Blue Line

Denial is not always a bad thing

January 2, 2014  By Dorothy Cotton

1134 words – MR

Denial is not always a bad thing

One of our favourite groups of people to despise and condemn are those who have committed sex offenses. Even in the world of criminals, they are at the bottom of the ladder. Worse still are people who have committed sex offenses but will not admit to them – even when they are proven.

I have spoken to convicted and imprisoned sex offenders who have been found guilty based on pretty solid evidence – DNA, for example – and they STILL deny committing the offense. I shake my head. Why will they not admit to their crimes? It is long past the point where denial will do them any good.

So surely the first job of the psychologist is to get them to admit to their crimes (since you police people obviously failed at it!!). Surely the parole board should not be letting these guys out until they have ‘fessed up.


In the world of sex offender treatment, there are essentially two kinds of group treatments – those for people who admit to their evil deeds and those for “deniers,” the guys who (duh) deny their offenses. Guess which group of people is less likely to re-offend? I will confess that I was ready to eat my hat when I first looked at the outcome and recidivism data. It turns out that the deniers who have treatment are LESS likely to re-offend than the people who admit to offending. Really.

The first lesson to be learned from this knowledge is that “just because something is obvious, makes perfect sense and is apparent even to an idiot does not mean it is true.” When I first went to an education session about treatment for deniers, I rolled my eyes and was ready to make tasteless and dumb remarks about “very short treatment programs” that would likely spring to most of our minds.

So I was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

That of course leads to the question “How come?” Indeed, why would people who do not admit to their offense actually be LESS likely to do it again? We don’t have a definitive answer but can make some good guesses based on what we generally know about human behaviour.

We know that engaging in what we call “ego dystonic behaviour” makes us a little uneasy – or very uneasy. Ego dystonic thoughts or behaviours are those that denote aspects of a person’s thoughts, impulses and behavior that are felt to be repugnant, distressing, unacceptable or inconsistent with a person’s self-conception.

If we see ourselves as honest, then stealing makes us uncomfortable – and ergo we are less likely to steal again. If we are prompt, then being late makes us uncomfortable – so we try to be on time. If we see ourselves as “not a sex offender,” then committing a sexual offense makes us uneasy – and we are less likely to do it again.

On the flip side, it may be that once we admit we are a sex offender, we sort of give up. Yup, that’s the kind of person I am… a low life, loser, can’t control myself, no one will ever want to have a relationship with me, I am likely to re-offend anyhow, what the hell – that kid looks pretty good to me…

Sort of a self fulfilling prophesy.

Of course that is not the whole reason. One of the things we know about preventing relapse in sex offenders (and other offenders, for that matter) is that family support, good relationships, employment and a strong social network all help prevent re-offending. There is probably no faster way to lose all your social supports than to announce that you are a sex offender. It may be a fine line… but it is a line. Even if you are convicted, as long as you do not admit it, people do have the option of believing you.

Of course, the sex offender who refuses to admit he is a sex offender and then does nothing to change his ways is likely to, er… not change his ways. That’s where the deniers group comes in. These are folks who can obviously see that whatever the details are, they behaved in such a way that they ended up in trouble. The focus of the group is therefore, “how to not get in trouble again.”

Curiously, the content of the treatment program is pretty well the same as the content of the treatment program for the people who DO admit that they committed a sex offense – and what might that be, you ask (there are rather a lot of misconceptions about psychological treatment).

To start with, there are no couches involved. The focus of virtually any treatment for offenders is to look at what we like to call “criminogenic factors.” In other words, what led them to get into this mess to start with? In the majority of cases, this has little or nothing to do with mental health problems. Anxiety, depression, psychosis – these kinds of things don’t have much to do with committing a sex offense or any other kind of crime. The kinds of things that relate to criminal behaviour – and criminal sex behaviour in particular, include:

• Sexual factors like an abnormal attraction to children, general pre-occupation with sex and an attraction to sexual violence;
• Cognitive factors like hostility toward women, a general lack of concern for other people and attitudes generally supportive of criminal behaviour;
• Relationship factors – difficulty forming and maintaining a relationship, not being able to form an emotional bond and lack of intimacy;
• Problems with self regulation – lack of control over one’s emotions; and
• Low self esteem and shame.

The gist of the intervention is therefore to help the offender address cognitive distortions (“that 8 year old girl came on to me!”) and learn skills to control and regulate emotions and maintain a normal adult relationship.

Does it work? Contrary to what most of us believe, the re-offense rate for sex offenders is actually pretty low in both groups. For example, data from one program suggests that about 17 per cent of sex offenders who were not treated re-offended within five years – only 3.2 per cent who received treatment re-offended in the same time period.

Needless to say, even one person re-offending is five too many – but on the other hand, it would be unwise to take a “lock them up and throw away the key” approach either.

I guess that is the other take home message for people who do the kind of work you do – and the work I do. We only ever see the people who are re-offending. It probably helps to remember that this is a biased sample and not everyone comes back to us.

That’s a good thing.

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