Sex offender... forever?

Dear Alice,

Is it true that sex offenders cannot be cured and are likely to continue their unacceptable behavior for the rest of their lives?

Dear Reader,

There's been a lot of debate over the psychology of sex offenders, and research studies have produced varying results. Before diving into this topic, it may be beneficial to consider the variety of reasons someone is labeled a sex offender. These reasons may be triggering to think about, especially if you have experienced harm first hand. Take care as you read on about legal definitions and treatment pathways for sex offenders. Reach out to support resources, such as a therapist, survivor advocate, or mental health provider, if needed.

First, it's good to establish what makes someone a sex offender and what is required for someone to be convicted of a sex crime. “Sex offender" is the legal term for a person who has been arrested and legally convicted of one or more of the following crimes:

  • Unlawful surveillance
  • Communication with a minor for immoral purposes
  • Facilitating sexual behavior with a controlled substance
  • Patronizing or promoting sex workers
  • Distributing, creating, or possessing child pornography
  • Unlawful imprisonment
  • Forcible touching
  • Sexual behavior with a child
  • Sexual violation of human remains
  • Sexual abuse
  • Rape
  • Incest

It is uncommon for a person to be deemed a sex offender by law for committing a crime other than those listed above (such as public urination or public consensual intercourse).

Any individual convicted of any of the aforementioned sex crimes must register as a sex offender in their state. The sex offender registry is a list of all convicted sex offenders in a given state and is accessible as public information no matter what state you live in. Sex offenders are given residency restrictions on a case-by-case basis and are often not permitted to live near children or areas that children frequent, such as schools or parks. One common use of the registry is when parents check to see if there are any registered sex offenders living near their home.

While each state has their own laws, many have ways of classifying individuals based on the severity of the crime they committed, how they will register as a sex offender, and how long they need to be registered. As an example, in New York State, depending on the severity of the crime, a person will be designated with a specific risk level. These risk levels indicate a person's likelihood of committing a sex crime again, with a level 1 indicating a low risk, a level 2 indicating a moderate risk, and a level 3 indicating a high risk. The risk is determined by the court when the sex offender is re-entering their community. They may also receive a designation such as sexual predator, sexually violent offender, or predicate sex offender. The courts then use the risk level and the designation to determine how long a person must be registered as a sex offender. 

There is evidence to suggest that sex offenders are not exactly "incurable,” though the word "cure" is a tricky one in this context. There is no magic pill or guaranteed method of therapy that will mitigate all high-risk impulses from a person. The various acts of sex offenders run the gamut and their arousal mechanisms differ so much that it is difficult to draw standardized conclusions based on this diverse group. Studies have also varied in the type of treatment or therapy used, and opportunities for comprehensive, long-term studies are rare. 

However, there is hope. Some sex offenders have been shown to respond to treatment and rejoin society without committing any further crimes. Studies have even shown that sex offenders are less likely to commit additional crimes than other sorts of criminals, partly because the shame of being caught and placed on trial, which can serve as a deterrent against future offenses. In general, it might be useful to think about "curing" sex offenders in the same way that many people perceive the notion of "curing" those with substance abuse disorders—both offenders and those struggling with addiction will likely have to deal with and manage their respective tendencies for many years (and often their whole lives), but they can work towards recovery and healing by getting to the root of the problem and learning to resist their urges and temptations.

Although treatment isn't 100 percent effective, it may help people who have been convicted of sex offenses to identify triggers, learn about their urges, and control them, thereby reducing the risk of repeat offenses. There are some challenging factors involved in treatment for sex offenders such as resistance to treatment, manipulation, addictions, co-occurring disorders, shame, guilt, and demeaning self-talk. For the most effective outcomes, treatment must be very specialized and tailored to the individual.

Current approaches to treating sex offenders include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral: Counselors and therapists work toward changing sex offenders' high-risk thoughts and patterns of arousal.
  • Psycho-educational: Sex offenders often don't realize the impact of their behaviors on non-consenting adults and children. In this methodology, offenders are made more aware of their responsibility for the acts they commit, and focus is placed on the offender's concern for their victim(s).
  • Pharmacological: Medication is used to reduce sexual arousal.
  • Support groups: Sex offenders participate in support groups as a way to know they're not the only person in this position, which is an effective way to heal and hold them accountable to not reoffend.  

Often, multiple strategies are used in tandem and, to be most effective, are begun soon after incarceration, though the negative impacts of the prison system in the US often interferes with productive treatment. Once they're released, sex offenders are often monitored for a period of time as a deterrent against future crimes.

The issues raised in this question are complex and the medical research that has been conducted is neither comprehensive nor conclusive. Although there are treatment program models that are showing positive results, definitive answers may take a while to be clarified. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, you can start at the Association for Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) home page. While the path to recovery may be difficult, it's possible for sex offenders to receive effective treatment and refrain from committing sexual offenses in the future.

Last updated Dec 09, 2022
Originally published Jul 23, 2004

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