Would you forgive a sex offender?
Your gut reaction is probably “no”. But given that there are, tragically, thousands of sex offenders that are amongst us now, how should we deal with them? With a combination of therapies and other preventative measures, can offenders be safely reintegrated back into society? Or should they be locked up and the key thrown away?
These are some of the toughest questions for anyone to consider. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore them, so we spoke to professionals who deal with sex offenders and their rehabilitation on a daily basis.
Increasingly, sex offenders operate online, and it would seem that the pandemic has worsened this phenomenon. During lockdown, around 1000 people in the UK (a month) got “The Knock”.
So, what is “The Knock”? Psychosexual therapist Glyn Hudson-Allez explains.
“It’s a well-established term for an online offender getting found out – usually by the police, sometimes by a family member or a partner”, she says. “The Knock is usually early in the morning – the police turn up at the door, often 5 or 6 of them, they barge in and take hold of the person’s computer equipment, phones, anything that can access the internet.”
Glyn is a trustee for StopSo, a charity aiming to prevent sexual abuse by working with convicted and would-be abusers. Offenders “reach out to StopSo to get therapy usually once they’ve had The Knock”, Hudson-Allez explains. “but also when a person thinks their thoughts are getting out of hand and they want to have help before anything happens.”
Hudson-Allez believes that the internet is an extremely addictive machine. “Suppose you’ve got a married man with children and a good job, but then he gets addicted to looking at what just starts off with porn on the internet, well that porn is highly addictive when it’s online, because it’s going into what we call the seeking circuit of the brain”. She highlights “what they get addicted to is not what they’re seeing but what they’re searching for… ‘what else is there, what else is there, what else is there?’.”
But what if that porn stops stimulating them? “So people then begin to look for more extreme things, so they’ll look up all sorts of porn: trans porn, gay porn, then they’ll go into animals, then younger people, teens…then that leads them to younger children.”
But is that just the beginning of ‘producing’ a sexual abuser? Although Glyn does say it’s “very rare” for someone to go out and act on it, it does happen.
So how do online offenders get drawn into this world? According to the child crime prevention and safety centre, adult predators looking to groom children online often visit social media websites that are popular with young people and will pretend to be their age. The adult may try to secure their trust with fake profile pictures, by pretending to share similar interests, by offering gifts to the child or by complimenting the child. Once an online relationship has been established, the groomer will often steer the conversation towards sex. And in the worst cases will ask to meet up with the child.
Once a sex offender has been caught and convicted they are placed on a sex offender register, affecting their job, home, families and education, and although many of these offenders obviously deserve this punishment, what about people under the age of consent? Does a 10-year-old deserve to be placed on the sex offender register?
Young people on the sex offender register
Does Young people being on the sex offenders list do more harm than good?
There is not a certain age bracket a person in the UK can go on the register. However, according to Metro, the youngest ever person to go on the sex offender’s register was a 12-year-old boy In some states in the US the minimum age is 14; however in other States some children have gone on the register as young as 8 years old.
I managed to speak to Vic Wiener, a Skadden Fellow at Juvenile Law Centre in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Wiener primarily focuses on ending the practice of placing young people on the sex offender’s register. She has worked with 8 year-olds but typically works with 12-16 year old’s.
So why would someone want to help an individual who has committed a sexual offence? Wiener tells us there’s been a lot of research on youth registration -its ineffectiveness as a public safety measure, the harms of registration and what it does to young people and who it impacts.” What did the research find? “We know young people who commit sexual offences have an incredibly low sexual re-offense rating, somewhere between 2.7%-2.9%, so 97% of young people who commit sexual offences are not going to re-offend,” Weiner explains.
Being on the register can affect people in so many severe ways and hold them back from their future but do young people really deserve this? “Registration is also absolutely devastating for young people and their families,” Weiner asserts. “Young people on sex offender’s registries are five times more likely to report being approached by an adult and are twice more likely to be sexually assaulted compared to young people who have similar offence histories who are not placed on a registry.” So overall registration doesn’t seem necessary for young people – they are more likely to experience sexual violence and it doesn’t improve public safety. “It increases the likelihood that young people will attempt suicide. It interferes with jobs, it interferes with housing, and education. It’s just a devastating policy,” Weiner laments.
Most young people that offend have been offended against. This must be extremely confusing for a child, I suggest. Weiner agrees: “A lot of the people I have spoken to have been sexually assaulted when they were young and then went on to sexually offend, It wasn’t that they thought it was right, its that it’s very confusing when a 6-year-old experiences something sexually when your brain and your body are unprepared for that level of anything sexual. And then they continue exploring and are like ‘well this happened to me, so I guess this is normal.’”
Susie Orbach, a general psychotherapist, echoes this view. “People that you come across are frightened of their own capacity to offend, and so you’re dealing with: What are they frightened of? What happened to them? Have they been offended against, and they’re so scared they’re going to act it themselves?” Susie works with victims of sexual abuse., “I think they’re scared that they could offend because they might go into a dissociative state,” she says.
According to The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) they estimated that for the year ending March 2020 there were 773,000 adults aged 16 to 74 years who were victims of sexual assault in the last year. But once these offences are made, can these perpetrators be rehabilitated and be brought back into society?
There’s no specific cure for an offender, but there are ways we try to prevent it, such as: rehabilitation or therapy. So, does it work and what does it consist of?
Hudson Allezs methods with StopSo consist of therapeutic support. “I’ve not come across any offender that I’ve worked with that hasn’t had some trauma in their childhood, so we tend to do a very thorough history take. We will go right back to previous years or even previous generations, because it all trickles down from one generation to the next.” She explains: “We will do a thorough assessment in terms of looking at attachments, what they’re attached to and also looking at the neuroscience of it.”
A slightly different approach is needed for online offenders. “We try to get them off the computer altogether because it is so addictive. So like the same with an alcoholic, we wouldn’t want them to go back to the bottle.” Hudson-Allez acknowledges that It’s impossible to live in modern-day society without using the internet, “but we need to keep them away from any form of porn, erotica, Facebook (looking at girls that have glammed themselves up) that all leads them back down the rabbit hole.” With regards to young people, Weiner works with treatment providers, and some appear to be helpful. “It seems like treatment can be really effective and can help young people understand the route of their behaviour and how to avoid engaging in that behaviour.” However, she warns that, “treatment can end up seeming more like punishment and less like supportive treatment.” Wiener elucidates: “kids are given polygraphs (a lie detector test) sometimes, so they’re plugged up and asked questions about their sexual history.
How can we trust sex offenders again? How do we know they will not reoffend? Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Eugene Volokh argues that we shouldn’t forgive sex offenders. , “Some say people deserve a second chance. A second chance means a second chance to live right, but it necessarily also involves a second chance to rape more people”, he asserts. For Volokh, time served in prison isn’t enough.. “Some say that the criminals have paid their debts to society, but I’ve never quite understood this metaphor. Raping someone isn’t the same as borrowing money; a debt can be paid, but a sex crime can’t be undone.”
Despite speaking to a number of experts, I’m still left with nothing but tough questions. Could I ever sit in a room with a sexual offender? What if your significant other, when a child of four, suffered sexual assault and then repeated that behavior at the age of eight? Should they retain a criminal record into adult life? Would I feel differently about them? Would I assume that they have carried on that behaviour or was it just a child’s mistake? Should an adult be on a register for a crime committed as a child? Can people really change?