More Truth about Sexual OffendingIn two previous posts I’ve written about clinician prejudice toward sex offenders and ways to effectively treat sex offenders. It was satisfying to see these blogs being well received, and it is my sincere hope that this effort has helped in some small way to pull back the covers on a topic that is often avoided, overlooked, and/or flat out ignored by the therapeutic community. This third and final (at least for a while) blog on sexual offending is intended to briefly address a few remaining offender-related topics.

Myth vs. Reality

Most members of the general public, in part driven by our (eager to get ratings at any cost) media, tend to view all sex offenders through the same basic lens, universally labeling them as disconnected, violent, odd, sociopathic men who force themselves on unsuspecting women and children. Basically, our overall cultural belief sends a consistent message that “sex offender” = “violent rapist” or “snatch-and-grab child predator.” And while a minority of sex offenders do fit into these categories (and get the most press), the majority do not fit this media-driven stereotype. Other offenders—most, in fact—are men, women, teenagers, and sometimes even younger children who are, for the most part, excepting their sexual disorder, relatively functional human beings.

Below is a brief attempt to address some common myths about sexual offending.

  • Myth: All sex offenders are dirty old men.

    Fact:  Most sex offenders report having committed their first offense by the age of sixteen. Their offending behavior often starts small and is overlooked at first, escalating over time until it becomes more noticeable (and less socially acceptable), eventually garnering the attention of law enforcement.

  • Myth: Children must always watch out for strangers (snatch and grab child molesters).

    Fact: The vast majority of child sexual offenders are known to their victims. Snatch and grab offenders are actually quite rare (less than 5 percent of all child sex offenders).

  • Myth: All sex offenders are monsters, horrible people with whom no sane person would ever associate.

    Fact: Most sex offenders are, except for their sexual disorder, law abiding, functional, tax-paying citizens without a prior history of illegal behavior or arrest.

  • Myth: All illegal sexual behaviors meet the clinical definition of sexual offending, and vice versa.

    Fact: The clinical definition of sexual offending is nonconsensual sexual behavior. The legal definition is sometimes quite different, and it varies from state to state and nation to nation. Consider, for instance, a fully cognizant 19-old-male and a fully cognizant 17-year-old female who engage in consensual sex after dating for nearly two years. In one state this might be a crime, while in a neighboring state it might not be. And in the states where it is a crime the caliber of the offense and the potential consequences might vary significantly. Either way, from a clinical perspective this behavior is unlikely to be considered sexual offending. In other words, the clinical definition of sexual offending is objective, whereas the legal definition is subjective and based on the morality of a particular community at a particular time. Sometimes they are one and the same; other times not.

  • Myth: Sex offenders are serial recidivists, and therefore we should simply lock them up and throw away the keys.

    Fact: Generally speaking, sex offenders have a less than 10 percent chance of reoffending if they receive useful treatment, and the recidivism rate is only about 17 percent even without treatment (after they are first caught).

  • Myth: The majority of sexual offenders are caught, convicted, and sent to prison.

    Fact: Only a fraction of the men and women who commit sex crimes are arrested and sentenced for their offenses. And many who are arrested and sentenced receive probation rather than incarceration. Even those who serve time are usually (eventually) released on supervised parole.

  • Myth: All sex offenders are male.

    Fact: Yes, the vast majority of sex offenders are male. However, females also commit sex crimes. Approximately 5 percent of convicted sexual offenders are female, but the number of unreported sexual offenses perpetrated by females likely far exceeds the number reported.

  • Myth: Kids cannot commit sexual offenses.

    Fact: Adolescents are responsible for a significant number of rape and child molestation cases each year. They also engage in other sexual offending behaviors such as exhibitionism and voyeurism (both online and off).

  • Myth: No sex offender is treatable.

    Fact: Most (but not all) sex offenders respond well to proper treatment. Typically, if the underlying causes of an offender’s problematic behaviors are similar to the presenting issues of addicts and alcoholics—depression, severe anxiety, attachment deficit disorders, low self-esteem, etc., the offender is likely to respond in positive ways to the same types of treatment that are effective with addicts and alcoholics. Typically, regressed (situational) child offenders and sexually addicted offenders are treatable. Think of it this way: We’ve all seen low-bottom alcoholics get sober and, over time, live exemplary lives. Most sex offenders are capable of similar behavior change.

  • Myth: All sex offenders are treatable.

    Fact: Some sexual offenders are notoriously difficult to treat. Violent offenders, fixated child offenders, and offenders who are unwilling to admit what they’ve done fall into this “troublesome” category. Some are incapable of being honest. Some are inherently sociopathic. Some are simply hardwired to be sexually attracted to children. At best, these individuals can be helped to not act on their desires, but only if they desperately want to “behave” and conform to social norms. In other words, they have to be extremely willing to act in socially appropriate ways for treatment to be at all effective, and even then their ability to not reoffend is tenuous.

Unfortunately, those of us who treat the offender population know only a fraction of what we’d like to know. And sometimes it seems like every solid bit of research comes an equally solid study to refute it. So if you’re inclined toward investigation and publication, looking into the lives, motivations, and treatment of sexual offenders would be a great way to make a significant contribution to the field. That said, until more tier-one, peer reviewed research is conducted and made available it is imperative that we convey and utilize the facts as they are known to date. Even more important is that we recognize and remember that sex offenders are people—flawed and damaged human beings who are as in need of our help as any other client. It is our duty as therapists to consider them as such.

For many therapists, fulfilling this duty properly means educating themselves about how to identify sexual offending issues, finding out who in the nearby community is equipped to handle these clients, and learning when and how to make the proper reports, referrals, and interventions. For others, it means opening our intellect (and our hearts) to people who engage in socially and morally unacceptable behaviors. To paraphrase Brene Brown, PhD, LCSW, empathy and shame are on opposite ends of the same continuum. Following her logic, I believe it is the duty of each one of us to help remove the stigma and prejudice that accompanies the label of “sex offender,” especially within the clinical community. Only then can we better and more empathetically contain and treat these individuals—hopefully with the same respect and dignity we hold for all challenged human beings.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he has developed clinical programs for The Ranch in Nunnelly, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. Mr. Weiss has also provided clinical multi-addiction training and behavioral health program development for the US military and numerous other treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters. An author and subject expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, he has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others.

 


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    Last reviewed: 10 May 2013

APA Reference
Weiss LCSW, R. (2013). More Truth about Sexual Offending. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2014, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2013/05/more-truth-about-sexual-offending/

 

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