On March 20, 2015, B4U-ACT proudly resurrected its workshop series by hosting its seventh full-day workshop in Baltimore. Despite a three-year conference hiatus, this latest event, entitled “Working with Minor-Attracted People and Their Families: Facing Dilemmas Together,” garnered the highest participant turnout in the organization’s twelve-year history. For the first time, in addition to its minor-attracted contingency and a record number of clinicians, professors, and students hailing from as far as San Francisco and Montreal, B4U-ACT welcomed several photo essayists and documentary filmmakers interested in shedding sympathetic light on minor-attracted people (MAPs) in the general population – an encouraging sign that alternative therapeutic perspectives on minor attraction are gaining public interest.
The success of B4U-ACT’s mission – to address the barriers to mutual understanding between MAPs and mental health professionals (MHPs), identify the shortcomings of current treatment modalities, and suggest possible solutions, all by way of constructive, in-person dialogs between the two groups – is most vividly reflected in the impact of its workshop initiative. This year’s face-to-face effort packed an insightful punch from start to finish, as reflected in the overwhelmingly positive post-workshop evaluations submitted by participants.
Workshop objectives focused on how to widen the circles of personal and professional support for MAPs who otherwise risk grappling with their attractions in a self-loathing vacuum, cultivating a compassionate, trustworthy therapeutic haven not only for MAPs to openly and honestly discuss the tragically inconvenient challenges of being sexually attracted to children, but for family and friends to confront the implications of their loved ones’ sexual identities, distinguish rational concerns from irrational fears, and ultimately rally in support of the MAPs in their lives, serving as enlightened models of compassion for the general public.
After a brief introductory exercise to assess everybody’s comfort level and alleviate any tension in the room, psychodramatist Steve Kopp staged a mock therapy session between B4U-ACT’s Co-Founder and Board Chair Russell Dick, LCSW [retired], and an attending MAP. While the “client” discussed his depression and anxiety directly, he alluded in very non-specific terms to the source of his unrest, as the “therapist” gently attempted to drive toward the heart of the matter. At critical junctures in the dialog, Steve halted the session and invited attendees to come forward, stand behind either party, and channel the underlying fears and concerns that client and therapist might be hesitating to address out loud.
Spokespeople for the “client” voiced reticence about self-identifying as sexually attracted to children for fear of the “therapist” drawing premature conclusions about behavior based solely on descriptions of feelings, ceasing to treat the client as an individual, instead dismissing him as a bird of a predictable feather. The legal stakes of self-disclosure also figured prominently as client doubles weighed the risk of identifying as minor-attracted to a therapist who may or may not feel obligated to report him to authorities on the mere suspicion that he poses a threat to children.
Spokespeople for the “therapist” contended with how to give the “client” the edge to broach the “unspeakable” when conveying trustworthiness meant somehow tipping off the client in advance of any sexual admissions as to what to expect in terms of the MHP’s response. Therapist doubles also wondered if negative past experiences with a particular clinician might be tainting the client’s overall perception of the mental health community.
The exercise enabled both MAP and MHP attendees to empathize with the obstacles the other party faces to improving therapeutic relationships. During the discussion that followed, MHPs acknowledged the risk standardized criminal profiling poses to a minor-attracted client’s personhood, while MAPs acknowledged the ethical responsibilities that place MHPs in potentially adversarial positions.
The second half of the morning session featured several guest speakers who shared firsthand accounts of “coming out” as minor-attracted to family and friends, as well as the significant other of an MAP who discussed the challenges to intimacy of living with a partner whose objects of primary attraction are permanently off-limits.
The first testimonial, delivered in relay-style by four MAPs on behalf of the writer who could not be present, demonstrated that MHPs are no less susceptible than laypeople to common misconceptions about minor attraction – in this case, the idea that the mere attraction to children implies some type of boundary-crossing activity – as when the presenter’s father, a psychologist, in response to his son’s coming out, replied, “But pedophilia is illegal!” While his parents slowly began to wrap their minds around the concept of the law-abiding MAP and accept that aspect of his identity, the presenter felt uncomfortable forcing them to commit what most unsuspecting people would consider to be thought crimes in order to empathize with him, and so relieved his parents of functioning as his support system on that emotionally taxing front. Complicating matters was the crush he’d admitted having on a younger cousin and knowing his parents now shared the burden of a secret that could potentially alienate them from close family members.
The second speaker discussed the unexpected wave of support he received from close friends and family in the wake of his felony conviction and 28-month prison sentence for Possession of Child Pornography, despite the fact that, unlike many adults convicted of similar crimes, he never denied a longstanding [albeit unaddressed] attraction to children. The presenter credited his wife, friends, and family for helping him come to peaceful terms with his sexual identity and responsibly integrate it into his life, remarking that he wouldn’t “flip a switch” if given a choice, seeing how his experiences made him the person he’d proudly become. After serving his sentence, he managed to secure a “felon-friendly” job and devote his spare time to speaking to university classes and behavioral science organizations about minor-attracted issues.
