Continuing Challenges To Look Beyond Society’s “Ick” Factor
by Libby Trudeau, Client Services Analyst
Many people don’t “get” the work of Emmaus when they first hear about it. For some, it’s what we call the “ick factor:” a hustling lifestyle can sound too sordid. For others, they’ve never even heard of men being sexually exploited. It is so far out of their experience, they really don’t know what to expect when they see Stories from the Streets, hear an Emmaus presentation, or even walk through Emmaus’s doors themselves.
Larry was just such a person. As he walked up our steps and rang our doorbell last week, he didn’t know what would happen. But he was feeling desperate, so after hearing our name and that we worked with men, he called and set up an appointment. We sat down in my office and he looked at me steadily over the desk.
“I’d better start with telling you about my situation to see … to see if you can work with me.” I’m used to some men feeling shy telling me about sensitive subjects, so I assumed the best re-assuring look I could and encouraged him to continue.
“Last year I was arrested for a no-contact sexual offense—for distribution of child pornography.” He paused and sighed. “This is usually the part where you tell me to leave and that you can’t work with me.”
Did I want to ask him to leave? Whatever I might have expected, this was not it. But I didn’t know anything about his history, so I explained to him that I wasn’t going to kick him out right then; rather, that Emmaus believes that everyone is worth helping, but that we specifically work with men who have been exploited in some way themselves.
Everyone is worth helping. That is what the message of Emmaus boils down to. Emmaus believes it, but did I? What did I really think should happen to someone who was not the victim, but the victimizer? Larry did not fit my expectation of what a predator looks like; the evil, soul-less crime lords depicted on Law & Order did not prepare me to confront this beat-down, ordinary-looking individual who had lost his family, house, and income because of his first offense.
“I take responsibility for what I did. I’ve been going to therapy for depression and addiction, I’m working with a lawyer, I’m looking for housing. I’ve been trying for a year. But when people hear what I did, no one will work with me.” He said wearily. “It’s like, people understand murder, but a sexual offense is just too much to deal with.”
This made me think. Was he right? Did the “ick factor” that affects many of our men hurt him as well? Upon reflection, I’m forced to admit that it does. There are whole TV shows dedicated to the stories of men and women on death row—people who actually ended a life—where they are interviewed and given a back-story, where the viewers are encouraged to understand their lives. Can you imagine such a show for sexual offenses? What if you had one relative convicted of murder and one convicted of a sexual offense—who would you be more ashamed to tell your friends about?
What Larry did was wrong—no question. Should he be held responsible? Yes, absolutely. But, does his offense mean he is ever-after a monster who should be shunned and find no place to turn to for help?
If you’re a Christian, the answer is simple: How does God feel about him? If God loves him, then we should too. The Bible doesn’t have lists of sins that exclude someone from being eligible for God’s grace and love. Rather, despite your sin, God says you are worth saving (Romans 8, 5:8). Our society makes it so easy to hate people like Larry. Our social justice system and culture give reasonable justifications for why he is now an outcast. But does the Church have a pass to agree with these justifications, or a mandate to reach beyond them?
In the end, Larry denied being a part of Emmaus’s client base, and left my office after thanking me for being “enlightened” (his word) enough not to reject him at face value. The thanks may not be fully deserved, but his visit and honesty have challenged me to strive ever more to love the way God does and see people the way he sees them. Emmaus is one of the only organizations that exists to help men like our guys—who is going to help Larry?