Is Gender Off The Table for New Zealand When It Comes To Sex Crimes With The Young?

 Stacey Reriti. Photo / Mark Mitchell (NZ Herald)

Stacey Reriti. Photo / Mark Mitchell (NZ Herald)

This item wants to draw the reader’s attention to a court decision in New Zealand. The NZ Herald recently offered a story of a female teacher being found guilty of sex with a boy from the age of 10 years of age – Female Teacher Jailed for 10 Years For Sexually Violating Boy. He is now a teenager and it would be safe to say he feels differently about his relationship with the teacher now than he did when aged 10.

Stacey Reriti used to teach at Natone Park School in Porirua – her role in the school was that of both teacher and deputy principal. She was judged to have exploited the boy. Prosecutor Dale LaHood offered the view Reriti’s conduct was especially bad because of the “vulnerability” of the victim. That claim is not unusual in cases involving adults having sexual relations with underage boys; what was untypical was how this statement was being made about a woman.

Reriti’s lawyer Stephen Iorns said his client suffered from a psychiatric illness and that prison would not be good for her. It is not unusual that the prosecution would stress how bad the case was; and the defense would point to how the legal process and what follows a guilty verdict is likely to do more harm to the adult than a reasonable person would want anyone to go through.

What is worth paying special attention to are the comments by the Judge. Justice Mark Woolford equated some of Reriti’s offending with rape. He also said the charge of unlawful sexual connection carried a penalty of up to 20 years’ imprisonment. The Judge’s third comment catches one’s attention: “Because a woman cannot be charged with rape” the actions Reriti and the boy engaged in all resulted in charges of unlawful sexual connection; rape could not legally be on the table.

A great deal can be, and perhaps should be said with news of this court finding. To unpack three things is all we will do here.

First, it is possibly a good thing that in this case gender was seen as having no role to play in finding this adult guilty; usually it does and women gain much less punitive legal outcomes than males for similar criminal acts. I say possibly because objectively speaking I would argue we should be putting less people inside prisons for sex with the young than we currently do. It is my reading of some people’s views that women have been getting off light – men being hit hard for sex with those underage; and women not. But does that call to “level things up” really mean things get better? I am not that sure this is true – time will tell.

Second it shows our laws on rape need to be changed/overhauled – currently a woman can’t be charged with rape (this point of women being excluded as able to be charged with rape was made in the article). The teacher in this case was charged with sexual violation and that charge brings with it similar legal punishments as a charge for rape. However, I am going to argue there is a language game going on here that matters. The term rape has been crafted as a male crime – something men do to women and other males. I think there is an ideological bias here that I want challenged. It isn’t valid to argue men bad; women good. So I want rape to stay as a term denoting bad and unethical conduct, I just want the person who acts as a rapist viewed as potentially male or female.

Third, and this point is complex, the case clearly involves a process of change that has been commented on elsewhere – that 95% of sexual contacts between adults and children aged under 12 are situations where trauma does not happen at the time sexual contact occurs; trauma is experienced when the young person comes to appreciate society’s views and punishment directed at a person involved in such exchanges. This third point suggests we, as a society, can reduce that trauma by changing the way we act. There is a lot that can be discussed following the outcome of this court case.

If this statistic of 95% interests you, then read Susan Clancy’s book The Trauma Myth. It is from this text that this statistic is pulled.

Update: article in the Dominion Post,  “Teacher’s sex abuse convictions upheld,” section A4, Friday 24 March, 2017.

The decision was as upheld, and the sentence reduced from 10 years six months jail to nine years nine months. The reduction was intended to reflect factors presented at the appeal.

Details

Clancy, S. A. (2009). The trauma myth and the truth about the sexual abuse of children – and its aftermath. New York: Basic Books.
Weekes, J. (2015, 27/11). Female teacher jailed for 10 years for sexually violating boy [Online News Item]. New Zealand Herald (New Zealand).

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Still breaking rules, but that’s okay

Stephen Fry and Elliot Spencer

Stephen Fry and Elliot Spencer (Sourced at entertainment.ie.)

Stephen Fry and Elliot Spencer are married. It seems unlikely either man will read my blog but that is the myth of modern celebrity isn’t it? – the proximity of those who are famous – the modern celebrity seems close to us, almost familiar. In earlier  times fame meant distance, not closeness. In keeping with that modern feel I can send out a message of congratulations to them both as if I might meet them at the supermarket next time I buy my fruit and vegetables.

My next comment probably has both men in mind, but Stephen is its focus. For two persons of such differing ages to be sexually intimate – and be very public about that – is not typical of our time. I am not saying Stephen Fry is ‘one of those bad types’. There is a rule of thumb which asserts a partner ought not be younger than ‘half your age plus seven’. Stephen Fry is 57, so by that rule his sexual partner should be older than 35 (approx.); Elliot Spencer is 27. It is my assumption this rule applies to Elliot as well – he isn’t meant to go for those older guys – a partner can as easily be too old as too young.

Let me say it again, no way am I hinting that Stephen is ‘minor attracted’, and yet the discourses of sexual assault, child abuse, negative narratives about what male culture is perceived to promote, all position Stephen Fry badly. For all that his profile is doing fine; he is even viewed by some commentators as likely to get the nod from upper-class English society for some honorary title in the near future. Truth is some see him as a darling of the British public – the British Royal Family included. Where I sourced that view was listening to John Crace’s podcast for The Guardian, he discussed this very point we taking of Stephen Fry’s new book – More Fool Me.

So has Britain turned the corner on tolerance to the older man who is attracted to the young, where the guy’s interest is younger than ‘half your age plus seven’? No, I don’t think so. A New Zealand woman – Justice Lowell Goddard – has just been appointed to head a British inquiry into child sex abuse in British society, aimed right at the very group of people a chap like Stephen Fry is likely to do his local shopping with – the upper class of England. No, what Stephen – and very likely Elliot as well – have done is to manage their profile. I argue they have done this because they understand what has changed inside Western culture and have kept all that negative stuff at arms length.

