PEDOPHILIA AND THE POSSIBILITY OF FORGIVENESS: A Fee Policy Can Clarify the Therapeutic Relationship
Wylie, Mary Sykes, Family Therapy Networker
WAYNE BOWERS GREW UP in what we used to call a "fine family" middle-class, educated, churchgoing, affectionate. An upbeat, gregarious man, he turned to journalism after graduating from college, eventually buying and becoming the publisher-editor of a community newspaper in Kansas that was voted the best of its size in the state. He threw himself into community activities and local governmental affairs elected president of the Chamber of Commerce, named high school sports writer of the year and coach, for 14 seasons, of a well-organized and tightly disciplined Little League club that fielded teams in state tournaments. During much of this time, about 20 years, Bowers was an out-of-control pedophile.
First arrested for indecent exposure during the 1960s while still in college, Bowers was directed to get counseling (charges were dropped) a totally ineffectual therapeutic foray during which he was never directly asked why he was driven to offend. Arrested again in the early '70s and jailed for 20 months, he was convicted a third time in 1983. This time, he spent about five years in prison, but before his incarceration, the judge allowed him to spend four months at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Sexual Disorders Clinic in Baltimore, Maryland, then directed by psychiatrist Fred Berlin and sex researcher John Money. Once in jail to carry out his sentence, he continued treatment in a new sex-offender program in the Kansas prison and then returned to the Johns Hopkins program after his release.
Bowers remembers waiting nervously in a public lobby for his first group therapy session at the Sexual Disorders Clinic in 1983. He was approached by a stranger, who asked him, "Why are you here?"
Bowers shifted in his chair and said, "I've been in prison."
"You don't say," was the genial response. "Why?"
Bowers mumbled, as quietly as possible, "I had sex with kids."
"Oh? Boys or girls?" boomed the man. "Well, boys," said Bowers. "What were their ages?" "Eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen," muttered Bowers, deeply embarrassed. The man eyed Bowers steadily for a few seconds, then said, 'You'll fit." Recounting this story, Bowers says, "It was as if a 500-pound gorilla had fallen off my shoulders. I had never said that to anyone."
Some may find Bowers's story, the odyssey of a pedophile in search of a group of people who understand him as more than the sum total of his offenses, deeply jarring. Virtually everyone views the sexual abuse of children with such abhorrence and our natural protective instinct toward children is so strong that it is extremely difficult to create any kind of emotional demilitarized zone for considering the kind of psychological worlds offenders inhabit. Indeed, having only lately discovered our society's sorry failure to deal adequately with the problem of sexual abuse, much of the recent public discussion seeks to declare all offenders nonpersons, sending them into our own versions of domestic exile. It is not a climate that encourages us to imagine these debauchers of innocents as connected by ties of obligation, good will and even love to other people.
But what if, guided by Harry Stack Sullivan's much-quoted phrase, we attempt to view the sex offender as "more human than not" while, at the same time, never minimizing the devastation his actions may cause? What if, after careful examination, we conclude that our Manichaean attitudes and policies, intended to root out the twisted perverts in our midst, actually do not help in the long run, neither protecting children nor helping victims experience the kind of resolution they need?
ON A LATE SUMMER EVENING, IN THE basement of an old Baltimore townhouse, 10 men all sex offenders gather for a weekly group therapy session. The group includes several pedophiles, an exhibitionist, a voyeur, a couple of rapists and an incest perpetrator. These men are patients at the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma, the clinical and research center directed my psychiatrist Fred Berlin. They suffer from "paraphilias," crudely defined as intense cravings to engage in a broad array of unusual sexual practices that range from the truly horrendous to the merely kinky serial sex killing to foot fetishism, sadistic child sexual abuse to transvestism. Except for their sexual predilections, however, the people who engage in these acts represent every conceivable human category racial, economic, ethnic, educational and vocational and exhibit every imaginable combination of personality and character traits.
Virtually all of these men were mandated for treatment, and most have spent time in prison. What the offenders here do share is the same driven need, the same relentless urge to act on their aberrant sexual impulses, regardless of the consequences for themselves and their victims.
Like alcoholics and other types of addicts (with which sexual paraphiliacs have been compared), they introduce themselves by their particular paraphil-ia "I'm Rick, and I'm a pedophile," "I'm Norm, I am a rapist," "I'm Jerry, I'm here because I expose myself." Getting used to saying who and what they are is part of the treatment, and no face-saving euphemisms are allowed. Some cannot bring themselves at first to spit out the detested words; Bowers remembers one man in his group admitting only that he was there because he was "oversexed." But the group itself would not allow these evasions for long. "We wouldn't let anybody off we nailed them," says Bowers of his group experience. "Each session had to be an hour and a half of total honesty."
And honest they are about the daily temptations to offend, their fears about succumbing, their strategies for avoiding trouble, but also their rationalizations for engaging in behavior most people consider unforgivable.
