Sex Offenders, Stigma, And Social Control

Author: Diana Rickard
Publisher: New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016. 216p.
Reviewer: Richard Tewksbury | March 2017

Diana Rickard’s Sex Offenders, Stigma, and Social Control is a timely and important book that evaluates the ways that registration and community notification statutes create limiting structures and limited opportunities for self-expression, social life and healthy, productive construction of a sense of self.  By presenting the experiences of a sample of sex offenders in their own words, and from their own interpretive stance, Rickard educates readers about the objective and subjective, explicit and implicit outcomes and consequences of one of our nation’s best known, and most widely publicly supported criminal justice policies of the past several decades.

The stated goal of the book is to examine “how do individuals who have been cast as monsters and social pariahs construct their sense of self?”  This is explored through examination of the ways that contemporary policies, statutes and public beliefs about registered sex offenders constrain individuals’ movements and activities.  Rickard argues that the creation and imposition of monitoring via registration and community notification imposed not only significant restrictions on individuals but also imposes constraints on such individuals’ abilities to construct a healthy, pro-social identity and find ways to successfully re-integrate to society.

As sex offenders strive to find meaning in their severely altered lives following conviction, incarceration/probation and public, official labeling, Rickards shows how political, psychological, social, emotional and financial structures interact to produce individuals who suffer from anxiety and attacks on their sense of self. In response, registrants endure a variety of unofficial sanctions and limitations on their actions and subsequently their abilities to construct a positive sense of self. Separating out the individual experiences and costs of sex offender registration from the generalized knowledge of them is important.  As Rickard herself states, “The intimate narratives of sex men go a long way in individualizing and humanizing men who might otherwise be dismissed and ostracized as sex offenders.” By the end of the book, this is achieved: the individuals discussed throughout are easily identified as human, real, and worthy of empathetic understanding.

The information about how sex offenders respond to the restrictions and stigmas accompanying registration are all well-known and already well established in the literature. Knowing that there are a wide range of collateral consequences of registration, negative influences on self-perceptions and self-esteem and mental health consequences is important, but already well established. However, where Rickard makes a contribution is in demonstrating to readers how these consequences (collateral and intended) aggregate to create lasting and sometimes severe problems for registered sex offenders. These problems arise from the application of labels, and the way that sex offenders are aware of, and cope with these impositions. This is accomplished through Rickard’s application of labeling theory, and Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective specifically. Using such a theoretical lens provides insights into how labels carry and exercise power and how they are both experienced and resisted by their recipients.

The organization and structure of this book differs from most. Rather than focusing on the issues and experiences of the population of registered sex offenders on the whole, the author instead organizes her presentation in most of the chapters around the story of how each of her six informants has experienced severed social ties, or how they actively strive to re-conceptualize and redefine their label and its impact on them.  With each chapter presenting extended interview excerpts and summaries for each of the six informants, readers are lead through displays of how various types of experience impact how individuals are affected socially, psychologically, emotionally and practically.  At first, the approach seems to detract from Rickard’s ability to show themes, similarities and variations.  However, after the second chapter so structured is finished, the value of this approach is clear. Seeing the problems and seeing the ways that individuals respond to them, facilitates the reader’s understanding. Rather than relying on her own ability to explain issues, this approach actually enhances Rickard’s analytic explanations. The reader not only sees the issues, but also sees them in succession, and thus can come to question what distinguishes the variations.

Methodologically, the book is based on life-history interviews with six registered sex offenders. Each informant was interviewed twice, for a total of approximately 3 hours; all are men, and all with child/adolescent victims.  Five of the six are first time offenders, with relatively minor (compared to others) offenses – fondling, nude photos, “consensual” sexual encounters.

The use of only six informants to construct the argument does work for the book, but also introduces questions about generalizability, validity and reliability.  With hundreds of thousands of registered sex offenders in the nation, reliance on six informants to inform understandings can fairly easily be argued as being biased and unrepresentative.  In part this appears to be intentional, as Rickard points to the overreach of sex offender registration and community notification. As such, while the reader is lead to see registration as extreme and counter-productive, it would also be easy for readers to see these cases as exceptions, and yet still believe in the value and importance of registration for “real” sex offenders. But, while certainly vulnerable to criticism, her approach does work.  This is because the goal of the book is not to document and catalog the consequences of registration, but instead to show how registration can and does negatively impact sex offenders, regardless of their offense severity.  The power of the criminal justice system to label and stigmatize is the central focus of the discussion.  This is best shown through the details of each of the six informants’ experiences.

Sex Offenders, Stigma, and Social Control is a book that draws together extant knowledge and situates and displays our current understandings within the context of six individual’s lives and experiences. The power of labels and labeling processes is front and center in this discussion. In this way the book integrates both existing knowledge and rather obvious (but somehow infrequently applied) theoretical perspectives. Readers unfamiliar with the functions and consequences of sex offender registration and community notification laws will find an engaging, easy-to-read discussion of such policies.  Scholars familiar with sex offender registration and community notification will likewise find value here – value that is centered on the focus of what creates the negative outcomes for individuals, and not just the collateral consequences.

Richard Tewksbury, Professor of Justice Administration, University of Louisville

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