Section 2: Understanding Secondary Trauma
30 Minutes

(30 Minutes)


Use SlideUse Slide #1: Understanding Secondary Trauma
Use SlideUse Slide #2: Have you Ever Thought...?

As we move forward, I'd like to ask you to reflect on your work experiences with sex offenders and their victims. During the course of your day–to–day efforts, have you ever said any of the following things to yourself?

You know what? I've said these things to myself quite often and I know that a great many of the supervision officers, treatment providers, victim advocates, and others I've worked with have too. For some of us, there are days when we think that we are absolutely going to go insane. For others, we begin to feel numb as we’re exposed day after day, hour after hour, to the details of sexual abuse.

So as you all know, there are a great many emotional and psychological challenges and risks associated with working with sex offenders and their victims. Unfortunately, many of us have been unprepared to address these challenges and risks as they arise, but there are some relatively easy things that we can all do and that our agencies can do to make our lives a little easier and our work a bit more tolerable.

As I think about our professional roles and responsibilities, I also really find it interesting that no job advertisement adequately describes what it is that most of us experience on a daily basis. Consider for a moment the following:

Wanted: Experienced Professional to Participate on a Sex Offender Management Team1

Use SlideUse Slide #3: Wanted: Experienced Professional to Participate on a Sex Offender Management Team

Applicants must be willing to do the following:

Use SlideUse Slide #4: Judith Herman Quote

Trainer QuestionDoes this job description sound at all familiar to you? Do you think it would attract many responses from those seeking a new job or career? Would you jump at the opportunity to be responsible for all these things? I'm not sure that I would. The first couple of bullets seem quite noble and important. But what about those last ones? “Risk personal and professional isolation.” “Be exposed to the dark side of humanity on an ongoing basis.” Who in their right mind would want to pursue those things? Yet here we all are, willing to do these things in service of victim and community safety, and the reduction of recidivism.

Understanding Secondary Trauma

Being able to effectively manage sex offenders means that we are in the position of having to understand both the trauma experienced by the victim and the intimidation and manipulation used by the offender to coerce or abuse his victim(s). It is, as one would expect, extraordinarily difficult to be exposed to this kind of information on a daily basis without being “traumatized” ourselves. As trauma expert Judith Herman puts it, “Those who work with offenders are called upon to bear witness to the crime,”2 which can obviously have a very real impact on us as practitioners in the field. It is unreasonable to think that we can continuously hear about sex crimes—and be constantly trying to help offenders manage their behavior so that they do not reoffend again—without being affected in some way. The phenomenon of professionals experiencing negative psychological, emotional, and physical effects as a result of interacting with and processing information from victims and offenders, will be defined as “secondary trauma” in this curriculum. You may have heard this term before, or you may have heard this experience referred to as “vicarious trauma,” “burnout,” or “compassion fatigue,” as some people use these terms interchangeably.


Burnout is a term used by Maslach and Leiter (1997) to describe what can happen to employees when there is a “mismatch” between the employee and their work environment3. Frequent causes of burnout include hectic work schedules, feeling a lack of control, an employee's perception that they are being treated unfairly, or a disconnect between the employee's individual values and the work they are doing4. The authors suggest that burnout “represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit, and will.”5 If these feelings are left unchecked, employees can get “burned out,” which can lead to chronic exhaustion, becoming cynical and detached about their work, and being more and more unproductive on the job. Obviously, the tendency to become burned out is not specific to sex offender management, but can be a potential problem for those of us in this difficult field, where some of the sources of burnout (like a hectic work schedule, for example) are prominent. Experiencing secondary trauma may also increase our risk of burnout.

Vicarious Trauma

Because it is a common term that you have probably heard used to describe the impact of this work on those who do it, I'd like to spend a moment talking about vicarious trauma. This is defined as the notion of helping professionals experiencing trauma themselves as a result of treating trauma survivors. This concept stems from the previous research and literature pertaining to the emotional impact working with victims of trauma—such as survivors of traumatic experiences—can have on the very people who help or serve them.6 Vicarious trauma was a specific term coined by McCann and Pearlman's pivotal research in 1990.7 The authors stressed that vicarious trauma goes beyond the simple recognition that working with trauma survivors is hard and distressing to helpers and service providers.8 Rather, McCann and Pearlman described the pervasive effects of doing trauma therapy—particularly with survivors of incest—on the identity, world view, psychological needs, beliefs, and memory system of the therapist.9 For the purpose of our training today, however, we will use “secondary trauma” to refer to the very specific type of trauma experienced by many who work with sex offenders and their victims.

