Last week, The Washington Post published a piece in which Ruth Marcus paints the fate of now-deceased Senate staffer-slash-child porn viewer Jesse Ryan Loskarn as a “tragedy.” After reading what is allegedly Loskarn’s suicide note, Marcus concludes:
Yet Loskarn’s example requires us to recognize the uncomfortable truth that damage is not always one-sided. Victims can become victimizers. Some people do terrible things because they are purely evil, others because they are terribly damaged.
And Marcus is correct. The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of Loskarn’s claim being true, in which case he was, and is, deserving of sympathy for the terrible thing that happened to him as a child. And it is a sad fact that some people abused as children do go on to perpetuate abuse on others, that we are in need of better ways to help adult victims of child abuse heal and break the cycle, that increased compassion and mental health services could perhaps go a long way toward preventing future abuse.
However, this does not change the fact that what Loskarn did was wrong.
Drawn to child pornography, Loskarn made the choice to seek out—and pay for—further images of children being violently assaulted. Despite the traumatic memories he found himself grappling with, Loskarn made the choice to continue his behavior rather than seek mental health interventions. And despite being a survivor of child sexual abuse himself, Loskarn made the choice to victimize other children and to actively participate in their ongoing suffering.
All of these choices led to Loskarn’s hurting already victimized children. Even Marcus herself characterizes the viewing of child pornography “the antithesis of a victimless crime.” While the abuse Loskarn lived through may help explain why he was drawn to child pornography, it is not an excuse. There is never an excuse. While it is possible to be both victim and victimizer, the former does not negate the latter. Loskarn had the option to not purchase child pornography, to seek help, to break the cycle of abuse. But he chose to behave in a way that took him over the line from victim to victimizer. By buying and collecting exploitative images of children being raped, he chose to hurt countless others.
Yet Loskarn somehow considered this behavior an appropriate, even justifiable, way of handling his abuse on his own. This is false, akin to a drug addict trying to heal by running a drug cartel or a sociopath trying to heal by going on a killing spree. Though the sad fact is that some survivors of abuse do sometimes act out as they struggle with what happened to them, the way Loskarn hurt other children over many years goes far beyond a self-destructive cry for help. Of all the things he could have sought out online, he didn’t try to find psychological help or a survivor peer group (some of which detail stories that could have assuaged his supposed fear of being alone); for years, he actively sought out and paid for child sex abuse images and videos. This was no isolated incident, no breakdown on the road to recovery; it was an all-consuming activity.
Saying that Loskarn was only a victim who couldn’t help himself is an affront to the many survivors of childhood sexual abuse who do not go on to victimize children, who deserve better than to be painted with the stigma of Loskarn’s actions. Help was available to Loskarn. The minute he began using his hurt to justify watching children being raped, he crossed a line and became a perpetrator himself. Despite help being available, he did not seek any sort of intervention until he was caught. And in the end, his viewing of child pornography evidently did not heal his pain.
Loskarn’s suicide note does make one wonder if he truly comprehended that what he did was wrong. Most of the letter concerns how others perceive him; he only mentions the children he exploited at the very end:
And last, to the children in the images: I should have known better. I perpetuated your abuse and that will be a burden on my soul for the rest of my life.
But the rest of his life did not last very long. Death does not absolve him, but by living he might have had a chance to make things right: serve a prison sentence; undergo therapy to sort out the underlying issues and stop viewing child sex abuse images; pay restitution to help the victims in the images heal and break the cycle (which is the goal of the pending United States Supreme Court case Marcus cites, Paroline v. United States); and do whatever possible to save others from the same horrible fate. Loskarn deprived himself of the chance to try to right his wrong to the extent possible, and the world is worse off without his efforts.
One last consideration. Another Washington Post piece on Loskarn, written by Petula Dvorak, mentions another man who was abused as a child: Curtis St. John, founder of MaleSurvivor, a group providing support to male survivors of sexual abuse—a group that could perhaps have helped Loskarn. St. John chose to turn his personal tragedy into an opportunity to put some good into the world by helping others. This story shows another path Loskarn could have taken: instead of becoming a victimizer and a criminal, St. John went from victim to survivor to hero. (Dylan Farrow, who sacrificed her anonymity in order to speak out against the Hollywood culture enabling abuse, is also a hero.)
Yes, Ryan Loskarn’s story is tragic indeed. But the tragedy is not that Loskarn was somehow forced to become a child victimizer. The real tragedy lies in the choices Loskarn made, and in his unwillingness to accept the consequences.