When I meet a client for the first time I see a suffering human being who has decided to try and deal with a difficult or troubling issue in their life, and who desperately hopes that I can help them. My role is to provide a safe environment in which they can share distressing material without feeling judged.
This is true for counselling and sex therapy clients. It is also true for sex offenders and paedophiles but there are added challenges, because they most probably have come because they have been arrested and I must assume that they have harmed others, quite possibly children.
Dealing with clients
The typical client is dealing with intense shame regarding their behaviour, the shattering impact of police officers arriving at the door early in the morning with a search warrant, the distress of their family and friends and the threat of losing their job. So initially I work with these issues and I describe the experiences of other clients, while of course maintaining strict confidentiality. This helps them understand that they are not unique.
I also look at the triggers for their offending behaviour, as this awareness helps them change their behaviour to avoid being triggered.
As soon as possible I move on to taking a detailed life history which enables me to build an initial understanding of why the client may have offended. I share this with the client who usually finds it very helpful, as they begin to realise that their behaviour had not come out of the blue. They may have experienced trauma such as abuse, or their childhood may have been loveless, both of which make it more likely that they will commit sexual offences in adulthood.
I discuss the neuroscience of addiction, which enables the client to understand that they were not born as an addict. Since they learned to be addicted, that means that they can learn not to be. They gain insight into the role of dopamine, the desire chemical in the brain. All addicts, including sex offenders, produce huge amounts of dopamine when they are acting out their addiction so the drug addict and sex offender share the experience of being out of control and driven to offend. This is not a justification for their behaviour, but this knowledge can help the client to start the healing process.
What are the challenges
Working with sex offenders is challenging because they have harmed others and unless they stop, they will commit further harm. Viewing indecent child images is not a victimless crime – others have directly abused children in order to feed the offender’s appetite. Unless the offender is able to acknowledge this harm, then therapy will not succeed.
I am aware that the quality of my work will influence whether the offender recovers or continues to harm others, including children. This pressure is particularly intense when dealing with offenders who have harmed children directly. Paradoxically, in my experience slow gentle work is more effective in helping the offender recover, even though my natural instinct is to confront the offender at an early stage with the enormity of what they have done.
Another challenge is managing the parallel processes of therapy and the law. Offenders will remain on bail for months and as the court date gets closer they may find it hard to concentrate on therapy and instead wish to speculate about the possible outcome and I aim to minimise this.
Another issue is, should I write a letter of support? This would be a letter that is commissioned by the solicitor for use by the court. Since I find that offenders do genuinely engage in the therapeutic process, so I feel able to write a letter describing the process of recovery if the client wishes me to.
What we know so far
We hear in the news of high profile paedophiles such as Jimmy Savile, but what is sexual offending and paedophilia? While female sex offenders and paedophiles exist, overwhelmingly this is a male issue. There are no really reliable figures – but there is a large group of men, perhaps 5% of the population, who are addicted to online pornography and/or using sex workers.
Their behaviour causes them distress and they struggle to stop it, but they have not committed an offence. Internet sex offenders usually have looked at indecent images of children, that means under 18, even though the age of consent for sexual activity is 16. They may also have looked at sexual acts between people and animals (bestiality) or extreme violence, both of which are also illegal. A paedophile’s primary sexual interest is in prepubescent children, and a person whose primary sexual interest is the early teens age group is known as a hebephile.
What can we do
There is an often-overlooked group who become sexually aroused in ways most people would find unusual. They include fetishists, transvestites (cross dressers), voyeurs (peeping toms) and exhibitionists (flashers). The first two are not illegal but the last two are. In my experience people laugh at peeping toms and flashers, as the popular names suggest, rather than seeing them as sexual offenders, yet their behaviour can cause huge distress to their victims.
Most sex offenders refer themselves for treatment, and this can be accessed through the Specialist Treatment Organisation for the Prevention of Sexual Offending (StopSO). Many have used the information provided by the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity (ATSAC), the Lucy Faithfull Foundation and their child sexual abuse prevention helpline.
In my experience offenders do not seek therapeutic help until they are arrested, but StopSO reports that over a third of their enquiries are from people who have not yet come to the attention of the police or social services.
Also, in my experience offenders are relieved that they have been caught, so that they have the opportunity to recover. They are highly motivated to change, for themselves, and for their family and friends. They will have accepted that their behaviour has harmed others, very often children.
As a therapist I am motivated to help them heal but, ultimately, I believe that by working with these clients I will help save children from abuse and adults from harm such as witnessing exhibitionism, and that is what keeps me doing this work.
Michael Stock works for StopSO: The Specialist Treatment Organisation for the Prevention of Sexual Offending works to prevent sexual offending through therapy.