What are the factors that contribute to the making of a sexual offender, and what can be done in terms of treatment and rehabilitation? Logan Psychologist Shelley Jacks explains …
In my many years of working with both child and adult sexual offenders, I have found they all come to treatment with one question: Why did I do it?
These individuals do not understand why they have committed such a heinous crime. For many people who have committed a sex offence, they feel as though this behaviour goes against all of their values and it was not within their character.
Often offenders believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with them, having believed the media which uses language like “evil” and “monster”. This question is also asked by the family members of a sexual offender. Often they would like to forgive their loved one, but are unable to move past their behaviour because they can’t understand it and don’t know whether or not it will happen again.
Family members struggle with a myriad of emotions and wonder what this implies about their own characters. For example I counselled one woman who, because she had been sexually offended against by her father as a child, thought that maybe her young son might have the same tendencies as his grandad.
Often my first job as a therapist is to try and dispel the myths perpetuated by society and the media – that all sexual offenders are evil monsters who are sick and cannot be rehabilitated. The media tells us that all sexual offenders were born with some kind of sexual dysfunction or deviance, and will be looking to re-offend at every opportunity. In fact, sexual offenders are less likely to re-offend than any other type of offender – and are even less likely to re-offend following treatment.
In treatment we discover why each individual offended against his victim. We analyse the background of the offender and the factors which directly proceeded the offending, as well as why they continued to offend. This helps the individual understand their own offending pathway.
Some of the background factors can stretch as far back as childhood for some offenders. I have treated many an offender who was repeatedly sexually, emotionally and physically abused as a child by their primary caregivers, family friends and relatives.
Other men have talked about watching the domestic violence perpetrated by their fathers on their mothers. This has often led to them having a lack of respect for women or believing women were to be used as sexual objects. They also learn to manage their emotions through violence and control, often the beliefs and attitudes sitting in the minds of adult female rapists.
Abuse experienced as a child can have huge social and emotional impacts for a person growing up, especially in the area of relationships. Because these individuals struggle with feelings of worthlessness and can have a lack of trust, poor coping skills, insecure or fearful attachment, no positive relationship role models and confusion about the role of sex, they are unable to form secure adult relationships. They are unable to form strong bonds with the mate of their choice.
For many offenders, they confuse sex with intimacy in that they believe that this is the only way to show love. They do not understand that sex can be a small part of an intimate relationship because they have never experienced the pleasure of a strong, supportive emotional connection.
Some offenders become close to the children in their lives – children don’t judge them, they are able to trust children, they elevate the child to adult status in their mind and talk about their problems to them, the child may become like a partner. They may even believe childhood to be a magical time which they themselves did not get to experience and so remain childlike, connecting with children because they feel childlike themselves.
Offenders who were exposed to sexual activity early on in their lives through sexual abuse are confused about the idea of informed consent. When they were offended against, their body responded in a physical way to the abuse, even though they might not have been emotionally and mentally mature. They might believe that they asked for the abuse, because they did not say no, and they were sexually aroused so they must have enjoyed it. They might maintain a belief that children are behaving sexually when they are in fact just being children.
There can be many factors which precipitate sexual offending. Sometimes offending does not occur until later in life, when the background factors collide with precipitating factors. Additionally the opportunity to offend against children does not often arise for the man until he becomes a father or step father.
Men have come to treatment with many different stories about what was going on in their lives just prior to their offending. They talk of relationship breakdown, obsessions with work, drug and alcohol use, loneliness, inability to manage emotions, poor problem solving, impulsivity, anxiety, depression and isolation. These precipitating factors occurring in the context of the background factors previously mentioned, led them to sexual offending.
Additionally there are many factors which allow the offender to continue with the offending. Many men have been able to identify the things they used to tell themselves, which enable continuing offending. We call these “permission statements”. Offenders are able to reduce the shame and guilt associated with their offending by “giving themselves permission” – minimising, justifying and denying their offending to themselves.
Treatment for Sex Offenders
I believe that once an offender is open about his offending – and understands his own offending pathway – he is then able to progress through treatment and identify risk factors for further offending.
If he is able to make changes in his life he significantly reduces the likelihood of re-offending.
If he can understand the impact of his offending on the victim, if he can be educated about relationships and intimacy, improve his self-esteem, abstain from drugs or alcohol, process the trauma of his childhood, challenge his dysfunctional beliefs, manage his depression or anxiety, build a professional and social support system then he can go on to live a happy, healthy life and be a productive member of the community.
Of course there are sexual offenders who do not meet the above criteria, who are unable to be rehabilitated or treated because they do not want to be, or are very sexually deviant. However in my time treating men who commit sexual crimes I have believed that most men wish never to re-offend.
Author: Shelley Jacks, B Psych (Hons), AMAPS.
Shelley Jacks is a registered psychologist who worked for many years treating all types of offending in Queensland prisons. She has treated the highest risk sexual and violent offenders in the state and believes strongly that change and rehabilitation are possible.
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