Warning: this article contains material regarding sexual abuse that some readers may find disturbing.
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A few weeks ago, podcaster and comedian Mendy Pellin featured an interview with convicted sex offender Gershon Selinger, who recounted his struggle with pedophilia and sexual offending. Almost immediately, segments of Jewish social media were flooded with reactions. Although the podcast was followed by interviews with sex abuse prevention advocates Dr. Michael Salamon and Patty Fitzgerald, who framed Selinger’s narrative as rationalizations and distortions, many felt that Pellin’s interview irresponsibly provided a platform for a harmful and manipulative abuser. Others felt that Selinger was “brave” for coming forward with his story, seemingly with the goal of protecting children from people like himself.
Many of my mental health colleagues were quick to respond on social media. I was first alerted to the existence of the video by an Instagram post by Rachel Tuchman, a licensed mental health counselor in New York. “I don’t recommend watching the video of the convicted sex offender ‘teaching’ us how to keep our kids safe,” she warned. “That’s not all he does. Instead, he victimizes himself by blaming his victims and minimizing his own crimes. It’s classic abuser behavior, and if you found yourself believing him and sympathizing with him, you learned first-hand how manipulative these offenders actually are.”
Watching the video, those points resonated. While Selinger talked about understanding the damage he caused, his narrative seemed rehearsed and disconnected from actual remorseful emotions or expressions of empathy for his victims. Additionally, he made alarming statements, which I identified as potentially triggering to survivors of abuse. For example, Selinger described that the little girl he had abused “just came and sat on my lap,” a clear indication that he did not hold himself completely accountable. He also claimed not knowing at the time that what he was doing was hurtful, and had his victim told him to stop, he would have. Sex abuse survivors often battle feelings of guilt for not sufficiently reacting and trying to stop what is happening. Through therapy, they learn that the “freeze response” occurs in order to survive and not because they were consenting. Selinger’s message perpetuates the false belief that the children were somehow responsible for the abuse because they did not ask him to stop. Children do not have the tools to stop abusers from hurting them. It is the abusers who need to stop abusing.
The video was difficult and disturbing to watch. As a therapist, I was skeptical, but was also curious to understand what goes on in the mind of an offender that would allow acting in such a heinous way. I am not an expert in treating sex offenders. I have far more experience treating people who were sexually abused than I do with those who abuse, but I feel empathy for people wracked with shame and guilt over unwanted sexual fantasies or fears that their desires will cause them to violate the boundaries of others.
As an advocate of sexual health, I was particularly interested in Selinger’s claim that the lack of acceptable sexual outlets in the religious world, including masturbation, resulted in his offending, and that insufficient sexual encounters with his wife would trigger him to act out as well. Although disturbing to hear, I wasn’t surprised. According to research, the combination of narcissistic entitlement and distorted cultural messages transmitted to men that they are entitled to marital sex to prevent their sexual acting out may contribute to feeling justified to get their sexual needs met elsewhere. That, of course, does not excuse such behavior.
Problematic sexual behaviors, including non-consensual acts, are a recognized concern universally, and unfortunately, in the Haredi world as well. Israeli criminologist Yitzhak Rosenblum found three salient characteristics in his research on sexual abuse in ultra-Orthodox society: lack of knowledge on the part of perpetrators, victims, and society regarding sexuality in general; the perception that sexual assault is a halachic prohibition similar to masturbation — a sin against God, rather than a harmful act to another human being; and the lack of discourse about sex education in the ultra-Orthodox education system.
To understand more about the connection between healthy sexuality and sexual offending, I turned to my colleague Dr. Caleb Jacobson, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist who specializes in treating pedophiles, whom he refers to as “minor-attracted persons.” He makes a deliberate distinction between those who are attracted to minors and those who offend. He cited surprising research that estimates that 10 percent of men are attracted to minors. Dr. Jacobson also cited data claiming that people who are in satisfying sexual relationships are less likely to sexually offend.
The finding that having a satisfying sexual relationship could ward off sexual offending felt uncomfortable to me. I don’t like the implication that people in healthy sexual relationships are less likely to offend because they are getting their sexual needs met sufficiently by their partners. I prefer to believe that people who are in healthy, satisfying relationships both physically and emotionally typically possess relational skills including emotional regulation, the ability to inhibit aggressive behaviors, and the ability to demonstrate empathy, and so they would never hurt others that way. Perhaps it is the lack of empathy, compassion and restraint, the narcissistic entitlement to take what you want, and the lack of concern for others, factors that also preclude being in a healthy romantic relationship, that are more likely to be what drives this anti-social behavior. Furthermore, there are many wonderful, healthy and well-adjusted people who are not sexually active or in a sexual relationship for a variety of reasons and yet they do not offend. I still wanted to formulate a response to Pellin’s interview but needed more clarity.
While this lengthy process prevented an immediate Instagram response, I do co-host a podcast with Rabbi Scott Kahn that I thought could be an appropriate forum to discuss this topic in greater depth. Our podcast, “Intimate Judaism,” has not shied away from topics deemed taboo by many. Sex and intimacy in the context of Jewish law is the main subject of our discourse, with topics ranging from masturbation to sex throughout the lifecycle, premarital sex, LGBTQ, monogamy, consent, pleasure, etc. We have also not avoided discussions of sexual trauma and abuse. Yet, we deliberated a lot about whether to respond to Pellin’s podcast. The last thing we want to do is trigger survivors of sexual abuse or sensationalize a serious and troubling problem.
After much discussion, Scott and I assembled a panel of experts, including Caleb and Shana Aaronson, director of Magen, an organization dedicated to creating safer Jewish communities by advocating for victims of sexual abuse. We met to discuss these questions for the purpose of releasing this discussion as a video and podcast. We did this for two reasons. First, and most importantly, to join the efforts to protect children. The more that is understood about people who offend and why, the better-equipped communities, schools, and parents can be. Second, while there is great stigma attached to “minor attraction,” it is important to know that there are people who specialize in treatment, and this information could ultimately prevent abuse.
Must we understand the experience of sex offenders? Unequivocally no. If you are a survivor of abuse, you are absolutely not required to listen to, understand, empathize, or forgive. But if you are a mental health professional, rabbi, teacher, camp director, community leader, parent, or anyone interested in healthy sexuality and abuse prevention on a global level, we invite you to watch our panel here or listen on Intimate Judaism or Orthodox Conundrum.