What sits at the centre of what is offered here is sociological, not psychological. I can actually take a middle position here and say I find a psychoanalytic discourse more helpful here than the text so often offered by psychology. Desire is a very broad category and a very ‘thick’ one – there is a lot to consider when using the term ‘desire’. When discussing or viewing the desire of the minor attracted person one is not looking at some kind of desire different from what is so readily acknowledged by the adults who view the sex they experience as ordinary.  I argue desire is this aspect of the human condition that everyone has as part of who they are – straight, gay, minor attracted – it’s all desire and its all part of who a person is. In my view the term ‘sexual orientation’ is a modern term that attempted to convey this radical and fundamental equality and ‘sameness’ that can be understood to unite the gay and the straight worlds – this term carries the message we are all in the same boat.  I am saying the boat has more than two people in it.

To gloss over this issue without making an effort to say what I mean would be a mistake, but I also know the value of being precise. There is a need to speak briefly rather then offer long paragraphs.  It is my view the language used to speak about what we experience has been influenced in recent decades by a reductionist view of the person. Sex and desire has become merely stimulus and response; sexual life is viewed more and more as the management of mechanical bits. People are being told to manage their sexuality as if it is only an issue of ‘sexual urges’. Actually that view is itself problematic. Why all this matters is because the minor attracted person finds themselves being told to stop urges and to stop his or her desires as if they are different in kind from everyone else. The truth is they aren’t different – desire as one finds it lodged inside the texts of literature and poetry is at the heart of who we are and – for everyone – understanding it is vitally important.

Thus when attempting to see what has gone on for this celebrity gay British couple it is not about what desire is allowed to have our social/cultural support – gay and straight get a thumbs up; minor attraction gets a thumbs down; it is about how sociological shifts have unfolded over time and how Fry and Spencer have managed their profile. Both know how desire feels – they  have fallen for each other. What is clever, and I think it has been a matter of being smart, both men have worked to prevent their profile being spoiled (to use Irving Goffman’s term).

Let us unpack things even more.  A Western philosopher writing in the distant past was read, even admired, but there was no expectation for that person to write about their sex life. There are those who will say they know what Socrates and Plato were, sexually, but in reality this says more about the readers than it does about the philosophers.  The two men’s private lives were not seen as warranting our investigative gaze. Move closer to our time – say Emanual Kant – and I would say never in any of the writings about his philosophical views are Kant’s sexual interests referenced. However by the time we get to Jean Paul Sartre we see a shift. The relationship between Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir is an important part of how Sartre is read as a philosopher and an author. Come even closer to today and this year one of the films nominated for a film award is about  Stephen Hawking.  The modern biography references things we would never expect to be told about Kant. A good read that documents this shift and these features of modern Western society is Erving Goffman’s book, Stigma: Notes on the management of a spoiled profile.

Where the modern biography – and even the notion of a profile – gets interesting is when one has a negative bit, a fact or factor that might be construed as bringing the person’s reputation into question. Take Martin Heidegger for example.  His links to the German Nazi movement are often pointed out when commenting on his work and assessing its credibility; not all commentators will reference the matter, but there is no surprise when the connections are discussed.  In a very different field we have the example of Richard Wagner and how Jewish feeling against him and his music can be very strong because of particular features of his profile.

The ‘modern’ way to manage this sort of thing is to actually put it out there early  to acknowledge the difficult bit, and not attempt to hide it. Where a person offers a profile and later a difficult bit surfaces, one’s audience feels ‘wronged’ somehow, the reaction against the person can be very strong. What I am saying here is that, in our modern ways of thinking and behaving, we seem to have shifted what we consider privacy involves. One gets the feeling that, for a celebrity, privacy is simply not something this person has a right to.  The profile of the sex offender is actually a kind of modern-day criminal celebrity.

To date, Stephen Fry has published three books that make up his ongoing narrative about himself. It is more memoir than biography. It is my belief Fry has rightly understood how this is all done.  Pulling no punches, his latest volume – More Fool Me – details his use of cocaine as a younger man, putting out so much ‘stuff’ for us to consume that it seems like oversupply, a surfeit.  In a sense we are shock-proofed regarding who he is as a person. I had considered buying Fry’s latest book about himself but after reading the reviews I am reluctant to do it because it all seems just too much. I argue it is this rather novel way of  putting himself out there that has allowed him to retain his on-going social and cultural position as ‘the darling of modern England’ and at the same time self-narrate himself as an admirer/lover to another who is very much his junior. A classic case of “still breaking rules, but that’s okay”.

I will close this post by making a brief comment on the inquiry Justice Lowell Goddard has been set up to lead. Goddard is not the first person to be put in this role, the first two leaders having been obliged to resign. What is significant is the new feature this body has – statutory powers to compel a person to appear before it and answer questions. In America’s past Joseph McCarthy and his links to the House Un-American Committee have become an icon for what can be called state ‘over-reach’. I can imagine the notion of loyalty to America and the stigma of being thought ‘a danger to the American dream’ is not too far from what the modern day call to rally around the flag of the fight to oppose sexual abuse of children has come to be for us. I am, of course, not wishing to denigrate national loyalty to one’s country – in this case America – any more than appear to be dismissive about the need to address how children can be treated terribly by adults. It is my perception that England is very much in the grip of a process that is a very serious indeed. It is my hope, of course, that the statutory powers this current inquire now has will be exercised with care. The last thing we need is for the specter of Joseph McCarthy to walk amongst us.

Justice Lowell Goddard is one of sixty three New Zealand judges who have been ranked in 2014 and the results posted on the Kiwi First website.  What follows are comments that flow from three items found on this site.

