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

Short Version
Section 3: An Overview of Sex Offender Treatment for a Non–Clinical Audience
Elements of Sex Offender–Specific Treatment
25 Minutes

(5 Minutes)

Use SlideUse Slide #7: Treatment of the Denying Sex Offender

I’d like to address a question that inevitably arises in a discussion of sex offender treatment. Can you effectively treat a sex offender who is in denial? Denial is a pervasive issue when working with sex offenders, and the presence of denial does not, in and of itself, preclude effective treatment.

Why is denial such a concern?

Denial is a major concern because most sex offender treatment is predicated on the offender’s admission that he committed sexual assaults and that these behaviors are a problem for him.5 If a convicted sex offender assumes the position in treatment that he did not commit any sex crimes, then whenever issues are discussed in treatment group meetings, such as cognitive distortions, deviant arousal, and offense cycles, the denying offender simply states that these concepts don’t apply to him. This precludes his addressing his problems, and often interrupts the therapeutic process for the other sex offenders in the group who are admitting their sex offense histories. A corollary concept related to the importance of sex offenders’ taking responsibility for committing sexual assaults is that by implicitly acknowledging that they chose to commit sexual assaults, they can make other choices, namely not to commit future sexual assaults. Sex offender treatment emphasizes that people can change; failure to admit problems provides no impetus to change.

Therefore, before sex offender treatment can be effective, the offender must admit his offense history, at least in part.6 We view treatment of denial essentially as pre–treatment; not all sex offenders need it. However, those who do must substantially abandon their denial in order to benefit fully from sex offender treatment.7 Interestingly, the largest study of factors that predict risk for sex offender reoffense found that sex offenders who denied their offenses were not any more likely to commit additional sexual assaults than those who admitted their offense histories.8 This suggests that denial, per se, does not render a sex offender more dangerous. However, since treatment reduces recidivism risk in most offenders, and overcoming denial is the gateway to treatment, effective denial reduction is important—not because denial predicts recidivism, but because coming out of denial allows sex offenders’ access to treatment that, in turn, reduces recidivism risk.