Sex Offender Treatment – What Works?


One of the most heinous crimes committed in society is a sexual offence against a child. Sexual predators, monsters, pure evil, are often words used by society (through the media, etc.) to describe those who molest children and often these groups of individuals are categorised by one word which encompasses any and every description available – Paedophile. However, not all offenders are “paedophiles” in the strictest interpretation. In a few cases there have been instances where offenders against children have been rehabilitated. Of course, there are many more who do not alter their views and feelings and are still released (due to limits on sentencing) back into society. Since this is so, why do we continue to attempt to treat and rehabilitate those offenders; also, as we do not know which will offender be successfully rehabilitated, should we not just refuse all treatment and keep them indefinitely in prison?


Historically, men often married much younger women, some of whom were in their very early teens, possibly to ensure compliance, health and an ability to conceive. In 1860, the agent of consent was twelve years old. This meant that anyone of twelve or over could (legally) consent to having sexual intercourse. Fifteen years later, the age was raised to thirteen by the House of Commons after much campaigning by Josephine Butler (a social reformer). This was still believed to be too low and the campaign continued for some years until 1885, when Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act which raised the age of consent to sixteen .

Laws on consent are now sixteen in the United Kingdom and America has many states which have a similar or higher threshold. Unfortunately, this is not world-wide. In Albania, Bulgaria, Canada and China the age is fourteen. In Chile and Panama it is twelve years of age, whilst in South Korea, Spain and Japan, the age is thirteen. . However, according to ECPAT International (End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism), a “child” is anyone under the age of 18, in line with the European Convention of Human Rights . This is at odds with many countries who state that anyone in the mid-teens should be able (and is able) to consent to sexual relations.

Child sexual abuse was thrust into the public domain in the UK through the incidents in Cleveland, in the 1980s. There, over one hundred children were removed from their homes due to the belief by social services that they were subjected to [ritualistic] sexual abuse (though many of these accusations were never substantiated). The outcry which followed the horrendous treatment of both parents and children in this case resulted in an inquiry into the matter (and the Children’s Act 1989 being brought into UK legislation). Various bodies, such as the NSPCC, Social Services and other agencies dealing with vulnerable children, undertook research into the matter of sexual abuse of children and theories arose as to what type of person committed such an act. These included brain deficiencies, psychopathy, mental illness and the “cycle of abuse”. Many cases continued to highlight the deficiencies in the system including that of Sidney Cooke, a known paedophile was released and offended again (resulting in the death of Jason Swift, a male teenage prostitute).


The most apparent way forward was to rehabilitate those who offended against children since many sentences given by the courts were less than ten years. Prison could not hold these people forever, not least since many were segregated for their own safety. Following a survey into sex offending and offenders, which showed that 63 establishments had some form of specialist programmes, the Prison Service adopted the “Sex Offender Treatment Programme” (also known as SOTP) in 1991. The SOTP was, at the time of Iain Crow’s book, in place for approximately eight years. He states, although the early indications of the SOTP are good (in that attitudes of offenders have been successfully altered) that “…at the time of writing, it is too early to say whether it is successful in reducing reconviction”.

One of the main problems with therapy (of any form) is that unless the target of therapy accepts therapy, there is a small likelihood of success. With paedophiles, their actions are not perceived [by themselves] as wrong and thus cannot be “cured” of any wrongdoing. They see society as being mistaken in the view that children are not sexually aware and that morally, if not legally, they are in the right. The core principle in treatment must be acceptance of wrongdoing as, if this is lacking, empathy is also missing.

Many paedophiles lack the understanding for their victims’ emotional trauma and often justify their actions by placing blame on the victim for instigating any abuse. If a prison term costs the State (in the United Kingdom) an estimated £22,000 per inmate per year, the cost of prison therapy must make this figure even higher. Can the State really justify the cost of such treatment when, at best, only a small minority of convicted abusers will not return to their offending behaviour upon release.

