Sexual Crime in Myth and Reality
Craig Harper is a Phd student at the University of Lincoln and is carrying out his research on sexual crime within the Forensic and Clinical Psychology Research Group. In this blog Craig explores some of the main factors that influence social discussions regarding child sexual abuse.
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 forensically-related issues, and we recently held a three-day event to foster international research links, promote our work among professionals, and inform the local community about some of the myths and realities of sexual crime. I’ve chosen one particularly hot topic to discuss here – the use of the term ‘paedophile’ to describe particular offenders, and the social and offender-specific impacts that this term has.
News outlets 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. There is no reference to paedophilia within the Sexual Offences Act 2003, meaning that, legally speaking, ‘paedophilia’ is not a crime. However, the area that does use the phrase ‘paedophilia’ is psychiatry, which defines it as a pervasive pattern of sexual interest in prepubertal children (typically aged below 13 years). It’s here that there is a difference. Paedophilia can 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 (the Dunkelfeld Prevention Project), even runs television campaigns to encourage non-offending paedophiles to seek help for their thoughts, with this scheme being shown to be successful in helping these men to not offend, and operate instead as functional members of society.
Dr. Ross Bartels, who organised our event, was keen to discuss these topics with professionals, and the wider public. At our conference, Dr. Alexander Schmidt referred to work that has been done in Germany and the USA in relation to views about paedophilia. In one study, the same cases were described using the words ‘paedophile’ or ‘person with an interest in children’, with people in the group presented with cases labelled as ‘paedophilia’ calling for stricter punishments. Also in Germany, people reporting a sexual interest in children reported feeling more socially isolated than a control group of people who didn’t have these sexual interests. Whilst this may be desirable for many, it is important to note that isolation and low self-esteem can increase the risk of sexually offending against children.
This is where my work at Lincoln potentially has real value. News outlets attempt to report current events in a way that is acceptable and understandable by their readers. However, in doing this, complex issues like paedophilia are 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 international evidence base, it could be suggested that, whilst people may feel more secure with the harsh treatment and social isolation of people with a sexual interest in children, what we’re actually doing is potentially increasing some of these people’s risk of committing offences.
This is a redraft of an article originally posted on The Lincolnite
Prof. Todd Hogue and I currently have a survey online that examines some of our ideas about the basis of social discussions about sexual crime. If you would like to take part, you can do so here. 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 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:
- Visit our website: http://fcrg.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk
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- Follow us on Twitter: @FCRG_UoL