This week I attended a research symposium at Queens University, Belfast, on desistence from sexual offending organised by Shadd Maruna, Anne-Marie McAlinden as well as Mark Farmer. The event was designed to bring desistence researchers, as well as those interested in the topic, together from across the world (including, UK, Ireland, Canada, USA, New Zealand) to discuss present and future research in this area. The conference had interesting papers and informed debates from leading and emerging names in the Field (Shadd Maruna; Gwen Willis; Danielle Harris; Simon Hackett; Patrick Lussier; Anne-Marie McAlinden; Mark Farmer; Kim Kras; Stephanie Kewley; Joanne Hulley; Darren Woodward). The conference covered a lot of different issues including, but not limited to, conversations about research methodology and ethics relating to desistence, community re-entry, resilience, redemption, religion and treatment relating to youth as well as adults; this blog will cover some of the main themes that came out of the conference.
- Narratives of desistence are similar internationally and cross culturally: Although there are international differences in terms of sex offender policy and practice, there was a great deal of similarity in sex offenders’ narratives of change, redemption and desistence.
- That the use of the label of sex offender is problematic to desistence: One of the strongest themes that emerged from the conference, touted by Gwenda Willis in her presentation, was the impact that the label of “sexual offenders” has upon desistence (recalling Kelly Babchishin’s recent blog and Harris & Socci, 2015). As Willis pointed out, reinforced by other delegates, the use of the label “sex offender” is not only problematic for the individuals in question but also for professionals as well as policy makers in the field as it creates self-fulfilling prophecies. In the conversation which followed there was recognition in the room that we needed to make a conscious decision to stop calling these individuals by the very thing that we don’t want them to be. However, what language can be used instead, when the term sex offender is embedded in public and political discourses?
- Harm Vs offending: On the second day of the symposium Simon Hackett expanded upon what Gwenda had said about labelling, suggesting that we focus on harm rather than offending. The use of harm is potentially beneficial on a number of levels for working with victims, offenders and across society.
- Youth desistence from sexual offending: Simon Hackett discussed youths who commit sexually harmful behaviour, his findings reminded me of Nicole Pittman’s Raised on the Registry, stating support (formal and informal) was central in allowing this population to desist; consequentially, appropriate interventions are essential. This led to a debate over the role of social and clinical interventions with individuals who cause harm to others through their sexual behaviour and where the field should be moving for youths as well as adults.
- Researching desistence: When Shadd Maruna opened the research symposium he discussed the issues involved in researching desistence from sexual offending, highlighting that we are dealing with two challenging issues “desistence” and “sex offending”. Among the issues that Shadd highlighted are (1) that desistence is a fluid concept and that all researchers do not necessarily define it in the same way; (2) that sexual offending can be difficult to uncover because of its nature, therefore these two populations are difficult to identify and access; as well as (3) that there are very real ethical and moral issues related to this type of research. The experience of the researchers who talked across the two days reflected these comments; however, interestingly, the researchers commented that once they had secured their participants that all were in the main pleased to talk. The speakers all recalled experience of participants stating that they were happy to be able to discuss their experiences.
- Methodology: The symposium highlighted the range of methodologies being used internationally to research desistence from sexual offending, including qualitative interviews (Harris, Hulley, Kewley, Farmer, Hackett), case studies (Hackett), quantitative methods (Lussier, Hackett) longitudinal research (Lussier, Hackett) and quasi experiments (Lussier). This really highlights the methodological innovations in the field. Although, recognising the sentiment that desistence research in the sexual abuse field is in its early its research is steeped in a rich methodological tradition from across the social sciences.
- Linking together multi-faceted research on this issue: One clear message that came out of the symposium is that desistence is a multidisciplinary issue with speakers and delegates coming from a range of disciplines (Criminology, Law, Forensic Psychology, Clinical Psychology, Sociology). This reinforces the need for research in the social sciences to be grounded is a shared among the social sciences; desistence as well as sexual abuse are multi-faceted social issues and should be researched as such.
This research symposium really reinforced the importance of research into understand why people choose to stop sexually offending; if we can better understand why people choose to stop sexually offending it can better inform interventions, policies and reintegration strategies with this population.
Kieran McCartan, PhD.
Harris, A. J., & Socia, K. (2015) What’s in a Name? Evaluating the Effects of the “Sex Offender” Label on Public Opinions and Beliefs. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. ifirst http://sax.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/12/24/1079063214564391.abstract