Applying Labeling Theory to Sex Offenders, Stigma, and Social Control

Sex Offenders, Stigma, and Social Control, by Diana Rickard, examines sex offenders and looks at how the criminal justice system and society have labeled them as deviant. While studying these individuals, Rickard specifically studies how their deviant label affects how they view themselves, and how this negative stigma forces them to return to the community and try to live a normal life. After studying the narratives of these individuals, Rickard quickly finds out that the deviant label attached to the sex offenders alters their ability to return to society and live a normal life within their community.

Rickard begins chapter 1 by highlighting the sociopolitical context in which “new sex offender policies can be seen as a part of a larger sociopolitical movement toward “ governance through crime”. She then goes on to explain the consequences the men face by having the deviant label of “sex offender” attatched to each of them. Rickard states “ This study provides a unique opportunity to consider this form of deviance from the perspective of offender...analyzed from a sociological perspective...offers a deeper understanding of the complex relationship between public policy and lived experience”. In chapter 2, Rickard goes into the personal narratives of each man, which include their histories, what happened leading up to their first offense, what each of them did to receive their deviant label and their differing behaviors. Chapter 3 looks at how each offender ties back in with his community, in which all participants claimed they were able to keep their social ties within their communities. Even Terry’s father said, “his son’s deviance would be manageable”. This shows that Terry, along with the other participants’ families remained supportive even with the deviant label given and the way society may view them.

Labeling theory applies to “when the norms of different segments of social conflict, the norms of the more powerful group are accepted as the norm”( The Labeling Perspective PowerPoint, Silletti). In essence, this theory looks at society and defines who is deviant versus who is not deviant and gives a label or a title to those who break the norms in such society. Labeling theory applies to Sex Offenders, Stigma, and Social Control in which deviant labels are given to all participants in Rickard’s study. Terry for example, “had a long history of sexual offending: flashing, public masturbation, frottage, and groping strangers”. The first many times he came in contact with the criminal justice system, he has gotten away with it, however, Terry’s last act was caught on camera, when he assaulted a twelve-year-old girl and was on the news and in newspapers, so this offense was taken more seriously. When this offense was made a big deal, Terry was “dismissed from his job, excommunicated from his church, and kicked off his sports teams…and forced to wear a GPS monitoring device and placed on house arrest”. After this, Terry was perceived as a threat, a deviant, and an outsider to society. He was labeled and exposed, and “this exposure played a significant role in the development of his sexual offending pattern”. Deviance has many problems that go along with it, but one major problem it has is that labeling has consequences, such as who is being labeled, who is doing the labeling, and the consequences of the labeling. The next theory that applies to this book is the life course theory. The life-course theory looks at the different factors in someone’s life, that develop or help shape who the person is, or in the case of the participants in Sex Offenders, Stigma, and Social Control, what caused each offender to offend. In the case of Terry, his first offense occurred when he was in high school. Terry explained that he was in high school, “he hung his hand over his desk and brushed the girl’s rear end who was in front of him”, in which the girl turned around, exchanged a few words, and the teacher continued on with the lesson. “It changed my whole personality. I was no longer sociable… because the hurt would be there if I made a mistake socially”. This shows that events in Terry’s life caused him to become an offender.

