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Not a laughing matter: cognitive training, not excuses is needed for sex offenders.

"If you don't give it to me, I'll take it." "He/she asked for it." No, these are not examples of children arguing. They are, rather, actual excuses made by sex offenders of all ages for their acts. Anyone who works with sex offenders has heard similar explanations numerous times. In fact, people who work with sex offenders have heard these remarks so many times that these comments almost become commonplace and somewhat comical. However, these professionals realize it's not humorous and it's not acceptable. In fact, such rationalizations are so disturbing because many sex offenders actually convince themselves that what they are saying is reasonable, and expect others to believe it as well.

Error in Thinking

Sex offenders often display much of the same irresponsible thinking that other criminal offenders display. However, their deviant thinking tends to involve a sexual component. Sex offenders have rich fantasy lives. They rationalize their behavior to justify committing their offenses in the first place. Many sex offenders operate with an elaborate system of rationalizations and thinking errors. When working with these offenders, the way they think and rationalize their deviant behavior must constantly be challenged.

Thinking errors were first identified in 1978 by Dr. Samuel Yochelson and Dr. Stanton E. Samenow in their book The Criminal Personality. At that time, they identified 52 thinking errors used by hard-core criminal offenders. Since their original publication, these thinking errors have been condensed to 17 for use in treatment programs. Yochelson and Samenow developed these thinking errors into a habilitative program to help criminal offenders learn how to live crime-free lives. Thinking errors also have become widely used in programming for sex offenders.

Rationalization, minimization, intellectualization and denial are some of the defense mechanisms that sex offenders use to avoid truth and reality. Sex offenders seemingly rationalize and justify their behavior more than any other type of offender. They frequently feel guilty and ashamed of their behavior and try to hide it from others. Many sex offenders have indicated that they never thought they would have committed a sex offense and find it difficult to believe that they did. Incarcerated sex offenders often use denial tactics because they are looked down upon by other offenders. They are considered the lowest inmates in the institution social strata, and are referred to as "baby-rapers" and "tree-jumpers" by other inmates. Many sex offenders confess that it took many years or sometimes even decades to be able to admit to their offenses.

Challenging an offender's thinking errors is an essential component of any program intending to help the offender learn responsible, non-criminal behavior. Many programs require offenders to keep journals or logs of their daily thinking to help them identify their thinking errors and become aware of how often they make them. As part of a program's group interaction, offenders assist one another in recognizing faulty thinking patterns. It is hoped that this activity will provide offenders with healthier decision-making abilities and, in turn, reduce the risk of creating another victim.

Other Components

While dealing with thinking errors is one common component found in many sex offender programs, a variety of elements are necessary to make a successful program. These components help sex offenders understand the factors involved in their offending, the harm they have caused and how better to manage their behavior in the future. Many of these components are outlined in the book The Sex Offender by Henry Cellini and Barbara Schwartz.

Cellini and Schwartz identify several components, such as victim empathy, that are commonly used in sex offender programs to help offenders realize the damage they do to their victims. Identifying with victims often is difficult for offenders.

Researcher W.L. Marshall's work indicates that sex offenders who harm children do not differ significantly from non-offenders in empathy toward children abused by someone else, but are deficient in empathy for their own victims.

Anger management also is an important component of sex offender programs and is especially relevant for the adult rapist. Child offenders frequently benefit from elements that teach social skills which aid them in their adult interactions.

Many offenders have an identifiable destructive cycle of behavior. Helping the offenders recognize this cycle can help teach them to manage their destructive behavior. Learning about cycles also includes recognizing deviant sexual urges and fantasies and how they play a part in the offending behavior.

Relapse prevention is another vital program component. Relapse prevention for sex offenders was developed to help offenders learn to control their behavior over time and in different situations. Having offenders write an autobiography is an important step in helping them identify their own relapse process.

Some programs, usually those for juveniles, tend to separate juveniles who offend against adults versus those who offend against younger children. This is done primarily to protect the more vulnerable youths from more predatory inmates. However, the Lebanon Correctional Institution in Ohio has found that a heterogeneous program, where adult and child offenders are combined, provides a better environment for helping participants recognize their rationalizations.

For example, during a group meeting several years ago, a child offender began describing his offense by stating that the victim was "coming on to him." She had on a short dress, kept running around and was showing her underwear. Finally, she sat on his lap - what else could he do? When asked the victim's age, he admitted she was five years old. All of the other child offenders in the group nodded their heads in agreement that kids do "come on to them." It was the adult offenders in the group who pointed out that a five-year-old isn't "coming on" and that the victim's behavior was very normal for a child her age.

