Lost for words

Learning the language of prevention

I GREW UP believing that I would be murdered by a stranger. I was eight years old when Sian Kingi was murdered. I was thirteen when Ebony Simpson was killed. I knew too many facts about Sharron Phillips’ death and had an age-inappropriate understanding of Anita Cobby’s case. I was a child of the stranger-danger generation and my father was in the media. My mother taught me to talk, but my father taught me to do it in a ‘radio voice’. My parents told me it could happen to me. I looked just like the girls on the news. I wasn’t allowed to walk to the corner store and I knew exactly why. My preadolescent brain convinced me that it would happen to me. I set out to learn everything I could about what this might mean. I wanted to understand who would do such a thing and why. I became fascinated with true crime and forensics long before it was cool.

Three decades later, as a criminologist, I have now interviewed more than one hundred men in three countries who have been incarcerated for serious sexual violence. I’ve also learnt a great deal about the causes and consequences of sexual offending, and those lessons create the structure of this essay. It addresses two major misconceptions (stranger danger and recidivism) surrounding perpetrators of child sexual abuse, explains why our reliance on these myths renders our current approach so profoundly inadequate, and describes how to prevent sexual violence and promote community safety.

In the public imagination, sexual abuse has long been believed to occur mostly (or exclusively) at the hands of predatory strangers. In fact, it is consistently shown that almost all child victims (85 per cent) are abused by someone in their circle of trust, and that abuse is most likely to occur in their or their perpetrator’s home. Either form of abuse is devastating – but the fact that one happens so much more often than the other can shape how we direct our limited resources. Although generally accepted in the professional research literature, policy responses continue, curiously, to be informed by the much rarer image of stranger-perpetrated abuse. Much of our media reporting and popular culture also rely on the regurgitation of this trope.

Stranger danger directs our collective attention and finite resources to only the narrowest of circumstances. We could prevent so much more sexual abuse if we focused on anything but stranger-perpetrated sexual homicide. Perpetuating the myth of its prevalence is an outright threat to community safety. It creates a false sense of security by recommending hypervigilance around strangers and simultaneously encouraging a laissez-faire approach to acquaintances, friends and family. Instead, we know that child sexual abuse can be prevented by exercising reasonable caution around certain behaviours and situations rather than certain people. That is, rather than focus on the old man who lives at number twenty-three, we should look out for forced affection that causes discomfort, the giving of inappropriate or extravagant gifts, or situations that create opportunities for isolated and unsupervised contact. The recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse, for example, has shone a light on the magnitude of institutional abuse, and the true extent is almost certainly greater than the number of those survivors who have come forward. This should remind us of the likelihood that abuse can be perpetrated at the hands of people we know. It should empower us to exercise sensible vigilance even between people with whom we have an established relationship. It also means we need to acknowledge the uncomfortable duality that someone could be well respected but commit unspeakable crimes.

The second myth is that of recidivism (offending after an intervention such as a custodial sentence). This refers to the tenacious assumption that anyone who engages in this behaviour will continue to do so frequently and unabatedly until their own death. The public is captivated by cases in which the perpetrator has assaulted multiple victims over long periods. This is especially true when those individuals have a prior criminal record. Serial, recidivist offenders are the ones that make the news and the ones about whom they make movies. That also makes them the ones we fear the most. But it is crucial to notice that the rarest of cases are also likely to make the news because of their extraordinary rarity. The kicker here is that the persistent guys exist, but they’re often not the ones we apprehend. They are the manipulative and narcissistic ones who display traits of psychopathy, successfully groom their many victims into silence and therefore manage to evade detection.

Contrary to popular opinion, a robust body of research demonstrates unequivocally that specialisation in sexual offences and escalation in the seriousness of those offences are both quite rare. Indeed, most men who are incarcerated for sexual offences don’t have an official history of sexual crime. Although some contact offenders have histories of less serious, non-contact offences, today’s flasher will not necessarily become tomorrow’s rapist. Official sexual recidivism rates are quite low, hovering around 8–12 per cent. Although this is far from ideal, it is a substantially less than the ‘nine out of ten parolees reoffend’ statistic that is so often repeated in the media. This means that of the people incarcerated for a sexual offence, around one in ten is arrested for a subsequent sexual offence. Further, most individuals who end up incarcerated for sexual crimes have no prior charges or convictions for such offences. If they do, they’re usually quite versatile in their criminality, with no specific preference for a certain behaviour.