  • The first article offers its version of how that ranking of New Zealand judges was done – “… sixty-three judges in total were ranked, based upon their melded average score of four factors, on a scale of 1 to 10; perceived intelligence, fairness, knowledge of law and personal character.” What is noteworthy is Goddard sits at the lowest slot on that list.
  • In another piece on the same Kiwi First website Goddard is profiled and the picture is far from comforting. It seems best a reader go look at what is said for themselves. What seems a common perception of her is put in this sentence found on the site – “Lawyers who appear before Justice Lowell Goddard generally have little regard for her as a judge who is willing to conform to law or to rule consistent with relevant facts.  They are far more impressed with her impeccable dress and makeup.”
  • The most damning statement, and the author of this web item links what is said directly to the new appointment of Justice Goddard to the UK role, the comment is made –”her due diligence determined lawyers in New Zealand broadly consider Ms Goddard a political puppet.”

Justice Goddard is presented by some in very different images in the media items that come to us via our televisions and the radio. That is on its own a real source of concern. If the internet can offer such a significant set of criticisms of her and yet the mainstream media are silent on any of this then I find myself asking why. This move in England to set up this inquiry is significant and I am convinced a thoughtful and critical eye needs to be kept on what unfolds.

DETAILS:

Do Sally and James have your support?

 

Sally and James are asking for social and community support (Parents Forever logo).

Sally and James are asking for social and community support (Parents Forever logo).

Recently a media item on NZTV2 20/20 caught my attention – The Silent Victim. The programme’s focus was on the families and partners of child sex offenders. In the media piece two women were interviewed: first a woman who, after her male partner was convicted of sexually abusing a girl, made the decision to remain with him and speak about what that process and situation were like for her; the second person interviewed was Shelly Lomas, a psychologist with Wellstop.

The first woman and her husband were given fictitious names – Sally and James. The way the media piece was put together Sally was presented as a brave woman – a person deserving not only a listening ear, but also admiration. That message of respect for Sally is strongly positive and gains my whole hearted support.

There were two occasions during the interview when this position of admiration for her was put in question. The first was in how Sally’s situation was framed. Her story was offered as a very unusual love story, one where if it were us the love would have stopped long ago. The second occasion was when Sally stated unequivocally that she loved James, he was in her words “an intelligent and genuinely nice guy”. The interviewer repositioned what Sally was saying by adding, “Yes, but do you trust him?”

Sally and James had been married about a decade prior to his sexual offending. She viewed her husband positively, and when asked, judged the sex life for them as a couple, before the offending, as average. The offending happened when a young female guest came into the family home.

Sally offered a number of personal insights that came out of her experience. Two of these were really significant. First the girl who was involved with James – and we know nothing about details – was experienced by Sally as a competitor for James’ affections, and in the competition Sally believed she had lost. She offered what is typical for a woman lensing news of a sexual affair through the model of sexual monogamy – the belief that for a second person to be loved by their current partner, and for that person to become sexually involved with one’s partner, is to have failed as a lover. With this as her belief Sally was drawn into entertaining self-destructive behaviours, although it seems from what is offered inside the 20/20 program, she never acted on those feelings. One could again blame James for all this, but I don’t think Sally did. The ‘monogamy model’ positions a woman, or any person in a relationship who finds out their sexual partner has sexual links to someone else, in a potentially harmful way. It is a particular way of interpreting sexual desire and its place inside a life that can be very unhelpful. Sally appears to have seen past this limitation. Her talk about herself and how she felt suggests she decided that fidelity, faithfulness amid change, is the better aspect to stress inside a committed relationship that sees itself as shaped by love.

Sally did more than offer self-reflections, she challenged the viewer. She offered an outsider a riddle inside a question – what if someone you admire deeply sexually offends, what would you do, how would you feel? It is easy to see why this woman was viewed inside the 20/20 programme as brave.

Sally also talked of the issue of shame. Unsurprisingly Sally experienced shame when news of her husband’s offending became public. Out of that sprang a question, would it change for her if she left him? Her answer was no, the shame would remain. It was her view the message “leave him” is the message of society and the wider community. At the same time she understood that message can be resisted, her personal experience told her that the wider community may be wrong.

This idea the community and wider society can get things wrong about how to manage the sex offender came through the interview with the second woman as well. Shelly Lomas of Wellstop saw the modern response to sex offender as blocking the possibility of things getting better. It is her view all the mechanisms and strategies for helping the sex offender deal better with life are dismantled by punitive attitudes and social isolation; the sex offender is denied the capacity or even the possibility of hope. Shelly expressed strongly the belief this approach was for her counterintuitive – “How do people expect to make change when you shut down all the processes that you and I would ordinarily use to evolve and move to a better place?”

The final insight Sally referenced was the role of human doubt inside what it means to be in love with a person. She was asked, as one might expect, “What if James sexually abused a second time, would you leave him then?” Her answer was “I don’t know.” In 2008 John Patrick Shanley directed a movie in which Meryl Streep played the part of a religious woman in the employ of the Catholic Church – Sister Aloysius Beauvier. Eventually it became clear Beauvier was on the war path to push a priest out of the parish where she worked. The character of the priest – Father Brendan Flynn, was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The movie was called Doubt and it was about sexual abuse inside the Catholic Church. At the end of the movie Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the character Streep gave life to, cupped her face in her hands following her success at getting the man moved on and said, loudly crying, “But I have such doubts.”

Father Flynn early in the movie gave a well thought through homily to the local Catholic community, pointing out that doubt is a position from inside which interpersonal and even political relationships can grow and deepen – he was referencing the period following the assassination of President JF Kennedy. He was, of course, arguing how certitude can be a deeply problematic model on which to forge a life, or the path for whole communities as well. The various versions of fundamentalist worldviews that surround us today, ranging from fundamentalist Islam to strident statements by Richard Dawkins, serve to reinforce the view offered in Father Flynn’s homily.

Voices of people who are not frequently offered the chance to speak are situations that grab my attention, plus there is a theme in this 20/20 media piece that seeks from wider society an extended hand of human compassion. In what is written here there is a separation between what is said by the women interviewed and how the item has been managed by those who put together this media item. To the two women who are interviewed I deliberately extend a message of respect, they deserve that in my view; the makers of the media piece are judged less positively.

