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Experts reveal the lies sexual predators tell | #childpredator | #kidsaftey | #childsaftey


Since the #MeToo movement erupted in 2017, a global conversation has spilt across the media and social media about how sexual predators treat their victims – manipulating them, coercing them, and silencing them. But as public figures were convicted of sexual offences over recent years, from Jimmy Savile to Rolf Harris to Harvey Weinstein, there’s been something missing from the discussions: how abusers deny to everyone else what they’ve done, and how they behave under questioning.

When the authorities, the media, or members of the public confront someone they believe to be a predator, what techniques do the accused deploy? What are their defences, their manipulation tactics – and how do you spot them?

To be armed with this knowledge is to be equipped to see through the denial strategies into the truth. So next time, a perpetrator perhaps won’t be able to talk their way out of it, when confronted. Instead, they could be stopped. For victims and survivors, who confront their attacker directly, it can help to map the reaction onto a known, recognised system of denials. To trust, whatever the abuser says, their own memories, and to recognise the effect it had.

Dr Yvonne Shell is a forensic and clinical psychologist with 40 years’ experience working with sex offenders, and the author of a new book Revealing Rape’s Many Voices. Stephen Morris, also a forensic psychologist, has worked in the prison and probation system since the 80s, treating some of the most dangerous predators and child abusers in Britain.

Over several hours, Shell and Morris described to i the dark arts of sex offenders: the lies they tell, how they mask their guilt, justify it – and how this works. Their professional observations form a guide to see through the surface into the depths of what someone might be concealing.

Without this, they said, any of us – people in everyday life – are at risk of falling for the denials, disbelieving the truth, and unwittingly enabling the offenders. The reason for this is in part due to the typical pattern of abusing: most sex offenders rape and assault people they know.

Shell and Morris began with the techniques, spotted and collated over decades.

The layers of denial – and how they work

“It goes in phases,” said Morris. But the first and most blunt form is “out-and-out denial. Even to the point of saying, ‘I was not in the room. I was not there.” It can also appear as a blanket denial related to their character, such as, “I don’t do things like that” or, “I’m a good person and would never harm anyone,” or, “I haven’t got a bad bone in my body”.

Crucially, said Morris, “They believe their denial – or appear to believe it. Even when there’s all the evidence to the contrary. It can take quite a while to slowly get them to move from saying, ‘I wasn’t in the room’ to ‘actually I was’. But it’s step by step. The process of denial goes on, using ways to justify and explain what they did.”

“There are different levels of denial,” agreed Shell. After the outright denial of “I wasn’t even there” or “It didn’t happen” then the denial may be, “Yes, it did happen, but it was consensual. I deny the fact it was non-consensual.’”

Denial as a defence is often complicated, said Morris. While for some it can mean they’ve constructed a totally different version of reality in their minds in which they believe they’ve done nothing wrong, for others, the denial is linked to their guilt.

“They may be denying because they’re full of shame. Sides of them might be owning what they’ve done but to say it out loud might be the most shaming, awful thing that they almost can’t bear it, so they don’t say it.”

For Shell, shame is deeper and more corrosive even than guilt. “It’s very difficult for any of us to sit with shame. So what we do is mask it with other emotions. The primary go-to emotion, particularly for men, will be anger. They respond by being really angry with whoever’s called them out on it.”

The other response to shame, she said, is “psychological and emotional avoidance of the shame-laden experience.” The risk for psychologists working with sex offenders, she said, is that part-way through treatment if they hit upon the person’s shame, that can result in them walking out of therapy and refusing to engage.

Their discomfort can itself be a risk factor in further offending – because offenders might be using sexual violence to avoid certain feelings, from anxiety to shame. “So it’s a very delicate balance,” added Morris. Psychologists have to carefully attempt to move sex offenders through a continuum of total denial, to partial acceptance to – ideally – full acknowledgement of their crimes.

But while shame is present for most sex offenders, a minority do not experience it, said Shell and Morris. These can be the hardest to treat because they tend to fall under the banner of psychopathy or sadism, with a total lack of empathy for their victims, or actually enjoying harming people and witnessing their distress.

FILE - SEPTEMBER 07: Actor Danny Masterson has been sentenced to 30 years to life in prison for his conviction in the rape of two women. LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 18: Actor Danny Masterson stands with his lawyers Thomas Mesereau and Sharon Appelbaum as he is arraigned on rape charges at Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center on September 18, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. Masterson has been charged with forcibly raping three women on separate occasions between 2001 and 2003. (Photo by Lucy Nicholson - Pool/Getty Images)
Actor Danny Masterson (centre) was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison after he was found guilty of two counts of rape (Credit: Getty)

Minimisation

The purpose of the minimisation defence is to downplay and reduce what they have done, brushing it off as meaningless, unserious, or unremarkable. Some straightforward examples, added Morris, can be: “It’s a laugh”, “a joke”, “it’s friendly fun,” or “much worse could happen”.

