Dr. Leigh Harkins is an associate professor in the faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at UOIT. She teaches courses revolving around psychology and forensics, while also investigating sexual violence. Her current research involves a questionnaire developed by her students to assess certain priorities for people.
Tell us what you do, and how you do it.
The main research I do is investigating sexual violence, and so I’ve done that in many different ways. In the past I’ve done it through working with the sexual offenders, looking at risk assessment, what kind of risk assessments are most effective, and their responses to treatment. The way I’m doing that currently is through investigating it with students. So, we’re looking at students’ attitude towards sexual violence, what kinds of things they find acceptable or not acceptable, and what kind of characteristics are associated with people who think sexual violence is more OK than others.
What makes your topic of research relevant?
I think what’s important is that we know that sexual violence is a problem in Canada, we know sexual violence is a problem on campuses, and the better understanding we have of it, the more we can put systems in place to try to prevent it, and to try to combat it more effectively.
How and when did you get interested in this area of expertise?
I started in my undergraduate. I was doing forensics science as a major, and I had to do a placement at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. I was working with a forensic psychiatrist who ran sex offender treatment groups. One of the things I was doing was sitting in these treatment groups with him, and I just found it fascinating. Hearing people talk about these horrific things was a very challenging experience, but at the same time, what I learned from it was they’re just people, and people that have done bad things, but they also have very good qualities too.
Tell us about your roots and how you arrived in Oshawa.
I grew up in Fort Erie, near Niagara Falls. I went to university in Mississauga, and (did my) master’s in Toronto and lived in the U.K. (United Kingdom) for eight years. After eight years in the U.K. I was ready to come back to the Toronto. A job came up here (Oshawa) and I read a lot about the program, and I thought it was a really exciting opportunity to be a part of a fairly new developing program.
Who inspired you along the way?
Probably the colleagues that I was working with. The clinicians that were working day-to-day with people who committed sex offences, and working in these really challenging areas inspired me to want to understand this population better, to try to improve our understanding, and our approaches to assessment to treatment.
Tell us about the projects you’re involved in.
I’m doing one where one of my students developed a questionnaire that’s meant to assess what kinds of things people are looking to get from their lives, and what kind of priorities they have. One of the reasons we want to assess this is, because offenders are often trying to seek these same sorts of things but they do it in inappropriate ways. Right now we’re just testing out the reliability and valitidy of that particular measure.
What is the most important thing in this field you think people should know?
One of the things is no matter what people do, we’re still working with people, and ideally it’s about trying to prevent future victims, but also ensure that people who have committed offences also have an opportunity to make change and have a better future, because part of that future means not creating any future victims.
What is the toughest challenge you’ve faced in this research?
It’s difficult to get access to the people who committed the offences. There are all kinds of systems in place that make it difficult to interview offenders. In terms of other difficulties, it’s a difficult topic. It’s constantly reading about things that have happened that are really upsetting. So it’s about being able to work with that end goal in mind of trying to improve understanding of prevention.