There is ritual sexual abuse and there is ritualized sexual abuse. The terms are sometimes interchanged, but for the purpose of this article I am delineating between the two as Ritual Sexual Abuse being cult or cult-like abuse in which “the abuse has a spiritual or social goal” (David Finkelhor, National Study of Sexual Abuse, 1988) and usually involves brain washing, torture, animal/human sacrifice and drugging while Ritualized Sexual Abuse as being long term sexual, psychological and physical abuse that occurs habitually and is the dominant factor in a secret relationship between two or more individuals.
Although the perpetrators of Ritualized Sexual Abuse may use many of the techniques used in cult-like abuse – intimidation, humiliation, mind control, drugging, even torture, there is no reference to a larger cause or belief system. And for the most part, it is abuse committed by an individual who gains control over one or more persons. Long-term sexual abuse between family members could possibly be – but may not be – ritualized sexual abuse – because there are other facets to that kind of relationship. But the kidnapping of a girl(s) and keeping them personally as “sex slaves” is always ritualized sexual abuse.
The last few years have seen headline grabbing cases such as the Elizabeth Smart abduction, the Ariel Castro kidnappings, and more recently, the Santa Ana girl rescued after 10 years of enslavement by her mother’s former boyfriend. How do we understand the “monsters” that are capable of such acts? Do we simply write them off as the sex addicts they claim to be, or as insane individuals who can neither be identified nor predicted? What drives an individual to create and then maintain this kind of sadistic and illusory world?
“The Collector”, a John Fowles novel and subsequent film of the early 1960’s, told the story of a man who took a young woman he was obsessed with, hostage. Because rape, if it occurred, was not the focus of the story, the reader was given the opportunity to probe the complex psychological machinery that drove the young man’s compulsion. While sexual desire was a factor, it was part of a much larger pastiche of forces that drove him. A sense of powerlessness and an outsider status in a society that felt hostile and unfair. A social structure that not only banished him to its lower rungs but made him feel both unseen and ridiculed at the same time. By “collecting” this young innocent creature (adding her to an already existing butterfly collection), he was embellishing himself and gaining a semblance of power over a rejecting environment. The world in this young woman’s eyes would have to take him seriously now. He would be obeyed and honored. He would be seen, as well as feared. He could control and manipulate and make someone else feel the pain and isolation that he felt. He was no longer a victim, because he made someone else the victim – someone who would pay for his sins, but more importantly, pay for society’s sins.
We live in a world that even youngsters recognize is not fair. The unfairness grows as we do. Some learn how to successfully navigate an unfair society. Others learn how to accept it and find a semblance of happiness. And the rest cope by acting out via an array of anti-social behavior. The men (and women) behind these horrific ritualized sexual abuse cases are re-enacting the loss of their own innocence in a cruel world. They are not to be forgiven. But they are a manifestation of a collective disorder. We are not born evil; it is bred into us. The environment shapes, for better or worse, even those born with a disposition toward mental illness based on an inherited genetic defect.
Is this type of mental disorder on the rise? Probably not. It has always existed. But we are more aware now because we live in a very transparent world. And when “religious” (terrorist) groups like Boco Hara, receive international attention for kidnapping young women with impunity, those who might only fantasize about such horrific acts, can now imagine a call to action in their own distorted minds. What can we do? Our country has abandoned a construct for dealing with mental illness. Therefore, there is no place to go and no way to enforce mental health treatment for the vast majority who need it. So the first step is to advocate on both the State and Federal level for a reapplication of services for this population as well as for laws that will allow us to enforce care for those who are not able to make those decisions for themselves. And of course, be ever vigilant - never assume that this type of story couldn’t happen next door to you.