Working with victims provides insight into work with sex offenders.
Sex offender treatment requires both cognitive restructuring and the development of victim empathy. The cognitive work requires a lot of thought, discussion, intellectual examination. Working with sex offenders, however, also requires a new awareness and empathy for the victims as well as cognitive change. The cognitive work alone can be difficult with all the distortions, minimization, entitlement, and beliefs clients typically exhibit. It is difficult to get someone to change how they think but to get them to feel empathy for those they see only as objects is a true test.
Changes in behavior and cognition can be taught through relapse prevention and other modalities. Through treatment a client can gain insight into his or her destructive family patterns, personal childhood trauma and pain, personal development, etc. This can help a client begin to feel his or her lost emotions of anger and hurt and begin to feel more forgiving toward him or her self.
Cognitive behavioral changes and the development of self worth and understanding are crucial to a sex offender’s treatment. In addition to those changes a sex offender also needs to gain empathy for victims, especially his/her victims. It can be difficult to ‘teach’ victim empathy without the exposure to a victim, to see the anger, hurt, fear, and a myriad of subtle and overt expression in the child’s face, voice, eyes, body.
Working with victims of sexual abuse provides a therapist also working with offenders a unique perspective on the effects sexual abuse, that is, the victim’s perspective. The therapist can see first hand the effects of abuse on victims. The pain, damaged self-esteem, fear, confusion and more can be directly observed in treatment. The therapist hears first hand accounts of grooming, betrayal, coercion, confusion and on. Clinical work with sexual abuse victims offers a therapist a great opportunity to impress upon sex offenders the victim’s point of reference on the many and complicated nuances of this abuse. This allows the therapist to use the language of child victims when “teaching” empathy. they can express victims’ anger, rage, fear, confusion, powerlessness, and the many related emotions and reactions. The therapist can be the voice of the victim, a voice of experience.
When a therapist works with victims they gain an awareness of the far reaching effects of sex abuse. They can then help the offender develop a sense of the experience of victims that the offender may not otherwise understand. For example, an offender may learn that his or her behavior caused a child emotional pain but may have more difficulty understanding the long term effects on the victim’s development, stability, etc. Examples could include the following. A victim that has tremendous anxiety when she sees any man and may develop a phobia or anxiety disorder. A young victim who begins be doubt his or her own reality because the offender and/or family says “it didn’t happen”, ‘it didn’t hurt”, or he “won’t do it again” and from this loses the ability to sense an unhealthy or dangerous person or relationship. or a preadolescent girl who dresses and acts like she is 17 in keeping with cultural trends and learned ‘seduction’ from the confusion of sex means love. In this case an offender may recognize the inappropriate behavior of that child and he or she may feel empathy that the child is “growing up too fast” but the offender may not recognize the behavior as counter phobic or a search for love and a confused connection between sexual behavior and a feeling of protection from a male. These are only some of the many examples a therapist can become aware of from working with victims and then use the more specialized or detailed information to help the offender better develop a deeper sense of empathy and a better awareness of the far reaching effects of his or her sexual offending.
How working with sex abuse victims makes me a more effective offender therapist.
Niki Delson, LCSW
He was her father, her mentor, the man who taught her to ride her bike, and the one who helped her with her homework. He told her she looked pretty as a daisy. She thought he loved her. And he betrayed it all in the service of his sexual desire.
I could imagine what he did, how he touched her, how he smiled without seeing her fear and confusion. But without hearing from her, I could not truly understand what he left behind in the wake of his misuse of her. He fondled her breasts. He fondled her vagina. How easy it would be if I only had to fathom what the act did to her body. When offenders come into treatment, they usually admit to the acts – but my job is to help him comprehend the meaning, and the irreversibility of those acts. Through my work with victims I am able to create a bridge for offenders - from limited acceptance to ownership - from acknowledging what they did, to recognizing who they were.
- I read the police report. I read his statement. I read the victim statement. He admitted that the victim had told the truth – he fondled her vagina. He was not in denial. He admitted he did it 6 times- 288 - a felony. She did not want to tell me about the sexual touching. She wanted to talk about what the police never asked her. The sexual touching was not as significant as the fact that he abused her mother, that he drank and called her names, and that each time, he promised it would be the last time. She wanted to tell me that he promised her a bicycle if she complied with his sexual requests – but he never got it for her. “He promised! It’s not fair!”
- He was at the tail end of treatment. Six years on probation without one violation. His victims now grown, with children of their own, were cautious but forgiving. But still they came to talk about the past. The loss, what he took, was still unfolding. “When I undress my baby, and he is lying naked on the bed I wonder ‘Is this how it started with my dad – was I just a baby – did he start having sexual thoughts about me when I was that little?’” And then I feel sick because I am having thoughts about my own child – not like I want to touch him, but just wondering how my dad started, and I hate that he took from me the ability to love my child without his perversions in my head.
David Finkelhor gave us the Traumagenic Model to understand the impact of sexual abuse on child development. This model asserts that abusive events in a child’s life change the cognitive and emotional orientation to the world and create a distortion of self-concept, worldview and affective capacities through four domains, betrayal, powerlessness, stigmatization and traumatic sexualization. As an offender therapist I want the perpetrator to “get it” to see hear and feel how his behavior may have hurt the child’s core, and spirit. I want him to own it, take responsibility for it, and make reparations, not just in what he did, but also for who he must become, for the rest of his life. It is victims who have helped me understand.