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Interview with a sex offender

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Bethany Davies is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.

“Was this your first arrest?”

“Yes I’ve been in trouble with the police before, but just like cautions, like some old man called the police because we played football on the grass near his house. That was literally only about a couple months before i got arrested… for rape.”

I had just turned 20 years old when I conducted my first interview with a sex offender.  I was prepping for my dissertation in the summer before my final year, conducting research in a probation office I volunteered at. I was allowed to observe, teach and in the final week I would be able to interview 3 males I had been observing. I interviewed the first two males who both I had taught some very basic numeracy skills to, they were both as they were in my observations, very calm and just trying to get through each day without breaching their probation orders.  My final interview was with a young male who I had been helping prepare to apply for a construction worker card, which would allow him to apply for building work. In my months of observing and teaching him I felt like he was no different to males I went to school with or anyone you would pass on the street. I did not want to know what his crime was, as a probation mentor that was never my focus, nor my business to know.

Ethically speaking, I was challenged by the idea that I was conducting an interview and research with the consent of an individual who in my eyes did not understand the concept of consent. That may seem like a harmful way to view this man and the outlook of his time in probation as ultimately it was about reform and reintegration after his time in prison. I have progressed a lot since this day and I no longer view this person so hopelessly in my memory, then again, I am unsure of what he is doing now.

Each time I remember the interview and my experience there, I have different thoughts and different feelings, which I suppose is human nature. I also get annoyed at myself that I cannot seem to understand  or rather pinpoint my own thoughts on it, I go between thinking what I did (teaching) was a good thing and it may have helped him, to thinking what I did was waste my time on someone who probably didn’t deserve it in many people’s eyes.

I had always felt I was very understanding of those labelled ‘ex-offenders’ and the cycle they can become trapped in. But before this experience, I had always worked with those whose crimes seemed relatively minor comparatively. Sexual violence is not something to me that is as simple to categorise or try to understand.  I remember getting home a few hours later and sobbing for a victim I knew nothing about other than her perpetrator.

The experience has always stuck with me and made me appreciate the complexity of not only sexual offences but also the role of reform with sexual offences. It has led me to explore research around sexual violence and I have recently been exploring the work of Elizabeth Stanko and also revisiting my books by Susan Brownmiller. Both examine the role of the victim of sexual violence and raise questions about how historically sexual violence has been viewed.

This is a personal experience and not something I think everyone will relate to, but from experiences shared, there are lessons to be learnt.

Congratulations, but no Celebrations

A few weeks ago, Sir Cliff Richard won his high court case against the BBC over the coverage of a police raid on his home, the raid relating to an investigation into historical sex abuse.  I remember watching the coverage on the BBC and thinking at the time that somehow it wasn’t right.  It wasn’t necessarily that his house had been raided that pricked my conscience but the fact that the raid was being filmed for a live audience and sensationalised as the cameras in the overhead helicopter zoomed into various rooms.  A few days later in the sauna at my gym I overheard a conversation that went along the lines of ‘I’m not surprised, I always thought he was odd; paedo just like Rolf Harris’.  And so, the damage is done, let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good gossip and I dare say a narrative that was repeated up and down the country.  But Sir Cliff was never charged nor even arrested, he is innocent.

The case reminded me of something similar in 2003 where another celebrity Matthew Kelly was accused of child sex abuse. He was arrested but never charged, his career effectively took a nose dive and never recovered.  He too is innocent and yet is listed amongst many others on a website called the Creep Sheet.  The name synonymous with being guilty of something unsavoury and sinister, despite a lack of evidence.  The way some of the papers reported that no charges were to be brought, suggested he had ‘got away with it’.

The BBC unsuccessfully sought leave to appeal in the case of Sir Cliff Richard and is considering whether to take the matter to the appeal court.  Their concern is the freedom of the press and the rights of the public, citing public interest.  Commentary regarding the case suggested that the court judgement impacted victims coming forward in historical abuse cases.  Allegations therefore need to be publicised to encourage victims to come forward.  This of course helps the prosecution case as evidence of similar fact can be used or in the view of some, abused (Webster R 2002).  But what of the accused, are they to be thrown to the wolves?