The third presenter, while sporting an identical conviction to his predecessor and a similarly forthcoming nature, described diametrically opposite consequences to coming out as minor-attracted; in his case, to a single mother he’d dated 16 years previously while under house arrest, awaiting sentencing for purchasing child pornography. Though his girlfriend was initially willing (much to her credit) to risk her reputation as a good mother and woman of sound judgment because she believed he was a better person than what any legal document had to say, she could not – after assessing her child’s future as the adoptive daughter of a sex offender, the suspicions of family and friends certain to result, and the vindictiveness of her child’s father, who’d already threatened to sue for custody – justify raising her in the shadow of his crime. Knowing his presence in their lives posed an unacceptable compromise no matter how much he loved them drove him to attempt suicide, and has since left him wondering how to prove that love under his auspices need not equal its opposite without demanding such an unthinkable leap of faith. Currently rounding his 16th year as a lifetime sex offender registrant, his prospects in a reputation-conscious arts profession continue to dwindle as his Internet standing as an MAP advocate proliferates.
The final speaker, the girlfriend of an MAP, expressed deep sympathy for her boyfriend and the conditions which prevented him from pursuing his sexuality in any consummate way, but couldn’t ignore the toll his sexual dissatisfaction had taken on her self-image; i.e., her nagging self-perception as a consolation prize. The presenter’s reflections made clear how vastly the psychological needs of MAPs may differ from those of loved ones, ascribing value to the MHP’s role as arbitrator and facilitator of mutual understanding.
After an hour-long lunch break, during which participants built upon the discussions generated by the morning session, the workshop reconvened for a presentation by a social worker from the Maryland Department of Human Resources on mandatory reporting laws. Several relevant points she raised – e.g. the fact that the state of Maryland encourages MHPs to report the mere suspicion of sexual contact by sex offenders (who may or may not self-identify as minor-attracted) residing with or around children; the state’s non-existent statute of limitations where reporting adult/child sexual contact is concerned; the license penalties for failure to report that pressure MHPs to err too heavily on the side of caution; and the legal immunity that eliminates therapist accountability in cases where reported contacts prove unfounded – made for lively post-lecture queries into the collateral damage waged by these well-intentioned laws.
Attending students and practitioners worked to clarify the subtle differences in confidentiality statutes between their respective home states, resolve discrepancies in understanding of commonly shared mandates, all the while debating the ethics of when and when not to report. The confusion surrounding this topic drove home the tenuous situation faced by MAPs, who could plausibly disclose the same sexual identity traits to two separate MHPs and be deemed a non-existent risk in one instance while a public threat in the other. The unanimous show of hands amongst attending clinicians who received little to no formal education about MAPs revealed the extent to which the legal system has dismantled and monopolized MAP/MHP alliances: When policymakers obligate therapists to treat MAPs as social risks – encouraging full self-disclosure while simultaneously subjecting the client to a set of confidentiality restrictions that are frequently improvised and guessed-at in practice, placing the client’s most candid admissions and, by proxy, his/her civil liberties, at the mercy of the MHP’s interpretive powers – they insist that the therapist’s mission and purpose take a backseat to his/her impromptu post as a criminal justice liaison.
One minor-attracted attendee, in observing how U.S.-based “therapy” programs for MAPs are universally framed in terms of prevention (of child sexual abuse), wondered, more daringly, how to prevent the assumption of inherent perniciousness and inevitable transgression from transferring to the client, and emphasized the need for an identity-centered therapeutic model that helps clients responsibly integrate minor-attraction as a fundamental component of who they are. “If the purpose of therapy is to know oneself for better or worse,” he continued, “how do mandatory reporting laws support authentic excavations of self?” One clinician bluntly replied, “They don’t.”
The post-lecture discussion raised more questions than it answered, validating the need for future dialogs.
During the wrap-up session, participants tackled the obstacles to advertising independent, non-forensic clinical services for MAPs – namely, the risk of collegial ex-communication, the loss of non-MAP client bases, and the threat of vigilante justice for associating one’s practice with a publicly hated community. Possible solutions included funneling MHP referrals through back-channel sources managed by special-interest groups like B4U-ACT (though functioning as a referral agency entails insurance liability costs that exceed said special-interest group’s grassroots budget); and targeting clinicians with a sexuality-based focus, such as certified members of AASECT (American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists), who are more likely than general practitioners to publicly promote MAP services, then persuading widely circulated publications like Psychology Today to feature those listings in their clinical directories.
The focus then shifted to MAPs’ non-ranking as a social group and how best to induct them into the dominant sexual rhetoric. One MHP stressed the importance of identifying and addressing instances of well-meaning, yet misplaced compassion amongst clinicians and family/friends of MAPs who, rather than confront the “P-Word” head-on, attempt to camouflage minor-attraction as the by-product of some other socially acceptable neurosis. An educator suggested scoping out opportunities to present a demythologized view of the MAP community to formally recognized sexual minorities, who could theoretically serve as allies. Another MHP touted the advantages to MAPs of serving as experts on their own issues and to therapists who humble themselves enough to be educated by potential clients. A documentary filmmaker criticized the current research for being overly preoccupied with people under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system – many of whom boast aggressive offense histories or aren’t at liberty to speak in self-actualized terms about their attractions without facing indefinite civil detainment – warning that emphasis on the cognitive-behavioral modification techniques that form the backbone of forensic programs to the exclusion of more humane alternatives creates the impression that these procedures are more effective than they necessarily are. “And what fills the void when there’s no funding or critical inquiry to be had?” she asked. “Ignorance.”
B4U-ACT will continue to provide MAPs a platform of “empowered vulnerability,” as one MHP put it, in an effort to eradicate blind spots in clinical research and practice and enlist the mental health community as a trustworthy advocate.