Becky Southworth’s first documentary was Kicked Out: From Care to Chaos, which aired three years ago. An intensely personal film, it told of Southworth’s experiences of being taken into care after being sexually abused by her father. It also explored why so many young people go on to lead troubled lives once they leave a system that is supposedly designed to protect them and restore stability to their lives.
Her father was convicted and sentenced to 10 years for sexual offences against children, including his daughter. Two years ago, he was released. “I’ve never felt fear like that,” says Southworth, who knows a thing or two about terror. “I just don’t feel safe.” Her father completed a rehabilitation course while in prison, but the question of what exactly that means forms the subject of her new documentary: Can Sex Offenders Change? (BBC Three).
You might think that we should already know the answer to this. You might think that a question this crucial to the safety and mitigation of untold misery for thousands of people, many of them women and children, would have been thoroughly investigated, the resultant theories and solutions stress-tested and the winners rolled out and applied with all the energy and intelligence at our command. But, for reasons that we do not have time or space to unpick here, we find ourselves in a world where the question must be posed by a survivor of such violence in a single documentary, in the hope that it will add weight to the call for recognition of this enduring and endemic problem.
So, to the documentary itself. Trigger warnings galore, obviously, so take care before you read on. In her car, or at various bleakly anonymous sites where interviewees could feel sure they would not be seen and overheard talking about their crimes and predilections, Southworth interviewed a number of people who had been convicted of downloading or distributing indecent images of children. Most had tales of isolation and depression to tell, knotted up with porn use that developed into an addiction and the pursuit of more and more transgressive images and videos. Some are more convincing than others and Southworth is a fine, unemotional interviewer, scrupulously polite, but with a coolly appraising eye and a readiness to pick up on uncomfortable or evasive phrasings – together with a rare knack for knowing when to say nothing. When “Chris” (all names were changed, with voiceovers provided by actors) ends a list of weak-sounding excuses for downloading and distributing images, including Category A material, the most serious kind, with “Does that make sense?” her silence is the perfect, deafening response.
Only Andrew, who is on the sex offender register after his conviction five years ago for downloading thousands of images of boys and girls, went as far as referring to his sexuality as paedophilic. He said that, after 18 months of twice-weekly psychotherapy, his attraction to adults has overtaken his attraction to children, unless he sees the children naked. Seemingly prone to blaming others for his misfortunes, he has the air of someone who feels persecuted. “I could have had this til I was 80, never done anything about it and still be treated like a monster,” he tells Southworth in a tense final interview, where he adds that he was only offending for a short time. “You sort of lose the right to say, ‘But what about all the times I didn’t offend?’,” says Southworth, admirably calm in the face of his verbal onslaught.
The programme did not, of course, answer the question it posed, although it interspersed its interviews with offenders with contributions from the experienced and courageous people from the few organisations set up to try to prevent reoffending. The underlying message from them seemed to be that pragmatism is the only way forward. There are things, they say, we can do to reduce the risk of reoffending – by minimising loneliness or providing therapy to undo any damage from the perpetrators’ childhoods and reducing the contributions they make to their actions. Beyond that, you are into questions of the ultimate unknowability of the human heart, its deformities, its maladaptions, and maybe its capacity for an evil that is visited on some and not on others. And until there is a mass willingness to find out, to take truly seriously the misery handed on, we will not know, and we will not be safe.