Public Engagement and Changing Attitudes about Sexual Abuse

This is a reprint of a blog on public engagement and sexual abuse prevention from the SAJRT blog. After reading this if you want to know more about public engagement and sexual abuse prevention in the UK please join us at the NOTA Public engagement event on Wednesday 28th September 2016 at the Hilton Metropole Brighton from 6.00 – 7.30pm. Kieran

Sexual abuse is a complex and emotional public health issue that impacts everyone – individuals, communities, institutions, and society as a whole. Despite this reality, sexual abuse remains a difficult topic for open discussion and the complexities of sexual abuse are often not reflected by public opinion. This is understandable when we recognize that our perceptions are often influenced by the way sexual abuse, sexual abusers, and survivors are portrayed in films, on television, and in the popular media – too often a one dimensional and sensationalized, rather than factual, presentation. If our goal is to prevent sexual abuse and ensure there are no more victims, it is essential that the public become engaged and educated about sexual abuse, those who perpetrate sexual abuse, and strategies to prevent sexual abuse.

Studies have shown that reported offending has decreased for all types of crimes over the past 20 years and this is also true for sexual offending, both in the United States (Finklehor, 2004; Lauritsen & Rezey, 2013) and the United Kingdom (Crime statistics for England and Wales, 2013/14). Research on sexual abuse within the criminal justice and psychology fields has also vastly progressed over the past 30 years (Wilson & Prescott, 2014; Marshall, 2011) and we now know more about those who perpetrate sexual abuse,  their motivations, etiology and rehabilitation than ever before (ATSA, 2014; Wilson & Prescott, 2014; Carter, 2014). We also have more clearly defined laws and evidence-based criminal justice approaches for the management of individuals convicted of sexual crimes than ever before (CSOM, 2008; Kemshall & McCartan, 2014), as well as a greater understanding of innovative reintegration strategies that promote public safety, including community-based strategies such as Circles of Support& amp; Accountability. We are even starting to see the traditional media reporting on sexual abuse in a more balanced, realistic, and engaged manner.

Despite these positive changes towards greater community engagement and understanding, improved victim services, and more effective treatment models, the most common attitude of the general public continues to be that nothing works for “sex offenders.” (McCartan, 2004, 2010, 2013; McCartan, Kemshall & Hudson, 2012). This is the greater paradox within our field, as well as criminology/criminal justice in general – public perceptions do not coincide or reflect professional experiences, or what the research tells us about the reality of the situation.

This divergence between public attitudes and understanding versus the realities of sexual abuse is fuelled in part by myths created through stereotyping, miscommunication, prejudice, active disengagement, and poor professional interaction – all factors which speak to the need for greater public engagement and understanding about sexual abuse in order to facilitate prevention and safer communities. Public engagement is important for a number of reasons, including;

  • Community and self-protection: By better understanding the aetiology, behaviours, offence patterns, criminal justice responses and treatment models related to sexually abusive behavior, individuals are better prepared to protect themselves and others. Therefore education and understanding is a self-defense mechanism, as well as an integral component to creating a culture of non-acceptance of sexual abuse which promotes prevention (e.g., bystander intervention programmes).
  • Supporting appropriate responses to sexual abuse: The appropriate response to sexual abuse, like any crime or case of neglect, is to report it to the appropriate authorities so that they can respond to it. It is not to take the law into your own hands (McCartan, 2010; Vigilante hunter case, Daily mail, Independent; Haas, 2010) or too ignore the issue. By better understanding what the reality of sexual abuse is, what the authorities do (and why they do it in that way), and how sexual offense specific treatment and management works,  the public is better equipped to make informed decisions, as opposed to uninformed ones.
  • Dispelling miscommunications and rectifying myths: Sexual abuse has a lot of associated myths, whether these are rape myths, victim blaming, myths about who commits child sexual abuse, or the impact of abuse depending on the gender/age/ethnicity/cognitive ability of the offender or victim. These myths help no one and actually often compromise, rather than promote, public safety. By greater engagement with individuals and communities, through better education programmes and through more realistic media engagement, we can dispel these myths. While this may be a difficult task due to many of these myths being hardwired into our personal and cultural psyche, by dispelling these myths we can facilitate recognition of sexual abuse for the complex public health issue that it is and move forward towards a culture of prevention.
  • Influencing public policy and agenda setting: Public opinion shapes governmental policy and practice, from emotionally driven knee jerk responses to in-depth social change. This means that public opinion is vital beyond a social dialogue as it feeds into legislative and political agenda setting. A more engaged public results in a greater understanding of the reality of sexual abuse and the complexities of responding to these issues and this, in turn, leads us to a more informed and realistic sociological debate. It also results in the public campaigning for evidence based policies and laws that are both preventative and responsive, public health oriented as well as criminal justice oriented, and forward thinking rather than reactionary.

