BVU event: Can sex offenders be treated?
STORM LAKE — The timing wasn’t intended, but the visit of a social worker specializing in sexual abusers did serve to shed some light on a subject that has dominated the national news in recent weeks.
Susan Ullman, the operator of the country’s only outpatient clinic for adult sex offenders, as well as a frequent court expert witness on sexual abuse cases, sought to share understanding on the causes of the crimes and potential treatment.
“Why do I work with people nobody else wants to work with?” she queried a crowd of about 50 students packing a Science Center classroom Monday. “Contrary to popular belief, most are treatable, and the recidivism rate is lower than other types of crimes.”
Many of the people she works with are mentally ill sex offenders. They may alternate from homelessness to jail and back again.
“The goal is to try to intervene in that cycle,” she said.
Providing this therapy can be stressful, but, she advised the students, it is a field hungry for new professionals. In fact, in her county of 200,000 people in Ohio, she is the only person working with adult offenders.
Complicating matters is the fact that different states have different ideas of what an offender is. In a recent high profile case where a 17-year-old Florida teen ran off with a 27-year-old soccer coach, the coach can be prosecuted because the age of consent in the state where they were found is under 18, though it is 18 in his home state. In other states it is as young as 14 and such an incident would not be considered a sex crime. In Iowa and a majority of states, age of consent is 16, she said. Depending on the age of the offender, the same crime may be a felony in one state and a misdemeanor in another.
“It’s difficult for people to understand,” she said.
Social workers refer to some cases as “Romeo and Juliet” syndrome — a person of perhaps 20 thinking impulsively they are in love with a 15-year-old. The day a person turns 18 they are treated by the legal system as an adult, but the mind does not really mature until age 25 or 26 for most people.
“You aren’t suddenly handed this great maturity on your 18th birthday,” Ullman said.
Not all cases are cut and dried good and evil, she notes.
In some cases she works with men who were convicted, though they didn’t know their partner was under age. One man at 20 dated a girl who told him she was 18 — but in reality was 15.
“Now his life is ruined, and he will be on the offender registry for the next 25 years, can’t get a job, can’t get a place to live, can’t get a girlfriend, because his name is on that registry,” she said.
In another case, a man was approached by a female who claimed to have gone to high school with him. She then stalked him on Facebook, they wound up sleeping together, she took pictures of him on her cell phone which her father later found, and he was arrested, learning only then that the girl was much younger than she had claimed.
In those situations, the individual may be an adult, but often is far from adult emotionally.
Still other cases emerge from cultural confusion. Some immigrants come to the U.S. from cultures where an adult male having a relationship with a girl of 13 or 14 is common and accepted, and they are shocked when they are arrested for approaching underage girls here.
No one is born a sex offender, it is a learned behavior, Ullman told the group. Not all sex offenders are pedophiles and not all pedophiles are sex offenders.
Often, the crimes seem to be triggered by trauma in the offender’s life — a break up, a loss of a job. While some people react by getting drunk or beating a spouse, others with poor coping skills use sex to deal with their sense of powerlessness and anger. In an incest situation, an offender often seeks to replace a wife or girlfriend when that relationship breaks down with an adolescent in their family.
Offenders who commit a sex crime against a stranger are more likely to reoffend than someone who abuses a family member or someone else known to them. The younger a person is when they commit their crime, the better the odds they will do it again, she says.
Other offenders are paraphilia — people with some kink they cannot control. Some are relatively benign, such as a fetish for women’s shoes, while others, like sadism, or auto-erotic asphyxiation — self-hanging of the kind that killed actor David Caradine, can be dangerous or deadly. As a native of New York, she said subways are crowded with people who get pleasure from trying to rub up against strangers in public places — like subways or clubs. Sexually-motivated addictions are not so much like a physical drug addiction, but closer to psychological disfunctions like gambling addictions, the social worker finds.
Another group she encounters are what she calls “entitled rapists” — the Stanford swimmer who was convicted of raping an unconscious victim behind a dumpster is a “poster boy” for such an issue (he now lives just a few miles from Ullman). People with this disfunction feel they are superior and are owed sex, possibly as payback for paying for dinner or drinks. If they are denied, they may fly into a rage and force their victim into sex.
Ullman said that when she accepted the invitation to come to BVU, from a former colleague and current BVU professor, she had no idea the celebrity sex abuser situation was about to blow up. These people are a part of the “entitled” group.
“Typically they are never charged, or pay off their victims to drop their cases,” she said.
For them taking sexual advantage of others gives a sense of power, satisfies a rampant need for attention and recognition of their status.
In the past she has also done group therapy with female offenders, though those cases are much more rare. In those cases, the woman is often in a nurturing role over their victim — a babysitter, or a teacher. They are also more likely than males to have a co-defendant, as in a female and a male abusing a victim together. She said that unlike males, she has never seen a “violent” female sex abuser.
Cyberspace has opened up many opportunities for sex offenders to troll for victims, including the many online dating sites. She noted that some offenders she works with tried to proposition what they thought were children online, only to find that they were communicating with an FBI officer.
In a recent landmark case, a Swedish man was convicted of rape for online communication without any physical contact with his 27 victims in the U.S. and Canada, some still unidentified. The man would threaten to post photos of the victims that he had obtained online onto pornography sites, or even to harm their families, unless the young victims agreed to perform sex acts for him by webcam.
Social media stalkers are also common, using spyware to locate potential victims. They target people with low self-esteem and history of physical or emotional problems, gain their trust, gradually desensitize them into talking about sex, and eventually attempt to arrange meetings. Ullman stressed that physical contact is not required for charges to be filed — once an adult makes arrangements to meet with a juvenile they have courted online, they would be considered a sex offender.
Society isn’t helping the situation, she noted, passing around a mail flyer put out by Victoria’s Secret clothing store, featuring very young looking models in skimpy underwear. She said she hopes the models are actually 18, but that the images seem to make it okay to sexualize adolescents.
Treatment involves assessment of risk, according to the 30-year veteran of the field. Those who are able to find stability in relationships are less likely to reoffend. Group therapy can be helpful, and in some cases medication is used that can treat hypersexuality, or in the most extreme cases, block testosterone and prevent the male from being able to achieve intercourse.
The goal for treatment used to be containment of past offenders, but now it has become more about ways to reduce risk while allowing the person to “still have a good life,” Ullman said.
She completed her visit with a few words of warning for her young audience.
Mistaking sex for love is an underlying issue for many of the people she ends up working with.
“If you are engaging in sex the first time you meet someone, you are screaming for disaster,” she said.