Psychological Concepts for Sex Offenders: A cognitive aspect Essay

The most important prerequisite of a person whose specialization involves sex offenders is the understanding of how and why some people turn out to be sexual deviants, there are several psychological theories that attempt to explain this. It is important to note that no single theory can encompass the subtleties and individual differences of each sexual predator. The theories presented are therefore only some of the important perspectives needed to fully understand sex offenders.

  Freud’s Psychodynamic Theory suggests that the three constructs of the psyche (id, ego, and superego) are in constant turmoil over energy. Some theorists imply that sexual offenders have very weak superegos (morals) and very powerful ids (sexual impulses, libido). Freud also developed and expanded the idea of the unconscious, and numerous defense mechanisms to protect a person’s ego. Sexual offenders overly rely on the defenses of denial, displacement, and projection. Also at play would be the mother-son relationship. There is research to substantiate that the mother-son relationship is qualitatively different in sexual offenders than in non-offenders. Many times the sex offender’s mother may be “hot and cold”, “loving and hating”. Furthermore, many mothers initiate covert incest with their son. With covert incest, there is no physical sexual relationship between the mother and son; the mother tends to make her son into her spouse, save the sex. All of the aforementioned concepts would shape the young man into a sexual deviant. (Rosenberg ; Associates, n.d.)

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Cognitive Behavioral Theory suggests that irrational beliefs and cognitive distortions help to initiate sexual deviancy. Soon after, the offender becomes conditioned to negative sexual stimuli, with “orgasm” being the reinforcer. These constructs combined, create persistent patterns on how the offender behaves as well as views the world. The secrecy, among other constructs, soon becomes part of the conditioned response and perpetuates the deviancy. The Learning Theory is also a significant component of this approach. Children who are sexually abused learn sex through inappropriate means, and if exposed enough, children may internalize this learned behavior. Sex offenders do appear to view the world differently than “normal” men–they perceive women, children, sex, and arousal qualitatively different. When this occurs after a long period of time, the offender begins to behave accordingly. Many times the sexual offender suffers from chronic low grade depression, very low self esteem, has been ridiculed his entire life, and so forth. These traits tend to distort the offenders view of the world, and, for the molester, he may find comfort and acceptance in the victims he so desires. Immaturity is a trademark of the child molester. This appears to occur due to the fact that he has not advanced emotionally since his tormented adolescent years. (Rosenberg & Associates, n.d.)

The Quadripartite Model addresses the causes of sexual aggression in particular. The components of the model–physiological sexual arousal, cognitions that justify sexual aggression, affective dyscontrol, and personality problems–function as motivational precursors that increase the probability of sexually aggressive behavior (Hall and Hirshman. 1991). They first claim that sexually aggressive offenders distinctively employ techniques of “neutralization” and rationalization, These techniques of accounting for one’s criminal impulses include: denying that there was a victim of one’s crime, denying that there was an injury resulting from the crime, denying that one is even responsible for committing the crime, condemning those who sanction the crime, and appealing to one’s own concepts of “greater good,” such as the need to satisfy one’s tension, provide for one’s family, and so on. For rapists, Hall and Hirschman note anger management problems as among the top list of priorities for treatment. In addition, psychopathic or antisocial tendencies are significant contributor’s to violence, especially demeaning and demoralizing violence, against women.

Another main concern is the treatment and rehabilitation of sex offenders. The objective is to be able to let them return to society without being a threat to others.

Therapies for sex offenders typically have at least one of the following three goals: to modify cognitions and social skills to allow more appropriate sexual interactions with adults, to modify patterns of sexual arousal, or to reduce sexual drive. Attempts to modify Sexual arousal patterns usually involve aversion therapy. This type of therapy finds its roots in B.F. Skinner’s Instrumental or Operant conditioning, wherein an individual learns how to achieve a desired goal. The goal in question may be to obtain something that is rewarding or to escape from something that is unpleasant. New responses are learned and tend to recur if they are reinforced (Carson, Butcher ; Mineka.2000).

In aversion therapy a paraphilic stimulus such as a slide of a nude pre-pubescent girl for a pedophile, is paired with an aversive event, such as forced inhalation of noxious odors or a shock to the arm. Alternatively, inhalation of the noxious odors or delivery of the shock may be conditional on penile response; if penile erection exceeds some minimum criterion, shock occurs, otherwise, no shock occurs. An alternative to electric aversion therapy is covert sensitization, in which the patient imagines a highly aversive event while viewing a paraphilic stimulus, or assisted covert sensitization in which a foul odor is introduced to induce nausea at the point of peak arousal. Another method for reducing deviant arousal is satiation, in which the patient first masturbates to orgasm while fantasizing about sexually appropriate scenes then continues masturbating after switching to paraphilic fantasies. The deviant fantasy is continued for an hour each session, the goal being to produce boredom (Maletzky, 1998).

