Letter: The dangers of stereotyping

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The Independent Online
I would not doubt the positive intentions of Andy Beckett's article "Cruel world of the paedophiles" (5 May), but I was dismayed to find old stereo-types replaced with new ones. Dr Art O'Connor's segregation of abusers into "incest offenders", "standard paedophiles" and"young offenders" is likely to distort the social work and criminal justice response to individuals already highly proficient at escaping detection and prosecution.

Research is far from conclusive, but the tendency in the 1970s to differentiate between incest offenders and "paedophiles" has been repeatedly refuted by recent studies. For instance, Abel et al's study in 1988 indicated that 49 per cent of incestuous fathers were simultaneously abusing outside the home, while studies of arousal patterns have suggested little difference between men who have been convicted of sexual offences inside or outside the family. Similarly, the separation of young offenders into a distinct group overlooks indications that the vast majority of abusers begin to sexually offend in adolescence.

The incest offender image suggests that sexual offenders who admit to offending within the family are not a risk outside it. The implicit distinction remains between the "lapsed" family man whose experiences can somehow be more readily accepted than the untreatable "deviant".

It is understandable that workers are drawn to classification when engaged in stressful work provoking strong emotions. But if this work is to prioritise the protection of victims we must be alert to the sophisticated manner that perpetrators target children, and ensure that distinctions remain fluid rather than absolute.

Robin Tuddenham

London N17