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
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):
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.
- Denial of behavior outright ("I didn't do it.")
- Deny all offenses
- Deny some offenses, but admit others
- Minimization of behavior ("I did it, but only twice.")
- Length of time
- Degree of harm to victim
- 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.)
- Denial of other deviant behaviors
- Denial of responsibility ("I was a victim," "She came to me and touched me," etc.)
- Before Offense
- Denial of deviant fantansies
- Denial of planning ("It just happened.")
- After Offense
- Denial of current problem
- Denial of difficulty of change
- Denial of possibility of relapse
- Denial of seriousness of effects
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:
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.
- 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."
- Why should we treat them?
- Anyone can benefit from this type of treatment, applying it to other facets of their lives.
- 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.
- They may admit later.
- Offenders who work at treatment become healthier people, and therefore are less likely to reoffend.
- 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:
... and many other learnings.
- Better choices - learning to look at the consequences of acts and
making conscious decisions rather than just acting on impulses.
- 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.
- Getting in touch with own and others' feelings - increased self
empathy minimizes the need to act-out inappropriately and helps the
what effect his actions would have on the potential victim before he acts.
- Sexual Understanding - learning to differentiate between sex and
affection, so that the offender can maintain appropriate boundaries.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- Offense cycle intervention - this can apply the same way as with the
offense chain in relapse prevention.
- Problem solving - everyone can increase these skills, which in turn
increase available coping skills for all activities when stress or
gratification needs are present.
- 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.
- 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.
- What about family reunification if there is no admission? There are
safeguards and contractual behavioral limitaions which can be developed
and enforced, such as:
- Supervised and therapeutically processed reunification to accord multiple levels of protections
- Alternative forms of apologies (without actually admitting the offense)
- Contractual requirements for and limitations regarding denial in communications
- Prepared responses which will least harm to the victim.
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.
Return to the Sexual Assault Information Page
Last modified: December 3, 1995