Victims of child molestation have such trauma that their lives are altered completely and forever. Given that this is so, the need for punishment of offenders and justice for victims, both in the eyes of the victim(s) and society in general is quite stark. The principle of due process and just deserts means that each offender can only be tried and sentenced for the crime for which they are before the court (though sentencing does consider any potential future risk and any past offences). So what do we do with those offenders who freely admit that their impulses to offend [against children] are so uncontrollable they cannot guarantee they will stop? With prisons so overcrowded now, can we justify keeping all child molesters in prison, not least because of the financial cost?

The public seem to believe that “locking them up and throwing away the key” is the answer; place all child molesters on an island with no way out and castrating those who do offend, even once, is the only way to deal with child abusers. Can we justify, financially or morally, keeping any offender who has not killed, in prison indeterminately until we (or the public?) decide they are no longer a threat? What about constant and overt surveillance of all released child abusers (the cost of which would be enormous)?

Some treatment programmes are known to work. There are instances where reoffending has been reduced, though this only applies to reconviction rates. Should we allow ourselves to focus on such a small number in the hope that this may lead to larger numbers of successes? If we can (and do) seem able to reduce the offending behaviour in child abusers on a small scale, why can we not make this small number even larger? The answer is we can, though not, unfortunately, eradicate abuse altogether. If numbers of rehabilitated child offenders are increasing, then surely those numbers are likely to continue increasing the more we encourage and provide treatment programmes on a sustained basis.

To ignore those (albeit small) successes would be foolish indeed as some offenders are not predatory and are more likely to be situational offenders (which will be defined in more detail below). This means that their offending behaviour can be successfully addressed and altered with treatment. The one component which many experts believe will reduce the success of any treatment programme is the introduction of laws enabling the public access to offenders’ details. This problem arose due to the rape and murder of Megan Kanka in the United States. Megan Kanka was a seven year old girl who lived with her parents, opposite a convicted paedophile – but they did not know this fact. Megan was killed after being raped by Jesse Timmendequas in 1994 and the repercussions of this event led to the American judiciary invoking “Megan’s Law”. This law has, at its basic premise, the right for every parent to view whether or not any convicted child molester is in their surrounding area (and they can obtain this information even on the Internet by simply inserting one’s zip code (the US equivalent of a postcode)).

A similar premise was called for by the parents of murdered schoolgirl Sarah Payne in July 2000. Roy Whiting (the man eventually found guilty for her murder) had a prior conviction for kidnapping and child molestation of a nine year old in 1995; it was his registering with the Sex Offenders’ Register which enabled police to arrest him so expeditiously. The Sex Offenders’ Register is partly a success of Megan’s Law in America. Due to the realisation of problems with paedophiles and other sex offenders in the United Kingdom, the Sex Offenders Act 1997 was introduced, requiring any person convicted of a sexual offence to register with police their whereabouts.

One of the main problems with such a register is that, invariably, it may fall (in whole or part) into the wrong hands. After Sarah Payne’s murder, the tabloid newspaper “The Sun/News of the World” purported to have the names of over one hundred convicted paedophiles and published their names and addresses “to protect the public and our children”. However, on several occasions, information was found to be faulty when people were attacked who looked similar to the pictures in the paper. Vigilantes walked the streets determined to “oust” paedophiles in their communities and chaos ensued. The newspaper, and the parents of Sarah Payne, publicly condemned the violence and vigilante acts but this did little to quell the fear already spread. The paper has even published a website claiming to assist parents to identify potential paedophiles and tell-tale signs of a child being abused.

As we enter 2002, there has not been any implementation of Sarah’s Law and the Government has so far refused to do so. They believe, along with experts, that the public knowledge of paedophiles’ whereabouts should be limited if not avoided altogether.


Many people, including the media, are guilty of labelling criminals by general descriptions and this is no less true in cases of child molestation.

