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Topic of the week


By Matthew Rosenberg, LMSW

The sex offender therapist is a person who must be able to execute a great range of abilities at any given moment. For example, they must be confrontive and direct while listening and observing covert cues given by the client in an attempt to relay information. They must also be compassionate and empathic towards people who most might find repulsive and shameful. How does one, whether therapist, parent, or spouse, maintain these dynamics while at the same time striving to help the offender?

Compassion is an essential element for anyone in the mental health field—whether you work with people suffering from depression, bereavement, mental illness, or sexual deviancy. If one does not naturally have compassion for sexual deviants, he/she should not attempt to work with this population. Nonetheless, do not misunderstand that one can be repulsed and very disturbed from the disclosures of a sex offender, however still maintain the ability to be compassionate in their treatment approach. This is demonstrated in the following example. A short time ago, two men who were referred to me by their attorney prior to court involvement, were found guilty of criminal sexual conduct and sentenced to prison. I had been working with these men for approximately 6 months, before and during their court involvement (what are completely different dynamics). Based on the evidence that I observed and studied (police reports, victim statements, defendant statement) and from their disclosures, these two men were sexual deviants who engaged in vicious forms of sexual assault. Although I perceived their deviant sexual behavior as repulsive and very bothersome, I was still able to view them as human beings, aside from their deviant behaviors. When one is able to set aside their emotions, if only temporarily, and communicate with and assess a sexual offender, he/she will most likely realize how pitiful their lives are, how rejected they have been most of their lives, and how ashamed most of them feel. It is at this time my desire increases to assist them in helping themselves flourish into productive and law-abiding citizens.

One of the greatest clinical and personal lessons I have ever experienced came from the first day I co-facilitated sex offender group therapy within a prison setting. It was known as the “lifers” group, because all of the members were doing 15 or more years in prison for sexual crimes. Prior to working in a prison setting, I viewed prisoners, especially sex offenders, as monsters. I had the perception that they would all be gigantic men with angry faces, threatening everyone they see. What I observed that first day in group therapy was nothing of the sort. On the contrary, I saw that the men were just like everyone else in appearance. They did not threaten or intimidate, but actually protected other group members and group leaders from prisoners outside of the group. All of the men shared horrific stories of their sexual deviation, as well as their own victimization. All of the men shed many tears throughout the groups duration, and expressed a wide range of emotions. From that day on, I viewed the group members as human beings, in need of significant help and treatment. I viewed their lives as pathetically isolated and full of rejection and failure. Most importantly, I was able to differentiate between their deviant sexual behaviors and thought processes (which only encompassed a portion of their total self) from their person as a whole. In essence, working within a prison shattered many of the stereotypes I held for prisoners and assisted in momentarily detaching my emotions in order to better and more objectively facilitate their treatment.

Many therapists, and people in general, have told me that they “could never work with sex offenders” (as they cringe at even the thought of doing so). I do understand, however, that many people affected by sexual abuse in some form or modality may hold this notion, and rightfully so. Nonetheless, would these therapists be able to work with murderers? Drunk drivers who have killed or maimed? Drug dealers? The criminally mentally ill? Spousal abusers? Substance abusers? What would really prevent people from working with, in a therapeutic sense, these types of people? It would most likely be their own emotion coupled with preconceived stereotypical perceptions. These two dynamics can and does cripple therapists from performing to the best of their ability. However, if therapists can be crippled in such a fashion, and are not willing or able to set these feelings aside, can these people really help any client?

Compassion for clients, no matter what the illness, diagnosis, or disease, is a common trait shared by many, if not most, psychotherapists. Clients can and do recognize when a therapist is genuine and compassionate, and they usually will respond accordingly. In essence, a therapist is quite similar (or at least should be) to a highly functioning parent—someone who can demonstrate compassion, empathy, trust, and honesty. Therapists, comparable to parents, must be confrontive, directive, educational, and supportive in conjunction with the aforementioned traits.

Thanks for listening, and I hope there is some information contained in here that may be helpful to you. Please let me know if you have any questions at anytime.

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