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.