You have heard the saying, “How did a nice woman like you get to be in a bad place like this?” The media piece gave an answer to this by stressing how all the women in the group being referenced in this story experience suffering because of their partners’ offending. The sub-text being offered in this media piece is negative in how men are referenced.

The 20/20 item gained a place on my Facebook wall and I chose to support the process where these voices are given space inside our public discussions. ‘The Silent Victim’ opened with the idea that people have experiences that need to be considered, but these people daren’t speak out for fear of persecution. Because ‘The Silent Victim’ showed it understood how some voices are blocked and suffer because of this, I was looking for more: just where will this compassion take us? Will we be asked to extend that empathetic skill set to the sexual offender? The answer seems to be a clear no.

That clear no for me was sad, but the programme’s shortcomings did not end there. Again I stress, a critical eye is focused on how the media item was assembled, not the women who were interviewed, or the views they offered. The profile of the sex offender was male; I saw no acknowledgement that sexual offending against children could be attached to the profile of a woman. And this piece was written as if same sex couples did not exist. Allowing for an untruth to be believed – that all sex offenders are men – the partner of the offender could also be male. Two important pieces of New Zealand legislation are crucial: the Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986 legalising consentual sex between men aged 16 and over, and the very recent law allowing same sex couples to marry – Marriage (Definition of Marraige) Amendment Act 2013. The media item’s ‘heterosexual normalism’ seems seriously out of step with what is happening in the real world.

It could be asked was this feature I am calling heterosexual normalism merely an oversight by those who put together this media item, a forgetfulness? Perhaps, but another explanation, one that is much more problematic, could be at play. The program is clearly wanting to show compassion and empathy towards the families and partners of sex offenders. It may also be inspired by a strongly feminist ideology that is zoological, by that I mean a form of feminism that is deterministic and is really only about women as opposed to a different kind of feminism where men are included in that better world one is working to create. If same sex male couples had been included then the empathy the program wants to push for would be directed to men as well as women, a position a zoological version of feminism would not want to engage.

The last element of one-sidedness and distortion that I found regrettable in this piece rests with the West’s newest social and cultural blind spot. There was no space offered to the idea that sexual contacts across generations could be positioned inside friendship, or how such encounters could be framed positively. I would not be at all surprised if a reader felt I had just taken a step too far, but take it I will.

In my view The Silent Victim is in fact the same old same old. I am disappointed because I view these moments as opportunities, chances to do some good. I am glad that Sally’s narrative has been given some public space, and the move to get New Zealand society to consider the situations of those impacted by sex abuse, NZ prisons, and what comes after the person is released. All this matters a great deal. But still the negative attitudes to the sex offender, the profiling of men as the real source of women’s personal suffering, these messages are not simply tedious – they’re dangerous.

________

Late post: This item in Salon was offered to me by a British friend after the above article was put on my blog site. On the page it had this publication information: .

Married to a Pedophile – Salon.com

Being liberal is no easy life-choice.

Apparently we are all being watched.

Apparently we are all being watched.

The focus of this blog Take-A-Risk-NZ is on crime, sexuality, social change, and in particular, the situation minor-attracted people find themselves dealing with. The views offered here may seem to many to be off to one side and remote – if a reader goes to the pub or some social gathering the ideas I offer are probably not going to pop up in conversation.  Other issues it could be argued are more worthy of public concern.

I don’t see it quite that way, although there are some really big issues out there. The canary in the coal mine comes to mind. As things change and new problems replace old ones the signs a problem is present can be found in what at the time is not focused on and not judged to be important. In earlier days inside a coal mine those who went down into the mine would take with them a small bird in a cage. While down inside the mine the bird, perhaps a canary, might begin to struggle and fall ill, indicating a gas leak or the presence of a threat, a danger the miners may fail to register. To fail to see the bird having problems was to leave open the possibility a person might be the next animal to die. How minority groups experience problems can be for the rest of us a warning regarding our fate as a society.

Yesterday two plain clothes police officers came to my apartment complex. They had taken an interest in an image that was distributed inside Tumblr, a social media network much like Facebook. The picture these officers were interested in was of a boy pointing a handgun at his head. That image was used in a post put up on this blog that discussed the use of the term sexual orientation when referring to a person who is minor attracted. The American Psychological Association had just pulled the use of this term in favour of the phrase sexual interest when referring to the desire felt by a minor attracted person. (For a background to this see this Washington Times piece.)

What this blog piece offers was referenced by Tom O’Carroll in an item titled “Should we publish and be damned?” A commenter on that article, Peter Loudon, shared details about the person who took the image of the boy in the picture. The image eventually found its way to Tumblr. Peter stated as part of his comment, “The photograph was taken by Jan H Andersen using a model. Andersen lives in Denmark. His blog is here http://www.jhandersen.com/ and his stock photography collection is here http://www.expozero.com/. The photograph in question can be found in the collection ‘Death and Suicide’.”

When my blog item, along with image of the boy and the gun, was put up on Take-A-Risk-NZ a link to it appeared on my Facebook page.  It was this link the NZ Police took an interest in. The two women were in front of me to give me a polite message – we are watching you. I don’t have any criminal convictions, but apparently I am a person of interest. The police are, I am sure, convinced such interest is what their job requires – under that banner of “child protection”.

There are times when to understand an event one needs to locate it inside a context. Digital communications like those used by a lot of us – Facebook, Tumblr, emails – are of interest of the State and its agents, Mr. Snowden has helped us see this very clearly. Also 2014 seems to be part of what has been unfolding for some time now – over the last thirty years there has been a turning process unfolding.

The 1960s and 70s are now very much under attack and a part of the liberal commentary that filled those decades is now viewed as suspect, even dangerous. (See Tim Stanley’s views of both Camille Paglia and Allen Ginsberg, and a podcast on The Telegraph titled “Why did the 1970s become a haven for evil?”.) Men and women my age find themselves in the gaze of others as agents of dangerous views, and some bashing is going on, especially for the males in that cohort (see Barbara Hewson’s comments on the persecution of old men).

