Use of Person-Identifiers in Sexual Abuse Research Across 35 Years: Preliminary Results of the Sexual Abuse Terminology Project

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In recent years, questions have risen regarding the language used to describe those who are supervised by the criminal justice system, participating in mental health services, and examined in research. This has resulted in recommendations to reduce labelling bias, as is evident from the recent editions of the APA Publication Manual (2009, 2019), editorials (Willis & Letourneau, 2018), and ethics discussions (Willis, 2018). In 2016, the United States Department of Justice adopted a policy of referring to their detainees and supervisees using person-first language, such as “individual who has offended,” rather than referring to individuals based on the nature of their offenses. With these developments, recent research has increased our focus on the way professionals identify those involved in the criminal justice system, how our labels impact these individuals, and the sociocultural implications of our language use (e.g., Denver, Pickett, & Bushway, 2017).

The poster presents preliminary results of the sexual abuse terminology project, which examines professionals’ use of language to identify and describe individuals who have engaged in sexually abusive behaviors, the sexually abusive behaviors themselves, and sexual interests associated with abusive behavior, between 1981 and 2020. This poster will specifically highlight person identifiers across five-year intervals from 1981 through 2015 (as data collection from publications in 2020 will still be ongoing at the time of presentation), demonstrating trends is language use over time. For this analysis, 1,223 peer-reviewed studies were evaluated for language use. Eighty-three label categories (e.g., abusers, individuals, offenders, etc.) were identified, with 410 specific labels (e.g. intrafamilial child sexual abusers, men with sexual behavior problems, deviant patients, etc.) identified in total. While “offender” labels are the most consistently used terms across all years, trends in term use over time will be presented across five-year intervals. Trends in terminology usage will be graphically depicted, and hypotheses for changes in terminology used will be discussed.


San Antonio, TX

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