nextgenforensic

The truth about stories: How men desist from sexual offending

Ian McPhail

“The truth about stories is that’s all we are.” This is how Thomas King, America-Canadian First Nations author, begins his 2003 Massey Lectures.  That phrase has resonated with me since I read it over ten years ago; in fact, it’s never strayed too far from my mind.  There is a power in stories: we are drawn to tell stories and construct fictions about ourselves and our world.  In this post, my interest is in exploring some of the stories told by men who desist from sexual offending.

Victor Hugo starts his famous novel with the line, “Be it true or false, what is said about men often has as much influence upon their lives, and especially upon their destinies, as what they do.”  Hugo’s detective Javert, chases Jean Valjean for the length of Les Misérables because he believes what has been said about Valjean—that he is a criminal—and ignores what Valjean has done in the intervening years.  Can a person who commits a crime, like Valjean, become something else through the works of his life?  This is a question Hugo poses to us, his past and present reader.

Contemporary desistance research focuses on questions about what men and women do in their lives when they turn away from crime and start doing other things with their lives

To understand the fuller scope of desistance, additional questions can also be asked: What stories about his own identity and about what is valued and precious to pursue with a human life did Valjean tell himself as he moved into desistance?  What stories did he tell himself about himself that were different than the stories he told himself about himself during the time he committed crimes?  These are some of the questions that social scientists are pursuing in order to understand why people, just like the fictional Valjean, stop committing crimes.

Contemporary desistance research focuses on questions about what men and women do in their lives when they turn away from crime and start doing other things with their lives.  Qualitative research has also provided a fascinating view into the stories that desisting women and men tell about themselves, how they have come to see themselves, and what is important in their lives.

How do these stories change when someone moves away from perpetrating sexual violence against others?  Recent qualitative research provides us with a view into the self-narratives of desisting men that involve the formulation of an alternative identity, different from the old, more “crime-friendly” identity.  Let’s take a look at two major features of these alternative storylines desisting men were telling: work and relationships, as described in McAlinden, Farmer, & Maruna (2016).

Recent qualitative research provides us with a view into the self-narratives of desisting men that involve the formulation of an alternative identity, different from the old, more “crime-friendly” identity.

Jobs, careers, work.  Work provided meaning to the lives of these desisting men and made up part of the plot they told about themselves.  Some quotes from the study include: “Work is a foundation to my life”; “I love my work…it gives me a lot of pleasure”; work provides “something to lose”; “work will give you something to get up in the morning for”; “I had three children … I was happy because I felt I was able to provide for them and that was a good feeling.”

Relationships, love, support.  Having more peopled lives and more intimate, meaningful, and sustaining relationships with those in their lives, these were central in the stories desisting men told about themselves.  Whereas during breakdowns in relationships, conflict in marriages, or being separated from their children, these were times some men said they offended.  Some quotes from the research suggest relationships and social supports promoted desistance: “a lot of people … supported me from day one … my main friends have stuck with me … And that was a big boost for me”; “If I didn’t have support I don’t know where I’d be”; “I love my wife to bits, I really do, I just feel so ashamed that I might’ve upset her and lost her for the offence I did but now we’ve got to so much positive outlook and the future to live, put the past behind us”.  Marriages, meeting partners, having children, and having friends were “high points” for desisting men and their investment in and concern for losing these relationships were seen as helping their movement toward a sex offence-free life.

Marriages, meeting partners, having children, and having friends were “high points” for desisting men and their investment in and concern for losing these relationships were seen as helping their movement toward a sex offence-free life.

I think that relationships are prominently featured in desistance narratives is fascinating because research tells us loneliness is a powerful predictor of men continuing to use sexual violence.  Loneliness is something that we are born into, if we want to believe the existentialists, and it seems making connections that provide a reprieve from the sea of loneliness helped these men desist from sexual violence.  Another aspect of the research I find fascinating is it elucidates some of the psychological processes individuals use to build social capital in their lives; general markers of social capital (e.g., job stability) being important for desistance from sexual offending.

McAlinden and colleagues’ research provides evidence that desistance stories feature two things as valued and precious about a human life: work and the purpose this brings and relationships and the support these bring.  To me, these desistance stories involving telling of a self that values work, has work, and values what work allows one to do (e.g., live with purpose, support the people we love).  I can also see desistance stories involving telling of a self that values being with others, values the love and regard others bring, and has the potential for growth and meaning through relationships with others.  In the stories told by these men, we catch a glimpse of a sense of themselves that is at odds with using of sexual violence.

McAlinden and colleagues’ research provides evidence that desistance stories feature two things as valued and precious about a human life: work and the purpose this brings and relationships and the support these bring.

There is powerfully human stuff being said by these desisting men.  So much so that even 150 years ago, Victor Hugo had his impressive character Jean Valjean, as he moves through his life, construct an alternative identity that profoundly involves work and relationships (how can we forget Cosette?).  Valjean does indeed become someone different through the works of his life and what he held precious in life.  There’s truth in these stories.

Suggested citation:
McPhail, I. V. (2017, April 29). The truth about stories: How men desist from sexual offending [Weblog post]. Retrieved from https://nextgenforensic.wordpress.com/2017/04/30/the-truth-about-stories-how-men-desist-from-sexual-offending/


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