When responding to the two police officers I mentioned Mr Snowden and the watching process they referred to. I stressed this activity is well known to many of us. I also asked them to tell me if any image, like that of the boy with the gun, is linked to criminal activity, links I may be unaware of, please tell me of such things, I want to know if I have been pulled into something unawares.

If asked, my politics is liberal; perhaps the term “left” might be a fit as well. Whatever the label, the views I hold and the commitment I have to them is no easy road to walk. Over that period of thirty years I refer to above, it could be said the liberal and the left have not had the upper hand politically. It has been the neoliberals and the Christian right who seem to have been the movers and the shakers. One choice I have made is to back the liberal view because I think it deserves my support. Like the opinion voices of Alain Badiou and Michel Foucault I think an event is something that one should link to truth and truth telling. The 1960s and 70s can be seen as an event and a truth, something that broke through into our lives that needs to be allowed to touch us now in 2014.

Further Reading:

Openness, record-keeping, the trace, and modern life.

In this post I will outline some objects I want to position so as to highlight their connectedness. They are the issues of being remembered, or what Derrida has referred to as ‘leaving a trace’; political caution regarding keeping a record of one’s life, and here I point to the life story of Samuel Pepys; the modern shape of how one writes a biography, here I use Erving Goffman; and finally the very recent disclosure in New Zealand of how the Government of the day has been spying on its citizens, and New Zealand is not alone in this, America has also been in the lime light over how it too has been spying on American citizens. I will lens these three objects of the trace, the biography, and the gaze of the modern state, through the window of sexual identity, in particular the sexual identity that is marginal, and for some completely other.

What launched me into this line of thought was a friend giving me a birthday present (it came early as my birthday is in August)  – a biography of Jacques Derrida by Benoit Peeters. I admire Derrida and perhaps understand his texts better now than I used to. Derrida offers texts that are sometimes difficult to enter.

Some time ago, when in Bangkok, I read a comment about him that I found noteworthy, and again that same point is offered in the opening pages of Benoit’s book. It concerns record keeping and my mind draws links to different people and different texts.

I begin my reflections with Derrida and how he kept everything he ever wrote. Peeters lets us know Derrida was “obsessed by the structure of survival [la structure survivante] of each of these bits of paper, these traces.” It is my view Derrida was doing what he has always argued for, giving people the chance to be unsure, wanting to show just how certitude about life, about anything, is likely to be the wrong way to grasp life. By leaving all these life fragments, by keeping endless traces of what he wrote down, he has setup a situation where any biographer is likely to find his or her view of Derrida at some time challenged by another person who says, look you say one thing about Derrida and this thought, but actually I have other things he wrote that argue for something else, perhaps even the opposite of what you argue for.

Next I consider how, on my return to New Zealand, one of the first books I read was “Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self “ by Clair Tomalin. Pepys, like Derrida, wrestled with note-taking. He kept a diary of his life and thoughts. Pepys was deeply concerned by the issue of where to keep his diary, and who should and who should not have access to it. Samuel Pepys saw it as a matter of survival that access to his diary had to be restricted.

Finally my mind considers Erving Goffman’s book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. He offers the observation that modern societies seek out those bits of our past that are difficult as part of drafting a biographical image of who we are. Western society and culture, reflecting a shift in our concerns, insists on knowing the difficult bits, and that where we seek to mask or hide those difficult bits, such behaviour is viewed as a reason for suspicion. In my lifetime I feel a greater push in the direction of Samuel Pypes than a push to follow Derrida.

Sexuality and sexual identities have in my lifetime come to play a significant role in many people’s lives. The two identities of the homosexual man and the pedophile show an interesting set of social and cultural changes.  In the beginning of my life, 1950s New Zealand, homosexual identity was deeply problematic. Now in 2013 that identity is positioned very differently. New Zealand attitudes are inspired by a tolerance to gay marriage and the adoption of children, a point of view that is seen as confirmation of a post-Enlightment understanding of the individual. To be prejudiced against the gay man in 2013 is a measure of how a person might fail to fit in regarding social norms. One observes that what the homosexual man used to be positioned as in the 1950s is now the lot of the pedophile – the pervert, the dangerous individual, the incurable social threat.

When I read recent New Zealand media articles about proposed new legislation of our GCSB, America’s NSA and projects like PRISM are distant images of what we are in the process of becoming. Our modern governments are reading our emails, listening in on our phone conversations, spying on us and making no apologies for doing so. Some people here in New Zealand are concerned but if public reaction is anything to go by the message seems to be ‘get over it and move on.’

I admire Derrida, and I want to be influenced by what he has done. I read, I write, but I do not dare to keep everything I write for others to view. That move to keep everything I write, given local and international politics, would seem plain foolish. A part of me wants to believe that to do as Derrida has done is the ethically noble way to live, and so I ask myself, maybe I have misread him.

Other people’s texts can be plain seductive. As if to offer me a link to Derrida that reaches across this riddle about record keeping, a quote Peeters offers maybe a point to a compromise. When discussing the fragile divide between the public and the private Derrida is sighted as saying:

At a certain moment in the life and career of a public man, of what is called – following pretty hazy criteria – a public man, any private archive, supposing that this isn’t a contradiction in terms, is destined to become a public archive if it isn’t immediately burned (and even then, on condition that, once burned it does not leave behind it the speaking and burning ash of various symptoms archivable by interpretation or public rumour).

As well as Derrida’s obsession with the structure of his survival, his willingness to allow people to look over all his notes and thoughts, perhaps he does understand that this process is far from straight forward. For myself and for Derrida the notion ‘private’ can and does play a role.

Those who inhabit the profiles of sexual minorities know all too well the political and social potency of the trace and the biography. Our modernity, with its post-modern philosophies, is being shaped and defined by governments spying on their citizens, there is much reflection to be done as to how to live one’s life. Keep this thought in your mind: there is no them; there is only us.