Many therapists are unimpressed by this honesty. Linda Davis, a coordinator of Survivors of Incest, a victim advocacy group in Maryland, doubts that offenders can change very much. "Oh, them. They're incurable. If perpetrators had any capacity for responsibility or empathy, they wouldn't have offended in the first place. They get locked up and then they are sorry. Most of these people will not admit they have done anything wrong until they are hit over the head with a brick."
In the group, the members describe their near misses or "lapses," when they put themselves into risky situations. Rick, for example, a pedophile, had recently gone to a family party with children and other adults a nominally "safe" occasion, so he hadn't told his parole officer about breaking the rule of not associating with kids. He brings the incident to the group and they tell him point blank that it was not okay and there are no safe situations for him with children. Even with adults present, he could begin to develop a forbidden relationship with a child. The goal is not to resist temptation, they insist, but to prevent himself from getting anywhere near temptation.
Throughout the evening, certain themes emerge again and again loneliness, struggle, self-loathing, sadness. Sex offenders have discovered that to be known is to be feared and hated by "normal" society, so many have avoided close relationships with other adults, which are considered vital insurance against reoffending. But how do you establish intimacy with someone who will hate you as soon as you mention your biggest secret? "I have no social life," says Rick. "I want to get close to someone, but if I do, I'll have to tell them my problem, and what if I can't find anybody who will accept me?"
A pall of anxiety hangs over the group, like an incubus lurking in the background. What if their vigilance fails? What if they find themselves on a runaway train of old habit, coincidence and unconscious prompting that drives them back into another offense? It is this continual, nagging fear that keeps them coming back to group sessions, even when no longer legally required to do so. "I would like to be able to drop out of the group," says Gary, who has been coming on and off for 15 years. "But I'm not ready. I will be sitting in a group like this for the rest of my life."
These are the men that we've all been sternly warned about from earliest childhood; these are the monsters, the perverts, the degenerates who make the world unsafe for women and children. The view that sex offenders stand for evil incarnate, particularly if they target children, no matter what their offense "fondling" to serial murders remains much the same as it was decades ago. In fact, we may be even more alarmed by the threat than we were back then, when it was widely assumed only the rare monster was bad enough to "do things" to children. Now, it is the unusual piece of media coverage that doesn't include the words "rising epidemic" in the same sentence with "child sex abuse," though just how epidemic it has become is still a matter of conflicting statistics. Estimates of child sex abuse prevalence taken from various studies surveyed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for example, range from 6 to 62 percent for females, 3 to 24 percent for males; the department also reported 140,000 new cases of substantiated child sex abuse in 1994. But the real incidence of child sexual abuse is believed to be much higher child advocacy group claims range from 100,000 to 500,000 victims a year.
The traditional, easily identified stereotype of suspicious characters hanging around schoolyards seems to have transmogrified into an army of invisible aliens, who look exactly like the friendly, clean-cut guy down the street until he turns into a kid-snatching vampire at night. If the man named "Scouter of the Year" in 1986 by the Boy Scouts of America admits, when arrested a year later, that he had attempted or performed 1,100 sex acts on a total of about 242 boys, what boy scout troop can be considered safe? School teachers, day-care workers, Big Brothers, Little League coaches, priests and ministers what field entrusted with the care and education of children has not been tainted?
What has really sent public outrage over the top over the last few years, however, resulting in the passage of a whole string of laws aimed at sexual predators, are several nightmarish cases of child abduction, rape and murder. Polly Klaas (kidnapped from her California bedroom, raped and murdered) and Megan Kanka (kidnapped, raped and strangled by a paroled sex offender) are the most publicized examples. These cases are extremely rare, and represent only a minuscule fraction of child sex abuse cases. Nonetheless, it is these cases of sexual homicide that elicit primordial horrors in the hearts of terrified parents and outraged citizens, and led to tough new laws. These include registration and community notification laws that have been passed in every state. They require released abusers (including juveniles as young as 10 or 12) to register with local police, who are authorized to let the community know where they live. There are also now laws passed or being sought in many states requiring repeat and/or violent offenders to be sentenced to life in prison without parole, or, after completing their sentences, to be confined to mental institutions until considered safe to reenter society or to be forced to undergo chemical castration. Some states are posting molesters' names on the World Wide Web, or requiring their offenses to be noted on drivers' licenses or samples of their DNA collected by law enforcement authorities.
Will these laws actually increase the safety of children? Notification laws, for example, can allow parents to check up on unknown adults who are likely to come into contact with their children tutors, coaches and the like and they can help track repeat offenders after a crime has been committed. But they won't prevent the 90 percent of abuse perpetrated by someone the child already knows, and they won't prevent abuse by the 28 percent of released offenders who move to a new location without reregistering. And, according to the one study done on the impact of notification laws on recidivism, they won't prevent sex offenders from doing it again.
