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Can Children Who Commit Sex Offenses Be Rehabilitated?

By  John Borneman 

In the first season of Showtime’s Dexter, the character Dexter Morgan, a vigilante serial killer who also works for the fictitious Miami Metro police as a forensic technician, hunts a child molester who had escaped justice and the law. After nearly strangling his prey, Dexter yells, “Open your eyes and look at what you did!” The molester, a choir director who also murdered some of the young boys he assaulted, cries, “I couldn’t help myself. … Please, you have to understand.” Dexter replies, “Trust me, I definitely understand. See, I can’t help myself either. But children, I could never do that. … I have standards.”

The success of the series, which ran for eight seasons and attracted a record-breaking 2.6 million viewers for its season four finale, relied on an identification with Dexter, whose compulsive lust for murder was justified by his targeting of bad men. Both Dexter and his victim were obviously guilty, but only his victim—the child molester—was considered incorrigible. Dexter-the-serial-killer, it was hoped, might overcome his compulsion. But to even pose the question of change for child molesters seems an affront to society, as if it shows disrespect for the experience of the victims of such abuse. Yet the abhorrence that we as a society feel toward child molesters is part of the reason that molesters often don’t get the help they so desperately need.

In the last half-century in most of the Western world, the child molester has emerged as a new criminal type, a figure of abjection who evokes a visceral reaction of loathing and repulsion. It is common today to describe a child molester as the epitome of evil, a “sexual predator” outside the moral limits of what it means to be human. He shares with the Islamic terrorist the designation of a major security risk. Extraordinary legal doctrines enabling permanent preventive detention—imprisonment, continuous surveillance, forms of house arrest—are applied to both figures. Confounded by this evil, the public unites in a general sentiment that of all criminal types, the child molester is the least deserving of empathy—that he is unredeemable. In legal jargon, he risks becoming a recidivist, doomed to repeat his crime; in psychiatric jargon, he is cursed with a psychic disorder, a “paraphilia” (intense sexual arousal to atypical objects), that makes him virtually incapable of change.

But our beliefs about child sex offenders, as a whole, are rife with stereotypes that don’t hold up to expert scrutiny. One particular assumption still dominates our view: They are incapable of change, so they should be removed from the public sphere—either killed or made to endure lifelong punishment. While the judicial system does not typically handle most cases in one of these two ways, such thinking has pervaded our views. Yet incarceration alone does not serve society well, nor is it the most cost-effective or humane way to actually reduce child sex abuse.

This isn’t simply about recognizing the humanity of offenders: To foster environments where children are not abused, we must understand why adults abuse them. The inquiry itself is very unsettling; we often experience disgust when asked to examine these acts, these people, and these situations. Our discomfort and fear of incorrigibility are part of the problem: They are often based on a set of unconscious assumptions divorced from the circumstances surrounding child sex abuse. Our inability to question these assumptions makes it even more difficult to address the issues at hand.

In Europe, where for over 30 years I have engaged in research on a variety of topics, from kinship and national identity to retributive justice and the rehabilitation of child sex offenders, there is a greater emphasis on and investment in therapy for child sexual abusers than in the United States. In Germany, a 2002 federal law even mandates that individuals sentenced for sex abuse to more than two years of imprisonment have not only a duty but also a right to treatment.

In 2008, I began an ethnographic study of child sex offenders in Germany who were serving time and participating in therapy. I attended weekly psychodynamic group therapy for 35 men and boys between the ages of 13 and 62 accused or convicted of child sex abuse. In four modules, offenders explored the sequence of events leading to the act (often called “crime cycle”), empathy for the victim and apology, personal biography, and relapse prevention. I also worked in a minimum-security prison, where I examined approximately 200 cases of convicted child sex offenders from between 2001 and 2008 at the archives of the Berlin Senate Department of Justice. I followed offenders from the accusation of abuse to arrest, admission of culpability, trial, imprisonment, treatment, release from prison, and social reincorporation or indefinite surveillance. The results of my five-year study shed light on why some people offend, how therapy might redirect their lives, and the value of understanding both.

