CYC-Online 11 DECEMBER 1999
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Perceptions of adolescent sex offenders: From punitive to growth promoting

Grant Charles and Jennifer Collins

This is the first of three articles which will explore the treatment of adolescent sex offenders. This article will examine the importance of developing common definitions of sex offending and alternatively healthy sexuality that fit the day to day needs of Child and Youth Care workers who work with this population of young people. The second article will look at the premises of an effective program. The third article will discuss the dynamics of working with these young people.

Introduction: Defining terms
Child and youth care workers like definitions. Walk into most residential programs and you'll hear staff talking about the clinical descriptions of young people. We talk about the need not to label people yet we often do so. We know that labels describe clusters of behaviors rather than the actual person. We know this yet we still use labels.

There are some positive reasons for using labels. They help us talk a common language. We think that the label gives us a common understanding about a young person. In some cases this is true. For example, when we use the word depression we can usually commonly visualize in our minds what this label means. This helps us develop a common response to the needs of the young person.

We are not always in agreement on the labels that we use as Child and Youth Care workers. Some labels have different meanings to different people. Unfortunately even when we attach different meanings to the same label we think we are talking in a common meaning. This creates confusion both in our conversations with each other and in our interactions with young people.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the use of the term sex offender. The label itself is value laden. We often have a strong emotional response to the term. Some of us have an almost primal response to the label. We think of sex offenders as violent crazed outcasts who lurk in the shadows of our world. We think of sex driven animals who are constantly on the prowl for victims to despoil and destroy.

This is the view held by many people. It is our experience that the predominantly held view in our field is that sex offenders are animals and should be treated as such. We tend to develop programs for adolescent sex offenders that reflect this view. We disguise our response to these young people under a clinical mask, yet our response is dictated by our belief that they are somehow less than human. We would never call these young people animals because Child and Youth Care workers donít use such language. We hide our true feelings behind gentler sounding words yet inside we still think of the young people as being less than human. We think of them as being the worst of the worst.

We lock these young people up. Even in open programs we severely restrict their movements. If we donít actually put them in physical cages then we put them in metaphorical cages that set them apart from others. We set them apart from others as if their mere presence contaminates the rest of us. Of all the young people we work with these are the ones most in need of our help. Yet they are the ones who receive the least services. They are the ones who are the most marginalized.

It is our experience that we recreate in the programs for these young people the conditions that created them in the first place. Many of the programs focus upon control and punitive measures. The emphasis is usually upon the ďsex offender" and not the young person as a whole. The belief seems to be if you can correct the sex offenderís wrong thinking than their behavior will change. However, it is a commonly held belief that even with the best of treatment they will always be dangerous and that once a sex offender always a sex offender.

This does not make sense to us. In our experience by far the majority of the ďadolescent sex offenders" we have worked with respond very well to treatment. With the proper assistance and a supportive program these young people find more appropriate ways of getting their needs met. Most of the young people we have worked with begin to make healthy connections with other people. Most are capable of integrating back into their communities. The key is to treat the young people like humans, not dangerous animals.

The program
The two of us worked for a number of years with the Phoenix Adolescent Sex Offender Program at Wood's Homes in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Phoenix is an eight bed residential program, with a small outpatient component attached to it. The average age of the young men in the program is 15 years of age. The average stay in the program is one year. Prior to coming to the program most of the young men have committed multiple sex offenses. Some have committed over 100 offenses. The young people come to the program from across the country (Charles, Dale, & Collins, 1995). The program has been running for over ten years.

One of the first tasks that needed to be completed when the program was established was for the staff to develop a commonly held definition of what constituted sex offending. This was much more difficult than was initially anticipated. Indeed, it took a number of years to complete this task. Initially the definition developed reflected the views put forth by the criminal justice system. That is that a sex offense is a crime. Sex offending is, of course, a crime. However, we found the definition under our criminal code to be too static to be helpful from a treatment perspective. We needed a definition that would help the young men move toward developing healthy relationships rather than just stop committing a series of outlawed behaviors. As such we began to discuss the young men's behavior in terms of appropriate versus inappropriate sexuality.

