Advocates of Stigma Contribute to Suicide
With the approach of World Suicide Prevention Day this Saturday, it’s time to address a contributing factor to suicide that’s been taboo far too long—especially since a small group of ideologues is fighting to suppress discussion and worsen the problem.
Most of us know that stigmatizing people for something they did not choose is harmful and unjust. Intense stigma can contribute to suicide risk and prevent people from getting help.
Many people face intense stigma about their sexuality. No one chooses who they are emotionally and sexually attracted to. Instead, they discover it, usually in early adolescence. Most of us are aware that gay teens often discover their orientation in middle or high school, and that the stigma they face may increase their suicide risk.
There’s an additional reality that may be hard to accept, but that must be faced if we’re serious about combating suicide. Some adolescents discover they’re preferentially attracted to children or younger adolescents, and this stays with them throughout their lives. Most of us want to believe that only older adults have such feelings, but sexual feelings don’t suddenly appear in adulthood. Experts estimate that in puberty, 1% to 7% of all boys first experience preferential attraction to younger children that will be lifelong. In a recent survey,* adults attracted to children or young adolescents reported they first experienced these feelings at a median age of 13.
It’s crucial to distinguish between feelings and behavior. Research suggests that many, maybe most, people attracted to children or adolescents do not act on these feelings. Certainly most youths who discover they’re attracted to younger children haven’t acted on those feelings.
Stigma puts these teenagers—and the adults they may grow into—at risk for suicide, and makes them afraid to seek help. Almost half the survey respondents had seriously considered suicide—at a median age of 19—and 13% attempted it. A growing number of teens attracted to children are seeking anonymous support at online mental health forums. One 15-year-old recently posted that he felt like killing himself and couldn’t talk to anyone in real life about it.
This is why a Westminster, Maryland organization is working to end the secrecy, fear, and lack of knowledge surrounding the issue. Through workshops and conferences, B4U-ACT facilitates discussion among clinicians, researchers, and law-abiding minor-attracted people. Attendees at its symposium last month in Baltimore called it “eye-opening,” “valuable,” and “impressive.” One clinician praised it on her university’s listserv, and another decided he wanted to serve minor-attracted clients. Psychologists and parents who didn’t attend but have dealt with the issue first-hand wrote to thank B4U-ACT for its work.
But over the past three weeks the symposium has been attacked by a small group of writers opposed to sexuality research and gay rights. One of them is Judith Reisman, who over the past three decades has become well-known for her wild, reckless, and unsubstantiated accusations against the gay movement and the entire field of sexuality research. Her like-minded colleague Matthew Barber recently drew public criticism for blaming suicide among gay youth on the youth themselves. Both are now using distortions and fabrications to mischaracterize the purpose of B4U-ACT and its symposium. They hide the fact that most symposium attendees advocated compassion for minor-attracted people while rejecting adult-minor sexual interaction. Reisman and Barber’s misinformation is being propagated uncritically by writers and bloggers sympathetic to their ideology.
These writers violate basic humanitarian principles. They attempt to suppress information and impede rational discussion by diverting attention from the problem and inflaming fear. They encourage hating both the sin and the sinner. Worst of all, they advocate condemning, stigmatizing, and removing from society a segment of the population—including young teenagers—for feelings (not behavior) they did not choose. Their approach would drive people further into hiding, putting both them and children at risk.
Unfortunately, a popular mainstream commentator has endorsed a similar response. While acknowledging some merits of B4U-ACT’s work, in a recent article Keith Ablow repeated misinformation about B4U-ACT’s goals, explicitly rejected attempts at understanding, and advocated stigmatization. But stigmatizing people’s feelings doesn’t make them go away, and driving them “out of mainstream consciousness into the shadows,“ as Ablow advocates, only results in widespread ignorance and endangers children and youth.
We must resist fear-mongering calls to silence discussion and increase stigmatization. To combat suicide effectively, the best policy is clear: create an atmosphere where it is safe for those at risk—and those who care about them—to talk honestly about it.