Mixed messages complicate our understanding of sex offending

Understanding sexual offending is complicated. Sexual violence such as those behaviours that take place between adults who share a living space, is often referred to as domestic violence and may not be measured as a sexual matter but rather as a matter of assault (violence) – even though the underlying behaviours in the offence are driven by gender, power and control.

Until 2003 and Operation Ore, paedophile behaviour (sexual violence by adults against children), was understood as: offenders who had low status, limited social skills, challenging social integration and that they did not know their victims.  Media coverage encouraged the myth and families locked their children inside the home – as to let them out may see them stolen away by a paedophile.

The ‘stranger’ paedophile profile was finally challenged when America’s FBI tracked Internet commerce – where images of child abuse were purchased and downloaded onto personal computers.  Their results found offenders were very well integrated into communities and holding occupations such as judges, doctors, teachers and police officers etc.

By the time the guitarist Pete Townshend made UK media headlines, criminologist had recast the profile and framed paedophile offending as predominately a middle-class, trusted family male who had largely unsupervised access to children, and where there was no previous offending.

What we should take from this extremely brief history is that unlike medicine – where evidence based models use robust global peer reviews and biology and tend to be accurate, evidence-based criminology cannot achieve the same levels of certainty. Complacency around middle class families being the safest place to raise children also continues to be a ‘challenge’ for all professions involved in justice and sexual offending.

Sexual offending against children is rightly seen as fundamentally different to sexual violence against mainly women (in lay terms and by no means exhaustive, paedophile behaviours are planned and involve complex grooming strategies whereas sexual violence in adults can also be planned and or be instrumental and or explosive).

All these behaviours are essentially on a continuum and their levels of ‘deviance’ or ‘horror’ is largely informed by the moral values of the day.  For example, some behaviour that was historically illegal, such as homosexual acts, have now been decriminalised through better sexual education and from our understanding of: ‘the rights of consenting adults’.

A photo of  a woman who has suffered domestic violence
Domestic Violence affects us all


Recent high profile cases of celebrities being charged with ‘past offending’ against children has seen some media commentators suggesting that the 1960’s and 70’s was a period more accepting of adults imposing sexual practises upon children; however, the law then and now appears not to reflect such views.  Sexual offending against children by adults is and continues to be seen as generally unacceptable.

Police Registration, Risk Assessments and Treatments Plans are some of the essential tools used when working with people who have offended.  However, the obvious caveat here is that the risk factors do not necessarily translate into causes.

Unlike America, Police Registration in the UK is argued by professionals (including Parole Boards), as being more successful, especially when in combination with Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA).  Basically, the whole processes provide adults with support to manage their sexual behaviours.

Despite the lack of certainty, caution and caveats there are a few factors that remain consistent.  Most offenders are male and where woman may be involved, this is usually as an accomplice rather than as the direct offender, and many appear to be older at the onset of offending (being caught).

The offending behaviours, or what we would say in lay-terms are: the ‘motivators, triggers and inhibitors’ are usually already present in adulthood but are largely self-managed within one’s adult relationships.  Often when these relationships breakdown, the adult finds it difficult to manage and this is argued as one of the many reasons why the period of getting caught happens later in one’s life; especially when compared to the onset of ‘general’ offending.

As to whether different ethnicities are more likely to undertake sexual offending against children, this remains inconclusive.  Statistical data held in the English prison system is more likely to suggest White males but this is because more White males are actually in prisons generally.  The prison ratio is generally proportionate and reflective of the ethnicities of the national census (population); however, there is an over representation of young Black/ Asian males in custody but this is within the general prison population and largely attributed to problematic policing and not the sexual offending cohorts.

Prison establishments ideally locate its population based on offenses (so that sentence plans and accessing appropriate treatments can be undertaken).  This may give rise to ‘clustering’ in statistics, as people are not randomly placed in the prison estate.  Although overly simplistic, ‘clustering’ is also true in communities as people generally like to be around those they consider to be similar to themselves.

With people rehabilitating away from sexual offending and living in communities, such ‘clustering’ or groupings give way to a visible presence which plays neatly into mainstream media narratives and thus reinforces ‘a stereotype’.

As to whether this type of offence has increased over time, the information is inconclusive. There have been fundamental changes in policing with specialist units set up to support victims (both children and adults) through the criminal justice process. This may give rise to further acknowledgement offences and their recording; however, such offences still remains extremely difficult for anyone to report – largely as it is so traumatic and filled with societal judgement and values and open to media attention – despite enormous efforts to maintain the victims anonymity.

What we do know is that the Internet has become a ‘gateway’ for non-contact sexual offending; however, because of technology, the police are able to monitor and investigate such behaviours. But without one’s IP address being logged, such behaviours would have continued to elude detection. Criminology is not an absolute science and despite politicians and mainstream media using research and statistical evidence to justify or more often ‘sell’ crime policies and ideologies to society, it is clear that whatever theories are developed, these may only be true for some of the people/ offenders some of the time.

Teena Lashmore is a criminologist working with a wide variety of offenders including sex offenders.

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