An adult offender in the same session said that he went to the grocery store and the cashier inquired if he had any kids. He answered "no" and asked her if she had any kids. She said "no," but added that she would like to have kids someday. This offender rationalized that she wanted to have sex and he later raped her. In this instance, all of the adult offenders in the group agreed that she wanted sex. It was the child offenders who pointed out that her statement had nothing to do with wanting or not wanting sex; it was just a statement. Sex offenders often sexualize non-sexual situations and interpret everyday behavior as sexual.


Although learning about thinking errors can help sex offenders change their behavior, thinking errors cannot predict when a sex offender might aggressively act out. Nevertheless, risk factors or predictors for sexual offending are continuously being researched. Various studies with identified offenders have shown different variables as relevant for sexual re-offending. A recent study of convicted sex offenders, conducted by researcher R. Karl Hanson, shows four main factors are relevant. These are: 1) prior sex offense; 2) age at time of release; 3) victim gender; and 4) relationship to victim. In other words, Hanson's research shows that offenders tend to be at higher risk if they have more than one offense and are younger than age 25, if the victim and the offender were both males and if the victim was a stranger to the offender.

Researchers in the United States and other countries are working to develop a valid risk instrument specific to sex offenders. Those who currently work with offenders find risk factors a useful programming tool. Risk factors are a way to help offenders begin to understand how many different factors influence their behavior. However, it is emphasized to the offenders that these factors may contribute to their behavior but that they are not the cause.

Several years ago, a study was conducted to identify precursors or risk factors common to a majority of sex offenders. Many of those identified later were categorized into early, immediate and ongoing risk factors. Programs help sex offenders identify their personal risk factors and avoid placing themselves in situations where there is a high probability of reoffending. Risk factors should never be considered an excuse for committing a sexual offense because individuals always have a choice.

Predictors also are very helpful in determining the amount, type and sequence of programming. Limited resources should be used where they are most effective and have the most impact. Clearly, it helps to place the higher-risk offender in the most intensive programming available and lower-risk offenders in less intensive programming.

Ohio's Approach

There are nearly 9,000 sex offenders incarcerated in Ohio. Programming is offered in 10 out of 31 prisons. Ohio has designated spaces for 526 inmates to receive sex offender programming. In December 1995, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction established the Sex Offender Risk Reduction Center (SORRC). Once identified by a current or prior offense, each sex offender is assessed by SORRC staff. The assessment process includes a list of possible risk factors, an educational component, a recommendation for programming and a social summary, which includes criminal record, family background, educational and work history and mental health information.

Ohio operates two types of sex offender programming: residential and day. In residential programming, all participants live in the same housing unit. In day programming, the offenders live in the general prison population and attend programming during the week. Residential programs tend to provide shorter but more intensive programming because the offenders participate daily. Day programs tend to last 24 to 48 months because offenders only participate once or twice a week.

Because of the serious harm sexual offenses cause the victim and our society as a whole, it is important that we provide the highest quality programming with the most efficient use of available resources. Program administrators know that the rehabilitation of sex offenders is not a laughing matter. Victims know this, too.

Predisposing (Early) Precursors

Predisposing (early) precursors or risk factors are events that appear to establish the foundation for acting out one's sexual thoughts. They tend to appear during the childhood and adolescent years of the offender or very early during the build-up toward sexual abuse. They are not and can never be considered excuses for committing sexual offenses. Many people who have these experiences early in life do not go on to commit sexual offenses. In fact, many survivors of these negative childhood experiences dedicate their lives preventing others from being sexually, physically or emotionally abused.

* Alcoholism in the family

* Cognitive problems/learning deficit

* Emotional abuse as a child

* Exposure to violent death of human or animal

* Family chaos

* Lack of assertiveness

* Lack of sexual knowledge

* Limited education

* Maternal absence/neglect

* Parental marital discord

* Parental divorce

* Paternal absence/neglect

* Physical abuse as a child

* Sexual abuse as a child

Precipitating (Immediate) precursors

Precipitating (immediate) precursors or risk factors are events that appear to stimulate acting out sexually and generally occur within the six-month period prior to the offense.

* Abusive sexual fantasies

* Anger

* Anxiety (general)

* Boredom

* Cognitive distortions ("thinking errors")

* Compulsive behaviors (i.e., overworking)

* Cruising/driving alone/aimless wandering

* Dependency on another

* Depression

* Disordered sexual arousal pattern

* Divorce/breakup of a relationship

* Emotionally closed

* Isolation (withdrawal from others)

* Low self-esteem

* Low victim empathy

* Opportunity

* Over-controlled emotions

* Peer pressure

* Personal loss

* Physical illness

* Planning a sexual offense

* Pornography use

* Sexual anxiety

* Sexual dysfunction

* Social anxiety

* Social skills deficit

* Stress

* Substance use/abuse

* Use of prostitutes

Perpetuating (Ongoing) Risk Factors

Perpetuating precursors or risk factors generally are ongoing problems in one's life and often contribute to a cycle of offending and/or relapse.