Contrary to popular understandings, our stereotypes of pedophiles are misleading when generalized to child sex offenders, who do not share a “sexual orientation” or “object choice” that would be comparable to “homosexual” and “heterosexual” orientations. They are not all men (although over 90 percent of those who are accused and arrested are men), and they are not all interested specifically in sex with children. The type of sexual predator portrayed in popular stories does indeed exist: Lawrence G. Nassar, for example, the longtime team doctor for USA Gymnastics, was recently found guilty of sexually abusing more than 150 women and girls over two decades. He was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison on top of 60 years for federal child pornography.

But most convicted child molesters are not in fact serial offenders.  They have a low recidivism rate.

Furthermore, child sexual offenders often find themselves lumped together, despite the age of their victims, the severity of their crimes, and the duration of abuse. If treated, very few offenders become recidivists; the vast majority are not at risk of abusing additional children. Too often, however, policy prescriptions are made based on sensational cases, the least frequent type. High-risk offenders like Nassar present unusual problems, but should such exceptional cases be the basis for policies intended to address the majority of offenders?

The reasons why men seek out children and youth for sex are numerous, and they grow out of singular histories in which many have themselves suffered from neglect and abuse. In therapy, offenders often reveal motives not driven by a desire for sex but rather ones that emerge out of fears of abandonment, emotional loneliness, an inability to trust adults in intimate relations, low self-esteem, or an opportunism not available with adult partners. Sexual transgressions can easily tend in the direction of a fetish or a perverse and unconscious wish to harm the object of their desire. Yet, of the men I observed in therapy, interviewed, read files on, and consulted their therapists about, the most common motivation was neither to harm nor to have sex with the child. Rather, most men wanted intimacy with something more abstract, such as vulnerability, an image of innocence, or the ambiguity we associate with puberty.

These motivations in no way excuse abuse or lessen the damage to victims of abuse. But if the goal of imprisonment and treatment is to decrease the number of transgressions and bring about a change in the offender so as to eventually reincorporate him into society, then we have to understand and address the actual motivations for intimate transgressions, including sexual.

What, specifically, can therapy do? And what are its limits? To be sure, treatment cannot help all offenders, and some treatment methods are more effective than others. The same approaches are used throughout the Western world: single diagnostic sessions, chemical castration, psychopharmacological treatments, cognitive behavioral therapy, and psychodynamic approaches. Of the treatment options available, psychodynamic therapy has been shown to be the most cost-effective and efficacious. This form of talk therapy goes beyond impulse control, avowed renunciation, or the anesthetization of desire. Optimally, it facilitates a psychic change: a transformation in the emotions and unconscious thoughts driving someone’s actions. Psychodynamic therapy stands in contrast to cognitive behavioral therapy, the most commonly used treatment for child sex abuse, which attempts only to modify someone’s conscious, rational thoughts and behaviors. While the wrongness of the act is addressed, motivations for transgressive behavior are often left unexamined.

There are no typical cases of child abuse nor of the rehabilitation of offenders. But to illustrate, consider one from the 35 men and boys I followed in therapy. Uwe (a pseudonym), a 37-year-old man, was accused of incest with his 4 1/2-year-old daughter. Below is Uwe’s story, as he recounted it to therapists, who grilled him on the specifics, repetitively and painfully. I narrate a brief version of it here because, although terrible to hear and verifiable only through firsthand testimony, I think our disgust inhibits our ability to comprehend such acts and prevents us from dealing with the problem.

Uwe’s wife had recently left him and moved in with another woman, taking their two children with her. Uwe claims that his daughter began to play with herself in visits with him; Uwe was accused of participating.

Uwe never disputed the allegations his daughter or ex-wife made of these behaviors, or of his participation in them, but he was so alarmed by what he had done that he could not talk about it during the first four weeks of the group therapy to which he was assigned. He was a man of few words who appeared comfortable listening to the others; he talked only when called upon and then only in barely audible, mumbled phrases. The other men in the group were curious but also a bit angry at Uwe’s reticence, and they needled him until he reluctantly explained: “My daughter, who was 4 1/2, discovered that she could gratify herself. I helped her.”

