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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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

The ethics of ‘pixie sex’

Looney_Toons_23637Last week our local media in New Zealand published an item under the banner, “Man sent to jail for watching ‘pixie sex’.” Friends made jokes about how this story might impact our local pixies, and yes, some stated quite simply, “Have the New Zealand police and our court system gone crazy?” Even Roger Bowden, the man’s lawyer, said the conviction for possessing objectionable material was “the law gone mad.”

If this wasn’t about real people, I too would laugh. But it is not the pixies who are at the centre of this story. Very serious events have unfolded for “an Auckland man“ – and it’s not over yet. Having been convicted of a crime, he has served his time in a New Zealand prison and has now been released, under the supervision of the Probation Service. Usually after such a supervision period ends the ex-inmate is expected to fit back into society – find a job, get himself a place to live. It is my expectation that this man’s future prospects look nothing like that.

What assumptions can we make regarding the man? On a personal level his psychological state/mood would be moving ever closer to snapping point. The public media tell him who and what he is – social messages that are reinforced in his interactions with others. Inside these images, narratives and exchanges, the social identity of the ‘pedophile’/sex abuser is constructed.

Not only do these imposed narratives make it virtually impossible for an individual to maintain an integrated sense of self, but they block all attempts at resistance, be it political struggle or romantic heroism. The very idea of ‘legitimate’ resistance for a sex offender is a no-no.

One form of resistance is available for the sex offender –  it has two modalities, and both involve lies and deceit. First, the sex offender is expected to tell lies: he’s a liar before he opens his mouth. But there is also the potential for such a person to tell themselves it is in their best interests to avoid telling the truth. Prisoners will often disclose, after their release, how crucial telling lies was to their survival. Sadly, this is likely to include the inmate failing to take responsibility for what they have done.

There is something profoundly ironic happening here. Sex abuse narratives have truth telling as a central issue, but that process is a bit more complex than may at first appear. It is my belief the stigma of the sex offender and the pedophile is so powerful it feeds invitations to tell lies and do whatever it takes to keep out of harm’s way.

Telling the truth seems almost foreign for modern-day narratives of the sex offender – most see the offender as the one who misleads; I would argue speaking the truth is indeed a great need inside this situation, but lying is endemic, and the act of truth telling far from straightforward.

What sex offenders tell others, and what they tell themselves, constitutes a very deep problem. My decision to write seems infected by this problem of speaking the truth – how will my writing impact others?

In a fundamental sense, each of us owns our own story. That ‘truth’ is as valid for members of sexual minorities as it is for the rest of us. When writing any piece for this blog the author is challenged to take into account how the person or group being discussed might be impacted by what is offered. Anyone who has studied in the area of the social sciences will be aware that ethics and methodology are crucial aspects of how serious research ought to be undertaken these days.

Recent posts on this site can be lensed through such questions. The piece about prisons, for example: How might that piece impact on inmates, their friends and families, the victims of the crimes linked to why a person is in prison?

The more recent post –  which discussed children in art –  considered how those children would be impacted by public discussion of Graham Ovenden’s work? At first, British society viewed his works as positive, placing them in such prestigious art spaces as The Tate Gallery. When those images were recently taken down, and this move written about in the public media, how were the children in those art works impacted?

A number of items on this website have discussed the social profile of the pedophile. The intent of these texts was to urge the reader to consider the profile of ‘the pedophile’ and ‘the sex offender’ in terms of how they are currently positioned in New Zealand society and culture. How would minor attracted people (a term I use in place of pedophile and sex abuser) view my text? How does the talk I invite impact on them?

A pattern is emerging in New Zealand: men socially profiled as sex abusers and pedophiles are increasingly placed under extended supervision for periods of up to ten years, with a range of special conditions imposed. I know of a person who has been through this situation; his experience gave me a window into how this works. In such a situation as this the probation service will make specific recommendations. The person will often be blocked from owning or having access to any device that links to the internet. Ask people these days to do without such items as our computers, tablet devices or smart-phones for a week and watch panic set in.

I argue that when a person is ‘managed’ by the state it is difficult for them to be open about how that process happens. What choices do they have when telling the story? The biblical account of David and Goliath is not usually applied to the situation of a pedophile facing a courtroom. Perhaps that is the point: culture restricts the narratives we can choose when creating our personal stories – and not every story is offered to every person.

The David and Goliath image is something I have used; I argue the sex offender is prevented from doing so – his every attempt to characterise himself as another David battling Goliath is blocked and discounted.

There is the issue of power here – how can the story be told, and by whom? We are not him; what questions are we free to ask? Is it okay for us to focus on the process unfolding for the man in Auckland, and not limit our questions to issues of guilt or innocence?

Is the Probation Service being over-zealous? Is the state exercising ‘prosecutorial overreach’? Returning to our earlier question, how do our comments impact on this man? If we inquire into what the authorities are doing, the man is likely to become concerned about how they are going to react, and more to the point, what they will do to him.

There is a lobby group in New Zealand that seeks ever increased punishment of those who come before our courts. One can also speculate government staff who see themselves as ‘doing a job’ can become nervous – they fear being viewed as sloppy or lax. Another group in play here are professionals called on by courts to offer opinions – psychologists for example. They are not exempt from these power dynamics. If a psych report is asked for, and I dare say it already has been, how will it be written? It will take up a position, and it will be very likely ideologically driven.

My prediction: an escalation of this case is likely.

As things currently stand this man’s life is in public space, albeit a highly stigmatized version of his life. Media items that point to the pixie story extend beyond New Zealand. Having been to court and spent time in prison, he is already a person deeply affected by what has unfolded. I argue he continues to be at risk.

For some, this pixie story seems like a joke. It is far from funny. In addition to having served a prison term, the man may well have to endure extended supervision for as many as ten years.

Early on, this post pointed out each person owns the narrative that is their life story. Again I feel compelled to stress not only that this matters, but also for some, it is very difficult and complex.

Some are arguing this is a reasoned accusation and a punitive response with a feel-good factor. The view being put forward is this man’s sexual orientation – that of being a pedophile – means that having viewed this pixie material he may then go on to carry out acts that harm children.

It is an argument that turns on the notion of child protection. What it fails to show is any in-depth understanding of what having a sexual orientation means. Even if we have an adult who is not a pedophile, sexual assault of a child, I argue, demonstrates the sexuality of the person acting requires analysis. It is my intention to write on both sexual orientation and the presence of adults inside that group who sexually abuse children and are not pedophiles.

Related articles

  •  Cohen, S. (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Third Edition). London and New York: Routledge.
  • Farrar, D. (2013, 21/04). A yucky but interesting issue [Blogsite]. In Kiwiblog (Blogrole). Retrieved 28 April, 2013, from http://www.kiwiblog.co.nz/2013/04/a_yucky_but_interesting_issue.html
  • Foucault, M. (2001). Fearless Speech. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), Distributed by MIT Press.
  • Goffman, E. (1986). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.
  • Steward, I. (2013, 21/04). Man sent to jail for watching ‘pixie sex’ [Newspaper] [Electronic version]. In Stuff.co.nz (National). Stuff.co.nz(Online Story).