A rose by any other name - Labelling in forensic psychology

July 26, 2019, by Kate

Labelling and Forensic Psychology – A rose by any other name

Labelling is an important issue in forensic psychology. The passage from Romeo and Juliette:


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title.”


is often used to support the idea that it doesn’t matter what things are called, that it doesn’t change their properties. If we called a Rose a Turnip we would still think it beautiful and fragrant.

But naming, or labelling, does matter in psychology, perhaps crucially in forensic psychology.

Labelling and Forensic Psychology

For those who keep abreast of the stalking literature you will know that names, or labels, do matter. A variety of studies show that if you ask people to judge aspects of a described series of behaviours those judgements differ quite markedly when the person carrying them out is named as either an ex-partner or a stranger (Duff & Scott, 2013; Scott, Duff, Sheridan, & Rajakaruna, 2018).

There are a variety of reasons why this might be the case, but the underlying reason is that, perhaps unlike the name ‘Rose’, names like ‘stranger’ carry with them all manner of extra information, be that based on reality or assumption. You can try this for yourselves, write two lists, one of the characteristics of your ex-partners (if you pick ones who didn’t cheat on you with your best friend and steal all your money you might have things like kind, reliable, punctual, hygienic) and of strangers (depending on your experiences you might have creepy, irrelevant, annoying, harmless). On the basis that strangers are just friends that you haven’t met yet, why would we assume that a stranger would have qualities different to that of an ex-partner, or, for that matter your current one? But we do.

These kinds of findings imply that we think of people differently depending on how they are named, and we also know that thinking can impact upon our actions, so it is entirely possible that we will behave differently towards people who are essentially the same, based purely on some category that is placed upon them. In our work as forensic psychologists, we deal with this on a daily basis, we work with people who are described as ‘violent’, ‘LD, ‘PD’, and although this might in some cases be a convenient shorthand, we have to work quite hard not to let the label define our assessments, formulations, and interventions. We learn how to fight the label in forensic psychology.

If we’re quite good at not being so swayed by labels (NB quite good is not perfect, and we are as prone to biases as anyone) why should we care? We should care because it is not just us that our clients have to deal with, they have to manage being around the general public, being around the legal system, the health and social care systems, and labels may be used and may cause issues. Perhaps most pervasive, or most obviously pervasive, is the use of the term ‘paedophile’ when referring to someone who has been convicted of a sexual offence against a child (sometimes they use the term, ‘convicted paedophile’). Metro does it, the Daily Telegraph does it, the radio station LBC does it, the BBC does it.

In the public discourse paedophile becomes synonymous with offender, and consider all of the other terms often used to describe people who have offended against a child, such as nonce, paedo, pervert, scum, predator… and what extra information that carries with it. Perhaps you want to write a third list to add to stranger and ex-partner and see what you come up with under the category paedophile. I dare you.

The issue is that paedophilia does not imply offending.

The DSM-V definition is:

  1. Over a period of at least six months, recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges or behaviours involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (generally age 13 years or younger). B. The person has acted on these sexual urges, or the sexual urges or fantasies cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty. C. The person is at least age 16 years and at least five years older than the child or children in Criterion A.


It might imply a greater risk, but on that basis I am a rapist as I am a male heterosexual.

We know from research, some of it recently carried out at The Centre for Forensic and Family Psychology by Harriet Dymond, that there are individuals who identify as paedophiles who do not offend and do not intend to offend. To achieve this many recognise that they would benefit from support, but the conflation of paedophilia with offending makes them scared, and scared people hide and don’t get the help that they need. We could consider that it is the misuse of the term paedophile that is increasing risk.

Similarly, offending does not imply paedophilia. The DSM-V definition alone implies that, clinical experience suggests it too. Offending against children is more complex and nuanced than a sexual attraction to children, and this should not surprise us given the recognition that rape is not simply about sex, and some authors believe that is not about sex at all, but rather power.

We need to be thoughtful when we categorise and when we hear categories.

As an aside, we have written to newspapers about their use of paedophile to identify convicted sexual offenders and suggested that they are being inaccurate and unhelpful. They do not plan to change their policy, despite the fact that it is idiotic. So when people talk about the bias in the media and fake news remember that sometimes this is an active decision taken by the media to continue to misinform the public, no matter the potential cost to the victims whom they so stridently pretend to stand up for.

Visit our website to find out more about Dr Duff’s research 

Or read more thoughts from our staff and students!


Duff, S.C. & Scott, A.J. (2013). Understanding perceptions of stalking: The impact of additional contextual information regarding the breakdown of relationships. Journal of Criminal Psychology, 3(2), 136-144.

Scott, A.J., Duff, S. C., Sheridan, L., & Rajakaruna, N., (2018). The Influence of Contextual Information regarding the Breakdown of Relationships and Perpetrator-Target Sex Composition on Perceptions of Relational Stalking. Psychology, Crime & Law, 12, 1-36.

If you want to learn more, you can find the documentary ‘the Paedophile Next Door’on youtube.


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