Can Sex Offenders Recover?

As mentioned in a previous blog, the clinical definition of sexual offending is nonconsensual sexual behavior. This differs from the legal definition, which varies by jurisdiction. For purposes of this blog, we will utilize the clinical rather than the legal definition when discussing sexual offending and offenders.

Essentially, sexual activity is nonconsensual (offending) if one or more of the following occurs:

  • The activity is forced
  • The other person is incapacitated and can’t consent (drugged, drunk, passed out, etc.)
  • The other person is mentally unable to consent to the activity (developmentally disabled, psychologically disturbed, etc.)
  • The other person is too young to consent
  • The other person has been subjected to a non-forcible sexual experience that he or she did not invite or agree to (exhibitionism, voyeurism, frotteurism, etc.)

There are four basic types of sexual offenders:

  1. Violent offenders: This is the least prevalent type of sexual offender. These are people who commit forcible rape and “snatch and grab” child molestations.
  2. Fixated child offenders: With this category, the offender’s primary and often sole sexual orientation is toward children—either prepubescent (pedophiles) or adolescent (hebephiles). These individuals sometimes set up their lives so they have access to and can become emotionally (and later physically) intimate with minors.
  3. Situational child offenders: Here, the sexual interest in children/adolescents is not exclusive. When these people offend against children the behavior is opportunistic, meaning they don’t set up their lives so they can have contact with and offend against minors.
  4. Sexually addicted offenders: Sexually addicted sex offenders (SASOs) use sexual fantasy and ritualized sexual behavior patterns as a way to dissociate from uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. Usually SASOs don’t start out offending. Rather, their behavior escalates over time from “vanilla” activities like legal pornography, webcam sex with adults, and casual adult hookups to offending behaviors like prostitution, public sex, voyeurism, exhibitionism, viewing illegal pornography, inappropriate sexual behavior with minors, etc. SASOs comprise anywhere from 55 to 75 percent of the sex offender population.

The first two categories, violent offenders and fixated child offenders, are a small minority of the sex offender population, probably no more than 10 percent. Usually these individuals do not respond well to treatment. The good news is that situational offenders and sexually addicted offenders usually do respond positively to proper treatment. This is especially true when the underlying causes of their problematic behaviors are similar to the presenting issues of alcoholics and substance abusers, meaning they engage in their offending behaviors as a way to self-soothe and/or escape from uncomfortable emotions, life stressors, and the pain of psychological conditions like depression, severe anxiety, attachment deficit disorders, unresolved childhood trauma, and the like. As long as these offenders are willing to admit to what they’ve done, the right treatment can be extremely helpful.

For the most part, effective offender treatment utilizes modalities that have also proven effective with substance abusers, primarily cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), group therapy, social learning, and psycho-education. Usually CBT is the main component. CBT looks at the thoughts, feelings, and circumstances that trigger the offender to act out, and identifies ways to short-circuit the process. In other words, offenders are taught to stop problematic thoughts and behaviors by thinking about and/or doing something else, like talking to a therapist or 12-step sponsor, going to the gym, reading a book, cleaning the house, or whatever. This approach is directive and reality based, focusing on the here and now rather than on the exploration of childhood issues that may or may not have led to the offending activity.

In addition to individual therapy, sex offenders typically require external reinforcement and support if they are to implement lasting behavior change. Group therapy is especially useful in this regard. Here, offenders can see that their problem is not unique, which helps to reduce the shame that both results from and drives their problematic behaviors. Plus, group therapy is ideal for confronting the denial that offenders use to justify their activities. Such confrontations are powerful not only for the person being confronted, but for the group members doing the confronting. In this way, everyone present is able to see how internal rationalizations facilitate and sustain sexual offending. Inpatient treatment and intensive outpatient treatment settings are often incredibly helpful in terms of jump-starting a sex offender’s recovery. Offenders also tend to benefit from 12-step sexual recovery groups like SA, SAA, SCA, SLAA, and SRA.

Obviously, every sex offender arrives in treatment with a unique background and a specific set of offending behaviors. As such, each offender needs a program of treatment tailored to his or her precise needs. Unfortunately, some individuals—particularly violent offenders and dedicated child offenders—are unlikely to respond to even the best treatment regimen. However, these individuals comprise a small minority of the overall offender population, and most other offenders do respond positively to proper treatment.

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