“There are also different levels of minimisation,” said Dr Shell.

One technique is to position themselves as unique or special within the minimisation, that their particular temperament is simply being misunderstood and not subject to the same rules or constraints. “I joke all the time, it was a joke, it’s how I am,” for example.

A different way of doing this can be to frame the situation itself as having special, individual rules that supposedly give them license to act however they want. Gay male sexual offenders, said Morris, can say, “It’s a gay thing, it’s part of the scene, we behave like that to each other”.

Victim blaming

Although this concept is well known, it can take many forms, said Morris, as the perpetrator shifts blame or responsibility onto their victim. The more obvious kind can include statements like, “They asked me to” or, “She was asking for it”, or “He gave me the come-on”. Or even, “She made me do it.”

But it can also involve making assumptions about the victim or the situation. “She was in a nightclub so therefore she wants it” or saying, “He was smiling all the time”. As well as blaming the victim, offenders can blame external factors to dodge responsibility. “The alcohol/ drugs made me do it,” is particularly common.

Dr Shell has witnessed offenders adopting a similar distortion where the blame is recast as a mutual dynamic, such as, “We both wanted to explore this way of behaving in a sexual encounter.” This is a supposed “sharing of responsibility,” which actually ducks it completely.

Justifying and intellectualising

The other approach is to attempt to excuse or justify their actions with a range of arguments, from, “My partner wouldn’t have sex with me” to, “This also happened to me and it didn’t do me any harm”.

In some cases, offenders invoke supposed experts to validate their actions. “Well, I’ve done the research and people are not harmed by this, they’re helped. I’m helping them, informing them [about sex]. Far better for this to happen with me – a kind person – than a stranger in the street.”

A variant of these is to argue with the legalities involved. “The law is mad and out of date,” for example. For some with grandiose character traits, they simply believe they are entitled to predatory behaviour: “I can do whatever I want.”

All of which form a mirror to the internal processes that enabled them to commit the offences in the first place. Experts like Morris and Shell refer to this as “permission-giving thoughts”, which are the deceptions in their own mind, and the stories they tell themselves to override any mental or moral barriers in order to assault someone. But again, not everyone who rapes or abuses has these barriers: those with sadistic and psychopathic personality traits may not.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 6: Actress Rose McGowan, who accused Weinstein of raping her and destroying her career, joins other accusers and protesters and speaks speech to the press as Harvey Weinstein arrived at the Manhattan courthouse on January 6, 2020 in New York City. Weinstein pleaded not guilty to five counts of rape and faces a possible life sentence in prison. (Photo by Pablo Monsalve/VIEWpress via Getty Images)
Actress Rose McGowan, who accused Harvey Weinstein of raping her and destroying her career, outside a court in Manhattan in 2020 (Photo: Pablo Monsalve/VIEWpress via Getty Images)

Playing the victim

In this tactic, the perpetrator positions themselves as the true victim. First by trying to explain away their actions, such as, “I was having a bad time, I needed cheering up”. Or by conveying helplessness, such as, “I didn’t know what I was doing, I was very overwhelmed”. Then by claiming that being confronted by the police, probation officers, psychologists or the media is victimising them. “This whole thing is ruining my life,” for example.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘If you make me talk about this, I’m going to kill myself.’ Or ‘You’re making me not want to exist in this world’,” said Shell. “It’s the ultimate threat.” Sometimes, offenders will then self-harm or attempt suicide. For clinicians working with offenders, this therefore requires careful assessment throughout to assess the risks against the need to progress treatment – all while judging how quickly to move through the treatment programme.

Typically, playing the victim comes from what Morris called “injured narcissism” where the accusations are a threat to their huge ego and grandiose sense of self. The wider problem for society, he said, is that this defence tactic can lead to people around them, even the general public, pitying them. That pity can distract from their crimes, prompting people to disbelieve that they could have done anything wrong.

Puzzlement, vagueness, and distortion

These techniques are an attempt to blur the picture, either by claiming ignorance of the situation or muddying the moral clarity. Puzzlement can surface in reactions like, “I just don’t understand this consent thing.”

Vagueness can arise in phrases such as, “I just brushed by her – I wasn’t thinking.” But some of the manipulation tactics involve distorting reality so much that they argue that their actions have had a positive effect on their victims. Rather than admit culpability, the perpetrator spins it into an act of altruism.

