From Iceland — A Different Conversation On Sexual Violence

A Different Conversation On Sexual Violence
Gabríel Benjamin
Photo by
Helen Maybanks

Dr. Nina Burrows is a British psychologist who specialises in the psychology of sexual abuse, training police officers, prosecutors, barristers, and judges in the UK, offering them different approaches and solutions to the problems with investigations to the rehabilitation of sex offenders. She had been invited to come to Iceland in April, where she met with as many prosecutors, lawmakers, police officers, journalists, student activists, and survivor organisations as possible to offer constructive conversations about how sexual violence could be more effectively tackled in Iceland.

When people get accused of sexual assault or harassment, they often act surprised and don’t believe they did anything wrong. Why do you think this is?

Of course some people will react like this because they are genuinely innocent of any crime, but for many there is a different story behind the reaction: they are simply trying to get away with it. Sex offenders need to be able to lie and manipulate people in order to gain access to victims and commit their offence, so protesting your innocence can be a way of playing the game to see if you can fool people. Many offenders enjoy this aspect of their offending as much as the actual sexual abuse. Their ability to fool other people, especially people in authority, can make them feel powerful. Others will act like they’re surprised because they will be trying to protect the relationships that they have with friends and family. Many offenders are abandoned by others when it’s clear that they are guilty of the crimes, so it makes sense that you would try to convince others that you are innocent if you want them to still love you. For others the story is more complex. Many perpetrators of these crimes do not admit their own behaviour to themselves. They want to believe that what they are doing is okay and that all men do this. They deny their behaviour to themselves so that they can continue to believe that they are a good person. A large minority of offenders will still protest their innocence long after conviction. Reconciling the bits about ourselves that we feel ashamed of with our ideas of the person we want to be in the world is a psychologically difficult job for all of us. Most of us take the easy route out and deny or minimise the bits we don’t like. Sex offenders are highly motivated to deny their own behaviour to themselves because to admit the truth can be very difficult.

Terms like informed and enthusiastic consent frequently get used in discussions about sex and grey areas—what do they mean in practice, and why should people take them seriously?

It’s really important that people understand that consent is active. It’s about something you do, not something you don’t do. If a person isn’t speaking and isn’t moving you cannot assume that they are consenting to sex. You also can’t assume they are having a good time. If you want to experience great sex then you both need to be active in that encounter. There are no grey areas when it comes to active and enthusiastic sex. I think the “grey” areas come in when people are using sex as a conquest, when it’s only about one person’s pleasure, or when it’s about copying techniques people have seen in porn films. We should be teaching young people about consent, but within that we should be helping them understand the psychology of good sex because sometimes it can be our fears of being vulnerable, asking for what we want, or being rejected that lead to unconsensual sex.

The metropolitan police commissioner has stated that she wants to do more to combat sexual assault, but no progress can be seen. Why is that? What more can the police do?

Police forces around the world are waking up to the reality of sexual violence and the important role that they play in bringing more offenders to justice. Victims are key to this. If no victim reports then very few perpetrators will end up in court. The change in mindset that I’ve seen in the UK and in the US, where I do most of my work, is that police forces want to do more to encourage victims to report and get more convictions, but they are not always sure of how to do that. Investigating a sexual offence is different to other crimes. Often there is a lack of physical evidence and the case rests on testimony. Sometimes investigators can feel that these cases have no ‘good evidence’. As a psychologist it’s my job to help investigators see just how much solid evidence you can gather when you interview victims and suspects. Doing a good job in these cases requires slightly different skills, but when those skills are in place I believe we can trust police officers to do what they are good at: build solid investigations that lead to convictions.

With perceived police inaction, a mob has formed around high profile cases and the identities of alleged offenders have been made public. One lawyer in such a case stated that their client did not feel safe returning home, even though no charges had been filed. Is this a trend you’ve seen elsewhere? What steps can the authorities take to regain public trust?

When the system fails people will take matters into their own hands, which is not good news for anyone. The solution is to make the system better. We need to make it much easier for victims to report crimes and provide intelligence to the police. We need detectives with much better interviewing skills because these cases are always likely to rely on testimony as evidence. And we need a system that allows someone to be innocent until proven guilty because everyone deserves an opportunity to defend themselves from an allegation. Often I find that authorities are far too aware of all the challenges that these cases pose but they don’t utilise the assets that are also available. There is a lot more that can be done to support victims and to keep our families safer from perpetrators but that isn’t just the job of the authorities. All of us have a responsibility to open our eyes to the realities of sexual abuse because the first person most people are likely to tell about their experience isn’t a police officer, it’s their family and friends. We need to make sure we’re not living with unhelpful misconceptions about what sexual abuse is so that we are more alert to the real risks and so that we are better at supporting victims ourselves.

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