Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Social Construction of the Child Sex Offender Explored by Narrative

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Social Construction of the Child Sex Offender Explored by Narrative

Article excerpt

The notion of "child sex offender" provokes aversion, but it may be that it is a social construction. We suggest that a Dominant narrative, in which child sex offenders are constructed as irredeemable, persists, despite the emergence of assumption challenging Alternative narratives. A story completion method was used to elicit themes of Dominant or Alternative narratives, theory-led thematic analysis was used to identify them. The use and analysis of narrative and free-form stories are well established in social research, but remain a novel concept in the study of offenders. The results support the persistence of the Dominant narrative with two notable exceptions. Conclusions centre on utility of the narrative method to examine offender constructions, and the pervasiveness of Dominant narratives. Key Words: Dominant and Alternative Narrative, Social Construction, Child Sex Offenders, and Thematic Analysis


Narrative is not a fixed stable phenomenon, but part of the complex shifting pattern of meaning, making up the social reality we all inhabit. Kerby (1991) suggests that our understanding of the "other" is primarily gained from stories and narrative and that this also forms an integral part of the construction of self. The analysis of narrative is best used for exploratory purposes, sensitizing the researcher, illustrating, but not by itself, validating theory. Here, we describe the use of story to describe perceptions of offenders by members of the public and the implications of the findings.

Witten (1993) proposes that narrative functions to construct social reality and that the vocabulary we use imparts its own values. The existence of more than one narrative at any one time is likely and the prevalence of one over the other is not due to any correspondence to reality, but to its pragmatic nature. In other words, the social construction of reality at any one time does not necessarily depend on one view of any one object or being, but can be based on a multiplicity of views. The view that takes precedence, for those involved, is the one that has the most utility at that time.

The Dominant narrative construction, in Western societies, concerning child sex offenders identifies such individuals as purely male, inherently evil, inhuman, beyond redemption or cure, lower class, and unknown to the victim (who is constructed as female). This Dominant narrative persists today and is owed much to the reinforcement of the historical narratives constructing child sexual abuse and the construction of the monolithic family (here defined as a fundamental social group of Western society: typically consisting of two parents and their children) as the social norm.

Child sexual abuse is not a new phenomenon, but the perception of it is and always has been, socially constructed. History has treated incest ambiguously: on the one hand condemning it and on the other hand punishing the victims. Guarnieri (1998) notes that children were institutionalised following admittance of sexual abuse (against them) for moral care and re-education. However, the shroud of silence associated with incest in the early 20th Century seemed even more reinforced by the institutions that tried to reform victims who never spoke about their experiences outside of the institution. Once again the "family" remained the most important institution with abused children being removed and perpetrators often not being charged. Indeed when incest became public knowledge the child was also charged.

It is argued that the social construction of the family is a key contributor to the narrative defining the child sex offender. Mumby (1993, p. 5) notes that "the social unit we call 'family' is not a pre-given entity but is rather partly constructed through various narrative structures that family members articulate." The monolithic family concept takes the contemporary middle-class family as its norm and is perceived wholly beneficial to children, designed for nurturing and protecting them against a heartless world; a safe haven. …

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