Balancing individual freedoms and the rights of others including the press is an almost impossible task.  The focus within the criminal justice system has shifted and some would say not far enough in favour of victims.  What has been forgotten though, is the accused is innocent until proven guilty and despite whatever despicable crimes they are accused of, this is a maxim that criminal justice has stood by for centuries. Whilst the maxim appears to be generally true in court processes, it does not appear to be so outside of court. Instead there has been a dramatic shift from the general acceptance of the maxim ‘innocent until proven guilty’ to a dangerous precedent, which suggests through the press, ‘there’s no smoke without fire’.  It is easy to make allegations, not easy to prove them and even more difficult to disprove them.  And so, a new maxim, ‘guilty by accusation’.  The press cannot complain about their freedoms being curtailed, when they stomp all over everyone else’s.

Upskirting: A new criminal offence but will the legislation do the job?

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Upskirting for anyone who has not come across the term is the act of taking unauthorised pictures under a skirt or kilt to capture images of the crotch area and sometimes genitalia. It tends to happen in crowded public places making it difficult to spot when it is happening. The resulting images are often distributed on the internet, usually interlinked with pornographic or fetish sites and present a multitude of moral and legal issues surrounding privacy, decency and consent. In some instances, the victim is identifiable from the image but in many they are not and are often unaware that such images even exist. This type of behaviour is not new but the development of technology, most notably camera phones has facilitated the practice as has the ability to share these images online. In England and Wales there is currently no specific legislation banning such action because voyeurism only covers private spaces and outraging public decency requires a witness. As such, when victims of upskirting come forward there is currently little scope for prosecution although some successful prosecutions have occurred under the offence of outraging public decency.

Gina Martin, a freelance writer and victim of upskirting launched a campaign to get upskirting recognised as a specific crime and punishable under the Sexual Offences Act. This campaign has gained considerable momentum both publicly and politically and in March 2018 the Voyeurism (Offence) Bill was presented to the House of Commons. The bill was blocked by the objections of one MP on the grounds that there had been a ‘lack of debate’ and thus a breach of parliamentary procedure. The backlash to this objection was interesting, rather than acknowledging that this is a serious issue worthy of parliamentary debate a humiliating and somewhat bullying approach was taken in the form of ‘pants bunting’ being hung outside of his Commons office. While I might not agree with some of the past actions of this MP his argument that new laws need to be debated if we (the UK) are to stand up for freedom and democracy is an important one. Upskirting is a serious breach of privacy and decency and therefore needs proper debate if the resulting legislation is going to be more than a knee-jerk reaction to public outrage. Such legislation often results in the need for multiple revisions in order for it to efficiency and effectively tackle such behaviour. For example, the proposed burden of proof in the original bill alongside the limited scope of the bill[1] would likely have limited prosecutions rather than facilitating them. Unfortunately, with just three months between the original bill and the revised Voyeurism (Offences) (No.2)) Bill, which was successfully introduced to the House of Commons in June 2018, the extent to which sufficient informed debate has occurred remains questionable.

[1] See the comments by Clare McGlynn (professor at Durham University) in Sabbagh and Ankel (2018) Call for upskirting bill to include ‘deepfake’ pornography ban. The Guardian [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/21/call-for-upskirting-bill-to-include-deepfake-pornography-ban. [Accessed: 17 August 2018].

A help or a hindrance: The Crime Survey of England and Wales

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I recently took part in the Crime Survey for England and Wales and, in the absence of something more interesting to talk about, I thought I would share with you how exchanging my interviewer hat for an interviewee one gave me cause to consider the potential impact that I could have on the data and the validity of the data itself. My reflections start with the ‘incentive’ used to encourage participation, which took the shape of a book of 6 first class stamps accompanying the initial selection letter.  This is not uncommon and on the surface, is a fair way of encouraging or saying thank you to participants. Let’s face it, who doesn’t like a freebie especially a useful one such as stamps which are now stupidly expensive. The problem comes when you consider the implications of the gesture and the extent to which this really is a ‘freebie’, for instance in accepting the stamps was I then morally obliged to participate? There was nothing in the letter to suggest that if you didn’t want to take part you needed to return the stamps, so in theory at least I was under no obligation to participate when the researcher knocked on the door but in practice refusing to take part while accepting the stamps, would have made me feel uncomfortable. While the question of whether a book of first class stamps costing £3.90 (Royal Mail, 2018) truly equates to 50 minutes of my time is a moot point, the practice of offering incentives to participate in research raises a moral and/or ethical question of whether or not participation remains uncoerced and voluntary.