A situational child molester often operates within a familial sphere, molests a child who they have unlimited and guaranteed access and, perhaps more importantly, is able to sustain relationships with adults as well as children. One of the key differences is that child molesters (as opposed to paedophiles) often realise and acknowledge that their actions are wrong. They often use manipulation, along with targeting and isolating potential victims, to ensure compliance and secrecy. Some situational molesters are married and/or living with an adult partner and may even have children of their own. It is this type of offender who is more likely to succeed in treatment therapy to address their offending behaviour as they are fully aware that their actions are both morally and legally wrong.

Paedophiles, on the other hand, do not appear to have a sustained ability to associate with other adults and so are often loners. They tend only to have associated with other paedophiles and/or children and thus have little adult contact. Their preference (both socially and sexually) for children further isolates them and many feel that their perception of children is not immoral.

Many may place themselves in positions of trust with children, such as working in a children’s home or scout leaders whereby such positions are mostly associated with children, not adults.
According to the Massachusetts Treatment Center, there are four distinct paedophile “types”: (i) fixated, (ii) regressed, (iii) exploitative and (iv) aggressive/sadistic. The basic explanation for these is that the first demonstrates long standing and exclusive preference for children and is most comfortable around children. The regressed typology is an offender who had “a fairly normal adolescence” and later develops masculine inadequacy and self-doubt. The exploitative offender is one which seeks a child to satisfy his sexual needs as a primary aim and uses manipulation to gain such satisfaction. The last typology is one which has a sexual and aggressive need for a child .

One of the main points to note here is that all these levels of paedophilia as described in Bartol’s book somewhat cross over the definitions given by Howells (in 1998) . He claimed there were two types, the preferential offender and the situational (non-preferential) offender. The former is easily identified as the fixated whilst the second is identified as the regressed.

However, it is clear that typologies are only effective in a certain number of cases as closeting an offender in a “typology” may result in focus being misplaced. For instance, paedophiles are known to be fairly manipulative (or else they would be discovered on a more regular basis) and can state their preferences to be “limited” to fit one type when this, in fact, may not be the reality. Even Bartol agrees with limiting focus by using offender typologies: “There is no such thing as a common ‘molester profile’.”


Chapter eight of “What Works: Reducing Reoffending” deals with treatment of sex offenders. It states that, of the 129 men released from the Massachusetts Treatment Center between 1960 and 1985, 25% re-offended compared to 40% of those who had not received treatment. Similarly, figures in the United Kingdom have also been encouraging: HMP Grendon is the only prison in the UK which has therapeutic methods at its core. One of the key points in Research Finding No. 115 from the Home Office found that there were lower reconviction rates for prisoners who had been at Grendon than for those who had been selected for Grendon but who did not attend.

A further study conducted by Carol Hedderman and Darren Sugg (commissioned by the Home Office) found eleven (8%) of the 133 offenders referred to a community based treatment programme were re-convicted within a two year period and of those, only six were convicted of another sexual offence (with the other five being convicted of a non-sexual/violent offence). One warning is given; the offenders may have responded more due to their levels of deviancy than any real quality in their treatment. Nonetheless, the figures are startling and can give rise to a feeling that treatment programmes can work. Their conclusion is simple: whilst the sample size is small, the results are encouraging and do imply that treatment, again, can be successful in treating the sex offender.

Yet another study conducted by A Beech, D Fisher, R Beckett and A Scott-Fordham indicates again that treatment has beneficial affects. One of the key points here states that child abusers’ levels of admitting offending behaviour were up and also found that there was significant changes in the social competence of offenders. This, according to Conte, is one of five dimensions which can lead to cognitive distortions which the molester may apply to his behaviour; both Marshall and Segal appear to agree as their findings show that molesters have lower social skills than non-molesters.

This means that they may use child abuse as an alternative sexual objective since they lack the ability to gain such an objective with adults. If social skills can be greatly enhanced, then perhaps, along with the other factors which may provide the psychological “profile” of a child molester being addressed, we may reduce offending behaviour of this type.


