By David Prescott, LICSW, Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D, & Kieran McCartan, Ph.D
A recent article questioned a poetic contribution to a magazine. Outwardly, the question was whether the submission from a person convicted of possessing child sexual abuse materials should be included in a magazine highlighting the work of those serving time in prison. One implication of this is that even when the magazine is focused on compositions by people who are incarcerated, people who sexually abuse should still be excluded. It further implies that people convicted of sexual crimes are markedly different from people convicted of any other offense. In our rational minds, we can say “all offenses are different, and the impact is determined by the context and outcome.” We know, however, that this is not always the case as the labels involved in certain offenses can take on a life of their own and can derail the desistence and integration process. One wonders what other kinds of crimes were reflected in the backgrounds of the contributors. Would someone who had sexually assaulted an adult elicit a similar response? What about a murderer
Of course, a broader implication is that that people who have sexually abused children are inherently irredeemable, even more so than people who have committed rape or other crimes (e.g., Kernsmith et al., 2009). Why is that? Why are people who abuse children, so often regarded as more dangerous and untreatable than others? While some immediate answers are obvious (in addition to evoking a need to provide care and concern, children are inherently more vulnerable and unable to defend themselves), all of our extant research demonstrates the opposite, from the recidivism research in the late 1990s and 2000’s to the more refined studies finding that desistance is the norm. Large-scale studies have found that the longer someone remains crime-free in the community the less likely they are to be accused of a sex crime.
It’s vital to separate our responses to the severity of the crime from our understanding of actual re-offense risk and capacity for change. This means sorting fact from fiction; we have to understand that perceptions of offending do not equate to the reality of recidivism risk or the often-strong desire and ability of these individuals to change and to make amends. The way that we think about sexual offending is understandably colored by our perception (or more accurately misperception), of what we what these individuals seem to be. It’s easy and comfortable to assume they are radically different from us and simply best expunged from society. It’s just not that simple.
One component of the article was that it can be retraumatizing for people to see the contributions of someone they had learned to be afraid of. Balancing the rights, needs, and welfare of people who have caused harm and those who either been harmed or anticipate harm has long been the work of professionals in our field. Ultimately, there are no answers that will satisfy everybody. However, as we become more trauma-informed and start to embrace rehabilitative culture in prisons (please see the work of the late Ruth Mann and colleagues on this) we have to recognize that promoting desistence and integration means seeing the potential for change in people regardless of who they are or what they have done. This involves cautious and managed optimism.
In the 1990s, after reading a vivid description of intimate partner violence in an autobiography of Miles Davis, one of the authors (David) sold off his Davis CD collection as a kind of protest. The problem with this action came when it was obvious how many others in David’s music collection had also beaten their partners. Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, soul singer James Brown, even John Lennon and many others have had histories of engaging in egregious and violent behaviors. David ultimately concluded that experiencing humanity necessarily involves observing the best and worst of what people are capable of.
David is not the only one with such reflexes. It is not acceptable anymore acknowledging that you like movies with Kevin Spacey or that you still laugh with Bill Cosby’s jokes. Notably, some are immediately expelled because of their violent or transgressive behaviors (e.g., Shia Lebouf), whereas others are more easily 'forgiven’ and are still in business (e.g., Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton). So do we keep up double standards? Why do we forgive some and condemn others? The challenge is not only an individual issue but also a community and societal issue: where are the collective lines drawn? It’s important to see how these issues are played out in society; sometimes the nuance and debate is there (Amber Heard and Johnny Deep) and sometimes it is not (Marylin Manson). Is this because disclosures and actions reinforce our stereotypes of people or are so jarring that we can’t accept them?
The question we have to ask ourselves is, what do we want the accused person to be and do? To constantly live with what they have done and with no possibility to move forward, which is potentially damaging for them, their victim(s), and the surrounding communities. Or do we want to see recognition of past harms, contrition for abuse, and the capacity to move on (which helps everyone). Kieran always found the idea of civil commitment or indeterminate sentencing as it’s known in the UK, interesting as it creates an environment of no hope, no future, and no motivation for change. If we are saying to people convicted of a sexual offense that they have to stop their offending behavior and change their mindset do we not also have to do the same, irrespective of how challenging it is? Should we not be saying that their poetry, if appropriate and relevant to the publication, should be included with the work of others serving out their criminal conviction? Changing comes through recognition and alignment, not separation.