These laws are "classic examples of stupidity and blindness, . . . reactionary and fundamentally uninformed about what we know will work with sex offenders," says Robert Prentky, director of assessment at the Massachusetts Treatment Center for Sexually Dangerous Persons, a facility for sex offenders, and coauthor of Child Sexual Molestation: Research Issues, for the U.S. Department of Justice. "Everything we know about sex offenders tells us that community notification laws will have the least impact on the most dangerous men, the greatest impact on the least dangerous." The men most likely to abduct, violently assault and murder kids, says Prentky, don't hang around long and are usually on the lam; they don't dutifully register themselves at the local police station.
MEANWHILE, MANY "SEXUAL PREDAtors" are a lot less like the murderous sex fiends of our imaginations and a lot more like Wayne Bowers, whose own apparently normal, reasonably happy childhood seems testament to the still-mysterious causes of pedophilia. Neither sexually nor physically nor emotionally abused as a child, Bowers has spent years in both private therapy and offenders' treatment trying, without much success, to figure out exactly why he was attracted to preteen boys from his own early adolescence. By his first year of high school, Bowers realized he was attracted to guys and worried that he might be homosexual. "But I didn't say anything about it it was my secret. I had learned in church that people like that were very bad. I was also beginning to develop a real trigger temper: Something seemed to be building up inside me, but as far as people knew, I was okay." By his freshman year in college, however, he clearly was not okay. Separated from his family for the first time and lonely, feeling intolerably pressured by his fraternity to date and socialize with girls, he began doing poorly in his classes. What really drove him "over the top" and into molesting, though, were not only unmentionable sexual urges, but the unbearable tension of being two different people at the same time one entirely false and the other someone he couldn't stand.
In a pattern that would become his modus operandi, he began to go cruising driving around seeking boys, particularly those who fit a certain stereotype. When he found a group of boys, he would stop his car, draw them into conversation, which he increasingly sexualized eventually using pornography he brought along as one of the enticements until he had persuaded them to engage first in mutual exposure and masturbation, then later, oral sex. "I might ask for a direction, get the conversation started, turn the topic to sex maybe one of the boys would become curious and interested, maybe even get an erection." Bowers said he would offer to show the boys "his," if they would show him "theirs," then suggest how good it felt to touch it, to rub it and so on. Later, Bowers made friends with kids through his work with the Little League, took them to baseball games with the full consent of their parents and had them over to his apartment.
If Bowers's explanation of his own condition fails to satisfy it seems so feeble nobody else, not even researchers who spend their professional lives studying the problem, can do much better. "Frankly, there hasn't been much progress in the last 10 or 20 years in understanding the etiology of child molestation, and part of the reason is that it is a multifaceted, heterogeneous group of behaviors, with many subcategories," says Robert Prentky.
"There is no such thing as a [single] profile of a pedophile or child molester, which means that there are most likely different pathways, different antecedents for the behavior, as well as different subtypes. It is also conceivable that biological factors may be more important for one or two types than for others."
For years, because 50 to 80 percent of molesters report being themselves victims of child abuse, there was support for what was called the "recapitulation hypothesis," which maintained with inspired simplicity that an abused child will grow up to do what was done to him or her. Says Prentky, besides flying in the face of the well-established fact that the vast majority of abused children do not become abusers themselves, the theory has so far proven robust only in the presence of one or more other factors the age of the child when abused; the severity and duration of the abuse; the incidence of nonsexual abuse or neglect in the child's life; impulsive and antisocial personality characteristics; lack of social competence and self-esteem, and on and on. This yields the general, if not exactly stunning, conclusion that mistreated and unhappy children are probably more likely than otherwise to mistreat other children when they grow up.
According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Bowers suffers from "same-sex pedophilia, exclusive type" he is sexually attracted primarily to prepubescent boys. Unlike members of groups advocating for the acceptance and legalization of sex with children, Bowers's pedophilia is dystonic he is not, nor was he ever, happy about his sexual obsession.
Pedophilia of this kind is a psychiatric condition, argues Fred Berlin, probably rooted in biology. Studies have implicated elevated sex hormone levels (including, as for Bowers, elevated testosterone), chromosomal and neurological anomalies, and excessive sensitivity to sex-dependent endorphin release (which may account for the addictive quality of many paraphilias). Pedophilia of this sort is not a "choice," insists Berlin, nor is it by itself a sign of low morals, lack of character, social incompetence, intellectual deficits or drug or alcohol abuse though these personality and behavioral traits have enormous bearing on the motivation and capacity for successful treatment.
Berlin argues strenuously that pedophiles of this sort are not necessarily any different, any worse, any better, any more or less moral than the rest of us, except for their sexual proclivities. It is the object of their desire that primarily defines their abnormality. For someone like Bowers, says Berlin, pedophilia "is a very pure form of a sexual disorder, simply an issue of his being attracted to boys. In all other ways, he is responsible, conscientious, intelligent. A diagnosis of pedophilia," he continues, "no more than a 'diagnosis' of heterosexuality, tells us nothing about temperament, character or personality. The primary problem for these people is that they are attracted to kids, and because of the driven, addictive-like quality of that compulsion, they may have trouble avoiding temptation."
