Sexual violence offenders

Prevention and intervention approaches
ACSSA Issues No. 5 – June 2006

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Conclusions and future directions

In the last 35 years, research into sexual violence has identified it as a major form of gender oppression. This has been highlighted by the emphasis on the criminalisation of male sexual violence against women. Importantly, in sexual violence, it has been recognised that the perpetrator is more often known to the person than a stranger. Nevertheless, perceptions of what constitutes sexual violence and how to respond have been overshadowed by morality and punishment paradigms. Concerns about sexual offender numbers and recidivism have led to treatment programs targeted at men as the main means to stop sexual violence. The focus of these programs has been on men who were found guilty of sexual offences in the criminal justice system, but such men represent a very small proportion of the total number of those committing sexual violence against women.

Criminal justice system definitions of sexual assault, while focusing on perpetrator behaviour, vary between Australian state and territory jurisdictions. Offenders are commonly categorised by the types of sexual offences they perpetrate and by victim characteristics; for example, 'child molester', 'paedophile' and 'rapist'. Such behavioural interpretations do not adequately take into account common unwanted experiences of sexual violence that many women experience, including coercion, harassment and intimidation. This is indicated by Australian and international studies of the self-reporting of sexual violence by victims, where hidden forms of such violence are shown to be a common experience for many women from a person well known to them. Surveys also reveal how few sexual assaults are reported to the police.

Traditional approaches to preventing sexual violence have been critiqued for placing blame - and responsibility - with the victim rather than the perpetrator of the violence. Further, rape avoidance strategies, under the banner of prevention, can perpetuate the myth that sexual violence occurs mainly in public places, rather than in private spaces.

Concerns about the dangerousness of sex offenders, particularly child sex offenders, have led to interest in treatment programs for such perpetrators. Treatment programs are primarily group programs with adolescent and adult men who are known to have committed sexual offences against women and/or children. In general, the treatment orientation of sex offender programs is the same whether sexual offences are committed against children or adults. The program evaluations show varying levels of success in reducing recidivism, compared to non-treatment offenders. How recidivism is measured and over what time period all impact on determining 'success'. Schweitzer and Dwyer (2003) argued that evaluations of the effectiveness of sex offender treatment programs need to follow convicted sex offenders for 10 years post-release from custody. Hall (1995) took this further by stating that sex offenders may continue to be at risk of sexually re-offending for more than 20 years post-treatment. It is evident that there is a need to follow the offenders over a long period of time to evaluate the effectiveness of sex offender treatment programs.

In seeking to answer the question, 'Does sex offender treatment work?', Marques (1999, p. 438) acknowledged that there has been progress in determining the effectiveness of sex offender treatment programs. Marques argued that there are some specific questions about treatment programs targeting child and adult sex offenders that need to be answered:

  • Which treatments work with which kinds of offenders (identified using factors such as who the victims were, the types of offences committed, the personal characteristics of the offender and the social circumstances of the offender)?
  • What is the optimal combination of inpatient and aftercare services?
  • How do we determine when offenders are ready for less restrictive treatment environments?

Other areas needing greater attention and development in stopping sexual violence include responses to male-to-male sexual violence and sexual violence among same-sex couples.

It does appear that there is some value in continuing to invest in the popular cognitive behavioural programs and in the monitoring and surveillance of sex offenders to deter their violence. We would caution against the strengths-based or good lives approach being adopted at this stage. Although it has worked effectively with those who have been de-powered and victimised for a long time, there is limited evidence that such an approach is valid for those who have chosen to abuse their power through sexual violence towards women and children.

Contemporary gender theorists have attempted to explain sexual violence as the product of unequal power relations, rather than a psychopathological condition. Such explanations of sexual violence have been applied in prevention programs, but treatment programs for sex offenders still overwhelmingly rely on pathological and psychological explanations. Treatment programs generally are geared towards incarcerated and convicted offenders. Thus, it is important to conceptualise intervention programs beyond pathological and conviction approaches. In this respect, social theory, in areas such as masculinity, that have been associated with sexual violence can be better utilised for education, prevention and treatment programs.