Reduction of deviant sexual arousal is probably insufficient. Deviant arousal patterns need to be replaced by arousal to acceptable stimuli (Maletzky, 1998; Quinsey and Earls, 1990). Most often investigators have attempted to pair the pleasurable stimuli of orgasm with sexual fantasies involving sex between consenting adults. Patients are asked to masturbate while thinking of deviant fantasies. At the moment of ejaculatory inevitability, the patient switches his fantasy to a more appropriate theme. The moment of switching themes is gradually moved backward in time until, ideally, the patient can rely entirely on appropriate themes. Both therapies are intended to reduce inappropriate sexual arousal, and those intended to increase non-deviant sexual arousal have been shown to be somewhat effective in the laboratory (Maletzky, 1998; Quinsey and Earls, 1990). However, there are at least two concerns about their practical effectiveness. First, some sex offenders can fake phaliometric reference of sexual preference by inhibiting their attention to the deviant stimuli (Maletzky, 1998; Quinsey et al., 1990). Thus their actual sexual preferences may not change despite apparent progress. Second, the laboratory is an artificial setting, and it is important to demonstrate that therapeutic change generalizes to the patients outside world which may be especially problematic if his motivation wanes following treatment.

            Cognitive restructuring attempts to eliminate sex offenders’ cognitive distortions. The reason is that this may play a role in sexual abuse (Maletzky, 1998). The use of Rationalization, an ego defense mechanism involving the use of contrived explanations to conceal or disguise unworthy motives for one’s behavior (Carson et al., 2000) is a method often used by sex offenders .For example, an incest offender who stated “If my ten year old daughter had said no, I would have stopped,” might be challenged about a number of implied distortions. For example, he has implied that a child can consent to have sex with an adult, that if a child does not say no, she has consented, and that it is the child’s responsibility to stop sexual contact. The treatment process will confront thinking errors and attempt to correct them so that the offender will accept responsibility for his actions. Developing victim empathy is also important, part of the denial and deceit that sex offenders employ is that the victim is somehow complicit in the activity, did not really mind, and—at least—was not really harmed. Being able to understand the fear and trauma experienced by the victim is an important goal of therapy. (CSOM, n.d.) Another approach is to have offenders who have been sexually abused themselves recount their experience, and then link these experiences with those of the offenders’ victims.

Social-skills training aims to help sex offenders (especially rapists) learn to process social information more effectively (Maletzky, 1998). For example some men read positive sexual connotations into women’s neutral or negative messages, or believe that women’s refusals of sexual advances reflect “playing hard-to-get.” Training typically involves interactions of patients and female partners, who can give the patients feedback on their response to their interaction. Cognitive treatment of sex offenders has shown some promise, although relevant studies have some important limitations. Social-skills training by itself have not yet received solid empirical support (Maletzky, 1998; Marshall and Barabaree, 1990).

Cognitive neuroscience suggests that sexual offenders produce more testosterone than non-offenders. The production of testosterone is in the testes; thereby removing the testes reduces or eliminates testosterone (either surgically or chemically).

Castration is the most controversial treatment for sex offenders. Castration comes in two forms, the surgical removal of the testes, and hormonal treatment or chemical castration (Bradford, 1990). Both methods lower the level of testosterone in a body which corresponds to a lower sex drive; this allows the offender to resist any inappropriate impulses.


Bradford, J.M., (1990). The antiandrogen and hormonal treatment for sex offenders. In W.L. Marshall, D.R. Laws ; H.E. Barbaree (eds.), Handbook of sexual assault : Issues, theories, and treatment of the offender. New York: Plenum, 363-385.

Carson, R.C., Butcher, J.N., Mineka, S. (2000). Abnormal psychology and modern life eleventh edition. Pearson Education Pte Ltd, Singapore, 448-449, 85.

CSOM – Center for Sex Offender Management, (n.d.). Section 4: Lecture Content and Teaching Notes. Sex Offender Specific Treatment in the Context of Supervision. Retrieved May 7, 2010 from:

Hall G.C., Hirschman, R. (1991). Toward a theory of sexual aggression: a quadripartite model. Department of Psychology, Kent State University, Ohio 44242-0001, 1.

Maletzky, B.M. (1998). The paraphilias: research and treatment. In P.E. Nathan ; J.M. Gorman (Eds.), A guide to treatments that work. New York Oxford University Press, 472-500.

Marshall, W.L., Barbaree, H.E. (1990). Outcome of comprehensive cognitive behavioral treatment programs. In W.L. Marshall, D.R. Laws ; H.E. Barbaree (eds.), Handbook of sexual assault : Issues, theories, and treatment of the offender. New York: Plenum, 363-385.

Quinsey, V.L., ; Earls, C.M. (1990). The modification of sexual preferences. In W.L. Marshall, D.R. Laws, ; H.E. Barbaree (Eds.), Handbook of sexual assault: Issues, theories, and treatment of the offender. New York: Plenum, 279-295.

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