According to Melbourne forensic psychologist Wendy Northey, Australia will only reduce the level of s-xual offending in the community if we move away from counter-productive punitive approaches and mindless stereotyping of offenders.

Northey, in a paper being delivered today at the Charles Sturt University School of Policing Studies in Goulburn, argues that we as a society need to treat s-x offending in the same way as we do eating disorders or other forms of mental illness, that is, as a public health issue.

The media and politicians are contributing to s-x offending in Australia because of their abject failure to understand the nature of the offence itself. Simply labeling individuals as ‘monsters’ or ‘perverts’ — two of the favourite labels that newspapers such as the Herald Sun and the Daily Telegraph used to describe s-x offenders — is simply exacerbating the problem.

As Northey notes,

S-xual offending is a most complex form of criminal offending which requires a specialized, sophisticated clinical approach. We are not dealing with classes of people — but with individuals. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of s-xual offending, which cuts across socio-economic boundaries and demands individual analysis.

To better detect s-x offending, or the likelihood of it occurring, our society, says Northey, needs to “foster and promote a high degree of reciprocity where the offending client does not fear lack of confidentiality, labeling and stigmatizing, lack of expertise and professionalism, life long registers and exposure to vilification — many of which are clearly anti-therapeutic”.

Perhaps the media and politicians need to adopt a code of conduct when it comes to discussing s-x offenders. Just as in the areas of suicide and mental illness, there is in the main now greater sensitivity in reporting and discussion of such topics — politicians and the media no longer refer to people with mental illness as ‘mad’ for example — if we want to ensure an optimum climate for the detection and prevention of s-x offending then a similar approach must be adopted.

And what of s-x offender registers? As a lawyer who has acted for a number of people who have been placed on such a register, it is hard not to agree with Northey’s view that it is waste of time and even counterproductive. The money and resources spent on maintaining such registers — each state and territory has one — would be much better spent on therapeutic measures for those who are convicted of s-x offences. The impact of these registers on recidivism rates is precisely zero.

What will it take for politicians, the media and community agitators to realise that it is their primitive and fear ridden irrational actions which are partly to blame for s-x offending? Listening to people like Wendy Northey, who deal daily with the reality of s-x offences from both the victim and offender’s perspective would be a good start.

The victims of s-x offenders are being exposed to greater harm because of our refusal as a society to move away from punitive measures and fear driven policy, and the media and our political leaders must shoulder the majority of the blame for this tragic state of affairs.

Peter Fray

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