I have had an interesting couple of weeks discussing perpetrators of sexual harm (including youths, individuals with learning disabilities, Black and Ethnic Minority populations and females) and their victims (especially vulnerable, youth and male victims) in a number of different contexts (research symposium, CPD training, stakeholder meetings and academic conferences). The one thing that has been reinforced in me – individuals who perpetrate sexual harm against others are not that different to each other (regardless of status – race, age, gender etc) or to non-sexually harmful individuals.
I am not saying that we have not recognized these similarities before, but rather that when you spend your time talking about one or two particular subgroups of perpetrators of sexual harm (so for me it’s usually medium to high risk males who sexually harm children) you tend to miss the big picture. This lack of big picture perspective is often reinforced by the fact that we have in part, with the assistance of policy makers and the public because it suited their needs, created an industry based around the idea that perpetrators of sexual harm are radically different from all other types of perpetrators of crime and therefore need a highly specialized approach. The notion that individuals who perpetrate sexual harm are in some way unique is partly true because different sub-types of perpetrators do need different degrees of support, different types of treatment, unique policies and more research; but not the whole population. We still have things to learn about how perpetrators of sexual harm are similar to each other as well as to other offender groups at a baseline level.
One of the most predominant pieces of research in criminology is David Farrington’s Cambridge study, it sets the ground work for how we consider offending populations. In his study Farringtion found that there are certain pre-cursors to criminal activity including, appropriate socialization, educational engagement and achievement, positive reinforcement, good family and peer stability, positive role modelling, positive attachment and the importance of having goals/plans. Although, Farrington’s initial study was about youths it developed into a longitudinal study that followed the same sample population across there lifespan (and is still going), therefore coming more about developmental pathways in crime rather than a snapshot of one sub-category/population. Farrignton’s findings are universal across all accepts of offenders, offending behavior and rehabilitation; although we may have different studies, authors and theories the basic premise is still the same – stability, positivity and life goals. We see them regulated for all sorts of offenders, including sexual offenders we just have to look at the pre-dominate theories in our field including Risk Need Responsivity, Good Lives Model, attachment and cognitive change to name but a few. This means that we need to look at the perpetrator as an individual, which we do, and not apply global, one size fits all models; which is the beauty of Farringtion’s work in that it offers a range of individual and complementary explanations for offending behavior which starch across a variety of offences.
The capacity to look outside of our field’s tradition research and practice silos will enable us to open up additional lines of enquiry and allow us to reframe the policy/treatment/research debates around sexual harm. One clear example of this being desistence theory , which is relatively new to the field of sexual harm but that criminology, public health and drug treatment had been using for years. In closing, I thought it would be useful to frame some of the main issues faced by perpetrators of sexual violence in the context of perpetrators of crime in general to highlight that actually “we are not that different after all…”:
- Most perpetrators or crime are vulnerable themselves, maybe having been a victim of crime themselves. We know that not all victims go on to perpetrate, but we know that some do and not necessarily in the crimes that they were victims off.
- We know that issues of vulnerability can, and often do, play out across victim and perpetrator groups.
- Males can be victims of crime as well as females.
- Mental health issues can play a role in the perpetration of crime and that there is a relationship between mental illness and incarceration.
- Most youth perpetrators of crime tend to grow out of offending as they develop across the lifespan.
- That evidence based policy and practice (evidence lead) is what we should be striving for but often we get policy based evidence (ideologically lead).
- Female perpetrators of crime tend to be labeled as “doubly deviant” as opposed to male perpetrators, female perpetrators also tended to be more often labelled as mentally ill as opposed to males and are less likely to serve long prison sentences.
- Male perpetrators of crime tend to be constructed as mad or bad, regardless of the crime.
- The “what works”/individual treatment model is advocated for all types of perpetrators.
- That social context (age, race, education, etc.) plays out across all perpetrator groups.
- That there can be false allegations, issues with Eye Witness Testimony and police decision making/discretion.
- There are issues, concerns, complaints and negative reaction from the public about offender re-entry.
- The public and society are more likely to believe that youth and female perpetrator groups are more likely to reform and need social support than adult perpetrator.
Kieran McCartan, PhD