My next reflection is slightly more complex because it relates to the interconnected issues associated with the nature and construction of the questions themselves. Take for example the multitude of questions relating to sexual offending and the way in which similar questions are asked with the alteration of just one or two words such as ‘in the last 12 months’ or ‘in your lifetime’. If you were to not read the questions carefully, or felt uncomfortable answering such questions in the presence of a stranger and thus rushed them, you could easily provide an inaccurate answer. Furthermore, asking individuals if they have ‘ever’ experiences sexual offending (all types) raises questions for me as a researcher regarding the socially constructed nature of the topic. While the law around sexual offending is black and white and thus you either have or haven’t experienced what is defined by law as a sexual offence, such questions fail to acknowledge the social aspect of this offence and the way in which our own understanding, or acceptance of certain behaviours has changed over time. For instance, as an 18 year old I may not have considered certain behaviours within a club environment to be sexual assault in the same way that I might do now. With maturity, education and life experience our perception of behaviour changes as do our acceptance levels of them. In a similar vein, society’s perception of such actions has changed over time, shifting from something that ‘just happens’ to something that is unacceptable and inappropriate. I’m not saying that the action itself was right back then and is now wrong, but that quantitative data collected hold little value without a greater understanding of the narrative surrounding it. Such questions are only ever going to demonstrate (quantitatively) that sexual offending is problematic, increasing, and widely experienced. If we are honest, we have always known this, so the publication of quantitative figures does little to further our understanding of the problem beyond being able to say ‘x number of people have experienced sexual offending in their lifetime’. Furthermore, the clumping together of all, or certain sexual offences muddies the water further and fails to acknowledge the varying degree of severity and impact of offences on individuals and groups within society.

Interconnected with this issue of question relevance, is the issue of question construction. A number of questions ask you to reflect upon issues in your ‘local area’, with local being defined as being within a 10-15 minute walk of your home, which for me raised some challenges. Firstly, as I live in a village it was relatively easy for me to know where I could walk to in 10/15 minutes and thus the boundary associated with my responses but could the same be said for someone who 1) doesn’t walk anywhere or 2) lives in an urban environment? This issue is made more complex when it comes to knowing what crimes are happening in the ‘local’ area, firstly because not everyone is an active community member (as I am) therefore making any response speculative unless they have themselves been a victim of crime – which is not what these questions are asking. Secondly, most people spend a considerable amount of time away from home because of work, so can we really provide useful information on crime happening in an area that we spend little time in? In short, while the number of responses to these questions may alleviate some of these issues the credibility, and in turn usefulness of this data is questionable.

I encountered similar problems when asked about the presence and effectiveness of the local police. While I occasionally see a PCSO I have no real experience or accurate knowledge of their ‘local’ efficiency or effectiveness, not because they are not doing a good job but because I work away from home during the day, austerity measures impact on police performance and thus police visibility, and I have no reason to be actively aware of them. Once again, these questions will rely on speculative responses or those based on experiences of victimisation which is not what the question is actually asking. All in all, it is highly unlikely that the police will come out favourable to such questions because they are not constructed to elicit a positive response and give no room for explanation of your answer.

In starting this discussion, I realise that there is so much more I could say, but as I’ve already exceeded my word limit I’ll leave it here and conclude by commenting that although I was initially pleased to be part of something that we as Criminologist use in our working lives, I was left questioning its true purpose and whether my knowledge of the field actually allowed me to be an impartial participant.

 

Do you consent to read on?

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The more eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted that @manosdaskalou and I are due to present during ‘I Heart Consent’ Week (still plenty of time to book a space!). The topic – ‘Consent in the Classroom’ is one that is close to our hearts and something we have discussed in different environments with different people. In this week’s entry I want to consider why the subject of consent is particularly  important for criminologists.

An obvious area to start is research; ethics are fundamental to all of the projects we do from undergraduate all the way through to seasoned academic. Discussions around ensuring participants are able to fully engage in the process of gaining informed consent are imperative. At times this may be viewed as procedural; simply going through the motions but given the sensitivity of much criminological research it has a primacy and an urgency necessary to avoid harm.