Defining Secondary Trauma Within the Context of Sex Offender Management

Use SlideUse Slide #5: Secondary Trauma

In the mid 1990s, additional attention began to be focused on the personal and professional toll that working specifically with sex offenders may have on individuals. For example, Pullen and Pullen used the term secondary trauma to capture the unique problem facing supervision officers and others who work with sex offenders: not only must they become familiar with the trauma experienced by the victims of sexual assault, but in order to do their jobs effectively, they must also gain insight into the unhealthy tactics and approaches used by offenders when abusing those victims. Pullen and Pullen suggest that “a significant part of many of our jobs is to get inside the minds of sex offenders; we must understand their thought processes and devious patterns.”10, 11. Other researchers have also found that there can be a significant negative impact for those who provide treatment to sex offenders for some of the same reasons identified above. Being exposed to details about sexual victimization and offending can evoke a variety of issues for some providers.12. Secondary trauma, then, is multi–layered: it is the dual experience of feeling traumatized by the victims’ pain and the offenders’ history of offending.

There may be similarities between the posttraumatic responses of someone who has been victimized and our own feelings and responses after working with sex offenders. In fact, some authors have noted that the continuous exposure to the profound trauma caused by victimization may lead us to manifest the same or similar symptoms as the victims with whom we directly and indirectly interact.13, 14As professionals who work with victims and offenders, we may be overcome with powerful, persistent emotions—isolation, sadness, fear, guilt, anger, or stress—and sometimes these emotions can have physical and psychological effects (e.g., sleep disturbance, anxiety, and depression) on us. The symptoms we might experience certainly tend to be less severe than the symptoms experienced by victims, but can still be harmful to our personal and professional lives. It is important to acknowledge that not everyone who works with sex offenders incurs secondary trauma, but the potential is surely there, and those who do experience it can be affected in a variety of negative ways.15

Use SlideUse Slide #6: Who Is Susceptible to Secondary Trauma?
Use SlideUse Slides #7—9: How Can Secondary Trauma Affect Us?

Why Might Those Involved with Management of Sex Offenders in the Community Experience Secondary Trauma and/or Burnout?

We have already talked about how our work can negatively impact us and that it is not uncommon for us to experience and endure feelings of isolation and lack of support similar to those who have been victimized. I'm sure that it will not be a surprise to you to hear that secondary trauma can afflict practitioners from a variety of disciplines that work with sex offenders and victims of sexual assault, nurses, doctors, victim advocates, social workers, therapists and treatment providers, clergy, law enforcement personnel, attorneys, judges, supervision officers, and release decision makers, among others. In a 1997 study examining secondary trauma among professionals in the sex offender management field, a substantial number (62%) of respondents identified themselves as experiencing symptoms associated with secondary trauma, including flashbacks, bad dreams, and intrusive images.16 These respondents were more likely than those who did not identify themselves as experiencing secondary trauma to report anxiety, depression, and isolation, and tended to view the world as less “predictable” than their colleagues who did not report being negatively impacted by their work.17 These feelings are often very characteristic of secondary trauma. Often those of us who are facing it may feel out of control, and like we are living and working in a chaotic world over which we sometimes are unable to exercise the influence that we would like.

Another study found that clinicians who treated survivors of sexual abuse and clinicians who treated sex offenders both experienced high levels of secondary trauma, including avoidance (e.g., of people, activities, etc.) and intrusion (e.g., images, nightmares, etc.).18

Other research has revealed that victim advocates, in particular, struggle with many symptoms and characteristics of secondary trauma, including feelings of anger, fear for their safety, and a sense of loneliness and isolation.19 Advocates in this study reported that their work with victims impacted their personal lives, and challenged their positive relationships with friends, family members, partners, and others.20

Use SlideUse Slides #10—14: Why Might You Experience Secondary Trauma and/or Burnout?

These are but a few examples of the significant toll managing sex offenders can exert on our personal and professional lives, regardless of the discipline in which we work. There are a number of reasons why we, as professionals in the management of sex offenders in the community, experience these effects of secondary trauma and/or burnout. We've mentioned a number of them already. They include the following:

Given these factors, it seems quite natural that many of us may experience some level of secondary trauma, which can ultimately lead us to become “burned out.” As one professional in the field expressed: “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”22

Use SlideUse Slide #15: Secondary Trauma Is a Natural Response


Few jobs require as much as ours. Being in this profession means that we must give a tremendous amount, emotionally, psychologically, and physically. We must be willing to do things that many others would not do, to hear things we would rather not hear, see things we would rather not see, and to remember things, even in our off time, that we wished we never knew. It is no surprise, then, that we might experience some level of difficulty. Given the challenging nature of our jobs, we need to make sure that we are informed about secondary trauma: what it is, how to recognize it, and how to combat or manage it. In this section, we defined secondary trauma, and explained the concept in the context of our work with sex offenders. We will now move on to informing ourselves about how to recognize the signs of secondary trauma—in ourselves and our colleagues. We'll also discuss ways in which we—and our respective agencies—can take steps to overcome it.

Outline « Previous Section Next Section » Notes