Treating the Denying Sex Offender

By Charlene Steen, Ph.D., J.D.

Is the convicted sex offender who denies his/her offense(s) treatable? Many programs will not accept these persons. Yet many eventually admit to their offenses, and even those who don't, if treated correctly, can learn techniques and gain insights which can prevent reoffense and/or reaccusation.

In the approximately 14 years that I have intensively treated sex offenders, I do not know of a single offender who has not exhibited denial on at least some level. Denial by sex offenders can be broken down as follows (adapted from a workshop by Anna Salter):

  1. Offense
    1. Denial of behavior outright ("I didn't do it.")
      1. Deny all offenses
      2. Deny some offenses, but admit others
    2. Minimization of behavior ("I did it, but only twice.")
      1. Length of time
      2. Fequency
      3. Severity
      4. Degree of harm to victim
    3. Rationalization ("I was trying to teach her about sex in a loving way," "I was examining her to see if she was maturing correctly," etc.)
    4. Denial of other deviant behaviors
    5. Denial of responsibility ("I was a victim," "She came to me and touched me," etc.)
  2. Before Offense
    1. Denial of deviant fantansies
    2. Denial of planning ("It just happened.")
  3. After Offense
    1. Denial of current problem
    2. Denial of difficulty of change
    3. Denial of possibility of relapse
    4. Denial of seriousness of effects
Denial, I believe, is one of the symptoms apparent in most sex offenders. If offenders recognized the severity of what they did and the harm they caused, most would never have committed their offenses. Denial, therefore, is an important issue to be addressed in therapy, and one which we work on repeatedly the entire duration of therapy.

There is considerable controversy throughout the United States within the sex offender clinician community about whether or not total deniers are treatable. This is to be contrasted with persons who deny on a lesser level. The vast majority of programs treat offenders who admit at least a portion of their offenses, but may deny other parts or deny in other ways.

While total denial of any offending behavior creates some serious problems in therapy, many total deniers do eventually admit. I have had offenders who denied for as long as two years before taking responsibility for their actions.

I believe those who do not admit can still benefit from therapy, and I feel I have had success with completely denying offenders who have completed my program (none, to my knowledge, have reoffended, although some may have). The only statistics I have seen on recidivism rates of denying offenders show that denying offenders are more likely to reoffend, but they also show that the denying offenders receive much less treatment. There are no studies, to my knowledge, which compare deniers and admitters who have both received the same degree of treatment.

My position is that deniers are more disturbed and hence need more rather than less treatment, and that it is irresponsible for clinicians not to treat them.

It is important to look at some of the critical issues:

  1. Why do they deny? I generally find that sex offenders who deny their offenses completely or almost completely, usually do so because their self-esteem is particularly weak and the offense is very disturbing to their concept of themselves. These offenders often admit somewhere in the course of treatment, Others may be too ashamed ever to admit. A small group of offenders may dissociate, and truly do not remember. I had one of these who admitted after about a year or two, saying, "It wasn't me who did it, but another part of me."

  2. Why should we treat them?
    1. Anyone can benefit from this type of treatment, applying it to other facets of their lives.
    2. If they are guilty, they can still benefit from all of the treatment modalities presented. Therapy is not just about the offense, it is about the coping strategies and the emotional well-being of the offender.
    3. They may admit later.
    4. Offenders who work at treatment become healthier people, and therefore are less likely to reoffend.

  3. What can a denying offender get out of therapy? Sex offender therapy should be multi-faceted and contain a variety of cognitive and behavioral aspects. It is not only about taking responsibility for committing the offense. That helps, but there are plenty of offenders who take responsibility for their acts and turn around and do it again. There are other types of learnings an offender must internalize before he/she is capable of abstaining from offending. And whether or not a person admits his/her offense, he/she is still there absorbing the material and can gain much in the way of:
    1. Better choices - learning to look at the consequences of acts and making conscious decisions rather than just acting on impulses.
    2. Increased self-esteem - if feelings of self worth are increased through positive experiences, the person would not want to do anything bad and will self monitor.
    3. Getting in touch with own and others' feelings - increased self understanding and empathy minimizes the need to act-out inappropriately and helps the offender see what effect his actions would have on the potential victim before he acts.
    4. Sexual Understanding - learning to differentiate between sex and affection, so that the offender can maintain appropriate boundaries.
    5. Social skills development - learning how to relate appropriately to age-mates so it will not be necessary to get social support needs met improperly or with improper-aged persons.
    6. Improved communication - increasing abilities to communicate needs and feelings appropriately so he/she will not express them in an inappropriate sexual or other anti-social manner.
    7. Arousal reconditioning and delay of satisfaction - offenders can learn to fantasize about appropriate sex objects, change deviant arousal patterns, delay gratification of impulses by learning and assimilating various technuques, so they are less likely to reoffend.
    8. Offense chain intervention - offenders can learn relapse prevention techniques including appropriate coping strategies at each stage of the chain, whether or not they admit. They can use other negative behaviors or reaccusation as the end point. (And in their heads, they can hear and integrate their learning into the actual scenarios of their offenses.)
    9. Offense cycle intervention - this can apply the same way as with the offense chain in relapse prevention.
    10. Problem solving - everyone can increase these skills, which in turn increase available coping skills for all activities when stress or gratification needs are present.
    ... and many other learnings.

  4. Inappropriate incarceration exacerbates the problem. Persons who commit sex offenses need sex offense specific treatment so they do not reoffend. If they are incarcerated without treatment, they are likely to come out even worse and more likely to reoffend. Emotionally they will be even more shut down, with lower self esteem, more anger and less coping abilities. They are much more likely to turn to past dysfunctional coping strategies, among them -- sex offending.

  5. What if the person didn't commit the offense? We don't know if he did or didn't, but even innocent persons can benefit from this type of cognitive-behavioral treatment. We can all benefit from improved self esteem, better communication, self understanding, increased empathy, etc. And we must assume, based on the conviction, that he/she probably did commit the offense.

  6. What about family reunification if there is no admission? There are safeguards and contractual behavioral limitaions which can be developed and enforced, such as:
    1. Supervised and therapeutically processed reunification to accord multiple levels of protections
    2. Alternative forms of apologies (without actually admitting the offense)
    3. Contractual requirements for and limitations regarding denial in communications
    4. Prepared responses which will least harm to the victim.
Probably the biggest problems are our own feelings as interveners, whether therapist, court officer, parole or probation, and/or anyone else working with a person in denial. Nobody likes deniers; our ethic is based on taking responsibility for actions. In addition, we have no control over them. We feel helpless. They aren't responding the way we want them to. But, we have to remind ouselves that they are still hearing, doing, growing, improving, through our efforts and influence.

Charlene Steen, Ph.D., J.D. is an author and therapist working in private practice in Napa, California.


All information presented here is property of Charlene Steen, Ph.D., J.D.
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Last modified: December 3, 1995

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