The last few weeks have seen a flurry of accusations directed at Hollywood’s “finest” (cf. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Ed Westwick et al.) and government ministers and MPs (cf. Michael Fallon, Stephen Crabb, Kelvin Hopkins et al.). These often, light on factual evidence and heavy on prurient judgement, throw the spotlight once more on the issue of sexual consent.  These cases are concerning on many levels and it is apparent from much of the discussion which often ensues whether on television, radio, in the newspapers or on social media, that many people are confused around the very nature of consent. Attempts have been made to counteract these lack of knowledge, often in creative ways; for example ‘Consent: It’s as simple as tea’ but looking at many of the comments, there is still a great deal of work to do. There are also wider issues in relation to consent; the absence of the victims’ consent to have their information paraded to feed the public’s desire for detail Likewise, the nature of summary justice being dispensed (e.g. expulsion from organisations, cancellation of contracts and resignations) deprives suspects of their right to defend themselves in court; there is no option for those suspected to opt for a trial by media.

Notwithstanding, the imperative to understand sexual consent, for Criminology, there is a further complication. When much, if not all crime, criminality and criminal justice, is predicated on the absence of consent, the issue becomes even more tenacious. If we consider that victims don’t consent, offenders may not consent to what ensues; certainly the criminal justice system’s [CJS] apparatus deliberately and meticulously removes consent throughout the process. Even when it comes to the professionals who work within the CJS, they may not consent, rather they are obeying guidance/policy/instructions/orders (delete as appropriate). After all, it cannot be consent if derived at the barrel of a gun, or in a police interview suite or a prison cell or when the economic situation is so bleak you are terrified of losing your job. When there is no room for manoeuvre, there can be no consent. Institutions and individuals may decide that this is a necessary price to pay in respect of crime and punishment, but that decision should never be taken without reflection.

All of the above shows the importance of consent, not only between the sheets, but in all aspects of criminology. Whatever side of criminal justice you might find yourself on, an understanding of consent is essential.

 

Leave my country

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One image, one word, one report can generate so much emotion and discussion.  The image of the naked girl running away from a napalm bombed village, the word “paedo” used in tabloids to signal particular cases and reports such as the Hillsborough or the Lamy reports which brought centre stage major social issues that we dare not talk about.*

Regardless of the source, it is those media that make a cultural statement making an impact that in some cases transcends their time and forms our collective consciousness.  There are numerous images, words and reports, and we choose to make some of these symbols that explain our theory of the world around us.

It was in the news that I saw a picture of a broken window, a stone and a sign next to it: “Leave my country”.  The sign was held by an 11 year old refugee with big brown eyes asking why.  This is not the only image that made it to the news this week; some days ago following the fatal car crash in New York the image of a 29 year old suspect from Uzbekistan appeared everywhere.  These two images are of course unconnected across continents and time but there is some semiology worth noting.

We make sense of the world around us by observing.  It is the media that are our eyes helping us to explore this wider world and witness relationships, events and situations that we may never considered possible.  It must have been a very different world when over a century ago news of the sinking of the Titanic came through.  We store images and words that help us define the way our world functions.  In criminology, words are always attached to emotion and prejudice.

I deliberately chose two images: a victimised child and an adult suspect of an act of terror.  They have nothing in common other than both appear foreign in the way I understand those who are not like me.  Of course neither of these images is personally relatable to me but their story is compelling for different reasons.  Then of course as I explore both stories and images, I wonder what is that remains of my understanding of the foreigner?

Last year, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo produced a caricature of what would little Aylan would have done if he was to grow up, presented as a sex pest.  The caricature caused public outcry but at the time, like this week, I started considering the images and their meanings.  Do we put stories together based on the images we see around us?  If that is a way of defining and explaining our social world then the imagery of good and bad foreigners, young and old, victims and villains may merge in a deconstruction of social reality that defines the foreigner.  In that case and at that point the sign next to the 11 year old may not be voiced but it can become an implicit collective objective.

*At this stage I would like to mention that I was considering to write about the media’s “surprise” over the abuse allegations following revelations for a Hollywood producer but decide not to, due to the media’s attempt to saturate one of the most significant social issues of our times with other studies with varying levels of credibility.  We observed a similar situation after the Jimmy Saville case.

 

Welcome Week

 

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Every year in late autumn, all universities prepare to welcome new students onto their campuses.  In the media, we know this as “Freshers week”, a period when new students become familiar with university life.  Throughout the years this particular week has grown in importance for the students’ social life, activities and other out of classroom activities.  Students can taste the nightlife of the campus and that of the nearby town, engage in group activities, join a society and of course have, in many cases, their first taste of independence away from home.  For the University, it is the first opportunity to engage students and get them involved in societies, volunteering and other after hours activities.  

Year by year, this week is becoming increasingly important for the student calendar.  

