Why I Work With Sex Offenders


“Why would you ever want to do that?”

This is the reaction I get whenever I tell someone what I study at school and what my internship involves. This statement is usually accompanied by an “Oh shit” expression. Disgust, confusion, anger, bargaining, and intrigue are generally the stages the other person goes through during this conversation. This all begins with the innocuous “What have you been up to?” or “What are going to school for again?” And then, like a meteor landing in Russia, everyone sees the bright light only to be hit with the shrapnel of glass from the window after the sonic boom. The mystifying “I’m studying forensic psychology, more specifically doing sex offender treatment.” I usually get a pause here to sip my beer or check my phone as the other person tries to accept that they just heard what they just heard.

After the initial shock this is usually how the conversation occurs:

“Do you mean on parole, like they come to your office?” No, I intern in a prison and work in the “block” that over 80 incarcerated sex offenders live in cells, play cards, take phone calls, and shower in. “But that’s just a few of the people you help, right, the rest are all crazy or drug addicts, huh right?” No, I don’t work with any other kind of offenders. “Well, I’m sure a lot got caught up in this underage 20-year-old dating a 17-year-old business right? Why can’t parents let kids be in love?!” No, the majority of sex offenders I work with are convicted of child molestations, like 30-40 years old with an 8-year-old victim. “Oh…. Well that must be dangerous.” Not really, it’s a treatment block so most people their either genuinely want help or at the least want a good parole reference. “Still it’s prison!” Yea, I’m acutely aware of that.

This all lasts about ten minutes before the other person asks me, “Why would you ever want to do that?” Half the time it’s rhetorical and they are looking for an escape route, so I just shrug and give them a laugh. The other half genuinely want to know what awful thing happened to me that got me interested in this. Well now we’ve reached that point, the point where I have to tell you about the awful thing…

The awful thing that happened to me is, well, nothing. The jig is up. I don’t have a sob story or an empowerment story or an inspirational story: I’ve got nothin’.

I have always been interested in psychology because it doesn’t seem like life is really fair. How can one person be relatively normal and another person thinks the CIA is talking to them? Somebody has to try and “fix” these people. Before choosing my major in college I never knew anyone who was severely mentally disturbed but I did watch a lot of Law & Order if that helps you figure me out. After working with all different types of people suffering from mental illness, intellectual disabilities and behavioral problems, I decided “mundane dysfunction” was no longer as interesting, it’s now a stereotype — the homeless man always thinks that the CIA is watching him and bugging his shopping cart full of cans. Psychology undergrads are taught how to deal with paranoid schizophrenia along with Freud and the Ego. Where is some original, creative, disturbed thinking?

I want to do something no one else wants to do because otherwise who is going to do it? And whom are we going to blame that it didn’t get done and these people didn’t get helped? A lot of those in psychology say “I’d like to help a child molester recover but I can’t get past my own feelings about it, to be unbiased to them.” Well I don’t have a bias other than it’s wrong and they hurt someone, so what’s my excuse? With that attitude I went off to prison.

Well, why would I want to do this job? At first because it was interesting and I felt an obligation to the greater good to put my neutral attitude to good use. The moment I knew this is what I wanted to do was when I had my first therapeutic break-through with an inmate, better known as the “ah-ha!” moment. I had previously counseled those with mental illness and experienced this moment before with them but it’s a completely different feeling getting someone to understand they are not as worthless as their depression has made them feel than it is getting a sexual offender, who previously had never so much as a parking ticket, understand why they raped a young girl and why this really wasn’t an “out-of-the-blue” event but rather something that was about to boil over for years. It’s beyond a reality check, beyond a break-through, it’s a moment where reckoning, justice, sadness, and hope meet. This person realizes how they had been blind before but also how deeply they hurt another person, and they can truly appreciate their actions in their entirety. It’s not just “I raped… I hurt…” its “I ruined the victim’s life, their family’s life, and my family’s life… I caused all of this… I started all of this before I even met my victim… I deserve to be here… I understand if they never forgive me.”

And then comes my second and third least favorite party question: Why do they do it? What makes someone like that? Anyone who feels like they can completely answer that question about “all sexual offenders” or “all criminals” or “all murders” is an arrogant piece of dirt. There is no one answer for any type of offender or anyone. Why do some people get into bar fights (or Simple Assault) while others commit domestic violence or even others commit rape? There is no right answer and no one answer that will apply to everyone. There are multiple factors that vary across people and vary in how they interact with individuals, and while behavioral profilers with limited information can make an educated guess as to what a person’s psychological makeup is like, risk level, and whether they wear boxers or briefs, they can not chemically engineer a person and know with absolute certainty how that creation will react in any and all situations.

If you really ask me these last two questions I will chug my drink and start looking for the nearest restroom or escape route. The reality is you could have been them and they could have been you if a few conditions were different. For all of the skeptics out there, I want you to imagine that your partner is half asleep in the night when you decide to kiss them or touch their body and they wake up startled or confused. How are you different than a rapist? You used someone’s body that you had not been given explicit consent in the present moment to do with as you may. I’d also like you to think of a time when you were making love to a partner who either seemed disinterested or sad, did you stop? Did you accept a short or clichéd response and continue? Saying you could never do this is what I find many first time offenders saying, from former correctional officers to teachers or military personal. The truth is one in four women report (report is different than fact) being the victims of verbal, sexual or physical abuse so to say that only one in four men perpetrate these crimes seem logical. How have you decided that you are different from the one in four?

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image – Law & Order: SVU