stuff.co.nz : Criminologist says : Sex offenders are just like us.
Sex offenders are just like the rest of us, according to criminologist and researcher Philip Birch.
Birch, who has come from the United Kingdom to take up a position at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), challenges the notion that sex offenders are psychologically damaged, lonely, insecure or dysfunctional.
Instead, he says we are more likely to find offenders in our homes, workplaces and neighborhoods than lurking behind a bush in a dirty trenchcoat.
"It serves us well to construct the sex offender as the `other', (to believe) they're not like us, that there's something pathologically wrong with them," Birch says. "It serves us to have these theories that give us grand explanations why they commit such offenses, when actually it's a little bit more complex.
"The attacker is usually known to the victim. They are our fathers, they are our brothers, they are our uncles, they are our family members. They are our next door neighbours that we invite around for a barbecue and a beer."
Birch, who recently delivered a seminar entitled The Making of a Sex Offender at UNSW, bases his conclusions on a study he conducted two years ago that later became the book Sex as Crime?, published in 2008.
Birch set out to test previous research linking sex offenders to so-called "insecure attachment styles".
Attachment styles are developed with a main caregiver between the ages of six and 24 months and act as a "blueprint" for our relationships in later life, he says. A child who has an uncaring parent is likely to develop an insecure attachment style, he says.
"Research indicates these insecure attachment styles are mapped into sexual offending," he says. "Sexual offenders demonstrate high levels of insecure attachment styles." But when Birch compared attachment styles among sexual offenders and non-offenders, he found no evidence that offenders were more insecure than the non-offending population. "My non-sex offending population sample actually demonstrated higher levels of insecure attachment styles than the sex offenders," he says.
What this implies, Birch says, is that rather than a person being destined to become a sex offender, it's something we all have the capacity for, given the right circumstances.
"I argue that attachment styles. . . change and develop and will always map on to the environment we find ourselves in," he says. "That would imply that any one of us at any given time. . . could be a sex offender."
He says this is consistent with what is known about sexual crimes: "(They are) more likely to take place in the home, more likely to be committed by someone we know, it's our fathers, our brothers, our uncles."
Birch says the portrayal of sex offenders in the media and films, such as the troll-like pedophile played by Jackie Earle Haley in the movie Little Children, fuels the stereotypes his research challenges.
"That sends out the message that they're a homogeneous group, and we know they're not," he says.
Birch says his research also has implications for getting a realistic image of sexual offenders and understanding where potential victims are most likely to be at risk. "We construct the sex offender as `the other' but they're not, they're living amongst us, with us, between us.
"The likelihood of knowing one is probably high."
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