A Project of the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice

Long Version
Section 3: An Overview of Sex Offender Treatment for a Non–Clinical Audience
Elements of Sex Offender–Specific Treatment
4 hours, 30 minutes

(30 minutes)

Use SlideUse Slide #40: Interpersonal Functioning–The Third Domain of Treatment

Note:Elicit answers from audience, focusing on the connection between difficulties in functioning in social environments as a causative factor in sex offending.


As you recall, another focus of treatment relates to offenders’ interpersonal functioning. A treatment provider would probably refer to this as socio–affective functioning. One aspect of this is social skills training.

Ask Questions

Why do we care about sex offenders’ social skills? Might learning social skills only improve an offenders’ ability to manipulate victims?

The rationale behind our concern about sex offenders’ social skills is that many of them lack basic adult interpersonal interactive abilities.46 Low self–esteem and loneliness are common traits among sex offenders. It also has been noted that rapists are less adept than other men at accurately interpreting non–verbal messages from women. Further, many child molesters and rapists are quite unskilled in interacting with adults.

In this section of the training, we would simply like to point out the rationale for targeting interpersonal functioning as a domain for sex offender treatment and provide some examples of the targets of change and techniques that could be part of a treatment plan.

The consequences of poor interpersonal skills—combined with other factors such as deviant sexual arousal, distorted attitudes, and poor behavior management—can have dire consequences for victims. For example, individuals who are poorly skilled in adult social interactions may become angry when their overtures toward women are rebuffed and channel their anger into abusive actions. They may turn to children as the focus of their social lives. Of course this is an overly simple and incomplete explanation for what might underlie an individual’s decision to commit sex offenses, but because these dynamics are frequently part of the histories of sex offenders, they have become one of the targets of treatment (see, e.g., Marshall, 1989). Generally speaking, the belief is that if offenders can learn to live more functionally in the world of adults, they will find life more satisfying, thereby diminishing their likelihood of reoffending. This is not to suggest that a lack of social skills is either the primary reason why people commit sexual assaults, or even that poor social skills have been associated with sex offender reoffense risk. However, intimacy deficits and conflicts in intimate relationships have in fact been found to predict sexual recidivism.47 Thus, as is true with empathy development, the case for criminogenic needs in the area of social skills training for sex offenders is less clear than, for example, the clear–cut rationale for reduction of deviant sexual arousal. Nonetheless, if only because self–esteem and loneliness influence an offenders’ ability to function effectively in society, enhancing social skills appears to be an appropriate target for treatment.48

Use SlideSlide #41 and Slide #42: The Goals of Increasing Interpersonal Functioning

Slide #41
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Slide #42
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Use SlideUse Slide #43: Methods of Social Skills Training

Targets for Change

The areas of specific focus in social skills training for sex offenders are listed on the screen. They include a wide range of interactions from meeting strangers to maintaining friendships over a considerable period of time. A part of the focus is also on respect for women and children. And because sex offenders often are extremely self–centered, treatment includes learning the importance of attending to the needs and rights of others.

Appropriate Interactions in Social Situations

This treatment component stresses that satisfying sexual interactions are extensions of social relationships and that sexual contacts should not be viewed as isolated events that have little to do with friendship and intimate bonding with others. In line with the principle of creating opportunities to practice skills, these treatment targets are often addressed through role–plays. Offenders may also be given homework assignments to, for instance, initiate a conversation with three adult strangers over the course of a week and to report their experiences in carrying out the assignment at the next group session. Supervision officers who are aware of the nature and schedule of such assignments can inquire about offenders’ progress in completing their homework, suggest appropriate and safe opportunities to carry out their assignments, and provide support and encouragement to the offenders for whom they have supervisory responsibilities.

Use SlideUse Slide #44: Rationale for Assertiveness Training

Assertiveness as a Tool to Avoid Frustration and Poor Anger Management

Another aspect of social skills is assertiveness (see, e.g., Becker and Murphy, 1998; Hudson, Wales, Bakker, and Ward, 2002; Marshall, 1989; Marshall, et al., 1998, 1999; Marshall, Barbaree, and Fernandez, 1995). This area is relevant in the treatment of sex offenders for a variety of reasons. Sex offenders often mismanage anger and assertiveness plays a significant role in anger reduction. For example, there is a significant body of research and other literature that highlights the relationship between attachment style, intimacy, and the ways in which adults interact with others—and this research has been applied to sex offenders. Some individuals who have insecure or fearful attachment difficulties may struggle with establishing intimate relationships with adults in part due to fears of rejection and because they lack self–confidence and assertiveness skills. As a result, they may seek out contacts with people who are less likely to be rejecting, such as children. Other problematic attachment styles are associated with mistrustful and hostile approaches to interacting with others. Rather than dealing effectively and assertively with others, they may harbor resentment and experience pervasive anger, which may lead them to act out aggressively. Assertiveness training promotes more effective means of managing anger and teaches individuals how to more effectively interact with others, and as a result, it can promote self–confidence, enhance self–esteem, and promote intimacy. Again, this is important, because intimacy deficits and conflicts in intimate relationships have been found to be associated with sexual recidivism.49

Use SlideUse Slide #45: Goals of Assertiveness Training

Use SlideUse Slide #46: Rationale for Sexual Values Clarification Training

Use SlideUse Slide #47: Goals of Sexual Values Clarification Training

Assertiveness training involves teaching offenders to articulate their needs and feelings in ways that are respectful to the recipients of their messages and themselves. Treatment emphasizes that the goal of assertiveness is not to change others’ behavior, but rather to increase one’s own self–respect.

Adult Sex Education to Increase Knowledge about Healthy Sexuality and Responsible Behavior

Another aspect of socio–affective functioning is the area of sexuality. At first glance, it may seem that the best message to give sex offenders is that they should not engage in any sexual thoughts, fantasies or behaviors. Of course to expect this would be entirely unrealistic, even impossible. On closer examination, we realize that sex offenders’ underlying sexuality is not the problem; rather it is that they have used sexual behavior to violate others. Thus, the goal of treatment is to assist sex offenders in learning to function not as asexual beings, but rather as the sexual beings that they are but in ways that do not harm or violate others.

Basically, this is adult sex education, with an emphasis on the promotion of respect toward women, understanding basic human sexual behavior, sexually transmitted disease (STD) protection, and the like.

Teaching aids can be utilized in the area of sexuality as well. For example, a true/false test can be completed anonymously by the offenders. After completing the test, they are asked if they noticed anything unusual about the test. Often they do not notice that the correct answer for all the items is false. The test contains common misperceptions and misinformation about a variety of sex–related topics. This activity can provide a springboard for discussion of areas about which group members have questions.

Additional information is provided to offenders on sex–related topics, including sexually transmitted disease prevention. Throughout the educational component of sex offender treatment, considerable emphasis is placed on the importance of verbal communication to promote clarity and ensure consent (because of their histories of having violated others). Facilitators promote open, respectful, and clear communication related to sexual matters, teaching by example that sex is an important area for people to be able to talk about.