Desistance describes the slowing down or stopping of offending. It’s a phrase typically used in legal writing – think ‘cease and desist’. It encompasses a complex process that includes both stopping and refraining from participating in crime. More than two hundred years of criminology has shown that desistance from crime is a natural human process. Most crimes are committed by young people, and most people who commit crime will eventually stop. Traditional criminology finds that desistance can be encouraged by turning points such as finding a job, getting married, having children, pursuing an education or enlisting in the military. Although we tend to treat sexual offending as a highly specialised and separate offending category, the evident versatility in the histories of known sexual offenders suggests that existing criminological theories can explain how even this behaviour might stop.

The men I interviewed stopped committing sexual crimes for various reasons, for varying periods of time, with varying levels of success. Working on Desistance from Sexual Offending (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), I identified three overarching strategies that my seventy-four North American participants used to desist: retirement, regulation and recovery. Some just stopped – they ‘aged out’ of crime, and described getting ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired’. Others stopped committing sexual crimes in the same way they stopped robbing people and stealing cars. Some described building social bonds or what research calls ‘stakes in conformity’ – they developed attachments to people. They found a partner, got a job, made friends or had children: they had something to lose. Others benefited greatly from psychotherapeutic intervention. They worked through their traumatic childhoods; they came to reconcile who they are with what they had done; they learnt from the pain that they had caused; they realised they didn’t want to live that kind of life. All these pathways demonstrate the unique routes via which desistance happens. Yet we continue to stoke a system that endorses the myth of sustained, specialised and stranger-perpetrated sexual violence.

The fact is, the highly dangerous, recidivist offender who may or may not be mentally ill and who is unlikely to ever be truly rehabilitated does exist, but this characterisation is valid for only a tiny fraction of individuals convicted of sexual offences. An emphasis such as this can make it even harder for survivors to come forward if their perpetrators don’t fit this ‘profile’ – if they’re a well-respected member of the community, a loving parent or a family friend.

A dogged belief in these myths has resulted in increasingly dangerous trends in our criminal justice system’s response to sexual offending. A growth industry influenced by psychology, law and social work is devoted to sustaining the belief that there is something about identified sex offenders that makes them warrant a particular brand of intervention. Practitioners, policy-makers, politicians and the public continue to embrace the fiction that, as a ‘criminal class’, those convicted of sexual offences stand markedly apart from other criminals. This process of ‘othering’ these crimes and offenders so extremely has left prisons overcrowded, families devastated, victims publicly identified, survivors re-traumatised and communities fractured.

This ‘sexual offending treatment industry’ is predicated upon an apparently reliable assessment of risk and prediction of reoffending that is directed almost exclusively towards controlling and monitoring the post-custody behaviours (not to mention the literal, day-to-day physical movements) of those who are convicted of sexual offences. Many of these individuals are seen as bearers of risk for the duration of their lives. They are risk-assessed using actuarial models that originated in insurance and economics. Most current actuarial risk assessment of sexual recidivism is based only upon static, historical variables such as ‘age of onset’, ‘number of previous convictions’ or ‘behavioural problems at school’, and therefore does not have the capacity to account for changes in perspective, behaviour or risk itself over time. Recently, there has been some development around identifying dynamic measures that address risks, needs and protective factors (including learning differences, the impact of treatment or finding paid employment). But even this cannot undo the effects of the static and historical risk assessments that have dominated the field for decades.

In the US, in the wake of incidents such as the murders of Megan Kanka (1994) and Jessica Lunsford (2005), states passed various pieces of memorial legislation named for these victims (Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law and so on). Over many years and iterations, this suite of legislation now provides for publicly available state and national level registers as well as required notification of communities when certain individuals are released from custody. Most approaches in the US, such as the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, divide registrants into three ‘tiers’ according to the nature of their offences. Depending on their assigned tier, registrants are required to update law enforcement agencies as to their whereabouts every three, six or twelve months, and may be required to register for at least a period of fifteen years, twenty-five years or life. For this they pay an annual fee.

