Is empathy finite? Part One: Richard Huckle

There have been two challenging stories in the news this week. In the UK Richard Huckle was given 22 life sentences for sexually abusing around 200 Malaysian children, and in the USA Brock Turner was given 6 months in county jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman outside a frat party. Each of them has been hard to read and aspects of each case have brought me to tears. The stories have made me feel grief for the victims and anger at the perpetrators, frustration about the cultural norms that gave them opportunity and in their mind justification for their actions, and vexed at the justice systems that somehow seemed inadequate in the face of each situation. And in each case, it has been really hard to hold on to any empathy for the perpetrator, despite my strongly held belief that people are the product of their experiences and influenced by the context, rather than ‘born evil’.

Because I have read and thought so much about these two cases, and discussed them online, I thought I would write a blog post about each. This is the first of those two blogs, and is about Richard Huckle.

Make no mistake, what he has done is unthinkably awful. Genuinely evil, to the point it is hard to even comprehend. He deliberately targeted vulnerable children and babies in deprived communities for his own gratification, and shared his activities with others for financial gain through the dark web. He even wrote a manual advising other paedophiles how to sexually abuse children in less developed countries. He was clearly without conscience or empathy, or able to override any remaining scraps of either in favour of sexual gratification. The psychiatric assessments were reported to say that he justified his actions and showed no remorse. His ledger and writings on the dark web boasted about his activities. So I can understand why he got such a hefty sentence, and why many people feel he should have been tried in Malaysia where he could have got a death sentence. He has harmed hundreds of children and families, and changed the course of their lives for the worse. No sentence can ever compensate for that.

I found myself thinking that if he committed suicide or was killed by other inmates very few people would be sorry to hear the news. In fact many would argue that the cost of 25+ years in prison is money that will be wasted on an individual that is beyond rehabilitation. Comments on the internet below the breaking news stories said things like:

“Hope he rots in hell he doesn’t deserve to breath air”

“It’s time to bring in capital punishment for paedophiles. Why should we pay for his upkeep? Death is the only appropriate punishment for this creep”.

“How tragic for his father and mother, who were obviously conscientious and committed parents. It just goes to show, you can give your children a good upbringing but you simply can’t control how they turn out. This guy is a slave to his perverted sexuality and his condition is incurable. He really should be locked up for the rest of his life because he will always be a danger to children. What a terrible affliction for any human being to be born with”.

And a woman in the public gallery shouted “a thousand deaths is too good for you” as he was led away from court.

Despite all of my psychology and experience with child protection issues and knowledge that most people who harm children have been harmed themselves, I found myself hating him and feeling no empathy whatsoever. It was as if he had stepped outside of the range that my empathy could stretch. I wanted him to suffer because he had made others suffer. If I’m honest, I’m still very conflicted about it.

However, like the awesome film Arlington Road illustrates, there is rarely a lone gunman. As much as it is an attractive narrative that distances us from responsibility, I don’t think that one person in a million is randomly born evil and will inevitably do things like this. I believe there are things we can do to make such events less likely to recur over time, and it is that belief that stops me feeling hopeless and helpless when the news constantly bombards me with all the evil in the world.

When I took a step back from the emotions raised by the awfulness of what this man did and thought about what I have learned from both research and practice, I found that there are in fact lots of pieces of knowledge that can help us to make sense of what happened and what we can do to reduce the chances of it happening again. In other words, I started to think like a psychologist again, and I wanted a formulation that would help me to reach some understanding of how he got to the position of doing such evil things. Such an understanding would let me sidestep my helplessness, anger and desire for retribution, and instead focus on something constructive; doing something positive to prevent similar cases from occurring again in the future.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that people like Huckle are a product of their experiences as well as their innate character, and their offending happens within a context. Of course I still believe in free will, and that people are culpable for the outcomes of the choices they made, and clearly Huckle made very very bad choices again and again and deserves to face the consequences of that. But we don’t make those choices in isolation. Although he was particularly prolific in his offending, Huckle was far from the only person to perpetrate child sexual abuse in the UK. In fact, there are over 100,000 people in the UK who have committed a sexual offence against a child and around 5000 new convictions are made each year. About a fifth of the population have experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact before they reach adulthood. Police recorded 36,429 sexual offences against children in the UK in 2013-14, and estimates suggest that only one in eight offences are reported. So this is a massive problem. (To put it into context, 1600 children per year are diagnosed with cancer, so sexual abuse is more than 20-180 times as prevalent). I believe that when it comes to any form of antisocial behaviour, violent or sexual crime, particularly on this scale, such actions are also an indication something is wrong in our society. It doesn’t surprise me that numbers on the child protection register are rising during this decade of ideological austerity that is widening the wealth gap in the UK. Just as suicide rates, substance use, homelessness and the incidence of mental health problems are increasing as a result of political decisions, so domestic violence and child maltreatment is rising as people fail to cope with the additional stressors imposed by benefit cuts, sanctions and reductions in public services.

