Prejudice and stigma
It is widely accepted that individuals with convictions are disadvantaged when trying to access the job market. People convicted of sexual offences face further prejudice and stigma given the nature of the most extreme examples of their offences. Desiring employment but being unable to secure it presents challenges for the individual. New research by Laura Tovey, Belinda Winder & Nicholas Blagden focuses on the real and perceived barriers that twelve British men experienced while seeking employment with a criminal record pertaining to a sexual offence.
Entitled: ‘It’s ok if you were in for robbery or murder, but sex offending, that’s a no no’: a qualitative analysis of the experiences of 12 men with sexual convictions seeking employment” , the research investigates two main themes:
- Stigma as a Barrier to Employment explored the impact of the disclosure of the sexual criminal record at interview and the enduring stigmatisation the participants faced as a result of the ‘sex offender’ identity.
- Participants sought to explain the personal significance of being employed, and how their inability to secure employment had resulted in the loss of autonomy and the introduction of self-isolating behaviours.
Finally, interviewees acknowledged having felt ‘better off’ in prison at times, due to the lasting effects of social exclusion.
People who commit sexual offences
The authors describe how sex offenders are often excluded from the usual narratives around rehabilitation. They note that sexual offences cover a range of behaviours, from the most serious of offences to ‘17-year-olds sending sexual images of themselves to their partners’. However, it is the most extreme examples of these offences which are publicised by the media and have a lasting effect on public opinion. Studies show the prejudice towards this group is so great even men with paedophilic interests who have not committed an offence face more stigma than individuals who have committed violent offences.
People with a conviction for a sexual offence are the most despised of all prisoners and ex-prisoners, and are considered largely irredeemable by the public. This stigma, together with the fear that surrounds sexual crime, is a major contributory factor in the challenge of attaining employment by people with sexual convictions.
The shame and stigma of a sexual offence mean people with sexual convictions typically re-enter the community under worse conditions than they were living in before their incarceration. They may have increased restrictions placed upon them, which constrain them from certain jobs or workplaces.
The authors acknowledge why certain jobs are no longer available for this group, but note that the overall reduced opportunities for work can reinforce social isolation and, incongruously, increase the risk of reoffending. Employment mitigates against this risk.
Stigma as a barrier to employment
Interviewees discussed the ‘sex offender identity’ and the barrier this posed to securing employment. Upon disclosure of sexual offence histories, employers’ reactions were likened to a sudden explosion. Participants described the realisation that employers and other members of the public saw them as ‘monsters, not fit for human company’. Deeper investigation identified that participants had become accustomed to employers holding ingrained stigmatised views but did not always accept those views as fair.
The most pertinent theme emerging in all participant accounts was their concern regarding the disclosure of their conviction to employers. While all participants described this as being a fundamental barrier, categorically resulting in the termination of interviews or job offers withdrawn, it was the experience itself which was traumatic for many. Employer reactions to the disclosure of the sexual criminal record evoked a powerful sense of shame and disgrace, such as the one reproduced below:
Everything going fine, yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ve done this, you’ve done that, etc., and it’s cool – oh by the way, what was you in for? So obviously I had to disclose and as soon as I disclosed it was like a bombshell – the whole interview went completely west after that, it just died. And the worst thing about it was there’s the woman, she started visibly shaking, she was upset, and this, that and the other. The guy was obviously shocked and I didn’t know how to handle it. This was my first ever interview, I’ve only been out a few weeks, this is like the first time. I didn’t know what to say or what not to say.
Autonomy and control
The researchers highlighted the way that the interviewees talked about their lack of autonomy and control. Employment provided not only the means to live autonomously, but also a sense of personal achievement and mastery. So, being excluded from the workforce meant not having the chance to have control over their lives. Participants described being cautious about disclosing their criminal convictions in their personal lives. They described periods of losing hope for the future and feeling that freedom at such a high price was not truly freedom.
Better off in prison
Seven of the twelve interviewees reported that they understood why some ex-prisoners felt their life in prison had more value than life outside. This was based on several interlinking factors: exclusion from meaningful work, financial problems, stigma, isolation, absence of opportunity for friendships and – crucially – a lack of hope that things would ever improve.
The researchers conclude that while people who have committed sexual offences may receive support around their individual, social or accommodation needs, until there is a shift to view the individual rather than label, employment opportunities are unlikely to drastically improve for people with sexual convictions. They note that employment provides individuals with basic financial autonomy but emphasise that employment is important for so many other reasons: not least, as an opportunity to reduce social isolation and a critical way of providing a chance to invest in society and gain a sense of purpose and satisfaction.
Thanks to Steve Johnson for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.