It is not novel to state that the narrative surrounding sex offenders is profoundly negative. The announcement of the Sex Offenders (Amendment) Bill 2021 by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee this week affirms this persistently pessimistic view, with the Minister herself pronouncing that the legislation will help to alleviate concerns about sex offenders in the community.
But does this translate into actually making communities safer? Measures such as electronic tagging, for example, are often sold as a “silver bullet” for tackling sexual offending but the lack of empirical data to support the effectiveness of such a measure is disheartening. Public knowledge of a sex offender’s whereabouts is another frequently demanded measure, but one which also fails to live up to expectation.
The stranger-danger narrative that such measures perpetuate make us sleep better at night, but they are not necessarily effective in terms of crime prevention, given that most offenders are known to their victim. A recently released annual report by the Sexual Violence Centre Cork, for example, found that almost nine out of 10 victims of rape or sexual assault knew the perpetrator, while only 13.2 per cent were raped or sexually assaulted by a stranger.
Society would prefer not to view such offenders as human beings
The mere mention of sex offenders invokes such anger, that anyone who speaks of support or rehabilitation is considered to be soft on criminals and against victims. Most people would instinctively recoil at the idea of “helping” those with a sex offence conviction. Often this instinctual reaction is the result of misinformation, sensationalism and fear.
Society would prefer not to view such offenders as human beings. The stereotype of the “monstrous” anonymous sex predator is so ingrained in the public perception of sex offenders that any shift away from this narrative would be deeply uncomfortable.
As such, the preferred reaction is one of disgust, a hardline punitive rhetoric and a rejection of any attempt to humanise the offender. This approach, however, may not be the best way of resolving the issue of sexual offending in society.
Support and accountability
I recently attended a webinar organised by Pace called Spotlight on Prevention which discussed the Safer Lives Treatment programme in Ireland. Safer Lives is one of three programmes (Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) and Foothold Floating Support Service are the other two) which work with released sex offenders in addressing the harm they have caused and helping them develop the “knowledge and skills to live a life that is safer for themselves, their families and their communities”.
These programmes highlight the need to move away from the unhelpful stereotypical and derogatory narratives around sex offenders and face the reality that these people are individuals. Treating them as such is not to deny the harm they have caused or the risk they may pose, but rather allows approaches to be tailored to address the specific needs of the person in order to prevent further harm.
The importance of the programmes lies in the provision of social support for offenders – something frequently omitted from the broader overtly punitive strategies that deal with them. Empirical studies in other countries have demonstrated that the presence of positive social influences can prevent sexual recidivism, and evaluations of programmes like the ones provided by Pace have shown a reduction in reoffending rates and positive cost versus benefit analyses.
It was revealing to hear the chief executive of Pace refer to the stigma that attaches to persons working with sex offenders. Fortunately, this has not deterred volunteers from engaging with the programmes and, in many instances, it has freed them of the shackles of their own stigmatic perceptions. As one CoSA volunteer expressed, “Overall, this man wants to live his life and I feel I have removed the stigma that I once held towards people with sexual harmful convictions...”
At the core of the webinar was a sentiment that the criminal justice system alone cannot solve the problem of sexual violence but rather a holistic approach offers the best chance of success. It was refreshing and reassuring to hear those who have suffered at the hands of abusers express the need for support services for offenders.
While many victims going through the process of recovery may not share this sentiment, many do, and their forward-thinking approach is to be commended. Understanding the behaviour and causes of the offending goes beyond the reactive punitive norms we have come to expect in this area, and instead focuses upon what should be the goal – prevention.
This can be achieved only by supporting offenders, as well as victims. In essence, it is about helping the offender in order to help the victim or potential victims. This enlightened view is far removed from the typical societal narrative that reduces all sex offenders to paedophiles, considers them irredeemable, and wishes them harm.
None of the above should be interpreted as advocating for a lack of consequences for those convicted of a sex offence. Indeed, punishment and accountability are important if victims are to have any faith in the system and in order to encourage complainants to report abuse. However, it is also important to create a space for offenders to address their harmful behaviour and seek help to move away from the “sex offender” label.
In this regard, the unforgiving, stigmatising discourse surrounding sex offenders is profoundly unhelpful. The narrative needs to be rewritten, beginning with a recognition of the offender as a person. Acknowledging that victims are most likely to be sexually abused by someone they know, and that women and minors can also be abusers, is likewise important in helping to reshape the construct of sex offenders as “monsters” and allowing the public to see the reality of who can cause this kind of harm.
Changing the narrative in order to generate better informed public opinion is essential in gaining support for evidence-based and strength-based approaches to preventing sexual offending.
Margaret Fitzgerald O’Reilly is a lecturer in law at University of Limerick