The ‘sex offender’ is the subject of intense media focus, public attention, political manipulation, as well as psychological, sociological and correctional interest. He is categorized, classified and vilified by the public, the media, the psy-disciplines and through diverse correctional practices. This paper dissects the social construction of the “sex offender” category, examines the resultant problems for the abolitionist stance, and proposes a way to move the conversation forward. I conceptualize what engaging with the issue of sexual harm would look like from an abolitionist perspective and explore various initiatives such as Circles of Support and Accountability, and other promising initiatives that would work well for people who are likely to or who have sexually harmed.
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I use the shorter and more popular term ‘sex offender’ when referring to a person who has been identified by social control agents as having committed a sexual offence against a child or an adult, and the longer—‘individual convicted of a sexual offence’—when questioning or critiquing this label. I avoid terms such as ‘paedophile’ or ‘child molester,’ both of which are used in the literature on sex offending, because ‘paedophile’ does not necessarily mean that one has sexually offended, but is rather a clinical diagnosis of a pathological sexual interest in children that does not indicate a person’s behaviour, and ‘child molester’ only refers to individuals with child victims thus excluding those with adult victims (DSM-5, 2013). ‘Sex offender’ is the label that is given by the state (i.e. the police, courts and correctional systems), the public, and the media to denote the person as having engaged in unlawful sexual behaviour. It is the label that sticks with the person on their journey through the criminal justice system and often long after they are no longer under its purview.
Kitzinger (1999) argues that “[c]hild sex abuse was ‘discovered’ by the modern media in the mid 1990s [leading to] a dramatic increase” in the coverage of issues related to the maltreatment of children. It was in the mid 1990s however, that the media became preoccupied with the ‘pedophile’ or sex offender as a threat to public safety. The mid 1990s, Kitzinger argues, saw intense debate among the public and picked up by the media, about the control and surveillance strategies released sex offenders were subjected to, and the role of the state to protect the public from them.
The masculine pronoun is used throughout this paper because most individuals identified as sex offenders are male.
The long-running television show Law & Order: SVU, which focuses on sexual crimes to the exclusion of other types of crimes is an apt example of this. The fact that this franchise of the original Law & Order show has been on air since 1999 is indicative of the ‘fascination’ and public ‘appetite’ for sexual offence stories.
I use the term sexual harm rather than sexual violence or sexual offending for various reasons. First, the term sexual violence suggests that physical harm was caused, and obfuscates sexual harm that does not result in physical markings; second, sexual offending is a legal term that refers to sexual harm that can be categorized according to legal categories. In contrast, sexual harm encompasses those instances of harm that is not necessarily physical (it may be psychological, emotional and/or physical) and that may not meet the criteria for a legal offence.
For example, in a recent article detailing the legacy of abolition, Ruggiero (2015) uses various examples of behaviours that have been criminalized; sexual violence is not one of them.
“Critical Resistance (CR) is building a member-led and member-run grassroots movement to challenge the use of punishment to ‘cure’ complicated social problems” (http://criticalresistance.org/about/).
“INCITE! Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans people of Color* Against Violence is a national activist organization of radical feminists of color advancing a movement to end violence against women of color and our communities through direct action, critical dialogue and grassroots organizing.” (http://www.incite-national.org/page/about-incite).
As one colleague said in reference to research and frontline work with men who had been incarcerated for committing sex offences, “I work with people accused of terrorism, and I don't know how you do what you do”. I believe the silence pertaining to this topic signifies abolitionists’ unease or even disdain for sex offenders.
I acknowledge that given how pervasive sexual harm is, this issue may be triggering for some people, including abolitionists. This could influence the tenor of the discussions, or the unwillingness of some to engage with this issue. The general consensus is that one in four women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime (www.sexassault.ca/www.1in6.org).
In discussing victims and perpetrators in turn, I do not mean to reify the dichotomy between victims and offenders. In reality, the two categories are not exclusive. However, the criminal justice system and social services deny the interrelatedness of these two categories.
For example, Roesler and Wind (1994) found that in 51.9% of the cases of female incest victims in their study, the abuse continued, on average, for a year after disclosure to an adult.
Robert Pickton was charged with the murder of 26 women and convicted of the murder of six women (see Fong 2012).
Many missing or murdered Indigenous women (MMIW)’s cases have never been investigated by the police. (See, “Unresolved: Cased Closed or Murder?”, CBC News, n.d. http://www.cbc.ca/missingandmurdered/.
In contrast with the United States where civil commitment laws in twenty of its states can keep sex offenders incarcerated indefinitely, in Canada, most individuals incarcerated for sex offences are released back into the community.
Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA)—a Canadian initiative that has been duplicated in many other countries—aims to fill an important gap by assisting individuals released after serving a sentence for sexual offences. CoSA is based on the concept of ‘radical hospitality’ and ‘intentional friendship’. Community volunteers form a ‘circle of care’ around a released ex-prisoner, becoming his surrogate family as they assist him in finding a place for himself in the community. Wilson, Cortoni and McWhinnie (2009) found a 83% reduction in sexual offending and a 71% reduction in overall offending for those participating in CoSA compared to control groups.
Leadership, Education, Action and Dialogue (LEAD) Project—a political education program that fosters critical analysis of the prison-industrial complex.
Stop it Now! is a community-based public health organization that can make referrals to treatment. The organization believes that since adults are responsible for offending, it is also their responsibility, and not children’s to prevent offending from taking place. They did a public awareness campaign and also set up a toll-free phone line for people who have abused or are thinking about it to call. The campaign shows that “…abusers will call for help” and that “…it is possible to get something, however minimal, done at the local level, and not at great expense” (Laws and Ward 2011 p. 158). They also found that some “…abusers turned themselves in, but the numbers were not large” (Laws and Ward 2011 p. 158).
Dunkenfeld, targeted “offenders who are out in the cold and unknown to the authorities” (p. 159). They instituted a prevention approach using a media campaign to encourage those who believed they had problematic thoughts or behaviours but who had not been identified by the police. The slogan of the campaign was: “You are not guilty because of your desire, but you are responsible for your sexual behavior. There is help! Don’t become an offender!” (Laws and Ward 2011 p. 159). In one year, 800 individuals called the help-line and out of those, 200 entered a one-year treatment program.
For example, during my time working with Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) in Ottawa, Canada, I changed all mentions of ‘sex offender’ to ‘individual who has sexually offended’ from the organization’s written materials (i.e., website, recruitment pamphlets, training presentations).
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The author would like to express her gratitude to Dr. Claire Delisle for her contribution to earlier drafts of this article.
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Ilea, A. What About ‘the Sex Offenders’? Addressing Sexual Harm from an Abolitionist Perspective. Crit Crim 26, 357–372 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-018-9406-y