Returning students participate and graduating students remember when they were involved.  A clear watershed moment in the student diary, so much so that special wristbands are produced and different special events are organised, only for this week.  There is clearly some attraction, into being part of “freshers” so strong, that is now recorded into our collective vernacular.  Finally, the freshers apart from the commercial, cultural attractions, is even connected with health, the infamous “freshers flu” is presented as the scourge for many students who will suffer some ill-health in their first term at Uni/life.      

For an academic welcome week is interpreted differently.  It is definitely an important week because it signifies the start to another form of education.  It is transitional in terms of age for those who just crossed the 18 year old threshold marking the first part of adult education.  It is a declaration of independence for many students and the time to make one of the many transitions into the world of academia.  

This is why, instead of wristbands, I was frantically preparing my plenary lecture last week.  Every year, I dig deep inside to find something that will signal to our newest cohort why I feel so passionate about criminology.  This year, using the 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality, I considered the importance of criminology, as a discipline.  The main points focused on the multidisciplinary nature of criminology, the ability of criminology to holistically explore complex phenomena and the immense service, criminology offers to understanding crime from a dynamic/ever changing standpoint.  The reason for going through the “pains” of delivering a plenary is clear to me: welcome week is the first week of the next three years of academic study.  The start of a wider conversation that allows lay people to embrace those skills that will allow them to understand, evaluate, critique and argue with evidence and knowledge.  Unfortunately there is no wristband for that, only a certificate at the end of the road, that will just about quell the thirst for knowledge.  For many, this thirst will grow further and whilst the wristband may fade and the band attended may break-up, the knowledge that our students will acquire will be with them forever.  This is the tool we offer and this is the beginning of how we do it.  

To all of our new students, Welcome!

The black hole of danger aka online dating

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Like so many other singles in the world I decided to join the realms of online dating. Little did I know what I would encounter and the subsequent conversations that would unfold in the office. So, this week’s blog is a reflection on some of those criminogenic discussions that have both amused and appalled us over the last couple of week. I have to start by saying that, on the whole, there are a lot of nice genuine people out there just looking for ‘the one’. That said, this perspective was put into question on Tuesday when I received my first ‘dick pic’. Not being someone who takes this sort of thing too seriously I giggled and deleted the person, however it raised a number of questions about behaviour and our responses to it. For example, on a personal level why was I not offended? Has this type of behaviour become the norm? Is it something that women now expect or at least accept? It’s a big step up from a wolf whistle in the street or the honking horn and leery comment shouted from the window of a passing car.

In essence this is a sex crime, whether you class it as distribution of pornographic material or indecent exposure it is a crime and therefore raises the question of whether I have a moral and or legal obligation to protect other women by reporting it. Yet here in lies the problem, firstly the most the site can or will do is to delete the user who will ultimately just create another profile, secondly in the grand scheme of things the police have neither the resources nor inclination to investigate. Whilst these are pertinent considerations, the fact that I didn’t report it but instead deleted him (and his picture I might add) has, upon reflection, little to do with the potential response and more to do with the perception of risk. The lack of physical proximity provides a sense of security, albeit tenuous, that you wouldn’t have if this happened to you in the street.

In the online world I have a relatively safe profile and I can delete or block those who cause me offence. Whilst it is true that nothing we do online is truly anonymous, there is a sense of detachment created by the lack of proximity and direct risk which can turn deviant behaviour into something abstract. Is that why someone who is otherwise a law-abiding citizen or at least not a sexual predator feels that it is appropriate to send a relative stranger such images? I do wonder whether they actually make the link between physical actions and virtual ones. I suspect that if confronted most of them would not see their behaviour as criminal or even comparable to someone who exposes himself in public.

The more concerning aspect of this is the potential emotional and psychological damage that could be done. While I spent my youth working in clubs and pubs, exposed to a range of male behaviours and thus gained the experience to navigate this terrain, can the same be said for today’s younger population for whom the internet and online dating may be the norm. This led me to consider my daughters and how to prepare them for this online version of the world that I experienced in the physical. How do I explain why guys would send such pictures to an unknown woman when I can’t even begin to fathom that out myself? How do I prepare them for the emotional roller coaster of online dating where a text message lacks the physical prompts needed to decipher it and can easily lead to confusion, misinterpretation, sexual exploitation and psychological harm. Where parenting is concerned the internet and online dating presents a black hole of danger and one which I’ll have to navigate with care if I want to protect my daughters from the ‘dick pic’ senders of the world.

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