Berlin can sound quite testy in responding to what he considers the unwarranted demonization of men who suffer from a psychiatric condition they did not choose and cannot help. "I think it is wrong for adults to have sex with kids, and I am not excusing or condoning this behavior" he says. "At the same time, these people don't decide when they are young that they want to be attracted to kids; like the rest of us, they discover their sexual orientation. They are accused of choosing pedophilia, when in fact they are sadly and tragically afflicted with it." Prentky seems to agree: "If there is anything that distinguishes these people from the rest of us, I would say they are tortured souls."
While not all experts on sex offenders share Berlin and Prentky's concern with the perpetrator's pain, almost all agree that many pedophiles appear to have a gift bordering on genius for understanding and attracting children. Many molesters make use of a child's natural curiosity, emerging sexuality, desire to please adults and unsuspicious openness. They also move in to fill the void left in a child's life by overworked or neglectful parents. "With so many single-parent families, there are a lot of latchkey children out there, needy kids who have a lot of time by themselves," says Bowers. Pedophiles take such kids, as Bowers did, to baseball games, or camping, bowling, hiking; they spend "quality time" listening and talking to them. "A lot of adults don't understand kids, ignore them, push them away. Kids like to be pleased, but most adults don't take the time to please them," says Rick, who was a young teacher before his arrest. "Maybe because we are sexually attracted to children, we have an extra sense about what they like and need, and we really want to do nothing but please them. There are hundreds of kids very few of whom I molested who thought I was their best friend."
Hard as it may be for many people to imagine the pedophile's day-to-day life (or even want to try), many such men build their personal and professional lives around children. They spend whatever personal time they have looking for children, finding opportunities to be where children are; they often feel freer and more comfortable with children than with adults. Bruce, another recovering pedophile once a college dean until jailed for sex offenses says that he could "walk into a room with 100 people, 5 of whom were children, and within 10 minutes those kids would be congregated around me." These pied pipers have the knack of being children and adults at the same time, which most kids find irresistible, says Becky Palmer, a therapist with the Center for Contextual Therapy in Oak Park, Illinois. "Kids are totally intrigued by adults who know how to be childlike, who can talk like a kid and know what kids want."
Of course, a gift for connecting with children does not necessarily hide darker motives, but committed molesters have a driven need that overwhelms an often genuine affection for children, just as it tends to define the kind of child they seek. Pedophiles have an unerring radar for lonely, needy kids yearning for attention and connection perhaps younger versions of themselves. "[In a group of children,] we can know within 10 minutes which child will be receptive, which won't. There were certain kids I wouldn't dare try anything with, while others were begging for somebody to care about them," says Bruce. And, like the most sophisticated of seducers, they know how to bide their time. In a tone mixing contrition with detachment, Bruce says, "I never rushed into anything some kids I would run with for several months before I would turn the conversation to sexual matters, sometimes a couple of years. By that time, they were so emotionally attached to me, I could draw them in."
"Grooming" is the official (and implicitly pejorative) designation for what molesters both exclusive pedophiles and many incest perpetrators do to attract kids, suggesting a cynical, cold-hearted and well-planned campaign of manipulation, bribery, deception and seduction of a child, and (if the child is not the offender's own son or daughter) of the child's gullible parents or caretakers, as well. Fred Berlin argues that grooming is no different from what any of us do to draw in the objects of our desire only the pedophile's longings are aimed at the wrong objects. In other words, agrees Prentky, "There are pedophiles who fall in love, too, just the way other people do," and are just as anxious to get the beloved to love them back as the rest of us.
Even incestuous parents groom children, whom they claim to love unselfishly, for their own sexual use. Palmer points out that parents have a jump on the grooming process; kids are taught to obey their parents, and children can hardly be expected to make fine discriminations between "good touch" and "bad touch" when it's been coming from daddy for years, nor are they less susceptible to bribes in the form of special treats and privileges than the kid being pursued by his Little League coach.
Many offenders pedophiles, rapists and incest perpetrators alike live double lives, even to themselves, exhibiting in full the amazing human capacity to fool themselves and everybody else into thinking wrong is right or at least not so very wrong. Any therapist already knows the long litany of self-deceptions that abusers typically use when forced against the wall "He/she wanted it, too." "I would have stopped immediately, if he/she had told me to." "I was really showing him/her love." Bruce says that the fathers of kids he abused often were physically absent or emotionally aloof; "I told myself I was filling a need the kids had for affection. I was aiding the family, doing things the dad wasn't there to do it certainly wasn't abuse."
