Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Current storms in the UK demonstrate the need to think about sexual abuse prevention and accountability

By Kieran McCartan, PhD, Kasia Uzieblo, PhD., & David S. Prescott, LICSW

To say that the past couple of weeks in the UK has been turmoil is an understatement. We’ve seen the death of a monarch, a new prime minister, the cost-of-living crisis expanding, increase in gas and electricity prices, as well as a falling pound and a problematic financial outlook. In addition, there have been a number of criminal justice challenges, like the inquest into the death of 14-year-old Molly Ringwall, which highlighted the challenges and responsibilities of social media (it found they directly contributed to her suicide). There was also  a statement from members of Parliament that IPP (Indeterminate Imprisonment for Public Protection; the UK equivalent of Civil Commitment) are flawed and in need of reform and all prisoners on them need to be resentenced. Finally, there has been a recognition that the cost of living crisis puts more women and children at risk for domestic violence.  It’s been a challenging week on the topic of sexual abuse as well, with two news stories at either end of the offending spectrum that ask questions about prevention and response.

Last Friday a news story broke about a Finnish Ice Hockey player joining the UK Elite League team the Glasgow Clan. Lasse Uusivirta was charged with rape for an incident that occurred while he was a university student at UAH (University of Alabama in Huntsville) in 2013. He admitted the rape of an 18-year-old college student at the time but left the USA after he was charged but before he could be arrested. The USA authorities decided not to pursue the international case and return him to the country for trial but stated that the case was still active, and he would be arrested if he ever returned to the USA. It emerged over the course of the next 24 hours that the Glasgow Clan had been aware of this and either ignored it or tried to water it down. It resulted in the suspension of their Coach and General Manger on Friday morning and the rescinding of Uusivirta’s contract. Across this period, there was massive fan backlash against the club and sponsors threatening to pull funding  demanding that they be more socially and morally forthright. The incident raises a lot of questions about accountability and responsibility at an individual and corporate level. The issue is not about redemption or desistence from offending, but rather about accepting responsibly and being held to account by the state. The reality is that Uusivirta committed rape, admitted to it, and then left before he could be held accountable. Knowing this, the club attempted to boost their playing potential by ignoring his outstanding criminal accusations. Unfortunately, this is not the first, nor will it be the last, example where double standards of sports stars and athletes mean that clubs are willing to look the other way and not act with moral authority.

This doesn’t only happen in the UK. For instance, in Belgium, the soccer club of Antwerp appointed Marc Overmars as a new director, knowing that Overmars left a Dutch club, Ajax, just a month before his new appointment in Belgium because of sexual misconduct towards his colleagues. The club decided to do nothing despite the negative reactions surrounding the appointment of Overmars. After some of the Belgian club’s successes, you get the impression the misconduct never took place.

The players may be fugitives from justice and accountability, but the teams have made themselves fugitives from morality.

In the UK case, had there not been the backlash from the fans, sponsors, and media the team may not have changed their minds. This case clearly evidences the need to hold organizations to account and emphasizes the importance of the community voice in standing up to sexual abuse.

Another example of the lived reality of sexual abuse prevention came on Monday with the trial of Wayne Couzens, who was convicted of raping and murdering Sarah Everard while on duty as a police officer during the Covid-19 pandemic, for previous incidences of indecent exposure (i.e., exhibitionism). This led to a debate in the UK press about the role of exhibitionism as a predictor for contact offending. Exhibitionism is often seen as a nuisance crime, with several myths surrounding it about the psychological and social nature of the individuals that perpetrate it. Like all sexual crimes, it is under reported, but is believed to happen to one to two thirds of women at some point in their lives. By comparison to other sexual offenses, exhibitionism is significantly under researched with a lot of the evidence being old and outdated. However, the research does demonstrate relatively high recidivism rates and a likelihood of escalation from exhibitionism to contact offenses, 5-10%, but this is intertwined with other risk factors like antisocial behavior. The reality of this story was not about the underreported or problematic nature of exhibitionism, but rather if Wayne Couzen’s exhibitionism was a predictor of his future offending and the murder of Sarah. Would Sarah’s death have been prevented if there had been an intervention earlier on? It’s difficult to say, but it does raise the question of what are the role of risk predictors, how do we use them, and ultimately what interventions can be provided to reduce escalation?

Although these two cases seem different, they are not. They illustrate the importance of understanding the impact of sexual abuse across the lifespan, including in terms of prevention and risk of first time offending and in terms of accountability and desistance from offending. These cases highlight the individual complexity of sexual abuse and the need for an informed community, a professional response to it, and the responsibilities of all involved, including organisations and employers. Sexual abuse impacts us all and with the challenges that the UK (and western world) faces in the coming years with the cost-of-living crisis, these are set to increase the potential for a reduction in support services and greater likelihood of offending. While we have mostly left behind the Covid pandemic, we are still experiencing a sexual abuse pandemic which is soon to be followed by a larger poverty pandemic.

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