October 22, 2017

Sentencing the Violator

This was written for the Church Times in December 2012

The review of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, published last week, signifies a new breadth of awareness about crimes of sexual violation. For the first time, it moves away from focussing solely on bodily harm, to the deeper trauma that rape and assault have for the victim. It also puts the activities and motivation of the violator in a bigger context- recognizing that some offenders are calculating, persistent and ready to breach positions of trust. The review makes clear that the perspective of victims must be central, that sentences should ‘reflect everything the victim has been through and what the offender has done.’ Gone, it would seem, is the old ethos about victims not suffering very much, or ‘bringing it upon themselves’. Instead we find a more realistic assessment of the long-term harm. The review has already been welcomed by groups engaged in counselling or advocacy of survivors; they recognize all too well how the effects of sexual violence continue long after the physical scars have healed.

But the review is striking for another reason. The new guidelines reflect the rapid changes in our culture over the last nine years. The 2003 Act was drawn up before the mass market in mobile phone cameras, before the advent of Facebook and social networking sites, before potential victims could be chatted-up, groomed or stalked via the internet. There was little awareness in 2003 of the vast capacity of new technology to link people together, or of the dangers it posed for those vulnerable and exposed. We could not begin to anticipate the spread of networks for sexual predators, the level of intimidation, or the market for images of sexual cruelty. We had no idea of the scale on which assaults could be filmed for voyeuristic distribution, compounding even further the damage done to the victim.  New technology does not make the experience of rape any worse for those who suffer it, but it does widen the reach of the perpetrators and make safeguarding measures even more urgent.

So, the review recommends that sentences should reflect not just the physical offence, but the attitudes and tactics employed by offenders: the targeting of vulnerable victims, grooming, the use of intimidation and fear, involvement of alcohol or drugs, bribes, violent or threatening language, networking, filming, and abuse of trust. It offers guidelines for preventative treatment programmes for offenders, and  recommends that significant custodial sentences be available, with a tougher 19 year maximum for one-off rape. The suffering of the victim must never be lost in these ‘incredibly complex, sensitive and serious offences.’

As a sociologist I am grateful for the thoroughness of this review and the way it integrates the nature of sexual offence with an understanding of contemporary culture.  But I’m even more grateful as a theologian. For, from a theological perspective, sexual violence is a moral and spiritual attack on the wholeness and integrity of a human being. It disregards a person’s God-given worth and dignity, and treats that person as a commodity – a thing for the violator’s own use. It imposes power of over the body, mind and emotions of another, denying their real humanity, and ensuring that the damage done to their victim is deeper than physical injury, affecting both their identity and self-worth. That is why public acknowledgement and justice are an intrinsic part of healing.

The review implicitly recognizes all this and addresses the implications. It invites us now to make our own contribution in consultation.

We can do more. We can pray that it will have safe passage, and bring greater justice and new hope.

December 2012

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