The very day that Bruce was arraigned for molesting children, he saw a local newspaper with the headline, "College Dean Abuses Children," and he remembers thinking at the time, "How awful somebody in that position out there abusing kids. At least I'm not doing that!" Then he picked up the paper and saw that the story was about him. He ran around the neighborhood, picking up papers so the people he knew wouldn't see. " 'That's not me,' I thought. 'I care for kids.' In fact, the word 'molester' still shakes me."
There is an odd, almost hallucinatory quality about these stories, as if pedophiles inhabit a shadowy world in which nothing is ever what it seems, true motives are always concealed in layers of duplicity, the benign self presented to the world is always a masquerade. After the discovery of the molesting, many children must wonder for years after the event if every act of friendship was a sham, every word of affection a lie, every shared good time a betrayal and in some sense the answer would have to be yes. "I was very nice to kids," says Dan, another ex-molester "I felt affection for the kids, I had warm feelings about them. But it wasn't love. Even though I might know the child, when I was acting out, that boy wasn't the person I was with; it was as if my hormones had taken over and I didn't think, I acted."
Dan thinks he really loved a boy only one time a 12-year-old he baby-sat, took camping, engaged in long conversations. One night they were out camping the boy started to ask him about sex. It was the perfect occasion, "with this beautiful child primed and ready to go, who would do anything I wanted," says Dan. "But, I couldn't do it because I loved that kid. I loved him, and because I loved him, I could not cross that boundary with him." In fact, perhaps more often than is recognized, pedophiles choose to admit to accusations of abuse when fighting the charge would mean dragging children they have cared about through public courtroom battles. "When I got caught, I denied it, at first, because I was scared I'd lose everything," says Rick. He changed his mind when he realized what a trial might cost the child he had abused. "I loved this boy too much to put him on the stand and make him out to be a liar. I didn't want him to feel guilty for what we did."
ALTHOUGH THEIR CRIME IS AGAINST children, traditionally, incest perpetrators have not been regarded as "true pedophiles" they usually prefer sex with other adults and are often married. This is true in spite of the fact that as many as two-thirds of incest offenders also molest children outside the home, sometimes many children. Like pedophiles, they are a largely unclassifiable, heterogeneous lot, says Prentky. They engage in a wide variety of sexual behaviors with children, ranging from caressing to nonviolent sexual touching to violent and sadistic rape. If incest perpetrators are often seen as somehow different, and less malign, than pedophiles, it may be because most people find it easier to project depravity onto the emblematic evil-intentioned stranger than to think that good old gramps might be doing something just as bad. Besides, if evil seems to lie as much in premeditation as in the crime itself, chronic pedophiles seem worse because somehow more professional about their pursuits than opportunistic, amateur incest perps.
The single most frequent explanation used by incest offenders when finally forced to admit they did do something is some version of "I don't know why or how it happened, it just sort of did." Many incest perpetrators apparently sincerely believe that they have somehow been caught unawares by events beyond their control, as if they were innocent bystanders witnessing a terrible, inexplicable accident. Douglas Pryor, who interviewed 27 child sex offenders in great depth for his book, Unspeakable Acts: Why Men Sexually Abuse Children, writes that many of his respondents were indeed surprised to find themselves "unexpectedly... in the midst of an erotic situation [with a child], experiencing feelings of sexual interest, desire, curiosity and the like." Frequently, offenders were "caught off guard," by "an unanticipated erotic shift" with children they had not before consciously eroticized, as if suddenly struck by an amazing new revelation. A father catches sight of his 8-year-old daughter's buttocks and is suddenly aroused, or develops an erection when his little boy sits in his lap or finds a backrub he is giving a child turning into a caress. Undoubtedly, the discovery of a child's sensuous beauty and potential sexual nature has jolted many a parent, who draws sharply back and relentlessly purges this dangerous new idea from conscious thought. Offenders, on the other hand, don't renounce the momentary feeling, but instead give in to the simple inertia of an opportunity presented, as if drifting along in a daze with a current they haven't the will to resist.
George, a plumber, began to abuse his 7-year-old stepdaughter after he was laid off, and describes the experience almost as a kind of demonic possession. In the months preceding the molestation, George had been demoralized by his inability to find a new job, feeling guilty that his wife had to work a double shift to make ends meet. "I felt weaker and weaker inside myself. I was sitting home and just falling apart, losing control, as if I had no purpose in life. I kept thinking, I'mm the male, I'm supposed to be supporting the family, and I'm not.'" After George's wife went to work in the evening, and the younger sister had gone to bed, the 7-year-old used to cuddle up beside him to watch TV she was the one closest to him, who had first asked permission to call him "Daddy" and frequently hugged and kissed him, "for no reason," he remembers. One night, as she nestled against him, "I just . . . fondled her," he says now, as if still having trouble getting the words out. "There was no resistance; she just kept snuggling up to me and letting me proceed with what I was doing at the time."
