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The Dance of Denial

The Dance of Denial

J. Michael Sharman


The treatment professionals who work with convicted sex offenders say it is rare to find any sex offenders who are completely honest about their sexual offense.

The sex offenders' denial, in effect, is what emotionally allows them to commit their crimes: "Individuals with deviant sexual interest will not commit sexual crimes …unless they are willing to hurt others to obtain their goals, can convince themselves that they are not harming their victims, or feel unable to stop themselves."[1]

The clinical research confirms what our common sense already told us: Sex offenders deny responsibility in order to avoid feelings of shame, confusion, embarrassment, inadequacy, responsibility, and guilt.[2]

Basically all treatment professionals agree that before treatment can be fully effective, the sex offender must recognize and accept full responsibility for his criminal behavior and its damaging consequences to his victims, the families involved, and of course, to himself.[3]

Sex offender treatment reduces the occurrence of repeat sexual offenses in adult males about five to 10%. Approximately 30% of untreated sex offenders will be rearrested for sex crimes compared with about 20% of treated sex offenders.[4]

A  five to 10% drop may not seem like a big reduction in future crimes, but considering the enormous pain that sexual assaults cause to the victims and the families involved, any reduction is huge. Treatment for the sex offender, however, is often blocked by the offender's own unwillingness to admit he needs help.

One researcher says there are seven overlapping types of denial:

1.      The sex offender denies the facts of the offense.

2.      The sex offender denies awareness of the offense due to claimed drug or alcohol blackouts, or memory lapses.

3.      The sex offender denies the impact of the offense to his victim. He focuses on the impact to himself but not to the victim or family.

4.      The sex offender denies responsibility for the offense and blames the victim, their spouse, or claims he was "educating" the child.

5.      The sex offender denies the "grooming" phase of the sex offense, which means he denies any planning, fantasies, etc., and describes the abuse as spontaneous and without any planning.

6.      The sex offender denies any deviant sexual arousal.

7.      The sex offender denies he is in denial[5]

Courts and probation officers use sex offender risk assessment tools to determine what type of treatment or sentencing would be appropriate for the offender.

The first section of one of the more commonly used sex offender risk assessment tools asks questions about the degree of the offender's denial. Does he: deny the actual facts of the offense; deny the wrongness of his actions; minimize his prior offenses; portray himself as the victim; blame others for the crime; holds grudges against the "system"; say his victim "wanted it";  or say therapy is unnecessary.[6]

Reginald A. Wilkinson, the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, says, "Denial is a very powerful force in a sex offender's view of his or her victimizing behavior. Offenders either deny or seriously minimize their deviant behavior. Denial is a formidable obstacle to treatment, or at the least, to getting the offender to take responsibility for what he or she has done." [7]

The higher the degree of a sex offender's denial the higher his score on the assessment tool of future risk to the community.

These assessment tools have proven to be relatively accurate predictors of future risk. A recent study from Colorado found that sex offenders who scored high on the risk tool were 372% more likely to fail in treatment than the offenders who scored low.[8] And treatment failure was, of course, also linked to later re-offense.[9]

The good news and the bad news on treatment is summed up in materials put out by the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers: "By recognizing and changing the thoughts that rationalize and justify sexually abusive behavior, sex offenders can become more aware of the harm caused to victims and view their own behavior differently…. Treatment failure is associated with higher recidivism rates, and some research indicates that sex offenders who successfully complete a treatment program re-offend less often than those who do not demonstrate that they 'got it.'"[10]

The only way that we know when a convicted sex offender has "got it" is when he has stopped denying. Until then, we can only assume he remains a serious risk to the community.



[1] Hanson, R. Karl and Morton-Bourgon, Kelly "Predictors of Sexual Recidivism: An Updated Meta Analysis 2004-02" Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada, Public Works and Government Services Canada, Cat. No.: PS3-1/2004-2E-PDF

[2] Happel, R. M., & Auffrey, J. J. "Sex offender assessment: Interrupting the dance of denial" American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 13(2), 5-22 (1995).

[3] Blanchette, Kelley "Sex Offender Assessment, Treatment and Recidivism: A Literature Review" Research Division, Correctional Services Canada (August, 1996)

[4] Center for Sex Offender Manangement "An Overview of Sex Offender Treatment for a Non-Clinical Audience"

[5] Winn, M. E. (1996). The strategic and systematic management of denial in the cognitive/behavioral treatment of sexual offenders. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 8(1), 25-36.


[7]Sex Offender Risk Reduction Center, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction

[8] English, Retzlaff and Kleinsasser, "The Colorado Sex Offender Risk Scale",  Journal of Sexual Abuse, Vol. 11, Issue 2, p.77 (Dec 2002)

[9] English, Retzlaff and Kleinsasser, "The Colorado Sex Offender Risk Scale",  Journal of Sexual Abuse, Vol. 11, Issue 2, p.91 (Dec 2002)

[10]"Facts About Adult Sex Offenders", The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers