Prototypes in sexual crime discourse

Craig Harper

Media reports inform and enhance public attitudes toward a host of social phenomena, not least sexual offending. For instance, the News of the World reacted to the public’s horror toward the killing of schoolgirl Sarah Payne in 2000 by printing the names and locations of convicted child sex offenders, playing on and amplifying the public’s feelings about the relative riskiness of sex offenders.

More recently, high profile scandals concerning indecent images of children and the alleged historic sexual offending of celebrities and public figures have once again captured press, public, and political attention, and restored sexual crime as one of the UK’s most contentious political issues. In this post, I examine the role of particularly high-profile cases of sexual offending in guiding various social discussions about the issue of sexual offending, and outline some of the research that we are conducting at the University of Lincoln in order to quantify some of the effects of these cases.

Cognitive-Experiential Self-Theory (CEST) is a dual-process model of human information processing, and posits that we process information using one of two ‘systems’: the ‘rational system’ and the ‘experiential system’ (for an accessible overview of these kinds of models, see Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow“). The rational system is characterised by the conscious and systematic appraisal of incoming information, with judgements being changeable as new information is acquired and processed. It is logical and integrated, allowing for interdisciplinary connections to be made in an attempt to make sense of the problem at hand, enabling the perceiver to use any and all information available to them in order to make an informed judgement. The result of this processing is delayed action, as the elaborate evaluation of information hinders fast information processing. On the other hand, the experiential system is fast, and relies on the affective and heuristic appraisal of information, which is typically based upon previous experience. Information is not encoded logically as a series of pieces of evidence in the experiential system, but rather as images, metaphors, and narratives. Judgments that are made using the experiential system do not need to be explained or defended, as it is said that “experiencing is believing” (Epstein, 1994, p. 711). This is in direct contrast to judgements made using the rational system, which require validation through logical analysis and reasoning.

Dual-process models have become a mainstay in several psychological sub-disciplines, such as health psychology and the psychology of risk. For instance, Gerrard, Gibbons and colleagues have used CEST as a basis for their prototype/willingness model of adolescent risk taking behaviour. The essence of the prototype/willingness model is that a person can make a decision about whether to engage in a particularly risky activity in two distinct ways. Firstly, you can evaluate your own views and attitudes about the behaviour (using the CEST ‘rational system’ to come up with a behavioural intention). Secondly, and contrastingly, you can evaluate a subjective prototype of the sort of person who would normally engage in that activity (using the CEST ‘experiential system). If this prototype appraisal is positive, the result is an increased willingness to engage in the behaviour. If the appraisal is negative, the result is a decreased willingness to engage in the behaviour. It is suggested that these appraisals are heuristically made, and based on how you ‘feel’ about particular types of people.

This got us thinking about the possible utility of this kind of model when looking at social and political discourses around sexual crime. For example, the case of Sarah Payne led to a massive public and media drive to introduce community notification procedures in relation to convicted child sex offenders in the UK (now enacted under the Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme, or ‘CSODS’), despite evidence suggesting that (a) such schemes are potentially damaging to ex-offender reintegration, and (b) it is unlikely that Sarah would have been protected under the enacted legislation. Schemes such as CSODS, especially when framed within the context of a case such as Sarah Payne, seemingly ignore that upwards of 80% of child sexual abuse cases are perpetrated by somebody with a pre-existing relationship with the victim.

We therefore formulated a model (see below), based upon the prototype/willingness model, that posits that the activation of a ‘sexual crime prototype’ increases a perceiver’s willingness to support punitive crime policies.

Figure 1: The prototype-willingness model of sexual crime discourse

The rational path relies on conscious appraisal of the perceiver’s own attitudes toward sex offenders, the aims of treatment, the extent to which punishment should be exerted in comparison to rehabilitation, and how they view sex offenders in a general sense. These attitudinal appraisals are combined with information about subjective norms, such as the views of friends and family, as well as judgments about the perceiver’s motivation to comply with each of these norms. These evaluations lead to a conclusion (behavioural intention), which corresponds to a conscious plan to support punitive (or lenient) policies.

In contrast, the activation of particular sexual crime prototypes leads to an increased willingness to support policy proposals that are punitive in nature. This willingness is brought about by affective and heuristic processing of information relating to sexual crime by processing this information alongside emotionally-charged sexual crime prototypes.

Sexual crime prototypes are disseminated within the context of over-representations of sexual crime within the news media, with articles on this topic being significantly more likely to be comprised of negative emotion than articles about other marginalised and stigmatised groups, such as other offending populations and immigrant groups. From the perspective of CEST, this emotionality is processed experientially, and in turn, it is proposed that this experientiality activates the affect heuristic, leading to favourable appraisals of punitive policy proposals.

Our plan over the next few months is to examine our proposed model empirically. One survey is already out – if you would like to contribute to the research and participate, you can do so here!

If our model is found to be correct, this could have several implications for the ways in which the national press reports sexual offences. For instance, could it be that a change in legislation, such as affording anonymity to those accused of sexual crimes, lead to more balanced and accurate reporting and, in turn, could this lead to a more ‘rational’ debate about the best ways in which to sentence and manage those convicted of sexual offences. Further, we will be looking into whether presenting more rational (or evidence-based) information can bring about long-term changes in social attitudes and perceptions about sex offenders. If our empirical work can support such an argument, this could lead to the development of draft guidelines for journalists reporting on such contentious issues in order to better inform lay members of the public about this emotive (and often skewed) social issue.


Craig Harper is a PhD candidate in social and forensic psychology at the University of Lincoln, UK. His current research examines public and political responses to sexual crime within the contexts of cognitive-experiential self-theory and moral disengagement theory. He is also interested in prison reform, criminal justice legislation, and the sociology of punitive attitudes.

Suggested citation:
Harper, C. (2014, August 10). Prototypes in Sexual Crime Discourse. [Weblog post]. Retrieved from



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