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).

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

On drinking hemlock: Is there a better way?

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Readers who are familiar with the account of how Socrates ended his life may appreciate how strange that story seems. Socrates faced a trial that many saw driven by trumped-up charges. (The Trial of Socrates, 2013) What Socrates chose to do was met with puzzlement by his friends. For modern readers that sense of puzzlement may be even stronger – Socrates had decided to drink hemlock (a poison) and end his life. He clearly believed Greek civilization was parent to everything else, if it made mistakes, then it was simply part of the overall grand story, and through dialogue and time the good and the truth would come out. Society would become better, more ethical, all that was needed was to be a good citizen and to be loyal to those who ruled you.

We live in a different world, for us no civilization can call itself a parent, all societies and cultures are human communities, no culture has a privileged place. Privilege is an illusion when it comes to human values, no justice system in our time can claim to be absolute. (McDowell & Webb, 2006).

So, how are we to interpret the situation where a person facing sex abuse charges before a New Zealand court decides to move to another country to live? Is there room to think of leaving? Is the New Zealand justice system so flawed, so brutal, so unjust, that to leave (rather than drinking hemlock) is a valid move? This blog piece will not ask how is Socrates to be understood from our stand point, rather the question will be put the other way around. If Socrates was us, lived in our time, finding himself accused of sexual misconduct with a youth or child, would he just get on a plane and leave?

Recently a New Zealand citizen did just that, he left. The New Zealand Herald reported “the 42-year-old man from Christchurch was supposed to face court in Greymouth this week on charges he sexually abused his daughter over an eight-month period”. He changed his name, cut the electronic bracelet attached to his leg, and left for Australia. The New Zealand Herald article focused on how those steps could be done, and what was in place to ensure this man’s return home.( Koubaridis, 2013)

In this case the interest is very different. There is no wish to move straight to the position where we have a bad citizen, nor do we assume his guilt regarding the charges he was required to face before the Greymouth court. The question here is what does this story contribute to our view of the New Zealand justice system? When dealing with the issue of allegations of sexual assault, is our legal system seen to be behaving dysfunctionally? Socrates might ask, did this man act reasonably given our legal system? How does this action by the man to leave position New Zealand as a country, as a collection of cultures, and as a civilization?

A reader might argue that what is offered here is self-serving, that what is unfolding in New Zealand courtrooms and elsewhere is cowardice – child-abusers who have attacked children and now must pay. The men, and it is generally men, are afraid and perhaps with good reason. It is not simply about serving time. In our current social climate the concern about harsh or excessive consequences that very likely fills these men’s thoughts goes beyond the courtroom. These men have good reason to view their futures pessimistically. As things now stand in New Zealand 2013 the person’s life looks like it is over. Talk of civil detention is in the air for New Zealand and a person’s life is very likely to include a long list of unjust outcomes. (Dudding, 2012) A smarter view regarding New Zealand law courts and what is happening is to acknowledge the situation is complex rather than simple.

A minor attracted person standing before a court is able to offer a view that goes beyond simple self-interest. (Henley, 2013) To portray this Christchurch man as fleeing justice – and that was clearly what the New Zealand Herald was doing – may very well over-simplify how the situation is configured. (Kirby, 1997) To position this man as ‘merely fleeing justice’ ignores the important question, is the justice system that calls on him to appear before it a fair one? Is he free to walk away where fairness has emerged socially and culturally to be an issue? Make careful note, even if he is found guilty, this point stands. “The man is probably guilty, do to him whatever you want” is precisely the cry being resisted here.

Were Socrates amongst us, and required to put aside his old view of one privileged parent society and culture (Greek), whose notions of justice are absolute, then might he consider a move to a safer place as reasonable? If we go even further – reach beyond what is reasonable – one might even ask, is it wise?