Warning: The following review includes details about sexual abuse against children which readers may find upsetting
From the opening moments of Can Sex Offenders Change? the hairs on the back of your neck will stand on end. During the documentary you might think you don’t want to hear any more. It will make you feel angry; it might make you feel sick. At times it is almost impossible to watch.
It opens with a man called Andrew (not his real name) sitting in the passenger seat of a car. His face is obscured but we see his hands and his hoodie as we hear him recount an experience of walking home one summer’s day. He passes a house where a children’s party is taking place in the garden. Kids are running around and playing. Some of them are naked. "When you are trying so much to avoid those things and it’s just there, it’s so hard… and it’s always my fault. It’s always my fault for being attracted to those children."
That sentence alone is sinister enough but imagine what it’s like to hear as a survivor of sexual abuse. That is exactly what happened to Becky, the young woman sitting calmly in the driver’s seat next to him, listening intently.
Becky Southworth was 13 when her abuser – her father – was arrested and jailed for 10 years for sexual abuse against children. He underwent a rehabilitation programme and was released two years ago. Although she wants no contact with her father, Becky was fearful for herself and others – she needed to know if, once released, he and other sex offenders were still a danger to society.
"I want a world where we all feel a bit safer…I don’t want any more victims," she says. For that to happen, the rehabilitation programmes have to work. "I want to believe these programmes are working," Becky states, but how can we know if they are?
This is the central question this challenging and complex film seeks to uncover. It’s not the first time this subject matter has been tackled but this BBC documentary with Becky in the driving seat (literally – much of it is filmed in her Kia) has no time for moral outrage and casts a cold eye on a subject most are too fearful even to mention. We don’t just get to hear from survivors, we see everything through a survivor’s eyes, processing emotions in real time as Becky confronts offenders and relentlessly questions the efficacy of the rehabilitation programmes. The effect is 100 times more powerful than anything Louis Theroux could ever dream of.
Andrew was convicted of downloading hundreds of indecent images of children yet like many other convicted sex offenders he has not been to prison. It’s shocking to hear him describe how paedophilia was part of his "normal life" until he started therapy. He explains that he still has to work on the issue of seeing children naked and without warning, which generates "sexual frustration".
Seen through the survivor's eyes, the effect of the documentary is 100 times more powerful than anything Louis Theroux could ever dream of.
Despite this, when asked if he identifies as a paedophile today, he answers "no". During the meeting with Becky, Andrew describes his own childhood trauma as a way to explain his criminal behaviour. Driving away, Becky tries to process the idea that abuse creates an abuser. She is living proof that it doesn’t have to be the case. She wrestles with it aloud: "Knowing the pain you felt, I don’t know why you would want anyone to feel this way…I can’t make sense of that."
Later, we are given a fly-on-the-wall view of Andrew’s twice-weekly psychotherapy sessions with an organisation called StopSO. He has been having these sessions for 18 months but even after assurances of the treatment’s efficacy from the therapist, both Becky and the viewer are left unconvinced or with any sense of assurance that Andrew’s attraction to children has gone away.
The common theory that addiction to pornography can lead to the use of child pornography is also explored. Kyle (again, not his real name) is 22. He was arrested at 19 for possession of indecent images of children. He says isolation and depression led him to use harmful sexual images to make himself feel better. He describes moving from disturbing materials to "something slightly worse and worse" in order to feel an adrenaline rush. Asked if he regrets his crimes he says yes and that he’s learned someone has been abused to create the image he’s clicked on and therefore created demand for.
Cofounder of the Safer Living Foundation, Professor Belinda Winder is featured in the documentary. Professor Winder explains that the foundation's work (which they rarely publicise as threats are not uncommon) is about preventing future offenders. She states that they have treated 60 high-risk individuals and only one has reoffended. She says the solution to this complex crime is giving offenders a space in society – reducing isolation, finding them something meaningful to do with their lives. Becky observes one of the therapy sessions with Kyle and leaves conflicted – knowing he has support makes her hopeful but what, she wonders, will happen once he leaves the programme?
As Becky goes further (also interviewing the partner of a man who is a convicted sex offender) in search of answers, more questions are raised. Is it possible to separate the abuse from the abuser? When does someone stop becoming a risk to society? If the only way to rehabilitate sex offenders is by having them play active roles in society, must we trust that the rehabilitation programmes work even if it means exposing to risk the children we are supposed to protect?
Gritty, grim, gruelling – these words don’t come close to describing the subject matter of this hourlong film. To say it is unsettling is an understatement: it’s hard enough to face up to the fact that sex offenders exist, let alone accept that they live in every country and community. It’s natural to want to look away or switch off and for those survivors of abuse, it's a necessary survival technique. But for the rest of us, if we turn away too, what changes?
If you have experienced any kind of sexual abuse, please visit Mind for a comprehensive list of organisations that offer help to everyone from adult victims of childhood abuse to those dealing with it in the present day.
Can Sex Offenders Change? airs on BBC One on Thursday 20th August at 10.45pm and will be available to stream on BBC Three shortly after