All the above information and the vast papers which state that some offenders do react well to treatment does not answer the primary question. Simply, should the State (i.e. taxpayers) pay for treatment of offenders committing such a terrible crime? An interesting quote by Donald West states that: “The notion of treatment for sex offenders, unless it is by castration, is unacceptable to many people, since it suggests evasion of just deserts.”

Since Sarah Payne’s murder, the public in the United Kingdom appear to believe that all paedophiles (or molesters) should be castrated, given life sentences, or even the death penalty where a child is murdered. This may not seem to comply with “due process” but, to a parent (or even a non-parent), it seems fair to punish so severely for the abuse and traumatisation of a child.

One point to note is that, as the dark figure for child abuse (in any form) is likely to be so great, are we really stumbling around in the dark ourselves as criminologists? Do we truly believe we can “cure” paedophiles or other types of molesters by psychological and/or pharmaceutical methods? The argument for not spending high levels of taxpayers’ money on treatment facilities is great. If, as is generally accepted, many abusers are within the home environment, are we really likely to stop offenders if they are rarely caught as is believed?

Only a small percentage (possibly as low as one percent) of child molesters are incarcerated and thus treatment is limited to those within the prison system. Whilst most of those in prison may be deemed the most dangerous (by multiple offences and/or murder) it still does not detract from the thousands of abusers who are not in prison and thus not likely to be subject to any form of treatment. This can be justified by the belief that those offenders who do wish to attend treatment (subject to the prison service rules) only do so in order to reduce their sentence and/or to gain privileges not afford with Rule 43 prisoners .

The ties in with the rationale that, generally, not all treatment works for all offenders and, unfortunately, it only takes reconviction (or reoffending) rates to give a true picture as to whether or not treatment has been effective. Again, since many may reoffend but not be arrested and convicted for such reoffending behaviour, how are we to know whether any treatment provided was effective. The small numbers, many may argue, do not justify the vast sums of public money being spent on treatment for offenders who may or may not find it useful. Other arguments are more emotional in that no amount of rehabilitation justifies the sympathetic treatment of offenders against children. The public demands (almost literally) the blood of offenders against children and are not satisfied when they see anything less metered out. Indeed, many accuse governments and/or prison service officials of being as guilty as offenders they release knowing that they are [potentially] dangerous.

However, what cannot be ignored, from a scientific and/or studious point of view is that treatment has been effective for (albeit small) numbers of offenders. What is also accepted here is that, unless an offender wishes to address his [offending] behaviour and believes he can change, any treatment will be limited in success. We cannot, it seems to me, leave any offender who recognises his behaviour as wrong and wishes to change that behaviour (or at least try to change) without some form of treatment. This is almost akin to leaving a sick person without medication. Since that person has already recognised their problem and wishes to rectify that problem, surely we have a duty, as a civilised society. to accept and attempt to help.

Whilst it may not be effective for all offenders we must try to support those who are capable of such change. We do not expect a limited number of cancer patients to die just because treatment is not effective for all cancers, so why should we change principles on the basis that the “patients” are offenders?


The question of whether or not the State should attempt to treat the child molester may not have been definitely answered either way here. Indeed, whatever the answer, objections are bound to appear. The argument against treatment is no less compelling than the argument for and both sides will continue to provide evidence that the other is at fault. It is hard not to see the reasoning behind the refusal to spend money on offenders against children because we all (generally) have sympathy for those victims and their families and have a desperate desire not to have our children become victims. Just as compelling is the want and need we have for those offenders to be “cured”; to be stopped so they do not offend again.

Whatever option we choose, we will be offending someone’s belief and principles and the argument may never end with regard to offenders against children. However, we must see that some treatment, if it is recognised as being useful by the offender himself, should be available for those seeking it. Anything less would make us, as society, just as abhorrent as the offenders we condemn.