Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Q&A with Andrew J. Harris, co-author of “What’s in a Name? Evaluating the Effects of the ‘Sex Offender’ Label on Public Opinions and Beliefs”

Harris, A. J., & Socia, K. (2015) What’s in a Name? Evaluating the Effects of the “Sex Offender” Label on Public Opinions and Beliefs. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. ifirst


Particularly over the past two decades, the terms sex offender and juvenile sex offender (JSO) have attained increasingly common usage in media and public policy discourse. Although often applied as factual descriptors, the labels may evoke strong subconscious associations with a population commonly presumed to be compulsive, at high risk of re-offense, and resistant to rehabilitation. Such associations, in turn, may exert considerable impact on expressions of support for certain policies as well as public beliefs and opinions about adults and youth who have perpetrated sexual offenses. The current study systematically evaluated the impact of the “sex offender” and “JSO” labels through series of items administered to a nationally stratified and matched sample from across the United States. The study employed an experimental design, in which one group of participants (n = 498) ranked their levels of agreement with a series of statements utilizing these labels, and a control group (n = 502) responded to a matched set of statements substituting the labels with more neutral descriptive language. Findings support the hypothesis that use of the “sex offender” label strengthens public support for policies directed at those who have perpetrated sexual crimes, including public Internet disclosure, residency restrictions, and social networking bans. The “JSO” label is demonstrated to produce particularly robust effects, enhancing support for policies that subject youth to public Internet notification and affecting beliefs about youths’ propensity to re-offend as adults. Implications for public policy, media communication, and research are explored and discussed.

Could you talk us through where the idea for the research came from?

It was a product of a fortuitous opportunity, some general concepts we had kicking around, and a few magical pints of Guinness.  

The opportunity came from the UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion, which fields an annual internet panel survey of U.S. adults and solicits faculty proposals for submit question batteries to be included in the survey. When the 2014 RFP came out, Kelly Socia and I started brainstorming survey ideas related to sex offender management policy. We met up one evening at the Old Court, an Irish bar in downtown Lowell, with our colleague Josh Dyck, a political scientist who co-directs the Center.  At some point, the conversation shifted to the use of survey experiments in public opinion research - we began thinking that some sort of experimental manipulation might contribute to the literature on public perceptions toward those who have committed sex offenses.  I’m not completely certain, but I think the idea of focusing the experiment specifically on the effects of the “sex offender” label ultimately came to me the next morning in the shower.

The survey has produced some great data — beyond the items we developed for the experiment, we have collected survey data related to citizen perceptions of sex crimes, registry usage, beliefs about policy, and trust of research evidence.  We hope to have analyses from some of those results published over the next year.   

What kinds of challenges did you face throughout the process?

Methodologically, this project was fairly straightforward - we were very fortunate to have a turn-key method of data collection and a reasonably clean and manageable dataset that required minimal recoding.   We were also able to meet our analytic goals without employing terribly complex methods.   Our biggest challenge, I think, related to developing a cohesive explanatory framework to ground the study.  Our hypotheses concerning the possible effects of the “sex offender” label were mostly driven by gut intuition — our challenge was to identify the relevant strands of research and theory to support these hypotheses and to ultimately frame our results in the context of the broader literature.  We ended up drawing on insights from psychology and behavioral economics related to heuristic processing, and from political science and public opinion research focused on framing effects.  Our reviewers and our action editor Michael Seto offered some very helpful feedback that was instrumental in refining our thinking related to our theoretical assumptions and our explanations of our results.  

What kinds of things did you learn about co-authorship as a result of producing this article?

Although Kelly and I have done some work together and exchanged ideas over the past couple of years, this was our first significant collaborative effort.  As I mentioned, this study is just one part of a larger undertaking, and we have adopted a kind of “divide and conquer” approach.  I think we each bring something unique to a project such as this. I’ve been analyzing and thinking about public policy issues for a long time, and am pretty comfortable with mixed methods research - sort of in a “jack of all trades, master of none” kind of way. Kelly is light years ahead of me in terms of methodological sophistication - there is stuff that we are working on that there is no way I conceivably do only own.  We also have been working with Josh Dyck on some of the follow-up research, and it’s been particularly exciting to be able to draw upon his expertise and alternative theoretical perspectives he brings as a political scientist as a scholar of public opinion.   

What do you believe to be the main things that you have learnt about the labeling of sex offenders, and what are some implications for practitioners?

It’s no great revelation that labels carry significant weight in how we think about certain groups - and there’s been some really interesting work done related to the language and narratives of sex offender legislation.  Some commonly employed terms, such as “sexual predator,” carry strong metaphorical overtones - their use in political and media discourse is designed to evoke fear and dread, and their overuse can produce some less-than-optimal policies.   Most of us in the research and practice communities implicitly recognize the power of such labels, and we bristle when we hear them broadly applied to the universe of people who have committed sexual offenses.   

The term “sex offender” is different -- we have come to treat it as a value-neutral descriptive term for a person who has committed a sexual offense.  We use it all the time in the context of research and practice, often without giving it second thought.  Yet our study suggests that the effects of this label are not benign — evoking the term “sex offender” seems directly associated with levels of support for more restrictive and punitive policies, and the term “juvenile sex offender” seems to have particularly pronounced effects on how citizens view youth who have sexually offended.  For practitioners, researchers, and anyone engaged in policy work, we need to recognize that these terms are far from neutral in their effects. 

1 comment:

  1. I've lived with the label "sexual predator" (the process for determining this was very arbitrary) and it has been a nightmare. That is why I spend my days fighting back against sex offender laws. Until this label is removed, why bother going out and getting a "real" job or get married and have a traditional life? Instead of wasting a million on the "efficacy" of SORNA (here's a hint, it doesn't work), the money would better be spent abolishing the registry and providing real treatment, including reintegration programs for those who served time.