What constitutes treatment for sex offenders? How different is it for them, as opposed to treating a drug addiction or a nicotine habit?
First, people who commit a sex offense are as varied as those who suffer from alcohol abuse, overeating or gambling. Treatment, therefore, will depend on the type of crime (or pattern of abuse) and whether the person is male or female. The outcome we look for – healthy sexual behavior – doesn’t change, regardless of the offender. The strategy to get there, however, should be customized to fit the individual, their weaknesses and their strengths.
Every client I’ve worked with is an individual, so treatment must begin with who they are and what they did that got them into trouble. Cookie cutter approaches like behavior modification will fall short. Success is built on incremental steps towards another strategy to meet their needs for sexual gratification and, perhaps, intimacy.
Treating a history of abuse is more difficult than a one-time occurrence. So, a pedophile will be a more prolonged program than, say, a teenage boy who has sex with his under-aged girlfriend.
Therapy for a sex offender begins with building trust in the treatment program. It begins with establishing some boundaries, making agreements and following through. It begins with examining the content and context of the crime and developing healthier strategies. It becomes clear quickly whether the person is taking responsibility for their actions or not. If the person is ready to change, the treatment program is shorter.
Unfortunately, there are few prison sex offender programs that work well. Prisons are not coed, thus the environment in which we expect change is quite foreign and often violent. When the person is released from their prison sentence, it may be 10 or 15 years after the crime. Prison has become more of a “reality” than the life they lived before. Because of those things, treatment may be more challenging the longer the delay from the crime. While U.S. prisons are not the best place to learn good behavior, it is better that they begin the process of self-discovery quickly, while the crime is still in the recent past.
Some of the recent developments in treatment are as helpful for sex offenders as they are for people who have not been convicted. I’ll discuss various methods in future blog posts, but for now I’ll say that learning how to witness your own behavior and becoming practiced at empathy are two key elements.