Sexual crime in myth and reality

In this, my first column since the end of the Big Election Survey, I thought I would address a topic more directly related to my work at the university, and mention some potential issues with recent coverage of sexual crime in the local media.

My research primarily focuses on how we, as a society, construct our views about a range of issues, with sexual crime being a topic that I am particularly interested in after the 2012 Jimmy Savile scandal.

Within the Forensic and Clinical Psychology Research Group at the University of Lincoln, we try to examine some of the factors that influence social discussions and reactions to these kinds of issues, and we recently held a three-day event designed to foster research links with international academics, promote our work among professionals working with sex offenders, and to inform the local community about some of the myths and realities of sexual crime.

I’ve chosen one topic from these three days to look at in this column: the use of the term ‘paedophile’ to describe particular offenders, and the impact that this has on social discussions about sexual offending against children, and reoffending outcomes

News outlets, including local sites like The Lincolnite, often use the term ‘paedophile’ (and/or ‘paedophilia’) in a way that essentially assumes it means the same thing as ‘child sexual abuse’.

However, there are fundamental differences between these two terms. For example, there is no reference to paedophilia within the Sexual Offences Act 2003. This basically means that, legally speaking, ‘paedophilia’ is not a crime.

However, the area that does use the phrase ‘paedophilia’ is psychiatry, which defines it as a pattern of sexual interest, whereby a person’s primary or exclusive objects of this interest are prepubertal children, typically defined as someone aged below 13 years. It’s here that there is a difference. Paedophilia can (and, in some ways, should) be defined as a sexual preference – but is not necessarily a behaviour.

That is not to say that paedophiles do not sexually abuse children – of course many do. However, some paedophiles never commit a sexual offence. The Lucy Faithfull Foundation runs a helpline for non-offending paedophiles, offering access to help and support for their sexual thoughts, which quite often are just as morally unacceptable to them as to the rest of society.

A similar scheme in Germany, labelled the Dunkelfeld Prevention Project, even runs television campaigns to encourage non-offending paedophiles to seek help for their thoughts. This scheme has been shown to be successful in helping these people to continue to not offend, operating instead as functional members of society.

Dr. Ross Bartels (Lecturer in Forensic Psychology), who organised our event, was keen to discuss these kinds of topics with professionals, and the wider public. At the professional conference, international speaker Dr. Alexander Schmidt referred to work that has been done in Germany and the USA in relation to views and responses to paedophilia.

In one study, the same cases were described using the words ‘paedophilia’ or ‘person with an interest in children’, with people in the group presented with cases labelled as ‘paedophilia’ calling for stricter punishments.

In other German work, people reporting a sexual interest in children said that they felt more socially isolated than a control group of people who didn’t have these sexual interests. Whilst this may be desirable for many people, it is important to note that isolation and low self-esteem can be risk factors for sexually offending against children.

This is where the work that we’re doing at Lincoln, and particularly my work into media portrayals of sex offenders, has some real value. News outlets, who have a business model of reporting current events in a way that is acceptable and understandable by its readers. However, in doing this, complex issues like paedophilia can be reduced to mean broader things.

In the UK (and abroad), this has led to paedophilia being used as a catch-all phrase to describe child sexual abuse, rather than the more subtle issue that the academic evidence suggests it is.

When we bring together the various evidence coming from studies across Europe and the USA, it could be suggested that, whilst society in general feels more secure with harsh treatments and social isolation of people with a sexual interest in children, what we’re actually doing with these kinds of responses is potentially increasing some of these people’s risk of committing offences. It is these kinds of issues that we are seeking to understand and explain within the Forensic and Clinical Psychology Research Group.

Prof. Todd Hogue and I currently have a survey online that examines some of our ideas about the types of things that contribute to social discussions about sexual crime.

If you would like to take part, you can do so here.

As an incentive, each person who completes the survey will have the opportunity to enter a prize draw to win one of four £50 Amazon vouchers. Once we close the survey, we’ll draw the winners and contact you to arrange collection or delivery of your voucher.

If you think you would find the work of our research group interesting, you can keep up to date with what we’re doing in the following places: