Many researchers and therapists have documented that the single most important dynamic in the entire therapy process is the therapeutic relationship itself. Each client brings to each session a unique set of problems and vulnerabilities, as well as strengths and weaknesses. In order to gain clinical insight into these areas, effective therapists must begin the treatment process in an expedient and skilled fashion, while simultaneously exhibiting an omnipresent and unconditional human kindness. This is especially true for the sex offender therapist, as it assists in developing the therapeutic alliance. Nonetheless, many talented and well-seasoned therapists become so repulsed or angry toward the offender that they are unable to maintain their unconditional human kindness and therefore, are unable to effectively assist the person in need. If the therapeutic relationship is of paramount importance for effective therapy to occur, then the focus should be on the sex offender therapist, as he or she is primarily responsible for initiating and developing the relationship with the client.
Therapists should understand that despite the nature or source of referral, the sex offender has problems and vulnerabilities just like everyone else. Many of these clients experience intense anxiety and an unbridled sense of fear during their initial therapeutic session. They may be uncertain of what to expect, and are, undoubtedly, terrified at the thought of relating their innermost sexual behaviors and fantasies to a stranger. They also are fearful of the prospects of incarceration. Furthermore, these clients often have lived with an overwhelming sense a shame, guilt, and embarrassment, and poor self-perception. If a therapist does not develop a solid therapeutic relationship with a client who experiences these dynamics, little, if any, progress will be attained. The sex offender therapist who is capable of facilitating a therapeutic alliance in an expedient and professional fashion, while displaying unconditional human kindness, will produce a more successful treatment outcome.
Finally, it should be noted that an advanced degree in the human service field (i.e., social work, psychology, psychiatry) does not necessarily create an effective, competent therapist. With this in mind, seven central domains are examined, in the subsequent paragraphs, which exemplify the qualities and traits an effective sex offender therapist should possess or acquire.
Sex offender therapists must possess a dynamic personality that is flexible enough to evolve with each client through the entire therapeutic process. They must not allow themselves to become too rigid in their thinking. Effective therapists also present themselves in a genuine manner, and do not appear to be forcing kindness or interest. They must have strong professional and personal boundaries, as well as possess a number of effective coping skills. Sex offender therapists should be both friendly and caring, and maintain a healthy level of skepticism towards life. Furthermore, they must be able to be direct, confrontational, and authoritative, while at the same time remaining compassionate, nurturing, and empathic. More importantly, they must be able to discern the correct time to utilize confrontation. A sense of humor, and when to apply it, is also beneficial to the treatment process. Effective therapists must be able to adapt to new situations and emotions with some ease, yet demonstrate consistency with their behaviors and emotions. Finally, they must endure listening to countless hours of abuse and deviation and still remain objective.
Values and Morals
Sex offender therapists must share in the core belief that people are essentially good and are not born evil or bad. They must also possess the belief that therapy can and does work toward producing positive change. They must recognize that in every family system there are strengths, and it is these strengths that can assist the client in perpetual change. They must believe that although the sexual offender is their client, public safety takes precedence over confidentiality. Further, they must believe in the dangers of secrecy, particularly familial, and do their best to denounce and work through the negative secrets. They must share in the common belief that a victim’s statement or allegation is more valid and reliable than that of an offender. Finally, they must believe that all sex crimes are wrong and unjust, and can produce severe trauma, and that no one asks for or deserves to be sexually assaulted.
All sex offender therapists must abide by the code of ethics set forth by their particular field or profession. For many effective therapists, their personal ethical code, prior to graduating with an advanced degree, paralleled that of their profession’s code of ethics; therefore, their personal ethical code or behavior need be adjusted very little. Examples of unethical conduct are taking advantage of a client or manipulating the client for our own gratification or, seeking out unconscious revenge against the client by means of humiliating, shaming, or psychologically harming him or her.
Effective therapists have attained a significant degree of knowledge with regard to theory, assessment, and treatment. They crave knowledge from numerous sources: clients, families, peers, other professionals, journals, and books. They also possess the ability to apply the knowledge they attain to practical situations, and evaluate the results. Lastly, effective therapists recognize that any additional knowledge accumulated will likely produce a more successful treatment outcome.
Effective sex offender therapists will closely examine all of the ramifications and consequences of their own actions, statements, and behaviors, prior to final decision-making. They will make decisions based on fact and reason, and not emotional cues. They are not afraid to ask questions or seek out additional assistance. Finally, they comprehend the imperative nature of sex offender therapy, and the degree of destruction that can result from errors in judgment.
Ability to Listen
Sex offender therapists should actively listen to their client and pay specific attention to non-verbal or covert forms of communication. They should listen and learn from their clients and other professionals. Lastly, they should understand how difficult disclosure is and allow clients to divulge their offence at a pace that is comfortable for them.
Effective sex offender therapists are motivated to assist people in need, and are, more specifically, motivated to engage in the assessment and treatment of sexual offenders. This motivation can be observed in numerous ways: punctuality for appointments and meetings; creative and new ideas and techniques for intervention; spending extra time with clients; and, working toward a successful treatment outcome. Further, they are not easily dissuaded and are persistent in therapy and in their personal lives. Above all else, effective sex offender therapists are motivated and dedicated to the elimination of sexual assault and child molestation.
These seven domains, taken together, greatly assist in the development of effective sex offender therapists, and thus, may provide the best opportunity to establish a solid client-therapist relationship. Many of the characteristics in these domains cannot be “taught” in a classroom setting, but rather are acquired during the course of development. Excellent supervision and mentoring, however, can facilitate the acquisition of new skills and can even alter one’s perception of treatment.
Sexual offenders prove to be challenging clients in many respects. As previously mentioned, many are extremely anxious, scared, shameful, and distrustful of others, and have utilized negative manipulation for a number of years. Therefore, these clients would work better with therapists who are strong, powerful, knowledgeable, trusting, and reliable.
I have seen the tremendous power of the therapeutic relationship. This power not only exerts itself onto the client, but also the therapist. Many adolescent and young adult sexual offenders have been rejected and deprived of positive attention from adults throughout the majority of their lives. Moreover, many have the uncanny ability to search out and find impostors. The moment they feel that their therapist is being fake, or an impostor they will shut off emotionally and not trust the therapist. These are the types of offenders who are in dire need of an effective sex offender therapist. If they trust their therapist, they may take chances and risks in treatment that will, undoubtedly, serve to promote growth and development. Finally, since effective sex offender therapists model a host of behaviors for their clients, a solid therapeutic relationship is detrimental to promote positive behavior change.
If you or someone you know is looking for a therapist who specializes in this area, please ask questions. Call the prospective therapist on the phone prior to meeting him or her. Ask the therapist about his or her qualifications, what makes them a "specialist", how do they handle confidentiality, what can they keep secret, and so on. Moreover, after your initial visit with the therapist, if you do not get the feeling that you are or will be comfortable with the therapist, simply ask for a referral to another. There is no sense in staying in a therapeutic relationship with someone you do not feel comfortable with (for it is likely you will not trust this person, and therefore there may be little honesty in the relationship). Therapists should understand that not every client will feel comfortable with him or her, and that asking for a referral is very appropriate.
NOTE: talking about sexual issues, offenses, deviancy, and abuse are very difficult topics. One might expect to feel a little uncomfortable when discussing these topics; however, if you feel uncomfortable with the therapist him/herself, there is a difference. Some therapists can be very "warm", concerning, empathic, open individuals; while others can appear cold, impersonal, judgemental, and so on. Some of these differences can be traced back to the theoretical orientation under which the therapist was trained. A good therapist will be one who can fluctuate between all of the aforementioned traits; understands when to be compassionate and empathic, and when to be confrontive while still retaining a nuturing and caring stance.