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Maia Szalavitz

Maia Szalavitz

Posted: November 13, 2006 04:54 PM

The Ambassador's Penis Pump and The Damage Done


On Sunday, the St. Petersburg Times front-paged an article about Richard Bradbury, a man whose quixotic quest for justice for the victims of Straight Inc. led him to try to sell a penis pump belonging to the former U.S. ambassador who co-founded that program, Mel Sembler. Yes, that Mel Sembler, who recently held a fundraiser for Joe "'I'm not ruling out' becoming a Republican" Lieberman.

Bradbury's story of being molested as a child-- and then held in Straight's abusive program where he was forced to admit that he seduced the pedophiles who abused him-- is told in the first two chapters of my book, Help at Any Cost: How The Troubled Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids.

After founding Straight, Sembler, a major Republican donor and financier, went on to serve as ambassador to Australia and Italy and to chair finances for the party for the 2000 election season. He currently heads the Scooter Libby defense fund.

Many of Straight's victims, however, like Bradbury, have found it difficult or impossible to move past the trauma Straight caused. Dozens of suicides have been reported, many more former participants have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and hundreds report having taken far more drugs after being forced into the program than they'd taken before.

Roughly 50,000 kids are believed to have spent time in Straight, which operated from the late 70's until the early 90's-- and there are still programs operating that use its destructive methods.

At 41, Bradbury has never had a romantic relationship and he lives with his parents. Before he entered Straight, he was on track to graduate high school and join the armed forces. Afterwards, he's only held down jobs that allowed him to pursue his activism against Straight. He suffers from PTSD and has difficulty socializing.

Sembler tried to claim "distress" and embarrassment due to Bradbury's ads for the pump-- but as the Times illustrates, these blips in a life of privilege are hardly comparable to the genuine humiliation of being forced to soil one's pants in public or as a victim of child abuse, being made to "admit one's part" in having attracted the men who molested an 11-year-old.

I've interviewed dozens of other former participants-- and they include some of the most traumatized people I've ever met, even though I spent much of my career interviewing people who had far more severe drug problems than those which got teens sent into Straight. Though the penis pump angle may seem silly, the harm Straight did is all too real.

And, with the change in leadership in Congress, it may finally be possible to advance legislation that would help end many of the abuses these kinds of programs still inflict on some 10-20,000 teens at any given time. Because there is no evidence that "boot camp" or "tough love" programs or "attack therapies" help anyone. A drug with their track record would have long ago been pulled from the market.

The St. Pete Times focused on Bradbury as a lone obsessive. But the frightening thing is that there are thousands of others who suffered similar harm, if less visibly.

Now is the time to push federal legislation to end this abuse. In forthcoming posts, I'll look at what that regulation would require to be effective.

It shouldn't take the sale of an ambassador's penis pump to put this story on the map-- but if that's what's required, at least Bradbury had the balls to go for it.