Social work grew out of a need for professional compassionate care for those struggling in life, whether financially, mentally or emotionally.
The reference to the Scarlet Letters in this title hearkens to a time in American history when social workers were a rarity. Those in need of what today is called counseling might have used their minister as a confidante. In Hawthorne’s novel, that idea didn’t work out for the best. After an illicit affair and the birth of their child, Hester Prynne must forever wear a big, red A on her coat. The offender, the town minister, eventually owns up to his part in the affair and is sent to the gallows.
The book’s title also suggests that America’s current moral (and legal) indignation about sexual issues continues to plague us, and the #MeToo campaign is only the tip of the problem. Victims traumatized by sexual abuse have some resources to aid their recovery, including counseling. But fewer than 50 percent of sexual crimes are reported, thus, victims (both direct and indirect) must shoulder their anger, shame and fears without professional help. The need for therapy in this population is probably underestimated.
And then there are the offenders – some of whom are also victims. Once they run afoul of the myriad sexual laws, they become subject to severe registry and residency consequences. Their lives are altered forever, even if their crime was of the less serious variety (which most are): indecent exposure, for example, or the so-called Romeo and Juliet crimes, in which a young woman’s older boyfriend ends up in prison for having sex with her, maybe only because the girl’s parents were enraged when they found out.
Not surprisingly, licensed and highly experienced social workers are at the forefront in the treatment of this growing population. The number of victims without support is unknown, but probably staggeringly large. The collective sex offender population is estimated at about 850,000, and most of them are no longer in prison.
From our perspective, there is a scarcity of sex offender treatment providers. But among those who have become licensed for this work, more than a few have a distinct bias against sex offenders, as is pointed out in the book. So while the book may be an anathema to some, it may be instructive for others to learn that success and “graduation” is very likely with a positive approach. While it discusses a variety of strategies for treatment, the book also paints a wider horizon by discussing how community support and accountability partners make successful treatment more likely, and recidivism less likely.
The demand for effective sex offender treatment programs – in prison and out – suggests that having more therapists would help to reduce the backlog, while also satisfying the needs of a struggling client base – struggling to make their way in a society that still misunderstands most of this area of the law, and underestimates the capacity to change.
Looking on the Internet, relatively few colleges and universities provide much education about this topic, even those with criminal justice programs. It appears that only after finishing graduate school do social workers find more access to training and clinical experience with a supervisor. The book may help in this regard, alerting faculty about the resource as well as helping interested students be more informed about alternative career paths.
Likewise, if the public understands more about the myths associated with this type of crime, as well as the resources available, it may encourage those with skeletons in their closets to come forth. In that way, little by little, society may come to find some vigor around modernizing our Puritanical responses to sexuality – as it has done with gender identity and politics. Only then will the one-size-fits-all label be changed to reflect the actual crime. Only then will the law assign more appropriate sentences, and require treatment that is restorative rather than punitive. Only then will we begin to reduce the number of sexual crimes, as the stigma is reduced and the topic no longer taboo.