Under the newest legislation, states forfeit certain federal funding if they fail to publicly post specific information about these registered offenders on the internet – for example, their name, address, photograph, date of birth, and employer’s name and address. At the beginning of 2019, America’s publicly available sex offender register surpassed one million people.

Jessica’s Law specifies how far people can live from various landmarks and is named for Lunsford, a nine-year-old girl who was abducted and murdered in Florida by a forty-six-year-old convicted sex offender who lived nearby. This restriction arguably represents the greatest threat to an individual’s successful reintegration into their community. Those convicted of sexual offences are prohibited from living between 500 and 2,000 feet of places where children might gather: schools, day-care centres, bus stops, swimming pools, playgrounds and more.

Memorial legislation varies greatly by jurisdiction. For example, in Corpus Christi, Texas, identified sex offenders are required to place a ‘for sale’-sized sign in front of their property that reads, ‘A registered sex offender lives here.’ In Louisiana, driver’s licences are branded with ‘registered sex offender’ the same way they might indicate if the holder is an organ donor. In one small California county, parolees are provided with a sleeping bag upon release and informed of the two locations that comply with the residence restrictions in that jurisdiction (a Walmart parking lot and a riverbed).

No study has yet provided evidence of these laws’ effectiveness in reducing sexual crimes (especially against children). In fact, research compellingly demonstrates that these approaches have done considerably more harm than good. The plethora of negative collateral consequences include revealing victims’ identities, identifying non-offending family members, limiting employment and accommodation opportunities, obstructing community re-entry and driving many people to reoffend. And it’s important to again note that these laws only apply to perpetrators who get caught.

Consider Ross, a Massachusetts man in his early fifties who served eight years in custody after pleading guilty to two counts of rape of a child by force when he was thirty-six. When Ross was first released from prison, he struggled to find a place to live, let alone a legitimate way to make money. Unable to locate a shelter that would accept men with his criminal history, he was homeless for three years. He was finally accepted into a treatment program that offered subsidised housing. But the day after he moved in to a rooming house, the chief of police came to the door with some detectives and threatened to arrest him. The following day, eight police officers showed up with hundreds of fliers bearing Ross’ name and picture to distribute throughout the neighbourhood. Ross moved towns, but couldn’t be within fifty feet of anywhere that children might be. At that point, he gave up and returned to a downtown shelter.

Ross began attending college. Shortly before we met, he was close to graduating with a degree in communications. Although he had been living an offence-free life in the community for almost seven years, the law suddenly changed again and schools were required to publicly display his registry details. He reported being chased incessantly by campus police – with only twelve credits to go, he left before completing his degree.

Ross decided to look instead for full-time employment. He had already been working part time in IT and was offered opportunities for more pay and responsibilities. But when new legislation was passed that required him to publicly register his place of employment, his employer let him go.

Ross told me that his two formal counts of rape represented six months of targeted grooming behaviour that had escalated to the contact sexual abuse of his brother’s girlfriend’s daughter. Ross was persistent, but he didn’t reoffend after being caught. He was only sentenced once, and he described that intervention as central to his subsequent desistance. During our interview, he further admitted to having committed similar crimes against more than thirty additional child victims over more than two decades, beginning when he was about fourteen. Each situation involved the lengthy grooming and abuse of a known or familiar child. It is important to emphasise that Ross’ actual offence history would not have been captured by the recidivism statistics mentioned earlier.

The point here is not that the children should have spoken up sooner, or that Ross should have received a longer sentence. The point is that the system didn’t know about Ross until it was far too late. When we met, he was actively participating in group therapy as a condition of his probation. By his own admission, many of his offences could have been prevented had he been identified and interrupted sooner. That is where attention should be directed.

I promise, there is good news to come of all of this. I think our collective understanding of this complicated phenomenon is becoming more sophisticated. In the wake of the Royal Commission and Leaving Neverland, Dan Reed’s 2019 documentary about Michael Jackson, we are being forced to navigate the inconvenient truths and uncomfortable complexities of what child sexual abuse usually looks like. The #MeToo movement has raised our awareness of the vast scope and sliding scale of harassment, abuse and violence. The outing of various celebrities has forced us to confront the duality that someone who we loved, laughed at or looked up to could ‘engage in questionable conduct’ or even commit an abhorrent crime. There’s more to every story. There was more to the men I interviewed, and there are more lessons to share from what I’ve learnt.