The two therapists who conducted the group therapy sessions spent months asking why the daughter discovered masturbation at this point in her life and what role Uwe played in her discovery. The therapists’ eventual explanation, based on established psychological theory, was that the daughter had noticed the deep sadness of her father and sought to please him and regain his attentions through sexual play. (Of course, the child is not to blame in any way; it was Uwe’s reaction that bears the responsibility for his daughter’s behavior.) As Uwe justified it in his fifth month of therapy, he began to stroke her behind, legs, and feet “to take her mind off the vagina.” The end result, however, was that he played with her while she played with herself. (The daughter had entered separate therapy, and according to her therapist, she was doing well.) What he did was clearly child sex abuse: engaging in sexual behavior with a child.

Uwe’s problem was not the result of a mental error needing correction: He was quite cognizant of his transgressions, which is why he felt so guilty after he realized what he had done. Rather, his problem, the therapists concluded, was of not knowing how he was communicating his feelings of loneliness and abandonment to his daughter, which led him to indulge in an unconscious fantasy with her.

Once he was able to understand why he had encouraged his daughter to perform in front of him, Uwe was better able to accept what he had done and why he deserved to be punished. The judge terminated Uwe’s probation after he completed 30 weeks of therapy. His wife has moved to another city, and he no longer has contact with his children. The hope is that he will, at some point, develop healthier attachments and not be pulled back into the vortex of child sex abuse.

It is impossible to measure the extent of psychic change that therapy brings about. Such change is a matter of interpretation. But I can report that Uwe, and nearly all others in the therapy groups I followed for three years after the end of their formal therapy, did not reenter the system of reported abuse, accusation, and investigation. Some of the men I observed had already had access to cognitive behavioral therapy in prison. But they consistently claimed that they were only schooled in what they did wrong; they did not arrive at a better understanding of what they had done and why.

During psychodynamic therapy, in contrast, I observed men who, for the first time, developed the capacity to critically analyze and reflect on themselves and their history of relationships. Although most would insist throughout therapy that they strongly empathized with children, only with the introspection demanded by the therapists did they come to empathize with the specific child or children they had victimized. For Uwe, incarceration without a deeper understanding of who he was, and how he came to molest his daughter, likely would have been costly and useless.

Ultimately, it is judges who are given the most power in assessing whether—and what type of—therapy works. In Germany and elsewhere in the West, judges are more and more frequently demanding evidence not merely of a behavioral change but of a self-transformation in child sex offenders. They are asking for the kind of deeper evidence of psychic change that psychodynamic therapy can best provide.

Even though many of the most extreme cases of abuse still go unreported, by all estimates the number of children who suffer sex abuse has declined over the past two and a half decades. The reasons for this are uncertain, but two important contributing factors are increases in prosecution and the rise of mandatory reporting by teachers and other care professionals of any suspect behavior. This probably reduces serial offenses and also creates a general culture of awareness that makes offenses less likely in the first place.

U.S. Maltreatment Rates: 1990 - 2006

This is not without unintended effects, however. Opportunities for intimacy of any form between adult males and children have been severely restricted or highly sexualized—men are often driven away from caregiving professions out of fear that their actions might be misinterpreted, for instance. And innocent acts, such as putting a child on one’s lap, are often regarded as sexual. Sequestering children from the adult male population to prevent harm may yield a kind of security, but it hardly responds to the child’s need for touch, care, and attachment.

Further reductions in child sexual abuse, and the creation of caring environments of trust, require a more precise understanding both of child molesters and of our collective fears of their incorrigibility. Although the scientific community has repeatedly assessed assumptions about the unchangeability of child molesters and found them wanting, incorrigibility continually resurfaces as a convenient way to categorize and stereotype, without having to understand the multiple and often contradictory factors that make change appear impossible.

Are child sex abusers incorrigible? There is no evidence for such a general assumption. Like with all transgressions, there is no single motivation nor a uniform type of offender. Punishing child sex offenders through long-term incarceration neither rectifies the harm done to children nor creates the desired security for children. The best redress of this harm that also reduces recidivism, protecting the public from further criminal acts, is to try to rehabilitate the offenders through therapy.



