This is part three of my interview with Terry Peterson, MSW, about her work with sexual offenders.
EA: Tell us about what treatment looks like for outpatient sex offenders.
TP: I’m glad you clarified outpatient offenders because inpatient treatment is different, more intensive. Outpatient offenders are generally seen for group therapy once a week. Groups consist of about eight members, all convicted of some type of sexual offense. More and more, the convictions have to do with possession of child pornography. The offenders are commonly seen for a two to three-year period. Additionally, some are seen for individual sessions as well. All are required to undergo a polygraph examination approximately every six months to ensure that they are abiding by their probation orders. They are each followed by a probation officer. Some are involved in substance abuse treatment as well.
EA: Sounds like there could be a lot of collateral work for you.
TP: You think? Absolutely there is. A lot of phone conversations and a lot of paperwork. And meetings. Meetings with probation, with polygraphists, the people who operate the internet filter that keeps offenders from being able to access pornography. Meetings with other family members, church elders, physicians, victim therapists. Some weeks there are more collateral contacts about the client than there are actual appointments with the client.
EA: Is all that extra work necessary?
TP: I think so. It forms a community to help keep people safe. Like it or not, these offenders are members of the community and most of the time I think we have an obligation not just to potential victims but to these offenders as well. After all, it was our culture that these guys grew up in. There must have been something about it that triggered abusive behavior. For example, I don’t think our society does its best job in teaching men how to manage emotions. Conversely, I’m not sure we’re at our best when we raise daughters to devalue themselves and thus leave themselves open for exploitation. It’s more complicated than that, but it’s the basic picture. We all live and grow together. Sometimes we screw up and sometimes we don’t understand why. That’s what treatment should do. Teach us how that happened and how to fix it.
EA: When you’re retired, will you miss anything about this kind of work?
TP: Well, I can tell you what I won’t miss. I won’t miss speeding through town and running up and down the halls of the courthouse hoping I’ll make it to a hearing on time. I won’t miss written quarterly client reviews. I won’t miss watching men board the bus for prison when there was no rational reason for it to end that way. I won’t miss people telling me I’m wasting my time treating sex offenders. But, I will miss feeling that I’m contributing to the larger societal picture in a positive way and how this satisfies my obligation as a citizen. I will miss seeing the light go on over an offender’s head when he finally gets it. For that matter, I will miss seeing the light go on over one of those collateral contact’s head when he or she finally gets that in order to solve the riddle of sexual abuse, we must work together and acknowledge the victim’s pain as well as the offender’s. Sometimes it’s an unusual Folie a deux we’re working with and that can be extremely challenging and rewarding.
EA: Folie a deux?
TP: It’s generally seen as a shared psychosis, but I like to think of it as a shared dysfunction in a family. Like an expectation that abuse will happen. There is so much of that in our society. Families with big hopes but with an underlying submission to the idea that things are going to turn out the same. I’ve seen generations of victims and offenders in my work. It’s sad, especially with so much help available out there.
EA: But I thought less than fifty percent of perpetrators who had been molested as children. What do you mean when you talk about generational abuse?
TP: I can see where that might be confusing. What I mean is, well, sexual abuse that happens in families most likely has little to do with sex. It’s the fulfillment of a strong emotional need. And that need must indeed be very strong for it to overcome the perpetrator’s knowledge of right and wrong and to break the taboo against it. If you combine that emotional need with the belief that something sexual can satisfy it (even though it doesn’t), then it’s a set-up for sexual abuse. If a child gives you the attention you crave…
EA: You do realize that there’s probably a lot of you in my character, Dr. Carmen Carillo?
TP: Oh, I see we’re back to you again. I’ve read SCABLANDS and THE YELLOW and I have to say I don’t see it. I’m not quite as spontaneous as Carmen. I do some heavy thinking before I make decisions. I think we share an understanding of how men operate, but the comparison ends there. Besides, isn’t she like thirty years younger than me?
EA: Well, she’s partially you then. Anyway, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. Is there anything else you’d like to say about anything at all?
TP: Yes. Please don’t ask me to do this again. And, thanks you for the kind words. You have been a big supporter of women in this business. Years ago, it felt like we were the token females in a group so men would have someone to play off of, now it feels like we’re the real shrinks. The men still play off us, but we have more respect. But, all that means is I’m old and need to retire.
EA: Well, congratulations and good luck in your retirement. I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of you.
