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

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz