Studies suggest it is possible to rehabilitate sex offenders – by acknowledging their humanity

By Saybrook University

It’s been a big week for sex abuse scandals:  the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has suspended 21 priests – the largest mass suspension in church history – as a result of accusations involving inappropriate contact with minors. 

Meanwhile victims groups have begun to say publicly that the Catholic Church should monitor accused priests the way the police track convicted sex offenders … and create special housing for them. 

Sexual violence is never permissible, yet lost in the discussion of these horrifying crimes is the question of rehabilitation.  For the most part, the public assumption is that once a sex offender always a sex offender:  rehabilitation is not possible.

It’s an understandable assumption –  rehabilitation requires taking an offender seriously as a person:  how can we do this with sex offenders, especially child abusers?  How can we reach out to them to address their humanity, and human needs? 

But there are horrifying consequences if this assumption is wrong.  If sex offenders can be rehabilitated, then failure to do so not only is cruel to the offender, it puts more people at risk precisely because sex offenders remain untreated.    

In fact, it is humanistic and existential therapy that has proven most effective in rehabilitating adult sex offenders – and it achieves this success precisely by relating to offenders as human beings. 

In preliminary research (PDF) humanistic and existential psychology, utilized in the group therapy context, has proven successful in rehabilitating sex offenders.

Adult sex offenders were studied in the context of an atmosphere focused on safety, empathy, relation. Facilitators and clinicians of the groups utilized existential psychologist, Irvin Yalom’s group therapy process, and principles of Rogerian therapy; while concomitantly condemning the criminal acts of sexual abuse perpetrated by the group members. Group therapy with the offenders consistently focused on genuineness, empathy, and unconditional positive regard for all group participants; not the abhorrent sexual conduct itself.

 “Many approaches to sex offender group treatment stress confrontation as a primary therapeutic tool and focus on breaking through denial,” say researchers Sheri Bauman & T. Gregory Kopp. “We believe that such approaches result in pseudocompliance by clients. However, clients are more likely to explore underlying dynamics that contributed to their offense, such as low-self-esteem and shame, when they feel safe. They are more likely to improve social skills and decrease isolation when they feel understood, accepted, and supported.”

Bauman and Kopp’s study is timely; as it comes in the furry over a raging debate regarding sexual and identity disorders in the American Psychiatric Association’s upcoming publication, DSM-5.  In the DSM-5, the Paraphilias Subworkgroup has proposed including a diagnosis known as Paraphilic Coercive Disorder. The inclusion of such a disorder would allow many states to justify indefinite civil commitment for sexual crimes.

Accordingly, to qualify for Paraphilic Coercive Disorder, a person would need to meet the following criteria:

A.    Over a period of at least six months, recurrent, and intense sexual arousal from sexual coercion, as manifested by fantasies, urges, or behaviors. [23]

B.     The person has clinically significant distress or impairment in important areas of functioning, or has sought sexual stimulation from forcing sex on three or more nonconsenting persons on separate occasions. [24]

C.     The diagnosis of Paraphilic Coercive Disorder is not made if the patient meets criteria for a diagnosis of Sexual Sadism Disorder.[25]

Including such a disorder into the upcoming DSM-5—is senseless.  If the most effective rehabilitation programs involve acknowledging the people behind these awful crimes, slapping another label on them will further alienate them from humanity; and in turn we will increase recidivism rates. Offenders need rehabilitation not another diagnosis:  “sex offender” is already as big a label as we have. 

Sexual violence cannot be tolerated – and neither can the lack of rehabilitation efforts.  While the acts of sexual offenders are unquestionably repugnant, therapy must focus on bringing human-like qualities back into the offender’s life to prevent recidivism.

 In the long run, it’s the best way to keep everyone safe. 

— Liz Schreiber