The effects of researching the incomprehensible

Caoilte Ó Ciardha

We were five or six research students heading to an amusement park in Georgia after attending the annual conference of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. After alighting from a rollercoaster we stopped to grab some food; corndogs I seem to recall. As we did, a troop of 10-12 year-old majorettes were gathering to perform their routine of choreographed dance and baton twirling. Proud parents and other onlookers formed a semicircle clapping, hooting, and taking photos. But we research students hung back, a sense of unease creeping over our group. For us, that sheen of innocence had been wiped the scene, replaced with an unsettling patina of over-sexualisation and risk.

Internally, we questioned the prudence of the parents in dressing their children in short skirts and heavy makeup and wondered whether what we perceived as sexualisation of these children would lead them down a path of risky sexual behaviour into adolescence. Further, we questioned the motives of the men and women in the crowd who stopped, watched, and took photos of other people’s children. That was the first time I really thought about how researching sexual aggression was capable of changing my own perception of the world. In short, I was seeing the innocent as sexual and risky, and the parallels with Tony Ward’s children as sexual beings implicit theory were not lost on me (i.e., if an offender holds beliefs that children are sexual beings and are thus receptive to sex with adults, that offender may interpret a child’s innocent actions as seductive).

Research in the area of sexual aggression has many challenges, some unique and some shared with other fields of applied research. These include practical issues such as access to samples of offenders and the amount of bureaucracy involved, which can be extremely frustrating when young researchers are faced with pressure to complete degree programmes within a rigid timeframe. While peers in university departments who do less applied research may not face the same challenges, they can typically understand them. What they may not understand as readily are the psychological challenges facing researchers of sexual aggression; creeping, insidious challenges that may be difficult for the researcher themselves to notice, let alone articulate and seek support for.

For example, it can be challenging to become comfortable with the idea that being an advocate for offenders through researching effective and humane ways to treat and manage risk is not at odds with being an advocate for victims of sexual aggression. When faced with the harm caused by an individual through face-to-face contact with a victim or through the reading of case files, it is sometimes distressing to reflect on how you may have empathised and perhaps even joked and laughed with that offender. It is easy to begin to see victims as stumbling blocks to rehabilitation or as agents of risk. And when the distortion inherent in this thinking style is brought into sharp focus by an opportunity to walk a little bit in the victim’s shoes, this realisation can be distressing for the researcher. It can be upsetting to have momentarily lost sight of the distal end goal, that of a complete end to sexual victimisation, by your attention on the more proximal goal of a better life for offenders.

People who work in clinical practice with these populations face these and similar issues all the time, and as a result often have access to psychological support in the form of clinical supervision. For researchers who do not also work clinically, contact with sexual aggressors or in-depth reading of their offences is typically occasional. Therefore it could be argued that the need for such support for researchers who do so is minimal. However, duration/amount of contact with such material is not necessarily an indicator of outcome as clinicians who provide sexual abuse treatment for shorter lengths of time appear to suffer greater vicarious or secondary trauma. For researchers, the nature of research itself may further compound the problem, whereby offenders and victims are reduced to quantitative variables, risking objectifying or dehumanising the victims. When looking at risk and recidivism, for example, the researcher can find themselves hoping for higher recidivism rates in their sample of data, as this will allow a greater statistical exploration of the risk factors associated with that recidivism. And in this way the suffering of victims is reduced to a binary output variable. Again, if the researcher finds themselves reminded of the true human cost of their SPSS data points they risk viewing themselves as uncaring and unempathic to that suffering.

Taken together with occasional one-to-one work with offenders or research on detailed offending accounts, there is clearly a potential for a psychologically negative impact and perhaps even secondary traumatisation of researchers. Symptoms of secondary traumatisation are varied but may include disruptive cognitive schemas, distrustfulness of others, and hypervigilance; in short the kinds of thoughts my colleagues and I experienced in Georgia. Personally I have never felt that my experience of these negative effects of the research amounted to true traumatisation. However I appreciate that there are huge individual differences in the protective factors that buffer people from it.

In conclusion, it is important that researchers, especially those starting off on their research careers, are aware that they may face some of the same psychological consequences as clinicians in working with a challenging population such as sexual aggressors. They may find themselves unprepared and unsupported for such an impact of their work on their wider lives. Furthermore this impact may seem disproportionate to their level of exposure to offenders or upsetting material. Academic supervisors need to be aware of these risks and make appropriate provision for clinical supervision where necessary.


Suggested citation:
Ó Ciardha, C. (2014, March 16). The effects of researching the incomprehensible. [Weblog post]. Retrieved from


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3 thoughts on “The effects of researching the incomprehensible”

  1. Thanks for your comment. The linked article by Ward and Keenan is unfortunately behind a pay-wall but they give a lot more detail on what it means to see children as ‘sexual objects’. Later work by Ward and others use “children as sexual beings” as a title for this belief. This title may be somewhat misleading without reading the extra detail in the paper. Ward’s position is not suggesting that children have no sexual thoughts or identity. Rather it is about how some adults, including some offenders, may attribute an inaccurate amount of sexual desire and understanding to children. Seeing children in this way might make someone more likely to misinterpret innocent behaviour as inviting sexual contact.

    Caoilte Ó Ciardha

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