It was in 2012 that I introduced “HurtGurl” to over one million people on the Internet.
They had joined us on the Causes.org petition site on our Stop Child Porn on Facebook Campaign.Yeah, Facebook. We had found a lot of (not just “some”) child pornography on Facebook that year. And the year after that. And the year after that, too.
And not only on Facebook. Child and adult sexual assault was on the “dark web” of course, but there was also plenty right there, out in the open.
So, “HurtGurl” was every girl. She was every victim, young and older. And the truth is there were plenty of images and videos of young sexually assaulted boys, as well.
All quite hidden… in plain sight. Still there today.
So, on that day in 2012, as my friend and brilliant graphics guy, Dave helped me put HurtGurl’s image together, we struggled.
My soul wept quietly over the task. “HurtGurl” was real. Putting black and white pixels on the screen that day, each pixel was very much alive. Dave and I knew that we had to get “it” right with this image. We were both standing on the sacred ground of great pain. We had worked on hundreds of such images over 30 years but we knew that this set of images would both hurt and bless.
Now, before I rant further on, I should probably tell you that I had spent many years shaking my fist at the sky, asking this question:
“Hey, God…you, yeah, you, my Heavenly Father and Savior, you want to tell me what the blankety-blank point of all this blanking crap experience in my life is?
You see, I am first-born. Without getting all “Doctor Phil” on you, I was what was sometimes referred to in the early 90’s (not in a bad way) a “big dog”. That’s both a good and not so good thing. My ego was pretty much in check, but I must be clear – I was and still am, a flawed big dog.
Then and now my preference is mostly to wag my tail and if you were trustworthy, you knew that I would be loyal to you.
To a fault, sometimes.
The truth is, that back then and still today, my occasional bark was as much a greeting as it was because I wan’t sure of myself and who you were and what you wanted.
But then, as now, if you were a coyote (we live with many of them now on Connecticut Shoreline) and looking for a meal, you were absolutely not allowed to come into my yard and threaten those I love. And, if you had already hurt someone I loved, forgiveness did not come easy to me. I was in a viscous, pitch-battle with the business of forgiveness.
It suffices to say, that as Dave and I were putting together the image of “HurtGurl”, my life’s experience made HurtGurl more real than I would have preferred. The details are unimportant, but the plain truth is that I was all too familiar with sexual assault.
And yes, over the years, some people have asked: “Well, why get involved with this at all?”
But how do you do that? Who, but a soulless person stands by and watches a house burn down without dialing 911? The house was on fire.
Put differently, I had heard and seen the coyotes. Sounding the alarm, as loudly as I knew how was the not only the only option, it was the right thing to do.
It was just days later and after Dave and I gave “HurtGurl” her image, that I then found myself sitting in a conference room at the FBI’s office in New Haven, Connecticut.
I am not sure that anything that came before then would have prepared me for that moment. I had been on the right side of that table more than once in my life. These were the good guys. The FBI. The Cavalry. The other much bigger dogs.
Surely, what I had stepped in, the very thing I despised could be cleaned off my shoe that day, right?
But what do you do when you are sitting across from a Glock-carrying FBI agent, and he says to you, as seriously as it can be said: “Yeah, we see this child porn too and we put in a request for help to Facebook to track down these criminals, and sometimes we get some help… and often times, we hear nothing back.”
You could see the distaste he had in his own mouth as he said it.
“But you’re the FBI,” I said to him.
“Yeah, Rich,” he said, “we are but they’re Facebook.”
Damn it. Damn this whole thing. God-in-Heaven, I don’t want to be here.
Weeks later, we found our way to Capitol Hill in the offices of one of the two Representatives who had co-authored the “TVPA”, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 1999.
First the FBI and now Capitol Hill. This is bound to get results, right?
So what do you do when (after plenty of careful and apologetic warning) you run the child porn on Facebook PowerPoint presentation with all the HurtGurl’s and HurtBois as respectfully masked as you can, and a dozen House Staffers look at you the way they did that day in total, absolute horror, and disbelief?
As we walked out of that meeting, we knew that some of those Staffers had been victims. I hated the feeling. Again. And sadly, we could tell that as sincere as those young people were, it would not likely go far.
The coyotes were everywhere, their appetite unleashed by the internet. They were right in the backyard of thousands of unsuspecting families, and the tool of complicit abusers.
And what of Facebook during this time?
Sure, their Privacy and Security team, would tell us that they were doing all they could, but it was plain as day that it wasn’t anywhere near enough. Whatever their best intentions were they were being overrun. In five or six clicks, we had to show them what any 7th Grader could tell you. It was that bad.
There was no turning back. And so, we pressed even harder. The Stop Child Porn on Facebook Campaign grew in numbers from tens to hundreds of thousands of supporters.
In 2013 and for some years after, we heard from hundreds of victims, young and old, men and women, as they testified out-loud to spouses, family, friends and therapists to their abuse. In so many of the emails and website comments we received, many finally came to understand, sometimes decades later, that they were victims and not at fault. They had now committed to healing their souls in therapy and in Grace.
A good thing.
And after we shamed (yes, shamed) Facebook in the national press in 2014, Facebook, they got most of their act together.
Also, a good thing. For a while at least.
And since then, while the scourge of sexual violence rages on in the news and on the Internet, a better thing has happened for me over time.
You see, when I rewind some of the tape of that conversation between me and the sky these days, it is a much quieter conversation, and the voice says to me: “Put your fist down, Rich. This is why I put you to work in this field. Go do your part to till this fallow soil, sow good seed as best you know how, water it as best you know how and I will do the rest. Do it without pride or expectation of reward. The Harvest is mine.”
But know this, CauseACTION friend, do not, please, I beg you, do not think that I am anything special. You and I are no different. I can be such an idiot and such a jerk sometimes. I have and do make many mistakes and my need for forgiveness is constant.
And, yes, I still shake my fist at the sky from time to time in what are quieter but still sometimes difficult conversations. I am a flawed man.
A takeaway for now…
I do not know what your field looks like – how big or small it is, whether it is already furrowed or weedy and hard-packed or how rich or worn out the soil may be.
But some sixty years after Kindergarten, and after a good many conversations launched into the sky, I am now reasonably confident of this, so I will share it with you…
Despite how badly we all screw up and how imperfect we each are, and how afraid you might be to even try, we are, each and every one of us, charged with sowing and watering seed in our own field, as best we can.
In doing so, we sometimes catch glimpses of joy and Redemption. Sometimes, we are even privileged to see our own Redemption in the renewal that others find as a result of our choice to speak up and yes, sometimes you should bark to sound the alarm. Wag your tail as often as you can. Bark and even bare some teeth when you sense danger.
This “Rich’s Rants” post ends here for now. I will continue it over time, if I think it is right.
Perhaps, I have encouraged you in some way. I would be happy to have your input at firstname.lastname@example.org.