There is not a single pathway into offending, in the same way there is not a single pathway out of or away from crime. Because of exactly these complexities, we should not expect that a singular pathway through a singular criminal justice system will work equally well for every survivor, every perpetrator or every situation. As Ross notes:

If you know who [sex offenders] really are, then you know that they’re your brothers, they’re your fathers, they’re your cousins, they’re your priests, they’re your pastors, they’re your policemen, they’re your teachers, they’re your scoutmasters, they’re your best friends, they’re people that you love, they’re people that you care about.

And if we have to face that that’s who these monsters are, then we have to find a way to treat them differently.

Many myths and misperceptions have led to the construction of a system that fails on every front. We don’t do enough to educate ourselves about prevention. We don’t offer enough support to victims, survivors or their families. The fact that so many survivors recant at exactly the time when their voice is most important is a testament to how much our system is failing them. We should do better. We end up capturing only the low-hanging fruit. The offenders who usually get arrested are the ones who make mistakes, who leave evidence behind, who say the wrong thing to the police or who haven’t got access to the resources for a good defence.

Furthermore, we don’t do enough to apprehend the persistent ones. We can’t pick the fruit we can’t see. And we can’t pursue the socially competent paedophiles if we’re not looking for them. We know now that we tend not to discover them until it’s too late. We need to get better at detecting not just the ones who groom their victims, but the ones who groom their victim’s parents, their victim’s families; who prepare their staff; who manicure their environment; who engineer everything, who control everyone; and who manipulate their world (or the whole world) to believe that nothing’s wrong.


A QUESTION I’M frequently asked is ‘Can sexual offenders be rehabilitated?’ If rehabilitation is defined as the act of restoring someone to a condition of good health, to restore the ability to work, to re-establish the good reputation of a person’s character, to restore one’s former rank, rights or privilege, I think it is possible, for some people, under some circumstances, some of the time. A sea turtle with a broken fin is ‘rehabilitated’ when it learns to fend for itself in the wild. A woman who has a hip replacement is ‘rehabilitated’ when she can walk again. A man convicted of a sexual offence who has successfully completed treatment, learned to express empathy, understands the harm he has caused, has something to lose, has stakes in conformity and is deterred by returning to jail can absolutely reach a point of no longer engaging in sexual crime.

Yet it almost doesn’t matter whether convicted sex offenders can be rehabilitated because they are never really given the opportunity. A person who has entered the criminal justice system for the commission of a sexual crime is never allowed to not wear that label. As a society, we are literally at a loss for words for how to speak differently about them. A man who has abused substances can be in recovery, but our lack of similar language for someone who has committed a sexual offence speaks to our rejection of their recovery ever being a success. Even decades after the offence and years after release, many US treatment programs require clients to acknowledge that they continue to be at perpetual risk of reoffending to graduate from treatment programs. In this catch-22 situation, participants must admit to their crime to be referred for treatment, accept a designation of ‘sexually dangerous person’ to receive intervention and acknowledge their lifelong risk to satisfy treatment requirements. Of course, they can never be discharged fully if they are assessed to still be at risk of reoffending.

Where other research has observed the phenomenon of net-widening – where systemic changes have led to more people being ‘caught in the net’ (being reported, identified, charged, convicted and so on), I would argue that the net now being much finer is of greater concern. We’ve drafted legislation, derived risk-assessment tools, and designed and delivered treatment programs which cater to an extremely select group – the people who’ve been apprehended for only the most serious crimes – and then we’ve applied those special pieces of legislation, written for the narrowest of circumstances, to anyone who comes to the attention of authorities for even a minor infraction of a somewhat sexual nature. We now catch people for whom the original net was never built – people charged with indecent exposure; people engaged in consensual underage sex. This distortion has led to the extreme point where there are now breastfeeding mothers with criminal records for indecent exposure on the public registry in the US. 

