As a clinical and forensic psychologist, I assess and treat sex offenders, ultimately to minimise the risk of reoffending and help keep the community safe.
Thanks to the proliferation of research and clinical initiatives over the last few decades, we now know a lot more about sexual offenders and how to rehabilitate them. This has occurred alongside greater community awareness and greater child and victim protection services.
But there is still a great deal of misinformation in the community about why sexual offenders abuse.
Profile of offenders
There are many reasons why sexual offenders commit crimes and this not only about sexual deviancy, or paraphilia, as it’s clinically known.
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnositc and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, most people with atypical sexual interests do not have a mental illness. To be diagnosed with a paraphilic disorder, the atypical interests must cause deep personal distress or the person must:
have a sexual desire or behaviour that involves another person’s psychological distress, injury, or death, or a desire for sexual behaviours involving unwilling persons or persons unable to give legal consent.
Research suggests that sexual offenders are more likely to have poor social skills, inadequate sexual self-regulation skills and immature intimacy skills. They may have little opportunity for age-appropriate relationships, or have self-esteem or other psychosocial concerns that make dating an adult too confronting.
Forensic psychologists who treat sex offenders also work with child protection and other community services to protect the vulnerable. This results in a necessary tension between the rights of the offender and those of the community. Offender clients only have limited confidentiality in treatment and at times, clinicians have to notify authorities on their clients in order to maintain accountability and balance risk.
Treating sex offenders
Typically, sex offenders are offered “talking therapies” such as cognitive behavioural therapy. Whether offenders are in prison or serving community-based orders, treatment is not mandatory but is very strongly encouraged.
The therapist’s role is to facilitate change in the offender. This includes becoming honest and accountable about their offending behaviour, understanding the factors that led them to offend and realising the impact of their behaviour on victims.
Treatment also allows offenders to develop better coping skills and improve their interpersonal functioning so that they can achieve their intimacy needs in more helpful ways. It’s not only about teaching offenders to avoid the risks associated with reoffending, it’s also about teaching them to lead more fulfilling lives in the hope that this will prevent risks from occurring in the first place.
If sex offenders are offered best-practice treatment, research suggests we can reduce rates of reoffending by up to 50%. This is significant and can obviously help many potential victims avoid being abused. But older forms of treatment have little effect.
Unfortunately, treatment is a challenging process for offenders and can take up to two years to complete, which is evaluated by them demonstrating an understanding of the material as well as making changes in their lives accordingly. Therefore, not everyone gets through treatment.
The forensic psychology field is now developing treatments that assist offenders in living “good lives” that meet their needs in helpful ways that benefit society. This includes maintaining physical health, engaging in activities that develop knowledge and excellence, maintaining important relationships, maintaining a connection with community, engaging in productive activities and seeking a life free of emotional stress, among other things.
Focusing on leading a “good life” can help offenders avoid the risks associated with sexual abuse, such as engaging in deviant sexual thinking, being socially isolated and using destructive coping strategies.