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In many ways, we are circumspect about using the terminology in this chapter’s title. Potentially, it takes us into a semantic swamp, and an extensive review of other authors’ attempts at defining these concepts will, we fear, only take us further into the mire of meaning(s). However, the issues of thinking about, and thinking in and after, action are very important, and lie at the heart of this book. We must tread carefully across the prominent landscape of reflective practice, leaving fresh footprints to add to the many that have come before us. In our final chapter, we explore the landscape of reflective/reflexive practice in more detail, with a view to demonstrating the contribution that this book makes to social work practice with sex offenders. The terms ‘reflective’ and ‘reflexive’ are concerned with thinking; in connection with practice, they point to thoughtful practice. In his seminal work The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, Schön (1983) described the thinking of some professions whose work was primarily engaged with the inanimate material world as ‘technical rationality’. Observation, measurement and (mathematical) calculation were the foundational methods of these professions. However, for those professions engaged with people – for example, planning, psychotherapy and social work – abstracted scientific calculation was seen as insufficient to inform the complexities of the professional task. Schön (1983, pp 76–104) suggested that reflection – on the task, relevant theories and research – was required. He identified two types of reflection: ‘on action’ and ‘in action’. These two aspects of thinking about social work practice before, during and after direct work have had various manifestations and proponents: ‘reflective thinking’, ‘reflexive thinking’ and ‘critical thinking’.

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Social work with people who sexually harm others is complex and demanding. It involves feelings, thoughts and actions, and is imbued with values. It occurs in a range of settings and is undertaken by qualified, trainee and unqualified social workers. A social work approach incorporates values, psychological perspectives and consideration of sexual violence as part of a social context. Social work is not an activity undertaken by isolated workers; it takes place within agencies that have policies and procedures to guide practice. This book is not a replacement for official guidance; rather, it seeks to provide an in-depth exploration of issues that make up social work practice. Practice issues are located in the social, political, administrative and welfare context of the UK, primarily focusing on England and Wales; while policy and procedural issues may remain geographically specific, other matters have a wider currency.

Social work is currently undergoing radical change in the UK due to central government initiatives designed to address perceived (albeit contested) shortcomings in education and practice. This means that any description of how social work is delivered is contingent and subject to significant caveats, including the increasing tendency for the four constituent nations (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) to develop their own health and welfare services and structures. In addition to this, there is a move to more regionalised approaches to welfare delivery within England itself, devolving increased public service financial responsibility to newly constituted political bodies that will take localised decisions on what is the best model to meet their needs.

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This chapter provides an account of penal responses to the sex offender. We begin by outlining justifications for punishment, and then look more closely at official sentencing guidelines in relation to sex offences. Thereafter, penal responses to sex offenders are presented within a framework of the justifications for punishment. Although we are concentrating on how the criminal justice system of England and Wales deals with sex offenders, there will be some similarities, and, of course, differences, across the globe. The underlying justifications for punishment, however, remain the same. The main part of the chapter is divided into three sections, considering, in turn, retributive, consequentialist and communicative ways in which penal policy is shaped and implemented. However, a word of warning is appropriate here. Most sentences do not exclusively fit into one type of justification for punishment; we will highlight ambiguities as they occur. Criminal law is not the only framework that deals with sex offenders and sex crimes; in the final section of the chapter, we briefly outline the areas of contribution made by civil law.

Sentencing sex offenders marks public recognition of the ‘wrong’ of sexual offences. The ‘expressive function of punishment’ (Feinberg, 1965, p 400) denounces the offence and the offender to wider society:

punishment is a conventional device for the expression of attitudes of resentment and indignation, and of judgements of disapproval and reprobation, on the part either of the punishing authority … or of those ‘in whose name’ the punishment is inflicted. Punishment, in short, has a symbolic significance largely missing from other penalties.

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The assessment of those who sexually offend has developed during the previous decades, with ever-increasing methods, technologies and approaches designed to ensure that we are able to respond effectively to this damaging behaviour, thus preventing further harm to victims. In seeking to understand how this behaviour came about and to formulate plans for managing it, some differences have developed from the more usual social work approaches to assessment. This is partly due to the dominance of this area by psychology, as discussed earlier in the book, but is also due to an understandably increased focus on ‘risk’. There is a difference in assessing someone who has sexually assaulted a child to assessing someone who requires an adaptation to their home due to their physical impairment, not least the different feelings both generate, but there are also some similarities, which we will explore. Clearly, the key questions when assessing someone who has sexually offended are: ‘Are they going to do it again?’ and ‘What will it take to prevent them doing it again?’ (Shlonsky and Wagner, 2005). In this chapter, we look at current social work approaches to assessment and how they might engage with sexual offending. We look at the development of specialist assessment tools and protocols for sexual offenders and discuss how these are located within particular ways of thinking that direct practice. Risk assessment is identified and the need for approaches that recognise and respond to complexity is highlighted.