There are several likely risk factors that relate to the abuser. First we know that whilst experiencing sexual abuse is neither necessary nor sufficient to create a perpetrator, the chance of sexually abusing children is increased threefold if he was sexually abused in his own childhood, and that experiencing sadistic emotional or physical abuse can also increase risk. We know little about Huckle’s family, but attachment disorganisation and the absence of any secure attachment figures seems much more prevalent amongst abusers. It is known that many sex offenders have sexual dysfunction. Isolation, low mood, loneliness and lack of social skill seems to also contribute, as do neuropsychological impairments – and Huckle was described as a loner who spent most of his time on the computer, as well as “uncharismatic” and on the periphery of things. Finally, the majority of people who sexually abuse children are religious (studies show 93% of abusers to report a strong religious identity, and around 5% of priests have been named in disclosures of sexual abuse). In between trips to Malaysia to abuse children Huckle was actively involved in the church and described himself as a devout Christian. Was that just an act, designed to gain the language and credibility to access children, or was there another motivation? Was he perhaps conflicted about his actions and trying to compensate or seek forgiveness? Or did he believe he was already going to hell, so he might as well do what he wanted in the meanwhile? Or did he have outwardly strong morals as compensation for lacking an internalised moral code? I suspect we will never know.

The part of this picture that is less often a focus of attention is the contribution of online communities to the normalising and even encouragement of abusive activities. However, we know that using the internet gives people an (often false) sense of anonymity and privacy, that brings out certain traits in their behaviour that might otherwise be inhibited because of the social consequences. On top of that certain communities have developed that collect and exaggerate certain types of behaviour. For example, the notorious bulletin board 4chan has boards within which particular patterns of behaviour from trolling to internet vigilantism (such as the hacker group Anonymous) have become the norm. Likewise certain boards have allowed the gathering of gamergaters, men’s rights activists, furries (people who like to role play anthropomorphised animals), bronies (adult male fans of the children’s cartoon My Little Pony), otaku (Japanese nerds), toonphiles (people who want to have sex with cartoon characters), adult babies, truthers (people who believe in elaborate government conspiracies, such as that 9/11 didn’t happen), those trying to give up masturbating to pornography, and many other quirky groups that would not be able to express themselves within a mainstream community. There are groups that advocate in favour of all kinds of risky behaviour from anorexia to suicide, drink-driving to barebacking (unprotected sex between men, which includes “bug-chasing” – having unprotected sex with men who are HIV positive with the intention of gaining HIV positive status). Online people can present with whatever persona they want to create. Instead of being lonely and powerless they can be charming and popular. In that context, it is not surprising that there are websites that normalise and encourage child pornography, and create demand for more content (including a financial incentive, which Huckle had used to seek crowd-funding for pornographic material he had made related to his abuse of a 3-year-old girl).

However, there is much that is unknown about the relationship between use of the internet, viewing child pornography and sexual abuse of children. Does the availability of “edgy” content pull users of legal pornography towards more extreme material that they would not otherwise access? Does the market create an increase in abuse to provide the materials that can be sold? Does viewing child pornography online become a stepping stone to contact abuse? Or does it allow potential contact abusers to meet their needs without harming additional children? Is it related to the grooming of children online? One in eight people convicted of viewing child pornography on the internet had a known history of offending against children in person but it is still unclear which is chicken and which is egg when it comes to a sexual interest in children and viewing of child pornography. But it is clear that law enforcement resources are totally outnumbered by the prevalence of child pornography online.

Finally, there are factors which make some children more vulnerable to become victims of child sexual abuse than others. These include the lack of a secure attachment figure, shame, isolation, neglect, disability, the presence of other forms of child abuse, socioeconomic deprivation, stressors placed on the family (eg unemployment, bereavement, divorce), cultures in which secrecy is encouraged or permitted, prior sexual abuse in the family (particularly if this was not reported and discussed), alcohol or substance misuse, domestic violence, and settings in which there is sexual language, pornography or exposure to adult sexual activities. These same factors make it harder for children to disclose what has happened to them, and for such a disclosure to lead to suitable protective action. Only one in eight children who experiences abuse receives any professional input to assess or intervene with it.

So there are things that we can do to mitigate the risk of future harm. We can protect future children by addressing inequality, providing more support for parenting and attachment, providing more prosocial opportunities for engagement for disenfranchised young people, being more proactive about responding to child abuse, having more investment in policing the internet so that access to child pornography reduces or is perceived as more risky. We can help victims of abuse to speak up early, to the right people, and to be believed. We can encourage the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences against children, and ensure that conviction rates and sentences are sufficient to act as a deterrent. We can specifically develop international policing solutions to address sex tourism. And most importantly of all, we can also help victims to recover from the abuse they have experienced, to feel safe and protected and develop healthy norms about relationships.

Huckle has done evil and unforgivable things. I still can’t find much empathy for the person he is now. However, if I think back to him being born, and the experiences that must have taken place to take him to the point at which he could abuse children, I am able to feel sad for that baby and angry at those who harmed him and failed to protect him or to intervene much earlier to divert him from his path and recognise their contribution to his development and the harm that he then perpetrated. And if behaviour is learnt, then no matter how unlikely, there may be a future point at which it can change. So maybe in 25 years from now it is worth reconsidering whether he still presents a risk, or whether he has gained insight and empathy that he is currently lacking. Perhaps new treatments will have emerged by then to make it possible. It seems hard to imagine that being the case. I’m usually an optimist, but for Huckle, I can’t foresee a happy ending – and I’m not sure I want to.

But there is a note of optimism in the bigger picture. Despite all the evils of austerity, and the massive burden that is creating on the wellbeing of the world population, and a few horrific cases that have been well-publicised in the media there is some progress. Sexual abuse is being talked about more, and more resources are being targeted at prevention and intervention. And there is fairly solid evidence that although there has been a dramatic spike of reports of abuse in the UK over the last two years, the overall prevalence of sexual abuse in the western world appears to be decreasing over time. Hopefully, that decrease will continue to accelerate over time, until sexual abuse really is the one in a million exception, rather than an all too present reality for a significant proportion of children.

 

One thought on “Is empathy finite? Part One: Richard Huckle

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s