They might claim to be “helping” or “educating” the victim, even being “honourable” or “loyal” in some way. This flip can also infuse the language used, recasting abuse as playful and benign, as merely “flirting”.

Other times, there’s a common phrase sex offenders use when they’re not fully denying what they’ve done but seeking instead to distance themselves and absolve themselves of responsibility: “It just happened.”

“You hear that an awful lot with people that defend looking at images of child sexual abuse,” said Morris. “’Oh, it just popped up.’ The task is to help them see that in life, nothing just happens, that there are always a collection of thoughts, behaviours and feelings – a cognitive process that leads to an offence happening.”

The denial in all of us

With any of these techniques, sexual aggressors use them not only to defend themselves psychologically or legally, but because they are often successful in convincing others, according to Shell and Morris. And that’s because of the denial within society. The task for the general public, therefore, is to challenge something within ourselves.

“We all have within us the wish not to know,” said Morris. “Abuse takes us into very unpleasant territory and it’s a very human response not to want to go there. It creates a blind spot. This means people can do extraordinary things and it won’t be seen or heard for what it is. And of course, that is a green light for those who want to do all sorts of behaviours.”

That denial among across wider public, therefore, which protects us from thinking the unthinkable, “mirrors the minimising and denying behaviour of the offender”.

This works in two main ways. The first, is to cling to an idea of who or what an offender might be. For Shell, because society understandably demonises sex offenders, the label obstructs the full view of that person, who might in other parts of their life be caring, talented, or simply ordinary.

The problem we have, she said, is seeing people as only good or evil, as only capable of being one thing or another, so we miss the harder reality: that people can be both. Even being good looking can help protect an offender because we often associate beauty with goodness.

All of which fuels an assumption that rapists and predators are people we don’t know. “It’s the idea that the only type of offender is your ‘stranger rapist’ or your ‘horrible, dirty old man’.

That makes it really difficult for us to look at somebody who does the same job, or is in the same social group as us, and to go: ‘You’re like us, and yet you’re doing this?’ We prefer to focus on stranger rape, but you’re much more likely to be raped by the person you’re sat having your Cornflakes with.”

Morris told a chilling story from the beginning of his career when he first started working with sex offenders. “I walked into a room, and there was about eight men in there. And I thought, ‘Well, this is the wrong meeting’.” He left and told a colleague that he’d gone in the wrong room because it was obviously a meeting of fellow professionals discussing their caseload. “She said, ‘No, that’s a sex offender treatment group’. They were a group of convicted sex offenders in that room for their twice-a-week treatment. And to me, they could have been a group of professionals, so I thought that’s what they were. That was one of the first lessons.”

Even the idea of only men as sex offenders obscures the truth. “We – society – really struggle to think about women as sex offenders,” said Shell. “It’s like, ‘but they’re a mother, how can they be a sex offender?’

But some of the most disturbing cases I’ve ever worked with have been with female sex offenders.” What disturbed Shell, in particular, is the access women can have to children without anyone raising an eyebrow.

The second obstacle for the general public is the assumptions held about who the victims might be. Because most sex violence takes place within existing relationships – a partner, friend, colleague or family member – and because “it’s very uncomfortable for people to entertain the idea that sometimes the abuser is a very important person in the victim’s life,” said Morris, it means that everyone involved, from the victim to the perpetrator to those around around them, wants to disbelieve what’s really happened.

“We see that all the time in domestic violence where sexual offending occurs,” said Shell. “Because people then feel – as part of a manipulation within the abusive relationship – shamed and blamed for it. So victims are then muted, their voices are silenced.”

It’s part of a pattern, she said. “We are very narrow in who will accept as victims. That’s a problem for us. So we find it very difficult to accept victims that don’t fit the model of being a ‘good enough’ victim. That silences other victims’ voices.”

The media, for example, tends to focus on “only the victims that will be popular”, said Morris. White victims are given greater prominence than anyone else. “And you’re more likely to get a conviction for rape if you’re Black,” said Shell.

There is a long way to go, they agree. Despite the #MeToo movement, the conversation and understanding hasn’t shifted much. “In terms of the wider public accepting and recognising what goes on, I don’t think there’s been hardly any change at all. I think the thing that has changed is victims are more able to tell their stories. But what we do with those stories, I think perhaps hasn’t changed,” said Morris.

Shell cited some examples of what’s missing. “When are we going to acknowledge that bad things happen to good people, because we like to think bad things only happen to bad people? Or that sex offenders do not only come in one shape and size?”

There was a final, sobering message Shell provided. That while our instinct might be to look away, to demonise, or to deny, a reality remains that should jolt our thinking and encourage us all to face the truth and hear everyone affected by sexual violence. “The bottom line is that the majority of people that sexually offend will return to the community.”



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