Such a small act, it might seem, compared to the outrages of murder, torture and rape that are so regularly laid before us on the nightly news. And yet, for the offender (not to mention the victim), those fumbling, silent, unacknowledged moments can shift the gravitational field of the entire universe. Formerly grounded in a solid assurance of his own rectitude and the safe predictabilities of ordinary life, the offender is now cast adrift, free-floating in a terrifying void of fear, guilt, shame, dread and obsession. After George first abused his stepdaughter, he found his world becoming a strange planet, and himself an alien in his own eyes. He hated what he had done, but kept on doing it without considering the enduring scars his daughter might carry for the rest of her life. "After it was over [the first time, every time], I felt really bad inside. I would tell myself, 'I have to stop. . . . This is wrong. . . . It's not going to happen again. ... It can't happen again.' And the next time my wife was working late, it happened again, and I would say, I can't believe I just did it again."
Even the guilt and shame the "hangover," as psychiatrist Anna Salter calls this postmortem remorse have their place in the repetitious, endlessly revolving cycle of offending. The transitory feelings of remorse and the solemn vow, "never again," help offenders move beyond the unpleasant emotions of guilt and shame following the abuse and get back on the track of offending. Once guilt is more or less quashed and the fear of being caught diminishes for a time, a "deviant arousal pattern" reemerges an upsurge in sexual fantasies of offending perhaps fueled by anxiety, depression and anger (possibly the aftermath of unresolved sexual abuse in the offender's own past). Then the abuser begins making preparations (often unacknowledged) for the next incident.
"You find yourself setting a stage, following the same pattern over and over, so that you will get to where the molestation can take place," says George. Even though not admitting it to himself at the time, George says there was nothing "accidental" about his abuse of his stepdaughter. "When 1 molested, I knew exactly what I was going to do." There was a ritualistic, predictable quality to his thinking and his acts, from the feeling of nervous, excited anticipation when he left his job on nights when his wife worked late, to his preparations shower, put on loose clothing, close blinds, put younger child to bed, turn on TV and wait for his stepdaughter to sit next to him. After he had abused her, he would let her sit with him on the couch for a while, tell her he loved her, send her to bed and then berate himself again for what he had just done.
Would he have stopped if he hadn't been found out? Why didn't he just stop? How could such an apparently decent and hard-working man, married to a woman he loved (with whom he continued to have normal sexual relations) keep on doing something that made him feel terrible, filled him with self-contempt and threatened to destroy his daughter's life, not to mention his own? George calls it an "addiction," says he got "hooked," but what, exactly, does this mean? Before and after each event, he felt bad, out of control, his life in dizzying chaos, but the act of abuse itself was its own antidote, a kind of sexual drug that calmed him down, gave him the sense of control that his very behavior had taken away. "You know when you are entering this place, it is not safe or right, but once inside, it does seem safe and right. . . until it's over."
OFFENDERS LIVE IN A SOCIETY THAT ostensibly considers them the scum of the earth, and many of them if they think about it are inclined to agree, which is why they become such pros at not thinking about it, by denying their own actions and blaming the victim. Denial, in all its guises, is less painful, than looking at the truth. In a sense, they have bought the common argument that the offender is the offense, so to admit the latter is to admit their own irredeemable depravity. There is no way out of this position; either lie and deny, and salvage some remnant of personal worth not to mention avoid jail or tell the truth and be damned.
Add to this the urgency and intensity of their sexual drive, and it is not surprising that few sex offenders voluntarily choose to stop or can do it alone without help, no matter how much shame, guilt and self-hatred they feel, no matter what their good intentions. "I do not know any [pedophiles] who stopped on their own," says Dan. "It took getting caught to make me honest, and it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me," says Rick. Denial, rationalization and refusal to take responsibility are endemic to perpetrators. Molesters regularly up the ante on what they consider abuse it's not really abuse if it isn't violent, forced intercourse, or if there is no physical pain, or if the "recipient" doesn't complain, etc. It is generally acknowledged in the treatment community that pedophilia is, technically speaking, "incurable," just the way other craving disorders, like alcoholism or drug addiction, are incurable; but like those, it is also treatable. Treatment success depends on how intensive, exclusive and long-standing the sexual preoccupation is, but even more on how much character, intelligence, general mental health and motivation the offender can bring to treatment. But what kind of treatment?
When Wayne Bowers first tried to get help 25 or 30 years ago, he was given the straight psychodynamic rap that he needed to work through his unconscious conflicts revolving around his "domineering" mother and "aloof father an approach that did him no good and has been largely discarded today. At the other extreme, aversive behavioral conditioning is still used ammonia or smelling salts are presented while the client is being shown sexually arousing pictures in order to extinguish arousal a procedure without any documented long-term success. More typically, the 710 adult treatment programs for sexual offenders in the United States right now (up from 297 in 1985) generally use one or a combination of cognitive-behavioral, psychoeducational, pharmacological and "evocative" therapies the last including victim empathy, control of substance abuse, relationship issues, personal motivation and self-awareness.