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Treatment? Really? Treatments always come AFTER you’ve raised or reared the presumptive faulty human. After! and not before! How about we quit rearing children in such an unhealthy environment? People that commit sex offenses ARE CREATED by law and not by birth. As the old tale goes: Garbage in; Garbage out. The author begins the treatment tripe by referring to a highly popular cable series about a serial killer! Our media is full of romanticized violence! TV, videos, video games, and all the rest constantly bombarding our youth with such messages. Cut the crap Doc! America devours violence and loves retribution especially for the person who commits a sexual offense against a child! We will even tolerate mass shootings. The person who commits a sexual offense against a child is despised so much we the people began “with them and only them” to be the first set of humans enslaved to lifetime of database maintenance. Many many were indentured without an opportunity to defend themselves.

Why is discussion of viable opportunities to promote real public safety so narrow?

Damn toolbar missing and I can’t highlight link.

Interesting piece, but the author uses Larry Nasser as an example of someone we don’t know how to protect society from. That’s absurd—aside from a questionable CP possession charge based on images on a hard drive found in his trash can at the curb, his crimes were entirely committed as a part of licensed medical treatment (which parents and other health professionals didn’t notice even while directly observing him commit the offenses). Without a medical license, he poses no risk to anyone, as far as I can tell. Not that we’ll find out—he’s never getting out. The larger point is that society already has—and already had, ages ago—mechanisms for dealing with this kind of thing, and because most sex offenses are not committed by drooling maniacs, these normal safeguards are largely sufficient to keep people that commit offenses from future victims.

No One , And I Mean No One , can be helped if they are not aloud to move on in their life at some point ! cant back people in a corner slam them down in prison , made to do prole, then put on a list so once again your in a corner with people pointing a finger at you, and what treatment that is offered are like the prison jump suits (One Size Fits All), when did FTR’s stop being individual’s ? after being on the registry 30 years with zero end in sight , murders /witch hunters are treated as they have high moral’s and hero’s , Notice no one ever wants to talk about why all the plea bargains , No most of us have already been punished , and the registry is not helping anyone and when I started they took all your prints mug shot , after that it was just a little card and a thumb print and your mug , that was to LE only , now its this 3 full pages of 4th amendment violation info , and 3 pages of rules to initial, just did it the other day , How is this helping ? I don’t think I will be alive by the time these Doctors can get anything meaningful done , because these jerks we let run our life’s , all lying tyrants that took an oath to the constitution and don’t even care what it says , Just like they don’t care about the “children” they think nothing about shaming a child for spin the bottle and making a criminal out of them ,people so up tight about normal growth they are willing to throw their children to the system and have them seeing some shrink convincing them they are sick and need to be put on meds ! but give them plenty of stupid video games and thats normal doing drive by shootings and social media getting fat on bacon burgers , rather than taking them hiking camping and help the children get in touch with mother earth , giving them the tools to protect them self’s mind and body ,

The title starts out with a totally faulty premise grouping everyone in the same category. The law doesn’t group shop lifters, burgles, and pickpockets along with armed robbers who kill the store clerk, but that is exactly what they do with people on the registry.90% or more were single offenses that occurred in the moment, often drugs or alcohol were involved, and many non contact offenses from the internet which often people were lured in by the police. And now those people are on tier III with the Epsteins of the country, so with the starting flawed logic there can be no conversation or workable solution.

First off, the sex offenses need to be put in realistic categories. Second, the outdated flawed studies from 50 years ago need to be done away with and the new, real data needs to be put in place–people who commit a sex offense have less than 4% recidivism rate, and the longer people go without an offense the risk of re-offense decreases exponentially. A person offense free for 10 years should be removed from the registry. The 30 year and lifetime sentences on the registry are just absurd.

What’s the point of being on here if you cant Express yourself.
Iv lived in southern California all my life and labeled a sex offender for 21 years now I think I earned the right to my own opinion on this situation.
At this point I could careless its almost July 1st anyways tier 1&2 ofenders with the help of the Public Defenders office can petition the court’s to be removed from Megan’s law.
Its unfortunate that my views and opinions go against the ACSOL giddiness and I’m nolong aloud to Express myself freely.
So out of respect for Janice Bellucci and ACSOL and others on this platform this will my last a final post on this website.
[MODERATORS NOTE: AERO1, we do not allow trolling (saying negative things to get a rise) nor looking down upon other registrants. We are sure other websites do not want this either]

