Is there life after a sex offense? A therapist weighs in.
Several weeks ago, I was involved in a therapy session where the enormity of what it takes to accept the label of sex offender became painfully apparent. I watched a relatively new member of my adult sex offender group (we’ll call him Matthew) wrestle with his inner demons as he readied himself to present his first assignment in group– the details of the offense that brought him to treatment. You see the terrible struggle on his face as he prepares to reveal what he considers to be the worst of himself. Never mind that he’s been hearing for weeks the unspeakable truths of other group members. The idea of an equitable exchange does not compute.
Sex offenders typically exist in that lonely, shut-off place apart from the rest of the world. The same mechanism that allowed them to shut off their connective cord to other humans and violate them comes into play as they separate themselves, at least at first, from the rest of the group.
This is why, in spite of the fact that other, more seasoned group members are chomping at the bit to read their assignments, I say, “Matthew, I’d like you to go first.”
“What?” he sputters, “Paul’s been waiting for weeks…and what about John? Mine’s not even a finished product.”
His face crumples with the realization that he’s on deck. Everyone’s waiting. I say in my quietest voice, “I think sharing this, out loud, will break this spell of secrecy that has consumed you for so long.”
When I pose the question, even rhetorically, “Can there ever be redemption for a former sex offender?” people begin to shake their heads before I can even speak it. I can almost taste the social repudiation about to follow–the palpable resistance to the notion that the words “sex offender” and “redemption” should even appear in the same sentence. The term sex offender hits in the solar plexus and ushers in all kinds of adjectives. It can engage deep circuits of rage we may not have known we possess. I have heard countless declarations, usually from well-educated people, about what the fate of these offenders ought to be: “F— them all. No forgiveness.” “Lock ’em up and throw away the key–let Bubba, their cell mate, give them what they deserve.” “Cut off their chihuahuas.” “Once a child molester, always a child molester.” I once heard Dr. Laura refer to them as “Sons of Satan.” And the sentiments go on.
As a licensed clinical social worker and an approved sex offender treatment provider through the state of Utah, I have been working with both victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse for 16 years. From a social standpoint there is no question that on the grand list of criminal offenders, sex offenders are considered less than human. Positive outcomes from the reconciliation process following an offense are rarely, if ever, discussed. It is not a place people want to go. And yet, treatment continues to be almost a guaranteed part of the sentencing requirement for convicted sex offenders, the implication being that treatment can create the kind of change that will make the community safer.
In a sex offender treatment program, one of the issues we spend a lot of time on is victim empathy. Offenders must acknowledge the endless list of negative consequences that cascade forth from every life that has been touched by the crime. As treatment providers, we consider ourselves, first and foremost, advocates of the victims of these crimes.
The devastation following in the wake of a sex offense can hardly be imagined. Betrayal, self-recrimination and isolation are but a few products of the wreckage. In the case of a sexual offense against a child, even if discovery and intervention are immediate, it can take years to develop the necessary maturity to process all the issues surrounding the injury. Many victims do find the inner resources to cope and move forward. Many others spend a lifetime trying to reconcile their wounds.
Given the very real possibility of a sex offense causing a lifelong injury, it is small wonder that the consensus on sex offenders holds very little in the way of mercy. As I consider the line between “no mercy for sex offenders” and the human potential for growth and transformation, the primary questions and concerns I seem to see written on people’s faces are these: Can an individual who has acted out in such a perverse way become truly conscious, and sustain that sense of consciousness?
I can attest to seeing this occur many times over. And although I have not followed the precise movements of former clients, I have had a large percentage voluntarily return to treatment years after graduation for various reasons. I have also had the benefit of meeting with their family members, who often verify that sustained change has taken place.
Another common question seems to be, “Does granting a reprieve (when appropriate) make it any less important to protect our children from potential risk?” The obvious answer, of course, is no, but this sometimes seems to be a point of confusion when boundaries are blurred. Sometimes holding on to judgment serves as a protective device—not only for our children, but as a way to protect us from having to look deeper and consider possibilities that don’t allow us to box things up quite so neatly with popular stereotypes.
Many people fear that making room for the possibility that core change can occur in a person makes the crime of sexual violation less egregious—that “if I forgive you, it will render what you did meaningless.” It would be a serious mistake to ever minimize the damage of a sex offense. Offenders who have done their work know this well.
I have rarely seen elsewhere the kind of accountability that comes from a former sex offender who is truly engaged in the hard work of treatment. Core change, of any kind, often comes in the wake of tremendous calamity. Things have built in that person’s life to such a head that ultimately, there is a rupturing. Life now insists, “Enough.” Eventually there is a kind of settling, and eyes that have been closed for a very long time begin to open. The price to get to this kind of awareness is high and often involves great injury to others.