In terms of the organisation of tertiary responses to sexual violence, the development of greater links between sex offenders' treatment programs and services for women and children affected by sexual violence could serve to improve the overall strength of response to sexual violence in the community. These organisations are often vastly different in mandate and theoretical underpinnings; however, collaboration does offer a more complete picture of sexual violence.

Prevention programs include strategies such as education programs and public awareness campaigns, although evaluating their effectiveness is often inadequate due to small sample sizes and reliance on male participants to self-report behaviour. To some extent, the federal government campaign 'Violence Against Women: Australia says No' has challenged men more broadly to consider acts of violence. In addition, men need to be given alternatives to the message of 'don't do it'. There remains a need for greater attention to be given to attitudes and values that contribute to the tolerance of sexual violence and exploitation of women. Future programs should not only focus on explicit acts of sexual violence against women, but also on a range of attitudes, behaviours and acts of sexual violence that remain hidden or accepted as normal heterosexual practice. In order to address these more subtle forms of sexual violence, programs should more critically address social conditions which condone and minimise such violence. Furthermore, they need to offer alternatives of what constitutes respectful and non-violent relationships.

Importantly, prevention activities must also offer alternative tangible and sustainable ways of having an intimate relationship in a society where gender inequality in heterosexual relationships is presented in popular culture as normal. In this respect, Carmody's (2003b) innovative ideas about ethical sexuality offer the possibility of a model that develops a script for equality and non-violence in intimate relationships. Carmody argued that this involves young people having discussions about what they want in their relationships, as opposed to just having conversations about what they do not want. She argued that encouraging ethical sexuality among young people has the potential to reduce sexual violence.

A dichotomy has continued in thinking about male perpetrators of sexual violence, in particular that men who perpetrate sexual violence only include those who are legally convicted 'sex offenders'. All other men are, by inference, not sexually violent or abusive. This ignores those men, often in intimate heterosexual relationships, who coerce, pressure, harass and assault women. Because these behaviours are often considered 'normal sexual relations', they can be legitimised and overlooked, but these micro-practices of sexual violence should also be the focus of change. While there is much work to be done in reform to stop sexual violence, preventing some forms of male sexual violence requires social and personal change that is broad ranging.

There continues to be a strong legacy of attributing blame to the victim. Placing responsibility on the offender and making visible the social conditions which perpetuate this continue to be a challenge, particularly when social attitudes and social policy trends favour the individualisation of social problems. This requires a fundamental shift in focus to consider the centrality of gender inequality as the key problem in the continuation of sexual violence.

In this paper, our aim was to stimulate debate about how the elimination of sexual violence requires attention to be given across the spectrum of sexually violent behaviours and the social conditions which perpetuate sexual violence. This paper has been based on reviewing literature about male sex offenders' violence towards women. The scope of the paper has not included male-to-male sexual violence and sexual violence in same-sex couples, but these are areas requiring future research and program development.

Current prevention strategies and services are heavily weighted towards the very small number (around 15 per cent) of sexual offences reported to police and the offenders pursued by the criminal justice system. Important to this debate is the need for greater recognition of how sexual violence is routinely condoned within dominant and popular representations of masculine culture. These representations have a profound effect on 'ordinary men' and their 'everyday' relationships with women, whether they be a father, partner, relative, friend or trusted professional. In taking this into account, intervention to stop sexual violence at all levels cannot be separated from critical approaches that take into account gender power relations and constructions of masculinity.

In conclusion, we believe this paper makes a convincing argument for a more comprehensive and intersectoral approach to the treatment and prevention of sexual violence. Such an approach requires a greater collaboration between victim services, offender treatment programs, prevention initiatives and the criminal justice system. Importantly, it has underlined the need for further discussion about how to develop social policy and programs that can simultaneously work towards the elimination of sexual violence through changes at the individual, institutional and social levels.