The Same Old Narrative on “Sex Offenders”

By | 29th January 2018

As somebody who has spent their career so far examining public responses to sexual crime and the people who commit them, I was encouraged by the title of Stacey Dooley’s most recent documentary – “Second Chance Sex Offenders”. I’ve previously conducted research on how presenting first-person narrative accounts of people with sexual interests in children can have positive effects on people’s attitudes towards them. Knowing that this is Dooley’s usual presentation approach, I started watching with a lot of hope that this could be a watershed moment in popular coverage of issues related to sexual offender management. That hope was quickly extinguished.

Within ten minutes of the documentary starting, Dooley was already slipping into established patterns of speech, talking about “sexual offenders and sexual predators” without (a) operationalising what she meant by these labels, or (b) any apparent awareness of the implicit dehumanization within the latter. Already, the audience was in the mindset for ‘othering’ the men who Dooley was about to interview on camera. This fetishization of othering was something that occurred throughout, with an ‘us-versus-them’ narrative underpinning a large proportion of the interactions screened in the documentary.

All of this isn’t to say that Dooley raised some important points. Her observation that residency restrictions and community notification laws appear to be driven more by public demand and emotional argument than by any objective benefit to offender rehabilitation, or indeed to public protection. Even this point, though, was presented as Dooley’s conjecture. Some research into experts in the area would have revealed the presence of Dr Jill Levenson at Barry University in Miami – where large portions of the documentary were recorded – who is one of the world’s most eminent writers on the effects of US sexual offender legislation.

The overwhelming point that I took away from the documentary though was the fatalistic tone of Dooley when talking about people who have committed sexual offences, their past achievements, and their chances for redemption.

When talking to one man who expressed disappointment that his athletic career now counted for nothing because of his offending (which included sexual contact with young girls he was coaching), Dooley suggested that his past achievements were indeed irrelevant in light of his actions. This isn’t a new idea, with many people of my age now resistant to listening to once-loved music from the rock band Lostprophets, after frontman Ian Watkins was sentenced to more than 30 years imprisonment for sexual offences involving infants in 2013.

While this kind of reaction to sexual offenders makes sense at an emotional level, what this does is tell somebody with sexual convictions that this is the only part of their identity that counts. If they begin to buy into this idea (something referred to by criminologist Shadd Maruna as the ‘Pygmalion effect’), the hope that they may have to eventually be an accepted and law-abiding member of society begins to dissipate, making them more likely to reoffend in the future.

From my perspective as a researcher interested in sexual offender reintegration, though, the most objectionable statement from Dooley came towards the end of the documentary. Speaking to one man with convictions for the possession of indecent images of children (and an unconvicted contact sexual offence against a young child as a juvenile), Dooley asks him: “Do decent people molest children? It’s a simple question.”.

Dooley is correct on one level. It is a simple question – far simple for the nuanced topic that she should, as somebody purporting to be a serious journalist, be asking. The motivations for committing sexual offences against children are varied, and are specific to each individual offender. What Dooley is doing when asking such a question is activating an entity-based view of sexual offenders. I’ve conducted research with Dr. Ross Bartels (University of Lincoln) where we found such an implicit theory – where sexual offending is seen to reflect a (or the) core part of an offender’s personality – is associated with more negative attitudes, harsher policy responses, and the endorsements of specific and narrow stereotypes about ‘sexual offenders’.

In short, the hope that Dooley’s documentary might herald a new, more reasoned, approach to discussing sexual offender policy was unfounded. Her apparent ignorance of the most effective ways to discuss this topic, whether willful to appease viewers, or unintentional through a lack of research, is likely to have precisely the opposite effect.

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