This is part 2 of my interview with Terry Peterson, MSW, a woman who has devoted much of her professional life to evaluating and treating sexual offenders. I have just asked her the big question: Can sex offenders be cured?
TP: Hmm. Can sex offenders be cured? If you mean, can their behavior be stopped, then yes, they can be cured. Before you start yelling, let me amend the statement and say, a good many sexual offenders can be cured. I hate that you used that word…cure…because it’s chock full of controversy and I don’t like that.
EA: Let me ask this then: Is there a type of offender that can’t be cured?
TP: Yes. I have no problem saying that there is a certain subset of offenders that, once caught, should never see the light of day again. These men cannot keep their behavior under control. They can’t stop touching children or raping women and men. Sadistic sexual sadists should never be eligible for parole. But let me put a bullet point next to this rant and say that the percentage of offenders who fit the category of intractable child molester, rapist, killer, is very small compared to the large numbers of offenders who are seen in treatment every year.
EA: In my novel, THE YELLOW, (see how I did that?)…
TP: Oh yes, you’re so subtle in your plugs.
EA: Anyway, in the novel, the protagonist, Dr. Carmen Carillo, faces a group of angry women who would be happy if every single offender on earth were put away for life, or worse.
TP: Yes, and…
EA: Well, don’t you think that’s a bit excessive? No, I retract that question. Have you ever received any blowback from women because of the work you do?
TP: In my personal or in my private life? I guess it doesn’t matter because the answer is the same in both situations. Yes, I have. In different contexts, of course. For example, I’ve been asked by women what have I done to reduce the numbers of POC who are incarcerated for sexual offenses. I wish I had that kind of power. I am very aware that in general POC have a higher rate of incarceration than white folks. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but my guess is that where sexual offenses are concerned, POC are less likely to get treatment and probation than their white counterparts. Another question I get from women has to do with my personal history. I must have been victimized myself and am untreated, or undertreated, otherwise, why would I be working with men like the one who assaulted me. I don’t answer that question because to do so seems tawdry and unnecessary. And maybe a little inappropriate.
EA: Have you ever had women try to interfere negatively with an offender’s treatment, to create an atmosphere for an offender that’s counter-therapeutic?
TP: Are you talking about your novel again? The answer is, not that I know of.
EA: Okay, here’s one I wonder about. So, there you are, alone in a room of maybe eight to ten sex offenders, all of whom have committed an offense against women or children, sometimes men. What does that feel like and what have been your experiences with these men, like say have they ever become inappropriate with you?
TP: I think you already know the answer to that question. Men who are put in that position will resort to what they know to try to reach some level of familiarity. Which means a good many of them will use seduction in its various forms to achieve it. Most aren’t out and out crude, but some think they’re being more hidden than they actually are. Charm, being teacher’s pet, trying to achieve co-therapist status, those are as much forms of seduction as directly giving me the old up and down or being overly direct with language.
EA: But how does it feel?
TP: Nerve-wracking. My days are filled with putting out fires that require a lot of attention. Therefore, in an evening group after just such a day, when a guy tries to tell me I look nice or I’m way too good of a therapist, it wracks my nerves and makes me feel like punching him in the neck. Which wouldn’t be very therapeutic by the way.
EA: So, what would you do in a case like that?
TP: Like it or not, I have the power as therapist. I need to use that power to keep the individual moving ahead. It’s a teaching moment. There are better ways to get your point across with women than trying to bed them. Just a tip to men in general, women tend to listen more closely when your eyes are focused on theirs and not to a point further south.
EA: It’s part of the so-called cure then? To learn new ways to interact with females?
TP: Yes. Oh, EJ, at last a breakthrough for you.
EA: Speaking of that, you seem to use a lot of humor in your work. With such a serious subject, how does humor fit into the grand scheme?
TP: The humor is for me. Ha! Sorry, I couldn’t resist. The very fact that it’s such a serious subject demands that humor be used. Otherwise, how do you break through into the issues that need to be talked about? When I use humor, I’m not making fun of a serious subject, I’m making inroads into an offender’s way of thinking about himself. Once in a while, a man will bring in a joke about an offender. It’s a way to get them to look at themselves psychologically in a less severe manner. It allows them to relax and open up. To experience the gamut of emotions that being honest delivers. I appreciate humor for the power it has over pain.
EA: Well said. It’s almost like you know what you’re talking about.
TP: Are you for real?
Stay tuned for the third and final part of my interview with Terry Peterson where she talks about what treatment looks like for an offender and what life after treatment holds.