Good luck 🗣

That’s part of the problem with these forums. In order to make change you must have robust debate.
I can understand that they want to keep their forum civilized. That is their right. If someone uses the F word or N word on your property you have the right to ask them to leave and have them arrested if they refuse. ACSOL has the same right on it’s forum. They have the added ability to not post comments they find offensive. I have repeatedly read on other forums and heard from others that ACSOL is at the top of the list for censorship.
In defense of ACSOL you have to remember that their focus is ending the most unconstitutional aspects of the registry not providing a public forum for grievances. They are also run by volunteers. If they had paid staff, there probably would be a little more consistency in their vetting of comments.
ACSOL’s policies are a slippery slope. The registry is a very emotional issue on all sides and their isn’t a definitive right or wrong. When registrants and their families suffer harassment or have their home or car vandalized they suffer a grievous loss of their right to privacy and tranquility. It is undeniable that registries have gone on well past unconstitutionality and unreasonableness. When someone sees someone murdered for a past criminal transgression, reasonable people are appalled. And most of these people are not on the registry and actually know very little about the registry. These violent incidents make it to the news and open the debate about registries which leads the public to being educated about “the other side of the story”.
These forums that allow registrants, their families and friends to vent their frustration are the incubators to change. By suppressing these views here, they are only suppressing these ideas of change in their infancy. These forums help to share experiences and ideas on this issue so when a murder occurs there is a large body of educated people to give the press the sound bites they crave.
This is an emotional issue and emotional issues inflame passion in the hearts of all people. When they suppress that passion they are only putting water on the fire and sweeping the issue under the rug and delaying the day that these registries will be brought down.
I am sorry to hear that you are choosing to remain a silent voice. I am sure that your views are shared by many who no longer post here due to ACSOL’s censorship.
[Moderators comment: Detroit, we have always allowed venting of frustration and debates. HOWEVER, as we have said before, we are getting strict about not allowing anything that is a personal attack, and that includes “I’m not as bad a person as THAT other registrant”. United we stand, but if divided, the politicians make our lives even worse. When we experimented with less enforcement in the past, the results were flame wars, and people who came to our website to get information, ask questions, and bring up issues were turned off by the vitriol and left. If you and anyone is serious about debating an issue without putting others down, we will post your comments. If you want unrestricted insults allowed, try another website.

Just a note…I am fine with and in support of the Moderation rules here…more than that, I am thankful for them.

AERO1 can post his thoughts, but with a little more reflection he should be fine and a valuable contributor…AERO1 is a smart person and I find it hard to believe he cannot find it in himself a means to follow the guidelines here…which I think are already pretty generous.

Lastly, virtually all of us here are wounded individuals…most often unfairly…so there is a duty of respect and discretion that should be built into most comments.

Everyone be well…I hope to see AERO1 continue to contribute to the discussions here.

Best Wishes, James I

Last edited 10 months ago by James I

Nah, I don’t want any pro-Registry, pro-big government people around me. I actively work in real life to keep them away from my family, friends, and businesses. I don’t want them around me here either. There are PLENTY of other places that such people can harass others.

Maybe your comments are inappropriate, and maybe the moderator is doing a good job. In this age of censorship and cancelling you can’t just say anything you want on the internet without consequence. I’ve never had a problem on this board in several years.

“Treatment” is irrelevant – most registrants are perfectly sane people who made a stupid mistake and those that aren’t are NOT being helped by the stupid, court-ordered converted substance abuse programs (a dumb model to use considering the recidivism rates of drug offenders).

A prison sentence works just fine to rehabilitate. Yes, there is a small handful of recidivists but as numbers show, 95+ percent of those who have committed a sex crime don’t do it again. Pretty stupid to burn down the whole orchard because one or two sour grapes came from it.

Exactly right. Why would a person who committed a sex crime need “treatment” and other, far more violent and destructive crimes would not? It’s ridiculous. Personally, I think it is nothing but a money grab. It is people stealing money because they are able. End of story. Just like the Hit Lists are people taking advantage of people simply because they are able. Nothing more, nothing less.

Further, if they actually gave a damn, they’d try to make the treatment useful. But they don’t. It is just an extension of probation or parole. Their “model” certainly does not work for all people and I found it to be not just worthless but insanely counterproductive. But few people care so let’s just keep up the “protecting children” charade.