Does any of this work? Data on recidivism rates of treated offenders vary widely, ranging roughly from 3 to 20 percent; recidivism of treated offenders is higher in some studies than for untreated offenders. In a five-year follow-up study of 406 pedophiles treated at Johns Hopkins, Fred Berlin and colleagues found a recidivism rate of only 7.4 percent, but Robert Prentky suggests that, because reoffenses rise over time, a true measure would require a follow-up of 10 to 20 years. There are so many confounding factors at this point differences in populations studied and kinds of treatments, for example that generalizations are impossible. Still, researchers and clinicians are convinced that therapy absolutely helps, a position they believe will become unassailable when more and better-constructed studies are underway. Knowledge about sex offenders, almost nonexistent 20 years ago, says Prentky, has increased vastly, and "it is difficult not to believe that therapy can help, that some therapy is better than no therapy and that if you treat a random sample of sex offenders, more will benefit than if you treated none."
BECAUSE THE EVIL OF SEXUAL MOLESTAtion lies at least partly in the lies, pretenses and self-delusions involved in premeditation, treatment must begin with stripping off the thick, dark layers of deception, secrecy and willful blindness that compromise much of the offender's life. In the group sessions, particularly, the offender's tough, leathery hide of denial and rationalization, self-serving justifications and intellectual distortion are shredded like so much tissue paper mostly by his peers. "When guys first come in to treatment, they are often cocky, full of themselves, denying everything up and down nothing is wrong with them, they didn't do anything, they've just been falsely accused, etc. etc.," says Bruce, who was treated, along with Wayne Bowers, in Berlin's clinic. "Therapists would sometimes sic me and Wayne on them, and we would eat them alive a pedophile can tell a pedophile a mile away, and we didn't pull any punches." For a newcomer, says Bruce, the procedure seems ruthless. "When I went through it, I thought I'd never met a crueler bunch of guys. But they did me a service; they didn't let me hide. They went down to the raw bone and made me face what I was, deal with it."
It is a standard piece of Christian doctrine that God hates the sin but loves the sinner, the homily based on the idea that the two are not identical. People are not the sum total of their evil acts, or there could be no possibility of moral regeneration and redemption, let alone forgiveness. And, in fact, a major theme of treatment is that offenders are distinct from their offenses they are not what they do, they can be better than what they do. It is a litany repeated over and over by recovering abusers, as if to make themselves believe it. "Besides my pedophilia, I am a good person," says Bowers staunchly. "It's not the person who is bad, it's the action," says Bruce. It is as if the real self of the offender has been in some sense invaded by a malign force. "I didn't ask to be attracted to kids. I never wanted that in life," says Rick. "It sickened me that at a certain point my body just overcame my mind, wiped my conscience away in a matter of seconds. It was a constant battle. There is a part of me that I wish I could rip out of my brain."
Because many sex offenders feel that their brains do not entirely belong to them, that they really are in some way possessed, Fred Berlin's clinic provides injections of testosterone-lowering drugs to reduce the physical drive and consequent nonstop fantasies for a particular sexual outlet. Bowers first realized that Depo-Provera was working when he saw at the clinic his "ideal type" an appealing teenage boy, who, says Bowers, "in the old days would have been target number one." But now, although Bowers recognized the stimulus, it had lost its immediate power over him he experienced no erection, he wasn't being hijacked by his own hormones, he felt no overwhelming, compelling sexual arousal that robbed him of the ability to concentrate on anything except strategies for getting at his prey. In fact, the medication gave him the ability to consider what he was doing and what it might mean both to him and the boy.
The testosterone-lowering drugs are roughly the equivalent of Prozac for severe depression they don't cure the condition or change the patterns of thought that sustain it, but they do give the person a little breathing space in the claustrophobic cave of pure, driven, physical need. Ultimately, however, the goal of treatment is not simply to lower the sex drive to the disappearing mark, but to instill in the sexually driven perpetrator the capacity and skills to avoid temptation, and to avoid the situations that lead inexorably to temptation.
Learning not to offend demands from offenders an accession into full, painful consciousness of what they are doing. They must construct within themselves a severe and ever-watchful self-monitor, the "Mother of Superegos," one could say. The mission of cognitive-behavioral treatment, remarks Prentky, is to teach the offender what particular cycle of events in his own life leads him inexorably to offend. Treatment emphasizes intense concentration, primarily in group therapy, but also in daily journals and written exercises, on the repetitive treadmill of inner and outer life that constitutes the offender's own personal deviant cycle.
Thus, the offender nails down for himself a personal strategy to avoid relapse, by learning first to identify "risk factors" in his life feelings like loneliness, depression, anger, anxiety, self-pity, followed by masturbation to relieve those feelings; risky places, including schoolyards, shopping malls, public swimming pools, children's sports events; risky activities like driving around aimlessly, drinking or taking drugs at all, walking by porn shops, seeing certain movies, spending too much time with friends who have children. He becomes adept at self-suspicion, looking hard at what Anna Salter calls the "internal lies" that might "accidentally" put him in contact with children walking on one side of the street rather than the other because the first abuts a public playground or thinking it might cheer up an office colleague after her divorce to have her and her cute, young son over for dinner.
