Gwenda Willis: Setting Aside the Facts

Editor’s Note: This is the first in our new feature of guest editorials. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section.

Lessons from the Front Lines of Public Discourse


by Gwenda M. Willis

In July I participated in a pre-election public debate hosted by a prominent New Zealand lobby group who are advocating for public registers of convicted sex offenders. I was outnumbered by proponents of public registers. There was a lot of anger in the room. I doubt many people (if any!) read the fact sheet that I had prepared, and my attempts to highlight a shared goal of preventing sexual offending were met with staunch disagreement from a fellow panel member and confrontational demands that the public “had a right to know” about who is living amongst them. Emotions were raw and reasoning was difficult. I felt as though my messages that public registers would not prevent the majority of sexual crimes (i.e., perpetrated by first-time offenders who have established relationships with victims) were getting lost.

I would later learn that my participation had given some audience members something to think about, which is perhaps all I could expect in an environment where people opposing public registers would have struggled to have their voices heard.

A couple of weeks after the debate I was sitting in an audience following a production of the New Zealand plays Portraits (Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt) and Verbatim (William Brandt and Miranda Harcourt), based on real cases of violence and sexual violence and developed through interviews with offenders, their families, and their victims’ families. The plays are a form of docu-drama — they are performed by talented actors and actresses but every word is real. The following review by Frances Morton captures the ambience of the plays:

Verbatim and Portraits are confronting. They make you think. And think about things you may not want to consider, like what was going through offenders’ minds at the time of their horrific crimes. It’s rare to feel empathy for offenders when reading crime news reports. Putting the stories in a theatre opens up new complexities. The real strength of these two plays is their authenticity. Words have been taken straight from real people’s mouths and you can feel that honesty in the lines. Fear, shame and anger trip up in painful laden repeated words and redundancies. (For the full review see here.)

Following each production, the cast, crew and guest speakers form a panel on the stage, reflect on the works, and invite audience questions and discussion. I was a panel member at earlier performances during which thought provoking discussions about sex offender treatment and management unfolded. At this particular performance, a man in the front row of the audience raised his hand to speak. He told his story of going to prison for murder, and subsequently turning his life around (he now holds a PhD and lectures on indigenous and social issues). He spoke with courage, compassion and honesty. Like the content of the plays, his account gripped the audience’s attention and challenged many people’s views of ex-offenders and their capacity for change.

It was clear following these two experiences that a necessary precursor to rational, informative discussion about highly emotive topics is creating an environment in which facts and research are palatable. Correcting misperceptions through the provision of information on its own is unlikely sufficient to influence affectively laden attitudes. Sharing stories and engaging audiences on an emotional level have power to create the environments necessary for reasoned discussion. We have stories and our clients have stories, and these stories can help all people (professionals and the lay public alike) understand the complexities of the lives affected by sexual abuse. Our clients’ stories can challenge the prototypical sexual offender depicted in the media. Even our own stories can help those outside the field understand how we are all ultimately fellow travelers to prevent sexual violence.

Many of us have dedicated our careers to preventing sexual violence, including sexual reoffending. Through our work we get to know the men and women behind soul destroying, abhorrent crimes. We develop an understanding of the individual, relational and societal influences that support the perpetration of sexual violence and most importantly, how to prevent repeat sexual crimes. Conversely, media reports of sexual crimes often instil fear, shock and horror, and leave the public with little knowledge about prevention. Sexual violence is a community problem with community solutions, and engaging the public is crucial in efforts to eradicate sexual violence.

Thanks to David Prescott for his thoughtful contributions.

Gwenda M. Willis

Dr. Gwenda Willis is a Clinical Psychologist and Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her research and clinical interests are in criminal justice/forensic psychology, with a focus on understanding and preventing sexual offending and strengths-based approaches to offender rehabilitation and reintegration. Dr. Willis is a featured presenter in the Safer Society/ATSA video, Making a Better Life Happen.

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