Joan Smith: We stereotype sexual predators, and we get it wrong

Share
Related Topics

Vanessa, Colin and Angela: they sound like inoffensive neighbours whom you might invite round for a drink. In fact, they're three of the worst paedophiles ever convicted in this country.

Sickening details of their assaults on babies and toddlers emerged at Bristol Crown Court last week, when Vanessa George, Colin Blanchard and Angela Allen admitted 38 charges of child abuse. They appear to have made contact through the internet, and engaged in a competitive form of exhibitionism which involved exchanging sadistic fantasies and pictures of children and babies being abused.

Such cases inspire revulsion and agonised soul-searching about what kind of society we have become. As in the case of the murder of the toddler James Bulger, aspects of human nature are revealed that seem scarcely credible, reinforcing anxieties about a "broken" society which is, on occasion, incapable of protecting its most vulnerable members.

When one of the perpetrators turns out to be a 39-year-old woman, the mother of two daughters who passed a criminal records bureau check to get her job at Little Ted's nursery in Plymouth, the public reaction is disbelieving as well as outraged; on Thursday the judge explicitly rejected the suggestion that Blanchard was the prime mover in the assaults, although George and Allen seem to have regarded each other as rivals for his attention. They all objectified their victims to an extraordinary degree; the infants in the pictures taken on George's mobile phone haven't been identified, leaving parents who used the nursery in the agonising position of not knowing if their children were abused.

Women don't often feature as perpetrators in cases of rape and sexual abuse involving adult victims, although it isn't unknown for them to be charged as accomplices. (Who could forget the US army reservist Lynndie England posing next to naked Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison?) But it's known that a proportion of adults with a sexual interest in children is female.

Last week's events – not just this horrific case, but the furore following the arrest of the director Roman Polanski, who jumped bail more than 30 years ago after pleading guilty to statutory rape – highlight something that is persistently overlooked to the detriment of victims: the extent to which sexual predators of both sexes depend on cultural myths to get away with their crimes.

Every parent is on the alert these days for unshaven middle-aged men who hang around outside schools, but George doesn't look like a paedophile; she has blond hair, and unsuspecting parents described her as big and bubbly. Polanski's friends rushed to defend him after his arrest, demanding his release on a variety of spurious grounds. But what they were really saying was that an Oscar-winning director couldn't be guilty of abusing a 13-year-old girl. George's respectable facade has produced a very different result, increasing public fury about what was undoubtedly a sickening breach of trust.

The underlying problem is the same, however, and it has huge implications for the safety of vulnerable adults, children and babies. Public notions about sex offenders haven't caught up with reality: it is still wrongly assumed that "ordinary" men can't possibly be sex-attackers – hence the shamefully low rate of convictions for rape – and that almost all paedophiles are gay men.

Sexual predators may share common factors, such as having been abused themselves when they were children, but making unjustified assumptions based on gender, class, sexual orientation or public achievements allows abusers to remain free.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Women are working in some of the lowest-paid sectors such as cleaning, catering and caring  

Women's wages have gone backwards. Labour would give women the pay they deserve

Gloria de Piero
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?