* Abusive sexual fantasies

* Anger

* Boredom

* Denial of problems

* Drug/alcohol abuse

* Dysfunctional intimate relationships

* Frequenting high-risk places (bars, taverns, adult entertainment, etc.)

* High-risk employment

* Living near places where children congregate (parks, schools, etc.)

* Low self-esteem

* Marital problems

* Masturbating to abusive fantasies

* Pornography use

* Use of prostitutes

Stanton E. Samenow's 17 Errors in Thinking

Victim Stance:

"He started it"; "I couldn't help it"; "He didn't give me a chance."

I Can't Attitude:

A statement of inability which really is a statement of refusal.

Lack of a Concept of Injury to Others:

Does not stop to think how his or her actions harm others (except physically); no concept of hurting others' feelings, emotional anguish.

Failure to Put Himself/Herself in the Place of Others:

Little or no empathy unless it is to con someone; does not consider the impact of his or her behavior on others.

Lack of Effort:

Unwilling to do anything which he or she finds boring, disagreeable; engages in self-pity and looks for excuses; psychosomatic aches and pains to avoid effort; complains of lack of energy.

Refusal to Accept Obligation:

Says he or she "forgot"; does not see something as an obligation to begin with; does that which he or she wants and ignores the obligatory.

Attitude of Ownership:

"if you don't give it to me, I'll take it"; expecting you to do what he or she wants; treats others as property, as though it were already his or hers (theft, "borrowing" without permission); makes demands of you as though he or she is asserting his or her rights.


No concept of trust; he or she blames you for not trusting him or her; tries to make you feel as though it is your fault.

Unrealistic Expectations:

Because he or she thinks something will happen, it must (thinking makes it so); he or she expects others to fall into line and accommodate his or her wishes, whims.

Irresponsible Decision-Making:

Makes assumptions; does not find facts; does not suspend judgment; blames others when things go wrong.


Refuses to back down even on little points; insists on his or her point of view to the exclusion of all others; even when proved wrong, clings to initial position.

Failure to Plan Ahead or Think Long-Range:

Future is not considered unless it is to accomplish something illicit or else a fantasy of tremendous success.

A Flawed Definition of Success and Failure:

Success is being number one overnight; failure is being anything less than number one and then considering himself or herself a "zero."

Fear of Being Put Down:

Even the smallest things don't go his or her way; does not take criticism without flaring up, blaming others; let down when unrealistic expectations are not met.

Refusal to Acknowledge Fear:.

Denies being afraid; sees fear as weakness; fails to realize that fear can be constructive (only neurotic fear is undesirable).


Anger is used to try to control people; it may take the form of direct threat, intimidation, assault, sarcasm, annoyance; anger may go underground ("I don't get mad, I get even"); anger is like a tumor: it grows and spreads, anyone or anything may be a target.

Power Tactics:

Attempt to overcome you in any struggle; enjoys fighting for power for its own sake (the issue may be secondary); a "high" for him or her is in overpowering and dominating people.

Editor's Note: The above comes from a Structured Approach To Preventing Relapse: A Guide for Sex Offenders, by Robert Freeman-Longo and William Pithers (Brandon, Vt., Safer Society Press).


Freeman-Longo, Robert and William Pithers. 1992. A structured approach to preventing relapse: A guide for sex offenders. Brandon, Vt.: Safer Society Press.

Greer, Joanne and Irving Stuart. 1983. The sexual aggressor. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.

Hanson, Karl R. and M.T. Bussiere. 1996. Predictors of sexual offender recidivism: A meta-analysis. User Report No. 1996-04. Ottawa: Department of the Solicitor General of Canada.

Hanson, Karl R. 1997. The development of a brief actuarial risk scale for sexual offense recidivism. User Report No. 1997-04. Ottawa: Department of the Solicitor General of Canada.

Marshall, W.L. 1996. Assessment, treatment and theorizing about sex offenders. In Criminal Justice and Behavior, 23 (1.): 1621999 (March).

Salter, Anna. 1988. Treating child sex offenders and victims. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications Inc.

Schwartz, Barbara, K. and Henry R. Cellini. 1995. The sex offender. Kingston, N.J.: Civic Research Institute.

Yochelson, Samuel and Stanton Samenow. 1976. The criminal personality. New York: Jason Aronson.

Nancy Howard is director of the sex offender program at Lebanon Correctional Institution in Lebanon, Ohio. Rick Caslin is a psychology assistant for the program.
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Title Annotation:includes related articles
Author:Howard, Nancy; Caslin, Rick
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Feb 1, 1999
Previous Article:Predictors of recidivism in serious female offenders: Canada searches for predictors common to both men and women.
Next Article:When programs "don't work" with everyone: planning for differences among correctional clients.

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