@Will Allen / Dustin.

I believe that treatment is probably useful for some but not all persons convicted of a sex offense and I think some people do absolutely need it. I agree that it otherwise is a big money grab. In fact at least where I when through the system it’s a complete racket. They do a presentence investigation report which includes a recommendation for treatment. The guy doing the report for sex offenses is a therapist in the most widely used program for offenders in the state. You could get your own evaluation of yourself completed as well an expert your hire yourself however, its impossible to find one that is both an expert in making these determinations and not tied to a sex offender treatment program. Therefore, regardless of what you do or whether or not you actually need treatment, it will always be determined that you do.

Then in treatment, it was designed to make you take at least some minimum amount of time to complete it no matter what you did to complete it more quickly.

That said, I think some treatment programs can still be useful even when they don’t treat you. I’ll always maintain that I didn’t need it and if I hadn’t gone through it it would have changed little about my future recidivism however, I did still learn some things. It just wasn’t anywhere near commensurate with what I had to pay to learn them.


If they want to be.

Simple answer to a simple question asked in the thread title. The actual situation is much more complicated though.

I can’t answer for anyone else, but when I look back at where I was at the point of arrest, I had fallen into a deep hole and was fully believing the crap that I was telling others. Something drastic was needed to get me snapped out of that place, and being arrested and locked up was a great start.

If the only thing that happened was being locked up though, it’s likely I would have returned to my old crap eventually. How long it took would have depended largely on how frightened I was of being caught again. From what I’ve seen, this is what most legislation and law enforcement activity is designed to do – keep former offenders afraid of being caught. It works, on a really basic level, but only for so long. And, only for as long as they can think of new ways of keeping the fear of re-arrest going.

For a long-lasting change it has to start from inside, from a desire to do something different. Once I got to that point the treatment program was able to help. Fortunately I fell into a good one, at a time it was funded and actually doing some good work.

Unfortunately, there are not many good treatment programs out there, and many of the changes made in recent years have made the existing programs struggle to accomplish anything. Combined with that is the constant barrage of public officials on the news insisting that change is not possible, convincing the public that the only way to keep their kids safe is to lock up former offenders forever, whether they are in prison or not. What this misses is all the soon-to-be offenders who will never be helped, at least not until they hurt someone.

Rarely do I see legislation or actions being taken to prevent people like me from falling into the hole to begin with. Long before I acted out the first time there were many points where intervention was possible. For me that would have meant someone recognizing the issues I was dealing with as a kid and having the gumption to say/do something about it. It also would have meant someone seeing the patterns in my life and pushing me towards help instead of enabling me.

To me, sitting years (decades now) past arrest and treatment, one of the biggest frustrations is being treated the same as every other sex offender. There are huge differences between someone still in denial who has just been arrested and someone like myself who has turned the corner moved forward with life. Yet, the system continues to apply the same rules to all of us, creating a whole new set of problems, frustrations, and issues. Rather than make it more likely someone can make it to this point of turning things around, many of the rules and restrictions only make it more likely an offender will reach a point of utter frustration never make it to the point of turning the corner.

Yes, I believe they can. It is like many other addictions, though, you will need to want to overcome the addiction. If you are not there yet, nobody can help you, and that applies to all addictions (sex, drugs, alcohol, shopping, smoking, etc, etc). There are different types of addictions, but they are addictions none the less. In Europe, they are helping people rather than incarcerating them, which is a much better approach, and I am sure everybody will have to agree, seeing that the crime rates in Europe are way down from the US. They must be doing something right, so why not follow suit and learn?

I have issues with this article on several points. That being said, the critical take-away is that the treatment modality is different and more helpful than how it is done in the US. True, this is treatment “after the fact” vs a preventative model. There is almost zero preventative education outside of the legal consequences, and zero way to get help prior to offending in the US.

Also, the stereotype in the US (and the UK) is that anyone that commits a sex crime cannot be helped, will offend again and is better off incarcerated or dead. This article tries to educate that offenders can change and be productive citizens.

I believe anyone can rehabilitate without the government being involved. Allow people to heal and be able to live a productive life without treatment run by someone connected to the state.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x