It is among the greatest challenges for sex offenders to resurrect even the scrap of human value within themselves that would allow them to take the necessary steps toward growth and awareness of what they have done. The paradox is this: Empathy and acknowledgment for those who have been injured comes only after the kind of self-reckoning that says, “In spite of what I have done–indeed, because of what I have done, I must now find the place of worth within myself that connects to the rest of the world so that I can be fully accountable for my actions and the pain I have caused my victims.” As the awareness of the devastation begins to sink in, there is often a period of great despair. Significant as they are, the legal and social consequences pale in comparison to the recognition, “I have destroyed another person’s life.”
Recognition, while commendable, is only a beginning. A great deal of work, over a considerable time period, must follow the initial acknowledgment of an offense. Weekly intensive individual and group therapy sessions, along with regularly scheduled psycho-educational classes provide the format for confrontational therapy that requires tremendous ownership and accountability from program members. Understanding the thinking errors and factors that lead to the offense cycle and submitting to plethysmograph testing (the measurement of sexual arousal patterns) and polygraphs are also required in a sex offender program.
And then, of course, comes the question of what the future holds. Implicit in the word redemption is the assumption that a person has moved from the darkness into the light, that is, has stopped engaging in personal gain at the expense of others, has acquired a conscious awareness of the fallout of his or her actions and is no longer willing to victimize others under any circumstance. The difficulty in extending this precept to sex offenders is the pervasive public attitude that sex offenders always re-offend, and that treatment is a “soft” response that tends to minimize the damage the offender has caused.
A number of studies measuring sex offender treatment effectiveness have revealed that recidivism rates for sexual crimes are actually lower than other crimes. A study of 31,216 convicted sex offenders conducted by R. Karl Hanson, PhD, in 2004, found that the average re-offense rate was 13%. Violent criminals (having committed no sex offenses) re-offended 14% of the time, and general criminal recidivism occurred 36.9% of the time (See www.dshs.state.tx.us/csot_teffective.shtm). In the December 2002 issue of Psychiatry News, an article titled “Sex Offender Recidivism Rates Below Expectations: A 15-year Prospective Study” concluded that more than 80% of 626 sex offenders who had undergone treatment did not re-offend within 15 years. The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) reports that research studies by the US Dept. of Justice and the Canadian government have found that sexual offense recidivism rates are much lower than commonly believed, averaging between 14 and 20% over five-year follow-up periods. (See atsa.com/pdfs/ppoffenderFacts.pdf).
It’s important to note that a number of research reporters on this subject had legitimate concerns with qualifying types of sexual offenders, pointing out that the sex offender label is not a homogenous one. Factors such as age, psychological profile and whether or not there is an extended history of offending are important distinctions to consider. Many individuals have formulated their opinions about sex offenders based on media accounts of antisocial offenders who also murder their victims. This profile does not represent the typical sex offender, who does not necessarily use physical violence during or after committing a sex offense. Other important distinctions are that of the convicted sex offender as opposed to the offender who has never been apprehended, and offenders who have received treatment as opposed to those who have not.
Perhaps one of the greatest perplexities of the sex offender dynamic is that many of them were childhood victims of the same crime. As I consider the wrenching outcomes of this crime, one that seems to lead the pack is this: The person who is introduced to sexual stimulation at a premature age suddenly finds his or her “sexual switch” in the on position, often years before their level of maturity can accommodate it. Suddenly, a drive that is scheduled to take off in adolescence and adulthood has been activated in a young, undeveloped child and there is simply no appropriate place to put it. The growing obsession with something that is clearly not orthodox among one’s peers often develops into what psychologists call sexual reactivity. Children learn quickly what is considered unacceptable so the new, ever-growing impulses go underground. And secrecy, as many know, is the great generator of addiction. It also fuels shame and a growing sense of isolation, so the last option on such a child’s list would be to enlist the help or support of an adult, or for that matter, anyone at all.
Therapists use the phrase, “If you don’t talk it out, you’ll act it out.” If there are significant, unprocessed issues lurking in the psyche and they don’t come out through the front door, they will most certainly find a less desirable, backdoor approach. This is when a sexual abuse victim might begin to act on the whirlwind of sexual energy that has been tapped. They might do it in an aggressive way by sexually abusing a younger child, or they might turn their confusion and self-hatred inward and become abusive towards themselves through self-mutilation or more covert self-destructive behavior. Wherever the aggression is directed, it is an unacceptable form of violence. The relentless, circular course breaks countless hearts and wreaks its own unique havoc.
And so it is, in our small but earnest therapy group, that we attempt to break the chains that have held this cycle of sexual violence in place for so many generations.
… Matthew begins to read. The group is spellbound. They understand perfectly the vulnerability they are watching. There is complete respect and empathy. These men have long since separated the content of what he is sharing from the spirit of honesty with which he is sharing it. You can feel the crackle of attentive electricity in the air. It is one of the nearest things to intimacy I know. It is why I love Thursdays from 5:30 to 7:00. These are among the most authentic moments of my week.
Lee Ann McConnell is a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in SLC.