A framework
While at first we wanted a simple, one statement-fits-all kind of definition about what makes sexuality appropriate versus inappropriate, we found that a more detailed framework allows for a more experiential view of sexuality. One needs to consider the dynamics of a situation rather than hoping to slot behavior into static definitions. Sanders (1997), the programís psychiatric consultant, proposed a framework, which we found to be very useful in guiding our thoughts about what is appropriate sexuality and in providing part of the base for treatment with adolescents who have sexually offended. The following five words and the corresponding dynamics are used to understand healthy sexuality. The five words are:


The first word, volition, refers to both people in the sexual encounter having made a free choice to be sexually involved in the activity while mutuality involves both people having an understanding of what each of them intends from the experience. When both people are aroused physically and emotionally this tends to mean that they do not need to worry about the otherís arousal as the arousal of each person feeds off the otherís. The fourth aspect of healthy sexuality involves both people feeling free to be physically and emotionally vulnerable and open. Lastly, we consider trust to be part of healthy sexuality. This ties in closely with the idea of vulnerability. One needs to trust that the other partner will not betray, make fun of or in some way respond in a diminishing manner to oneís openness and vulnerability.

These five words can be put into three groups to help us further understand them. Volition and mutuality together speak to people acting with loving responsibility. This is responsibility that ensures both oneself and the other person are making mutual, free choices about their involvement. Secondly, arousal is in a group of its own where the arousal of each person indicates a sense of selfullness. Selfullness is in contrast to selfishness, as the former refers to taking personal responsibility for oneís arousal and allowing oneself to fully feel it, which in turn can heighten the otherís arousal. Whereas, selfishness means that a person is getting their own sexual arousal at the expense of the other. The third group involves vulnerability and trust under the heading of loving intimacy. Trust and intimacy need to occur in order for there to be loving intimacy between two people who are involved sexually.

Some people would like to add some extra words to this framework, such as romantic love and commitment. If these extra aspects were present in a sexual encounter the experience would likely be pleasurably heightened even more. However, while these extra aspects would add to a sexual experience, they are not necessary in order for the experience to be respectful, enjoyable and healthy.

Appropriate sexuality
This framework of the five words and three groupings helps us to look at the appropriateness of sexuality. When applied to ďreal life situations" the application of the framework becomes even clearer. Letís take the example of a prostitute and her ďjohn". In this instance, both the prostitute and the john have made a choice about engaging in an act. There is also careful, judicious trust. However, they do not share mutual experiences or intentions, or arousal, or vulnerability in their interaction. In the example of an adolescent who sexually assaults another person, none of the five words are applicable. There is not mutual choice or experience. Arousal is not the same for both persons and there is obviously not openness and trust.

We found that the young people we worked with were most often desiring and even desperate for the sense of connection and pleasure that a sexual experience with the five words would bring. However, for many reasons, they focused on the sexual behavior itself thinking that this enactment would bring them what they wanted. They exploited others in a sexual manner. Yet, as part of treatment it becomes critical to assist the young people with understanding that specific sexual behaviors are not what make up sexuality. Following from this is the understanding that sexual assault isnít about sex, it is about assault. The young people thought that because they were doing a sexual act during their assault that they were therefore having sex. This is not so and this understanding is critical in order to begin to guide the young people toward an understanding of what sexuality is truly about and what it involves. This is where the five words come into play.

In teachable moments, in conversations, in individual and group therapy we used the framework and its five words. While we didnít always necessarily use the specific words we spoke of the dynamics around each of the words and tailored the language to the young person if need be. These discussions allowed for the young people to have a clear idea of where they were headed. The framework provided a place to grow toward, rather than just expecting the young people not to commit sexual offenses anymore.


Charles, G., Dale, K. & Collins, J. (1995). Final report of the difficult to serve adolescent sexual offender project. (Health Canada #4887-09-91-083). Wood's Homes, Calgary, Alberta.

Sanders, G.L. (1997). Recovering from paraphilia: An adolescentís journey from despair to hope. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 11, (1), 43-54.

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