Part of the process in being a student in the field of psychology is trying to figure out the career path that you think will be the best fit for you. In psychology there are many different paths you can take with the degree such as private practice, forensic, schools, hospitals, teaching etc. While attending school, we are encouraged to try different populations and different settings whilst keep an open mind so we are better able to choose a path after graduation. I have always been interested in forensic settings, so naturally I tried the forensic settings offered by my school, one of which was a sex offender treatment center working primarily with those who have been convicted of a federal sexual offense. I loved it and continued to work in the setting even after my stay as a student ended. While my colleagues and I have been encouraged to keep an open mind, I found myself constantly defending my choice against the same question, and it wasn’t just my fellow students but family members and friends as well. The question was inevitably, “Why would you want to work with sex offenders.”
***I always felt a bit caught off guard when asked this question because my mind immediately goes to the response, “Why wouldn’t I?” To me, it seemed like such a cut and dry issue. However, since it is a question I continuously find myself answering, I decided to write this as a way to fully process my answer to this question. The thought behind my response, “Why wouldn’t I” was that I did not see this population as really any different than any other population. People seek therapy for a myriad of reasons but generally it comes down to that there is an issue or behavior that they want to examine and potentially change. It is no different in working with clients that have committed sexual offenses. They are still people. They are just people who made a mistake and are their to learn about it and prevent it from happening again. Now this is in no way intended to minimize or excuse the offense or the traumatic pain that victims’ experience. I do not come into the picture until after the arrest, conviction, and sentence have been completed. Therefore, my role becomes one of understanding and facilitating moving forward. There is a collaboration of reasons why they engaged in their offending behavior and group or individual therapy helps them to explore, understand, and develop plans to prevent it from happening again.*** added 1/23
One argument I have heard in response to this answer is that sex offenders are pedophiles that cannot be cured; they will reoffend, so why help them. There is a perception of those who have committed sexual offenses that, in my experience, is generally not correct. In fact, research has been conducted on this topic and has shown that the majority of those who commit sexual offenses are not pedophiles and have low recidivism rates for committing another sexual offense. Regardless of the research, if the fear of society were that those who have committed sexual offenses will commit one again, then why wouldn’t we want competent psychologists helping them to better understand their offense and develop plans to prevent a subsequent sexual offense. It would only seem logical to me that the best way to protect society and prevent another crime from happening would be to intervene and do something about it.
Another part of my response to the question, “why sex offenders” would be my potential to make a real difference. Many of the guys that I have worked with feel discriminated against, judged, despised, and shameful. There is a feeling that once a sexual offense is committed, they will pay for it for the rest of their life in the form of registering, probation, residency restrictions, mandated treatment, and constant judgment by others. If I have the ability to come into the lives of these people and provide a supportive, understanding, and therapeutic relationship, I again say, “Why wouldn’t I?” Working with those who have committed a sexual offense and being able to provide a different experience, one that is an open and non-judgmental space for them to explore topics that are very difficult to explore has been more rewarding than I could ever put into words.
I am not saying this work is easy, it can be very difficult and it is certainly not for everyone. In my experience, it takes a professional who is patient, empathetic, and has the ability to separate ones’ actions from the person themselves. Those I work with are mandated to come see me and, at times, they absolutely do not want to be there. Furthermore, confidentiality becomes an issue as probation is involved in the treatment process and polygraphs are used on a regular basis as a therapeutic tool. All of these add another layer of issues to work through in a therapeutic relationship.
All in all, would it be easier working with guys who aren’t forced to see me, maybe; could I make more money in private practice, probably; would I be questioned less working with any other population, possibly. But none of those could ever outweigh the feeling I get when a client tells me how I have made a difference in their life. Just because a job is not the easiest doesn’t mean it should be looked over; in fact, I would say that because this work is challenging there should be more skilled professionals desiring to enter the field and make a real difference. I would encourage anyone working towards a degree in psychology to seriously consider working with this population. If your initial reaction is an absolute no, then I would further encourage you to examine why you are so against it and educate yourself to be sure that your thinking is based not on bias or misperception.
My hope in writing this is that others, not only those in the field of psychology but anyone out there who crosses the path of someone who committed a sexual offense, will be able to keep an open mind and come from a place of understanding. Perhaps you will find, as I have, that your differences are not as great as you might think. Then when you are asked, how could you work with, date, be friends with someone who committed a sexual offense, your answer will be the same as mine, “Why wouldn’t I?”
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