The main tenets of Sykes and Matza’s Techniques of Neutralization include denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of the victim, condemnation of the condemners, and appeal to higher loyalties. Denial of responsibility is when one is not accountable for his or her actions, and tends to blame someone else for such actions. Denial of injury occurs when one believes that since no one was hurt during the offense, it isn’t a big deal or that there should not be consequences. Denial of the victim occurs when the offender claims that the offense committed was the offender retaliating and that the victim was in the wrong, not the offender. Condemnation of the condemners occurs when one believes that he or she learned it from someone else so it isn’t the offender's fault. Lastly, an appeal to higher loyalties occurs when the offender thinks that the offense was done to protect someone, or it was done for the good of someone else. This theory applies to all the participants, including Terry in that Terry denies responsibility for his offenses, however, he understands what he did. Rickard argues this point effectively in that Terry is on the fence about how he feels about himself. He knows his offenses are wrong however, he knows it is wrong and blames others instead of himself. “ ...Terry did see himself as a social deviant and could not relegate his multiple offenses to a mistake. Rather than trying to explain an incident, Terry’s narrative outlined a condition or deviant career. This included recourse to a medical model of compulsion and addiction that in some ways neutralized Terry’s responsibility for his actions…”. Rickard introduces a new idea and integrates the participant's stories with Sykes and Matza’s techniques of neutralization in a way that makes the reader think about deviant behavior in a new way.

Conflict theory, an idea by Karl Marx, studies the conflict between social classes in social life. When discussing conflict theory, one has to look at the hierarchy and the structure of classes in order to look at what is deviant and what is non-deviant behavior. Terry, for example, was raised and had always lived in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, he was involved in sports, had normal relationships with friends and family, and worked in the financial industry. “He had been convicted thirteen times, although he stated “ There had been other instances. They say that for every arrest there are about a hundred other instances”. It can be argued that since Terry “was a seemingly responsible member of the community”, he had gotten away with many of his offenses. However, if Terry was of a lower class, did not have a job, or was not a good member of society, it could be said that he wouldn’t have gotten away with a lot. Conflict theory plays a role in Sex Offenders, Stigma, and Social Control, in that the participants of a higher social ranking, like Terry, got away with being deviant multiple times.

Constructionist Theory looks at the phenomena, such as the event itself, and builds interpretation of what happened. “…The role of a constructionist is to describe them accurately and how they emerge”. In other words, this theory states that reality and events that occur are created through interactions with people within society. Terry explains that the one event, the brushing of the rear end of a young high school girl who sat in front of Terry, changed his life. Terry explained that if the girl let him offend her, he wouldn’t be a sex offender. Here, Terry tries to explain himself and make it okay for what he has done. The rules of consistency state that “once people have categorized events and persons, they organize past information and future perceptions consistent with these categories”. For example, Terry was categorized and labeled as a deviant, a sex offender, society begins to take past offenses and information, along with labeling his future actions, and make them align with his label as a sex offender. The rule of economy states that “once a general category is selected for interpreting a situation, people tend not to reorganize social cues to test the application of alternative categories”. For Terry’s case, this means that since he is labeled and categorized as a sex offender, society won’t think of Terry as anything else but a sex offender. Deviance is socially constructed by society that varies according to the laws, norms, and values of each society. The public’s concern that has created a moral panic has shaped Terry’s actions as deviant. Terry began to think that he had an illness that caused him to offend. He thought of “the offending as a form of addiction, Terry aligned his behavior within a particular type of illness paradigm that encompassed an array of problematic social behaviors”. He began to attach an illness to his offending because society labeled him as a sex offender. “...he put his actions on a continuum for which there was an understandable and common root”.

When understanding offenses did by individuals, deterrence plays a role. “Deterrence theory focuses on the costs in explaining law violations”. The two types of deterrence are general deterrence and specific deterrence. General deterrence states, “the punishment of some law violators provides information about the costs of the crime to those who have not been punished thereby reducing law violations”. Specific deterrence states that “ the punishment reduces the law violations of those who have been punished”. In the case of Sex Offenders, Stigma, and Social Control, Terry’s case the power of the media displayed general deterrence. The media portrayed Terry and the other participants in the study as deviant, sex offenders, outcasts, and someone who does not belong in society. Doing this, it might deter other individuals from committing such crimes because they do not want the consequences, such as being singled out in the community.

Overall, Sex Offenders, Stigma, and Social Control was a very eye-opening read to understand how our society and criminal justice system view and treat offenders. It is needed in society to revamp the social problems we have and to help rehabilitate individuals to fit back into society. 

29 April 2022
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