By Kirsty Teague
Please note that Kirsty Teague, Lecturer in Criminology and Doctoral Candidate at Nottingham Trent University is supervised by Dr. Nicholas Blagden, Professor. Belinda Winder, and Dr. Paul Hamilton. This is part 2 of a 2 part blog. Kieran
Parts 1 and 2 of this extended blog post provide reflections and realisations as a result of conducting face-to-face (F2F) data collection over a 6-month period during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst Part 1 focused specifically on participant recruitment and participant vulnerability, Part 2 explores barriers to engagement with meaningful others experienced by men with sexual convictions during the pandemic. The latter part of the post looks at the impact conducting f2f research had on the researcher during this time.
Restrictions preventing engagement with meaningful others
Have you even lived through the COVID-19 pandemic if you haven’t had to participate in a video call and/or online quiz with family and friends?
Video calls and quizzes have been elevated to lifeline status over the last 12 months and considered a key source in maintaining social connection. However, for those with a sexual conviction (regardless of offence type), licence restrictions can prevent (i) access to the internet; and/or (ii) ownership of a smartphone which can take or download photographs/video and have the ability to live stream. This has meant that throughout the pandemic there has been a proportion of individuals effectively cut off from the new virtual world we find ourselves in. Something that has received little to no attention or consideration by those who craft such restrictions and policies.
As such, initiatives such as the Corbett Centre have become even more valuable than ever before; a physical place where everyone is safe, respected and not judged. As someone who belongs to the LGBTQI+ community, the role and value of ‘safe spaces’, I appreciate all too well. Having allies is also important. This leads me to Ben’s March 19th blog post titled: ‘reflections on the challenges of “true” community integration post-conviction’, where put forward the following:
‘The solution is still to humanize sex offenders and tell their stories of trauma and childhood adversity, as often and as loudly as possible, so that they are no longer feared. As the fear goes away, so will the hatred and the othering. Creating empathy for sex offenders, in wider society, will not be easy. You will be accused of being soft on crime, but it must at least be attempted’.
As researchers and practitioners, this is something that we must be committed to doing to reintegrate those with sexual convictions back into their communities. The pandemic has meant that men with sexual convictions feel like outsiders, more so than they do usually, not just due to the pandemic, but due to structural barriers in place to prevent their reintegration. These barriers send messages of difference, fear and risk to society, creating a sense of hostility.
The vulnerable researcher
Conducting f2f research during the pandemic has been energising and de-energising in equal measure.
Hearing and promoting the voices of those who too often don’t get to tell their stories has been energising, and something which I’ll do until there is tangible and meaningful change for the better in how society and criminal justice agencies respond to those who have sexual convictions.
However, there has been emotional and psychological strain in conducting this research. Something which I’ve reflected on more so in recent months is the role that gender plays in conducting research with men who have sexual convictions. As a female researcher, I wonder about the extent to which there is parity with researchers of other genders in the nature and extent participants offload both general and specific wellbeing related issues, but more specifically in a COVID-era.
However, sensitivity and receptivity to issues of exclusion and isolation on my part is also likely to be impacted (and be perhaps elevated) as a result of the pandemic. My partial experiences (by comparison) of exclusion and isolation have made me more sensitive to my participants experiences of such. However, this begs the question, do we need to have experienced something in order to understand it? There are some parallels here to other realms of social life. For example, people now likely have a greater understanding of the difficulties associated with teaching since home-schooling children during the pandemic. One thing that transcends most issues, however, is that during challenging times, socio-economic status insofar as access to resources and support goes, can either perpetuate or protect against structural disadvantage.
On a related note, many discussions in the interview context related to social isolation, and the idea of becoming ‘socially inept’ – de-skilled from building social connection due to a lack of opportunities for relationship building. This often led to concern for the participants given the exacerbating nature I knew the pandemic was having on this issue. Reminded of the trust and hope placed in research to help make positive change, this was often a mitigating tool not just for me, but for the participants undoubtedly too.
Participant 11 diary entry: ‘April 30th: This started as recording something to be grateful for each day and I appear to have moved away from that.
So today I am grateful for the great people at the Corbett Centre. Helping with the research is so interesting, I always find out something about myself’’
Whilst social distancing, sterilising of surfaces, lateral flow testing and face masks mark a sign of the times, not least in research and educational contexts, they shouldn’t be seen as barriers to meaningful connection. Occupying the same physical space is more so important, especially in eliciting people’s life stories and lived experiences.