Our criminal justice system fails on every front and reflects neither current literature nor best practice. We can better serve our victims by facilitating safe disclosure, believing and validating every survivor’s story and, quite simply, granting them a voice and a role in this process. We must centre their experience at all stages of the criminal justice system. We must also focus our enforcement and apprehension beyond the low-hanging fruit and recalibrate what risk and harm look like.

We are getting better at identifying some of the traits and behaviours of those persistent but not-yet-identified offenders, and that is where we should squarely direct our resources. Very few individuals who are convicted of sexual offences will repeat, persist or escalate that behaviour. We need to simultaneously encourage reporting and disclosure of the undetected cases while acknowledging the fact that most of the people we apprehend will likely never reoffend. People can do terrible things and come to not do them again. People can do terrible things and not be terrible people forever. People can also present themselves as being one thing to one person (or many people) while, in other circumstances, also being capable of unspeakable acts.

For too long, the field of child sexual abuse prevention has been consumed with the ideas of risk, relapse and recidivism. Imagine inverting this risk paradigm to instead concentrate on the possibility of rehabilitation for those who earn it, and redemption for those who deserve it. Failing to appreciate the extraordinary heterogeneity of those individuals who end up convicted of sexual offences provides a massive disservice to the many low-level, situationally induced individuals who will soon be released, who show potential for desistance and who are desperate for assistance when the prison door closes behind them.

Robust evidence now demonstrates that the twenty-year legislative experiment of public sex offender registration and notification in the US has been an abject failure. These approaches are not supported by any empirical research, and studies now demonstrate unequivocally that they have not measurably improved community safety or reduced recidivism. We should learn from the US’s mistakes. Yet in Australia, there are continuing calls for a public register. This would divert limited resources from already overworked law enforcement that is much better placed to investigate current and prevent future crimes. We already use GPS monitoring in some Australian jurisdictions and parole boards can enforce restrictions on where individuals can reside upon release (up to one kilometre away from certain landmarks). We already have a state-wide register that is managed by law enforcement. If we aspire to evidence-based practice, this is not it; we can do better. With community-wide intervention and awareness-raising that starts much sooner, prevention of child sexual abuse is possible.

It is utterly understandable that as a community, and in this moment in history, we are feeling overwhelmed. It seems that every week new allegations emerge, more survivors come forward, other celebrities are disgraced; it is hard to take it all in. It’s important to hold a space for that, but I am optimistic. You see, if I’ve learned anything from my research in this space, it’s that knowledge is power and communication is key. I am hopeful that we are reaching a tipping point, and that the more we learn, the more empowered we will feel to observe, detect, communicate, intervene in and prevent child sexual abuse.

If my mother taught me to talk, my daughter taught me to listen. Child sexual abuse is almost entirely preventable, but it requires us to better communicate with each other and engage in more difficult conversations than we have so far been willing to have. Those stranger-danger lessons from childhood don’t help when the abuse is committed by a known adult in one’s circle of trust. The other question I’m often asked is, ‘Wouldn’t you want to know if a sex offender lived in your street?’ The problem is the phrase ‘sex offender’ applies only to those people who have been caught. Sure, knowledge is power, but the knowledge needs to be correct and the power needs to be legitimate. I’m not especially worried about the likelihood of recidivism by sex offenders who are leaving custody. Many released sex offenders return to communities that didn’t want them in the first place; they are disenfranchised, unemployable pariahs who are struggling to find safe and affordable accommodation, and they are already under close supervision. They warrant concern for their wellbeing, but our fear of them violently reoffending is misplaced.

I worry about the perpetrators we haven’t caught. I worry about the offenders who elude the authorities. I worry about the people whose neighbours say ‘But he seemed like such a nice guy’ after he’s led away in handcuffs, or the people whose friends, colleagues and fans are so deep in denial they refuse to accept that such an allegation is possible at all.

I worry about all of this, but I don’t communicate it to my daughter in that way. I don’t want her to be scared of walking to the shops and I don’t want her to fear every adult in her life. Instead, in my family, we focus on behaviours and situations that might make you feel unsafe. These lessons are never about individual people. We focus neither on strangers nor family members. We communicate about this regularly and honestly so that she has a language available to her should she need it. We instil confidence in her to speak up and use her voice. I don’t want her to be lost for words.

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