The offender learns to cut short dangerous trains of thought and quit ruminating on the forbidden. The idea is to stop the thought before it has a chance to run away with the mind. Think of something else or, if all else fails, get physically away from the stimulus. "There are flashpoints or triggers along the way to offending," says Bruce. "In treatment, you learn what they are and how to set up a ladder of defenses to separate yourself from them."
Though therapists treating offenders shy away from the word "morality" it has too often been used as a bludgeon against their clients treatment does require an emphasis on what can only be called moral or ethical self-reformation, far more so than other compulsions and addictions. It is, after all, children who are being harmed by the abuser's behavior. "There is no question in my mind that until the offender has internalized some empathic connection with his potential victims, he will be at substantial risk," says Robert Prentky. The offender learns not only to understand the pain he has caused, but conscientiously to put moral and ethical considerations and the well-being of his potential targets ahead of his own desire for self-gratification. At group meetings, sex abusers are relentlessly pushed by one another to imagine, out loud, what their victims felt and thought during and after the crime. Were these boys or girls or raped women afraid? Did the abuse hurt them physically? Were they ashamed afterward? What did it mean to them? How did their families feel? How do you think they feel now? Offenders are asked, and learn to ask themselves, how they felt as children when they were hurt or abused. During a session at Berlin's clinic, an exhibitionist who was molested as a child talks about how the abuse cast a dark shadow over his childhood and helped propel him into his own offending career. 'You are telling me, a child molester, how it felt to be a molested child," says Rick, in some wonder. In a sense, he is seeing his own victims sitting across the table, and is imagining what the future may hold for them as a result of his actions toward those 9- and 10-year-old boys.
George had an opportunity to express his repentance directly to his stepdaughter in an "apology session," an occasion that is now often part of the treatment for incest perpetrators, their victims and families. He spent three weeks composing a letter in therapy, then quaveringly read it aloud to the child and the rest of the family, reassuring her that the abuse had been entirely his fault, that he was deeply sorry and that, most of all, he wanted to regain her trust. He wanted her to feel, he said, "that she could come up and hug me or put her head on my shoulder, and know nothing bad was going to happen." His stepdaughter forgave him, and said she loved him, as did his wife. But, although his life has resumed some normality he is now living at home he says he will never forget what happened, nor entirely forgive himself. He continues going to his group meetings because the others "make me remember what happened.... I don't really want to let it go. If I ever forget, I'm afraid it might happen again. I want it to be fresh in my mind, all the time what I did to my daughter, what the whole family went through because of me. If I try to forget, what kind of person am I?
Do I forgive myself? I can live with myself, but I can't entirely forgive myself." Nor perhaps, should he. There seems little reason to doubt the authenticity of George's sorrow and contrition. But the very nature of his offense the deepest betrayal of a child who loved, trusted and depended on him and the possible long-term psychological consequences for her of his actions, suggest that time he spends remembering and repenting will not be misspent.
George insists that the group helps keep him honest. But, at least as important for offenders as the flinty-eyed refusal to let anybody hide from the truth is the compassionate embrace of a community in which truth is welcome. What they can find in group treatment in which they are expected and repeatedly challenged to tell their terrible secrets is the discovery of their common humanity. As they finally confront their common human problem, they find an experience of personal freedom.
ENTERING FRED BERLIN'S PROGRAM, Wayne Bowers discovered for the first time in his life what it felt like not to be alone, to say anything he wanted, discuss his most personal and shameful encounters. Whatever he said, he would not be dismissed as some sort of hopeless degenerate; he was with people who had been there themselves. "Even after knowing what I had done, they still respected me. I was Wayne. I was a human being with serious issues, but still Wayne. I was never put down for anything I shared honestly." For Bruce, hearing others in his group talking about their own struggles with offending was "like a light going on. I wasn't alone. People knew how I felt, what I was thinking, and they cared. I had not experienced that before. Even though they knew what I had done, they still cared."
Mary Sykes Wylie, Ph.D., is a senior editor of The Family Therapy Networker.
Wayne Bowers is now director of a national prison reform organization in Michigan called Citizens for the Rehabilitation of Errants Sex Offenders Restored Through Treatment (CURE-SORT). Address: P.O. Box 1191, Okemos, MI48805-1191; tel. (517) 349-7449; e-mail address: email@example.com…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: PEDOPHILIA AND THE POSSIBILITY OF FORGIVENESS: A Fee Policy Can Clarify the Therapeutic Relationship. Contributors: Wylie, Mary Sykes - Author. Magazine title: Family Therapy Networker. Volume: 22. Issue: 6 Publication date: November/December 1998. Page number: 21. © Psychotherapy Networker, Inc. Nov/Dec 1996. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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