Assessment is a key task and activity of social work and social workers as they are required to seek to understand the circumstances of those that they are working with in order to intervene in ways that are helpful to the individual and society.

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In this chapter, we explore the various approaches to direct intervention with people who commit sexual offences and some of the systems used to manage their behaviour. We look at the importance of who we, the social workers, are and how this can affect our work with people, and we argue for a reflexive approach that asks us to think about our knowledge and values. The ways in which sexual offending has been understood has affected the ways in which the behaviour has been responded to, and we look at these changes to gain some perspective on current practices. As we have already seen in this book so far, sexual offending is complicated and we explore some of these complexities through discussion and reflective exercises.

As an example, during the writing of this book, there was recognition of sexual offending by some high-profile individuals in the UK during previous decades. Contemporary reports of investigations into this behaviour demonstrated a lack of willingness to recognise the seriousness of it, often dismissing it as young women and girls developing their sexual interests or as men simply behaving as expected. The predatory and exploitative nature of these relationships and assaults was not clear to observers, and victims were often viewed as active participants in their abuse. This has echoes of the controversy around the seduction theory of Freud, where the sexual abuse of girls by their fathers was reframed as a developmental psychic fantasy (Masson, 1984) following what appears to be shock and denial at the scale and implications of such behaviour.

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Making a difference

This topical book engages with a wide range of issues related to social work practice with people who have sexually offended. It addresses the emotional impacts of ‘facing the sex offender’, the importance of values and ethics in practice, and reviews popular and academic understandings of sex offenders and sex crimes. Its accessible style and use of practice based learning exercises will help readers to reflect on theory, practice and developing emotional resilience.

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The aim of this chapter is to outline and explore the contribution of key academic disciplines to understanding sex crimes and sex offenders. Sociological, biomedical, theological, legal and psychological perspectives are considered. In identifying individual disciplines, we recognise that each discipline is heterogeneous, and that forms of knowledge may be contested within each discipline. Moreover, knowledge within each discipline may be developed from differing epistemological positions (eg an evolutionary psychology account of sex crime differs significantly from a feminist psychological account).

The chapter initially considers victim perspectives. Victims’ experiences are individual, and although a range of studies identify common impacts of violation, no systematised knowledge of sex crimes has been generated from such experiences. These accounts, however, make an important contribution to understanding sex crime and developing law and penal practices via victims’ organisations. This has been particularly important in articulating and asserting victims’ experiences of sex crime. We then move on to academic accounts of sex crimes. Sociological understandings of sex crime move beyond legal definitions (eg feminist accounts of sex crimes, which focus on patriarchy and the problem behaviours of the general population of men), but also analyse the behaviour of convicted populations (eg in studying what helps sex offenders desist from offending). The term ‘theological’ is used to recognise that, through history, various (theocentric) religions in different parts of the world have made statements about the nature of various sexual behaviours; proscribed behaviours are defined as sins. In secular societies, crimes are defined by law, which is often influenced by dominant theological frameworks and, according to one’s epistemological position, either represents the ‘moral consensus’ or the interests of dominant groups (eg think about the criminalising and decriminalising of ‘homosexual’ activity).

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In this chapter, we look at systems and processes designed to manage sexual offenders and sexual offending, with a particular focus on interprofessional working, drawing on research and investigations into sexual abuse. The organisational context of safeguarding people from sexual abuse is important in providing the framework within which various agencies can make sound, informed decisions and take appropriate actions. Social workers are located within these systems and practise in spaces where the criminal law may not be adequate to protect people. We look at current structures and how these function, including the Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA), and consider what recent reports into child sexual exploitation (CSE) tell us about what needs to be done differently to avoid failing the victims of sexual abuse. Although we specifically address issues relating to England and Wales, the nature of interprofessional collaboration in this area is an international problem and we hope that our perspectives will contribute to international debate and policy development.

The term ‘safeguarding’ has become commonplace in the UK to describe the ways in which we protect people from abuse, harm and neglect, including sexual harm. It is usually focused on those groups that are deemed vulnerable, such as children, young people and those adults who are perhaps more open to discrimination and exploitation through their physical, mental or intellectual impairments. Individual and structural prejudices based on age, disability and health underpin the construction of such vulnerability, and these are complicated by other factors such as gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality and class.

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