Children in art, have they become one of today’s problems?

ovenden paintingThree pieces from the Guardian caught my eye this week. All were about Graham Ovenden.  Jonathan Jones fronts the Guardian’s view with theory, we are then offered an update by Charlotte Higgins letting us know the Tate Gallery was removing some of Ovenden’s work from public view and adding that his conviction involving  underage girls cast his work in a new light. A couple of days later the Guardian asked us to vote.

On the 2nd of April Jonathan Jones (writes on art for the Guardian) discussed how the Ovenden case related to art – “Graham Ovenden: artist thrived among 1970s self-conscious decadence.” A day later Charlotte Higgins (chief arts writer for the Guardian) notified readers that the Tate had removed a number of Ovenden’s pieces from public view – “Tate removes Graham Ovenden prints after indecency conviction offering as an explanation.” Higgins’ text offered up the following comment: Ovenden’s conviction  “‘shone a new light’ on his work.” On the 5th of April the Guardian invited readers to vote  – “Should the Tate have removed Graham Ovenden’s prints?” At the time this page was viewed the vote had just closed (11.00am, Monday 8 April, 2013). Reader opinion had the spread, 55% (yes) and 45% (no). This outcome offers up the view the Tate’s decision to remove Ovenden’s work is a highly contested move.

As a New Zealander, reading these pieces has been to experience déjà vu. In July 2012 a local artist, Brendan Nolan, with a profile considerably smaller than that of Ovenden, had his work treated the same way by the authorities – three artworks ‘taken down’. One was a set of gates he made for Paekakariki School; the second was a tui sculpture at Paraparaumu Beach (a tui is a species of bird native to New Zealand); the third was a painting on public display at the local library. It is unclear whether the painting was removed by the council, or by the library. The  New Zealand Herald did not make this clear. The news story does state the school gates and the scupture were removed by the Kapiti Coast District Council.

Both in the Ovenden case and the Nolan case, explanations were given why their art was taken out of public spaces. In New Zealand Councilor Tony Lester said, “The decision to take the sculpture down was not a hard one to make.” Since the art items Nolan had created were not of children I read Lester’s message as ‘this action to remove this man’s art from a position of social prominence is because he is a sex offender/pedophile. That point of view deserves critical thought.

There is a point of difference between the New Zealand case and Ovenden’s. Higgins’ Guardian piece refers of images of children – artworks removed from public view included “a screen-print that features an image of a young naked child.” She argues Ovenden is positioned differently because of how he exploited the girls whom he had made of his work. I am not blocking the idea that Ovenden will move to the position Nolan finds himself in, that his social stigma as a pedophile will finally be the explanation offered for why his art is no longer of value.  At this point in time The Guardian pieces seem to offer a message slightly different from the one that lives inside media reports of the New Zealand case of Brendan Nolan.

Jonathan Jones’ Guardian story was the first comment on the Ovenden case that caught my eye. It appeared to be talking about art, but my view is this is illusory. What is offered is a view that attempts to say we are modern and new in our views; older views are suspect. What Jones does in how he writes is to allow morality to be central to his view without acknowledging that this is the case.

Jonathan Jones is attempting to do something very much in step with our time – he wants to stand just outside the modern, that period in our recent past that is in his words “dead”. Philosophical commentary refers to that earlier way of thinking as a ‘grand narrative’ style. An important issue here is how modernism offers up its notion of authority. Its narrative was more than just any old story, it offered up an account that was used as a benchmark. The school of thought next to emerge in Western thought takes issue precisely with this point of authority. This ‘post-modern’ view is not a single view, it is more a collection of views which together question issues like those of authority and explain why we are comfortable with changes in opinion and fashion. Ideas now can come and go, be different from each other, and that mix is not necessarily a problem for us.

Jones further points to this past dead item as the artistic perspective of the Victorian era. He links the term ‘Victorian’ to the notion of decadence (a term he no doubt sees as negative for both him and his reader). He makes these moves in his opening sentences  – “Tastes change. In art as in clothes, the cool new thing of today may look repellent and absurd in the future.” Right from the start Jones positions us, with himself, as inside the post-modern. Our cultures and our views (including those of art) are fluid and changeable; they are not the grand narrative of the past, which saw itself as stable and unchanging.

It is here that I suggest caution – there is a twist.  Jones is saying, to be us is to have a ‘more advanced sensibility’. But here is his twist: our ability to see the dark side. Jones suggests, but does not state openly, for him there is a moral absolute. It is hinted at, its existence disclosed, via child nudity and the pedophile (the term pedophile is not stated, none the lesss it is an identity offered up as Ovenden’s real self that Jones’ text depends on). It is this philosophical position that images are not dark in and of themselves. It is in  the linkage between an image and its viewer that this darkness becomes palpable. I do not see Jones arguing here that Ovenden alone is his concern. For Jones the concern is that linkage of Ovenden to his images of girls. Jonathan Jones’ article is not, in my view, merely about Ovenden’s identity and profile. No it’s about a perspective, a way of seeing.

In addition to how Jones wants to position Ovenden’s art, he also offers an unacknowledged blending of the post-modern and the modern. He wants a dollar each way. Why, you might ask. My guess is he wants to lay claim to that quality of authority – this view is more than mere opinion, this is the view, this is how it is, this is how it is for all of us, this is how it is for all time. It is this situation where an argument appears to offer up openness, an acknowledgement that past claims of authority are now invalid, to suggest we are more open, and less controlled by others … And yet  that new argument shuts the door to future debate.

Notice, I am not swayed by the inclusion of a simple yes/no vote that has been offered by the Guardian.  If anything that kind of vote is more an invitation for prejudice and emotion to control debate, rather than some idea of democracy. What I look for is the exposure of the structure of people’s thinking, to lay it bare and then reflect.

