What Happens When A Sex Offender Seeks Counseling

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell.
Last Thursday, Harvey Weinstein was fired from the Weinstein Company after a New York Times investigation reported that he had sexually assaulted women for decades. Right before his firing, Weinstein sent an email to agents and industry executives begging them to support him and promising to seek treatment.
"All I’m asking is let me take a leave of absence and get into heavy therapy and counseling. Whether it be in a facility or somewhere else, allow me to resurrect myself with a second chance," he wrote, according to The New York Times. "A lot of the allegations are false as you know but given therapy and counseling as other people have done, I think I’d be able to get there." (For the record, more than a dozen people, including Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, have come forward with either sexual harassment or sexual assault allegations since Thursday. So "second chance" would be quite the understatement.)
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Then yesterday, in a statement to The New Yorker, a spokesperson for Weinstein "unequivocally denied" all allegations of nonconsensual sex, and confirmed that Weinstein had begun counseling. This is a tricky situation, because given this context, it seems as though Weinstein is positioning his counseling as a way out of actual legal, social, and professional repercussions for his alleged crimes. But what happens when a sex offender seeks counseling? And does psychological treatment for sex offenders really work? In other words, what kind of a promise is this, really?
Here's what we do know about treatment for sex offenders: It can work, as long as the person is motivated to change, explains Dawn E. Horwitz-Person, LMFT, a therapist in Chico, CA, who specializes in the treatment of sex offenders, and who has treated thousands of patients. Some research has shown that offenders who receive treatment are less likely to have a repeat offense compared to those who don't seek treatment — although recidivism studies are very difficult to track, due to the nature of how sexual assault is reported and the varying definitions of "sexual offenses," Horwitz-Person says. "But that said, I want to say that I see people's belief systems change dramatically as a result of treatment."

They have to take a look at their whole life, how they developed these thought processes, and how they got themselves to the place where they learned about sex, power, and control.

Dawn E. Horwitz-Person, LMFT
According to Horwitz-Person, people who seek treatment for sex offenses tend to have a common "series of thinking errors and cognitive distortions." They might blame their victims or the system, justify their behaviors, and/or take advantage of positions of power, she says. But not everyone who offends is exactly the same, so treatment has to be tailored to fit the individual, says Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. "People do offend for really different reasons, so understanding whether it's sexual interest or a combination of attitudes is really important," Christopher says. "We really need to look at people individually."
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Horwitz-Person's role as a clinician is to help people realize their process, then adjust and change their thinking. Often that involves creating an in-depth relapse prevention plan with help from their support team, a group of volunteers and other professionals, who come in and review a person's offenses, she says. "We talk about triggers, we talk about relapse, we talk about distorted thinking — and their support team knows everything about them, and agrees to help support them."
Usually treatment is not a quick fix, and will also entail difficult homework assignments, which require deep introspection. For many people, treatment takes about three years. "They have to take a look at their whole life, how they developed these thought processes, and how they got themselves to the place where they learned about sex, power, and control," she says. In essence, treatment involves sex offenders really taking a look at what got them there. And unfortunately, that's not a very easy achievement to measure.
One important distinction to make here is that Weinstein isn't being forced to go to treatment — rather, he's presenting it as a plea to "resurrect" himself. According to Horwitz-Person, the vast majority of people she treats are forced to seek treatment in one way or another, either because they are on probation or parole and are mandated to undergo treatment, or because a friend or family gave them an ultimatum. "Sometimes, along the way, they get that they need treatment, and sometimes they don't and they're just doing it to look good or sound good," she says.
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But as a society in general, we don't make it very easy for people to reach out for help or mental health assistance, Christopher says. And this is especially true for sex offenders, since mandatory reporting laws in many states require therapists to send offenders right into the criminal justice system. (Though there are confidential hotlines that sex offenders may use — Stop It Now has one, for example — as a way to prevent sexual abuse.)
Only time will tell what will happen with Weinstein, but it's hard to view his promise to seek treatment in a vacuum and forget the fact that he's an incredibly wealthy and influential person who has the resources and know-how to weasel his way out of the criminal justice system. The critical point here is that Weinstein isn't owning up to any of the alleged behavior. If this isn't a desperate attempt for absolution, why would he seek treatment for crimes he claims he didn't commit? Not to mention, if Weinstein has been shrewd enough to publicly deny all of the allegations against him, it doesn't seem likely at this point that he's prepared to take treatment seriously.
Ultimately, Weinstein's promise raises more questions than answers, but one thing is clear: If a "second chance" and the ability to "resurrect" himself publicly remain his only motivating factors, any treatment will fall on deaf ears.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
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