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Mythbusting Monday: I can tell by looking who is a sexual offender

Ask any child, and they’ll tell you, monsters are easy to spot. They’re scary and hairy and smelly, and hide under the bed. Even as adults, we cling to this idea that people who would do us harm are easy to recognize. We truly believe we can protect ourselves, if we just keep a look out for tell-tale signs of monstrosity.

“I will not believe any of this until he’s really proven guilty,” said Sgt. Bob Gagne about his friend and former neighbor Lt-Col. Russell Williams, the CFB Trenton Base Commander who was charged with two homicides and two break-and-enter sexual assaults in Ontario. He’s probably not the only who is having difficulty reconciling this man with the horrific crimes he’s accused of.

If the average citizen were polled about who they thought was a threat to people, Williams, and recently charged Calgary foster parent Garry Prokopishin would have been last on the list. Both were considered shining stars in their field. Both held positions of trust and authority. Both seemed so gosh-darned nice.

They don’t evoke the creepy, poor, desperate personality so many of us associate with the kind of person who would commit a sexual offense. That’s part of why serial sexual offenders are able to get away with their crimes for so long. Look at Paul Bernardo: he was charming, good-looking, and seemed, to outside observers, like a happy, well-adjusted person.

It’s a discomfiting thought that many sexual offenders are so ordinary, even a little extraordinary, because that means they could be anyone: your neighbor, your friend, your relative. So, when stories like these make the news, we shake our heads in disbelief, and go about our lives thinking that they’re not the average sexual offender.

According to a 1994 Juristat Service Bulletin by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics 50 per cent of of those charged with sexual offenders at the time of the assault were married or living common law, have children and are considered responsible members of their communities. Your average sex offender is, well, average.

It’s easier to believe that people wear their emotional depravities on their skin. Myths like this one exist in our society because we would like to feel safe. We want to feel as if we have some control over the evils in the world. That our choices matter in keeping our communities safe, and keeping ourselves out of harm’s way. We have every right to trust our instincts, and those people who are charged with our safety and security.

It’s too stressful and isolating to be on constant high alert, trying to figure out who the monsters are. Because of this, when the monsters are finally revealed as someone we thought we could trust, it’s often easier to simply disbelieve when you’re faced with such a massive betrayal.

We know that those who commit sex offenses are likely to have offended many times before they are caught, and we know that children under 12 are most likely to be victimized by family members – this includes foster parents (Juristat, July 2003). The veneer of respectability shielding sexual offenders helps to silence their victims. That silence allows perpetrators to keep doing what they’re doing.
Talking openly and honestly about the issues of sexual abuse and sexual assault is the first step to combating this silence. Dispelling myths about sex offenses helps us to see them for what they are – abuses of power and control, and, often, the manipulation of trust and authority. Providing safe spaces where we can talk to children about these issues, and where they can talk to us, will help those affected to break the silence. Helping people speak up, no matter how credible the accused appears, is a vital step in stopping these criminals in their tracks.

We can change how our society responds to these issues, but first we must believe.

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