadays. We want our children to feel comfortable to come to us first, ask questions and talk about it, as opposed to their peers or other adults in their life who might not have as good intentions in talking with that child about that.
Audience Question: We tell victims there's nothing to be ashamed of but then we do all we can to hide their identities and the details of the crimes. Do you think these are actually opposing strategies?
Dr. Tasha Menaker: I really think it's all about respecting what the victim wants. I agree that victims, in an ideal world, should not feel ashamed or embarrassed that they have experienced sexual violence, but the reality is there continues to be lots of stigma and shame and victim-blaming, particularly against people who have experienced sexual violence and assault. We see this in social media, in movies, in TV shows — if we're being honest with ourselves we hear it among our peers and sometimes we engage in those types of thoughts ourselves, because even those of us who do this work, we're also socialized in a culture where our first instinct often is to question the truthfulness of a survivor. Keeping in mind the fact that we're just not in a place where survivors can come forward and disclose and feel entirely safe and supported. I think it's appropriate for us to encourage survivors that they have no reason to feel ashamed, but also recognize that it might be important to put protections in place because there are still community members who might not see it the same way.
Audience Question: In your future presentations will you be addressing social pressures that are placed on suspects and victims in communities such as colleges and university campuses? Pressure such as to report, or not report?
Dr. Tasha Menaker: In part 2 of this series, I'll talk a little bit about risk factors for perpetration and some of those risk factors are of course on a cultural or community level. I'll talk about pressures, but less so the pressure to report, and, more so, the pressure to engage in sexually harmful behavior that comes from cultural influences such as movies and TV and things like that, but also from peer groups.
Click here to watch a recording of "Understanding Sexual Assault Perpetration: Dynamics, Tactics and the Psychology of Sex Offenders."