While the prevention of sexual abuse may feel like a never ending task, we have come far over the past 30 years in not only our understanding of sexual abuse, but in our support of survivors, management of perpetrators, and prevention efforts. But our work is far from done and public engagement is key to continuing forward – although the prevention of sexual abuse requires a well-planned and comprehensive response founded on research, it is only through education, collaboration, and the involvement of everyone – community members, violence prevention professionals, victim advocates, law enforcement professionals, treatment professionals, journalists, and policy makers – that the prevention of sexual abuse can become a reality.

Kieran McCartan, PhD & Katie Gotch, MA

References

Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abuses (ATSA) (2014). Eight things everyone should know about sexual abuse and sexual offending. Beaverton, OR: Author.

Carter, A. (2014). Sex Offending Treatment Programmes: The importance of Evidence based practice. In: McCartan, K., ed. (2014) Responding to Sexual Offending: Perceptions, Risk Management and Public Protection. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 111 – 126. ISBN 9781137358127

Center for Sex Offender Management (CSOM) (2008). The comprehensive approach to sex offender management. Silver Spring, MD: Author.

Finkelhor, D. & Jones, L.M. (2004). Explanations for the decline in child sexual abuse cases. Juvenile Justice Bulletin, January 2004. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Haas, N.E. (2010). Public support for vigilantism. Leiden: Universiteit Leiden.

Kemshall, H. and McCartan, K. (2014) Managing sex offenders in the UK: Challenges for policy and practice. In: McCartan, K., ed. (2014) Responding to Sexual Offending: Perceptions, Risk Management and Public Protection. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 206-226. ISBN 9781137358127

Lauritsen, J.L. & Rezey, M.L. (2013). Measuring the prevalence of crime with the National Crime Victimization Survey. US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Marshall, W. (2011). Milestones in Sexual Offender Research and Treatment. Keynote at ATSA Annual conference. Toronto, Canada.

McCartan, K. (2004) Here there be monsters: The public’s perception of paedophiles with particular reference to Belfast and Leicester. Medicine, Science & the Law,  44. pp. 327-342. ISSN 0025-8024

McCartan, K. (2010) Student/trainee-professional implicit theories of paedophilia. Psychology, Crime & Law, 16 (4). pp. 265-288. ISSN 1068-316X

McCartan, K. (2013) From a lack of engagement and mistrust to partnership? Public attitudes to the disclosure of sex offender information. International Journal of Police Science and Management, 13 (3). pp. 219-236.

McCartan, K., Kemshall, H. and Hudson, K. (2012) Public understandings of sexual abuse and sexual abusers. ATSA Forum, xxiv (3) McCartan, K. (2014) Euthanasia & sexual abusers. Journal of Sexual Abuse blog, 2014 (Sept).

Wilson, R., and Prescott, D. (2014). Community based management of sex offender risk: options and opportunities. In: McCartan, K., ed. (2014) Responding to Sexual Offending: Perceptions, Risk Management and Public Protection. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 20 – 47. ISBN 978113735812