This short article is part rant and part catharsis.
A common question I am asked is how I can be an advocate for those who have been horribly victimized in sexual assault and child sexual abuse, and also be a therapist for sex offenders.
Isn’t this, at the very least, a conflict of interest? Shouldn’t there be a separation of duties where one therapist focuses completely on one group, and a different therapist works with the other group?
I don’t see it that way. Please keep an open mind and heart.
In 1984, I was finishing up courses in abnormal psychology with Northwest Baptist College and University of British Columbia. As part of my study, I had to do an internship in related fields. Since one of those fields was sexual deviance, I enrolled in one of the programs the Province of British Columbia offered. I lived in a remote region of Eastern B.C. They were giving paid internships to anyone willing to work with men who had been incarcerated as sex offenders.
For six months, I met with seven different men. All of them had been convicted as child molesters. In addition, I also did case study interviews with three more men who were spending the remainder of their lives in jail for molesting children. One of those men had admitted to over 250 molestations; he kept a journal of all of it. That journal was the basis for his life conviction.
The first time I met with “Jake” he put me to the test. He peppered me with hundreds of details regarding his abusive behavior. I didn’t think I should walk out on him at the time.
I should have, actually. His behavior was classic Narcissistic Personality Disorder symptomology. The Narcissistic offender loves to self-aggrandize and make his exploits worse and more deviant than anyone else. I was feeding his lust for an audience. I have since learned not to do that.
After his first disclosure to me, I ran into the bathroom and threw up. This was something repeated several times over the next six months with others of my “clients”. I learned so much about sex offenders. I learned about their disordered thinking, their sociopathy, their lack of basic human empathy, the deviant nature of their inner parts.
After that internship, it was only a year before the first person came to me for counseling regarding sexual difficulties. Though this was not a strict abuse situation, it regarded the actions of a pastor and a congregant. I now know that his actions were a breach of his authority over this woman. I now know he may have broken the law. But, like other advocates, I was learning about these things and realizing we needed new labels for this behavior.
Though he was not as deviant as the men I had interviewed in the offender’s program, he did have some of the same tendencies, though in lesser form. In my work with him as a pastor and a therapist, I sought to integrate my spiritual understanding with my psychological knowledge. He became the first of almost 100 people I have worked with who have committed some kind of sexual crime. I have learned a lot.
And I apply a lot of that knowledge to my work in advocating for victims. I do have a good sense of what goes into the making of a sex criminal. I also know how the sociopathic, narcissistic, and borderline personalities work as they groom and control their victims. I know this because they have disclosed their messages in our private sessions.
This perspective gives me the tools I need to help the victims stay safe from other offenders. It helps me to work with organizations and institutions to figure out how to guard against predators among them.
At the same time—and this will shock and anger some of you—I also have compassion for the sex offenders. I don’t excuse them. I don’t defend them. I don’t sin-level or rationalize their behavior. But they are human beings. I may be the only person who shows them a shred of decency in our society. They are one of the only groups that no one—NO ONE—will show any compassion for, for the rest of their lives.
Some of you are saying: “No one should show them any decency. They have done the worst thing you can do to another human.” I don’t disagree. I have worked with more victims of child sex abuse than maybe anyone reading this. I know the damage that offenders do to others. I don’t want to see them hurt anyone else, which is why I work with them. Most therapists refuse to work with offenders.
But they are virtually the only ones left in our society with Scarlet A’s on their chest. Even in prison, the other prisoners beat them up, rape them, murder them. Once they get out, they will never ever get a decent job. For the rest of their lives.
If you cannot have any compassion on someone in that situation, I don’t know how to help you have some. Some of you reading this are thinking, “Mike has lost it”. I have not. I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. That is my choice.
You are allowed not to.
You are allowed to have a scale on who the worst people are.
That is your choice.
I choose to work with both victims AND sex offenders. That is my choice.
And–full disclosure–I was sexually molested myself. Once in a group home, and many times by a babysitter. I am not an idealist in this issue.
4 thoughts on “Why I Work with Sex Offenders”
I sincerely believe that early intervention in these people’s lives could save millions of children from trauma. If for no other reason, that alone should motivate our society to at the very least try to put in place programs to reach predators *before* they offend. At the very least, they can learn to control their behavior and perhaps live as contributing members of society, in the way alcoholics and other addicts who are able to remain clean are able to have jobs and fulfilling lives.
The punitive approach is an instinctive, knee-jerk response that makes us feel good in the moment, but does *nothing* for the victims.
We have a millennia-old penitentiary system that does not rehabilitate most offenders.
I don’t know how to change that. But it needs changing for sure.
My beloved and I work with men released from prison; though we didn’t intend specifically to work with sexual offenders, we found that no one else will – and so the majority of our clients now are released sexual offenders. Very few have been frank narcissists, as they often have terms precluding release due to the greater number of their crimes. Those we haven’t been successful with, generally. But the majority of our people have had issues that tend to cripple them from adult intimacy, and thus the human needs for intimacy find an outlet in what they first feel is friendship with children – and that sometimes turns towards what should only be shared with other adults.
Many find the idea of friendship with sexual offenders to be outrageous. But we find that even the relatively low level of intimacy that true friendship offers can substantially reduce the isolation that can lead to the severe offenses that a deep isolation (and thus intimacy deficit) engenders. It’s difficult work sometimes and it is often not socially acceptable – but it has long-term salutary effects on the future. So we stay with it, even at the expense of our own social capital.
May you continue in your good work.
I bless you in all you are doing also.