The structure of Jones’ thinking can also be read in his links to other texts. He does not say why Charles Dodgson, author of Alice in Wonderland; Nabokov, author of the novel Lolita; and select characters in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, are scary and dark. No, he anticipates the reader will nod in agreement that these figures are scary and dark. And leaves it there – they are for him his fixed points – they are not free to be moved or viewed differently by some future age or from within the diversity of a post-modern universe. It is significant he argues simply that they are dark and scary. It is just an act of pointing, and a seeking support from the reader.

Ovenden, we learn from Higgins’ piece in the Guardian, will be treated in the same way as his images. Both will not to be before our eyes and amongst us – Ovenden’s art has been taken down; he will disappear into prison spaces. One notes the images taken down by the Tate played no role in Ovenden’s conviction.

No doubt other people too are uneasy about the Tate’s decision to take down some of Ovenden’s work. Some, like me, will have questions both about what is art and what is just. Jones rather cleverly acknowledges this by using the term hero when referring to Ovenden. Inside the art community, Jones tells us Ovenden is “a star of the dawning post-modern age”, but  he immediately knocks this down because he tells his readers Ovenden is also a person who takes pictures of naked girls, a man whose internal life is “deeply worrying and bizarre”.

I am not convinced by the contributions of Jones or Higgins, nor do I trust the Guardian’s yes/no vote will put my sceptical soul to sleep. I live in New Zealand. The morality of our culture and the stigma of pedophilia are in some sense closer to the surface. Councilor Tony Lester’s words can be paraphrased this way, “The decision to take down artwork of a sex offender/pedophile is not a hard one to make.” That is most definitely a cultural perspective – a deeply felt one for some – but remember we have come to see the post-modern perspective may indeed be right – nothing is absolute, authority is more complex than the words “I told you so, therefore it must be true.”

References:

Blundell, K. (2012, 27/06). School gates created by sex offender removed [Newspaper]. In Stuff.co.nz (News/Kapiti). The Dominion Post(Online Story). Retrieved 7 April, 2013, from http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/kapiti/7181199/School-gates-created-by-sex-offender-removed

Higgins, C. (2013, 03/04). Tate removes Graham Ovenden prints after indecency conviction. In http://www.guardian.co.uk (Tate Britain). The Guardian(Online Story). Retrieved 3 April, 2013, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2013/apr/03/tate-removes-graham-ovenden-prints

Jones, J. (2013, 2/04). Graham Ovenden: Artist thrived among 1970s self-conscious decadence [Newspaper]. In http://www.guardian.co.uk (Crime). The Guardian(Online Story). Retrieved 2 April, 2013, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/apr/02/graham-ovenden-artist-1970s-decadence

Communities tear down sex offender’s artwork [Newspaper]. (2012, 02/07). In http://www.nzherald.co.nz (National). The New Zealand Herald(Online Story). Retrieved 05/04, from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10816808

Should the Tate have removed Graham Ovenden’s prints? [Online Newspaper]. (2013, 05/04). In http://www.guardian.co.uk (Comment is free). The Guardian(Online Story). Retrieved 7 April, 2013, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/poll/2013/apr/05/tate-removed-graham-ovenden-prints-conviction

Are we about to turn the corner with regard to how people leave our prisons?

Halden, the most humane prison in the world (Norway) / Shipping Container prison cells (New Zealand)

Halden, the most humane prison in the world (Norway) / Shipping Container prison cells (New Zealand)
This idea of comparison between Anglophone and Nordic cultural mindsets via images such as these is sourced from Pratt and Ericksson’s book discussed in this blog-piece.

I am sitting down to write, having gathered together all the things I have been reading and thinking about, with the intention of slowly unpacking them thoughtfully for the reader. But that noble plan is not going to work. So much has been going on in my world of books, news, and current affairs.

Of particular interest to me have been discussions about criminology and sociology, with a special interest in what happens when individuals are released from prison back into the community.

The gods were at play here. This week a friend was released from a New Zealand prison, and another person recalled to prison for allegedly breaking the conditions of his parole. Apparently he had not managed his release well.  The question in my mind is what we could have done to enable a better outcome. When a person is returned to prison, it is tempting to say the individual failed, it is their fault. But what role did we play in how things unfolded?

Why I go out of my way to disclose my friendships with these two men is because part of how crime and punishment works is the effort to discount the offender. This can be very subtle, and is always about how to encourage us to see such people as ‘them and not us’. One way of achieving this is to omit them from our personal narrative. We might even tell ourselves that if we do not mention where they have been, it will make it easier for them to fit in. All too often this silence has nothing to do with empathy. The keeping silent is really all about helping us manage our lives.

Last week I made two trips to Victoria University of Wellington. The first event centred on an academic from Vermont, USA; the second event was the launch of a book discussing two cultural cluster groupings – the Nordic group, and the Anglophone group which includes New Zealand. The book discusses  how these two groups manage crime and punishment. What struck me was how these two items – the seminar and the book launch – were linked.  I am talking about a growing disquiet about the expansion of prison populations, increased penalties, and strategies of exclusion.

The seminar was offered by Victoria University’s School of Social and Cultural Studies as part of its SACS Seminar Series. The presenter was Kathy Fox, Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Vermont (USA), currently a Fulbright Core Scholar. Kathy was hosted by the School of Social and Cultural Studies, and a New Zealand group called Rethinking Crime and Punishment. I had been alerted of her talk by the Howard League for Penal Reform. I am a member of its Wellington chapter.

The seminar topic, entitled “Offender Re-entry in the U.S.—Re-integrating communities to the process”, looked at the practice of mass incarceration in the U.S.  There has been rethinking regarding strategies around release.

Three models of the management of prisoner release were outlined: first was a Panel model (the one used most often in New Zealand, with the Probation Service offering oversight); second was the Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) model (explained in detail at the seminar); the third is a Mentor model (which offers broadly what the label suggests – use of a mentoring process for those re-entering the community).  These models can be compared using three issues – the support they offer the individual inmate; the kinds of civil engagement the model promotes; and the kind of social distance they give rise to.

When looking at support for the person being released the Panel model can be described as formal and concrete. In New Zealand that is one of the drawbacks of making the Probation Service  the overlord of the release process. It tends to put all the responsibility on the inmate and presents a very formal approach to how things are done. COSA is both more informal and social. Mentor  models tend to include features found in both the Panel and COSA models.

Civic engagement is important because it is this issue that the American experience has come to appreciate more fully. With the explosion of incarceration in the past decade, a question left open is “what role does society play?” Simply stated, it is society that puts people in prison (a process of removing them from society) and it needs to be that same society who is central to their re-entry.  For countries like NZ, it is the offender who must cooperate with a highly prescribed process – you do what we tell you to do. The COSA model offers messages to the offender; in this approach however, they are mediated by a process of demonstration by community members. The inmate is invited to join others rather than just perform prescribed actions. The Mentor model tends combines aspects of both the Panel and the COSA models.

Social distance is much different when looking at each of these three models. The greatest distance between the inmate and the society he or she is re-entering is found in the Panel model, the least distance is offered by the COSA model. The Mentor model can be described as moderate in this aspect. What was interesting at the discussion phase of the seminar was how all the people in the room were in agreement for a cultural shift to take place regarding punishment and re-entry into society there is a need to close this social distance. One comment offered, and it is the profound riddle in this area, is “How to you restore a person to a society which they never felt they belonged to in the first place?” The exclusionary social practices societies put in place and sustain have a lot to do with how crime happens in the first place. It can seem paradoxical to talk of re-entry for some who find themselves inside our prisons.

A profile that has this feel of the ‘excluded ones’ that is well known to people who work with prisons and study the topics of criminology in western societies and cultures is the sex offender. The COSA model, with its less punitive style, has been born because of the growing numbers of these people inside our prisons. There is an irony here, that the very existence of this negative social profile had given birth to its opposite – a call to be more human, more inclusive.

I argue here that the push to place the sex offender to the outer edges of society has a cost.  That move ultimately will prove to be both unwise as well as unjust. Interestingly the political faction who may well lead the way, who are most likely to want change, are precisely those groups who are concerned about financial cost. To not change how we run prisons and promote punishment, to keep going the way we are now, will be very expensive, possibly excessively so.  In New Zealand we have a National Party as our government. Although they offer up a politically conservative face, they are genuinely concerned for costs, they want change in how New Zealand prisons are run. The question that springs from this observation is, when the economic debt problems go away, will this mean those political perspectives will again follow the wallet and allow a return to a commitment to punishment, incarceration, and social exclusion?

The book launch offered  “Contrasts in Punishment: An explanation of Anglophone excess and Nordic exceptionalism”.  The two authors are a New Zealand academic who has a global profile for his work on criminology – John Pratt, Prof. of Criminology at Victoria University, New Zealand, and Anna Ericksson, Senior Lecture in Criminology at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. The event offered three papers, all of which acknowledged of the punitive explosion that is global, posing the question – what does this mean for society and culture, and how best can it be explained?

The book, and indeed the papers offered at the book launch, deserves a post on my blog-site that stands alone. I have decided to combine things and put up the information now because time moves on. To delay would be a mistake. Both the seminar and the book launch showed a social mood or perspective is present, at least where I am. That mood, expressed in what is being argued at sites like Victoria University, suggests both an acknowledgement punitive attitudes and social practices are present inside societies and cultures such as America, New Zealand, England (the Anglophone cluster), and second that its opposite is also now being put forward – there is a call to rethink the punitive and exclusory actions that have contributed to swelling numbers in our prisons.

Emeritus Prof. David Brown was the first speaker at the launch, and I will close this blog post with a couple of his comments. More may well be offered later. David Brown pointed out how Pratt and Ericksson saw differences in how prisons are being run, despite the strength of the punitive swing in recent times. It is not valid to see everywhere as the same. To paraphrase what was offered by Prof. Brown, things are not rooted in some doxa of neo-liberalsim sweeping everything before it; nor is this some inherent punitive human nature working itself out – some Kantian universal requirement for punishment, or a species-driven behaviour to inflict as much harm as can be done on those you dislike. Things are not everywhere the same, and very significantly, things can be done differently, choice is not an illusion.

Pratt and Ericksson’s book asks, “What is it in the two cultural clusters (first Nordic countries and second Anglophone) that can accounts for their very different ways of thinking about punishment?” The focus is to look at the production of cultural difference for each cluster. Left open is the issue of cultural change – if one decides change needs to happen in the management of prisons, how to go about that? Both the seminar and the book launch presented this as an important question to be explored.

New Zealand is one nation with different cultures. At a political level New Zealand is bi-cultural. This is rooted firmly in how the country was founded, the document that gives witness to that is the Treaty of Waitangi (a formal agreement between two parties – the Pakeha and the Maori tribes). At the same time New Zealand society is multi-cultural, evident if one looks at recent statistics as to who lives here, who attends our schools and universities, how many overseas workers are part of our workforce. It is not accurate to label New Zealand as wholly Anglophone because of this, although clearly the fact our law is based on British law shows the linkages are strong.

The cultural groups in New Zealand who are neither Anglophone nor Nordic (Maori, Pacifica, Asian) may well facilitate a social practice that, in the near future, may be different from what we have now regarding the management of our prisons. For example the thinking used in the COSA model seems very similar to the perspectives that are already present in some of these groups. New Zealand’s management of our prisons has led to increases in incarceration, a feature also found in America. If culture does shape how prisons are run can we change ourselves. There is no evidence change has to happen so that prison numbers go down. What this past week offered me, via the seminar and the book launch, was the suggestion change might be on the table. I hope it is more than just a flash in the pan, what is sometimes referred to as a Prague spring.

References

Pratt, J. (2012). Contrasts in punishment :an explanation of Anglophone excess and Nordic exceptionalism /John Pratt and Anna Eriksson. New York, NY Routledge.

Fox, K. (2013). Offender Re-entry in the U.S.—Re-integrating communities to the process SACS Seminar Series. Seminar presentation. School of Social and Cultural Studies. Victoria University.