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by Tony Ward, D. Richard Laws and Stephen M. Hudson (editors)
Sage Publications, 2002
Review by Nancy Nyquist Potter, Ph.D. on May 9th 2003

Sexual Deviance

A few years ago, I was a participant/observer of an eight-week series of educational therapy sessions for sex offenders in a men's prison.  My objective was to understand how the sex offender treatment program aimed to teach victim empathy to the inmates so as to be in a position to offer a philosophical analysis of this aspect of treatment.[1] I learned a number of things that summer, the most important of which was that sexual offending is complex and difficult to generalize about. Thus, it was with great interest and some skepticism that I sat down to read the essays in the book Sexual Deviance.

This anthology is a very fine collection of critical essays on causal theories, treatments, and interventions for sexual offenders. It serves as an invaluable tool for clinicians, criminal justice professionals, and policy-makers. I would use a number of chapters to teach Ph.D. students in social work. Many authors also give suggestions for much-needed research projects, so graduate students will gain many ideas of issues to study in this field.

The book is divided into two roughly even parts, the first on explanatory models and the second on responses to sexual deviance. Some chapters give critical overviews of prevailing theories and suggest alternatives. For example, Tony Ward and Laura Sorbello in the opening chapter criticize three causal theories of child sexual abuse and offer a pathways model in which they identify multiple pathways that can lead to offending behavior. In "Back to the Future?" Richard Siegert and Tony Ward survey evolutionary explanations of rape. Authors provide a critical commentary after presenting each theory. I steeled myself to read the chapter on evolutionary theories of rape but found the authors to be even-handed and judicious in their weighing of strengths and weaknesses. This format, although not used or needed in most chapters, is very useful for clinicians and students. Other chapters primarily focus on new developments or directions. The chapter by Tony Ward and Claire A. Stewart, "Good Lives and the Rehabilitation of Sexual Offenders," is a very fine piece of theorizing that draws on philosophical ideas of human flourishing. Ward and Stewart are critical of models of rehabilitation that focus on risk reduction because such models fail to attend to the basic needs (goods) that we all require to live an adequately satisfying life. These authors suggest that treatment be built around the questions "What kind of person would you like to be?" and "What kind of life would this require?"  Thus, treatment should be organized around helping patients who sexually offend to live better, if not good, lives.

There is likely to be a great variety of approaches to those questions, depending on the strengths, skills, vulnerabilities, and needs of individual patients, and Ward and Stewart recognize this possibility. They suggest that therapists tailor a conception of the good life to the individual who has sexually offended and to customize the treatment plan accordingly. In fact, this attention to differences is a strong feature of the anthology. At numerous points in these chapters, authors take pains to point out the messiness of theory and the dangers in oversimplification, so that readers are guided away from drawing erroneous generalizations. Christopher Drake and Tony Ward, in a chapter arguing for a formulation-based approach to treatment rather than a manual-based one, base their suggested approach on the point that "the most serious shortcoming of all in the current etiological theories is the tendency to describe the offense and relapse processes as if they occurred in the same way for every offender." One clear theme of the book is that sexual offences have a variety of causes and that people who sexually offend vary in personality, narrative history, cognitive ability, social scripts, kind of desire, attitudes toward their offending behavior, and so on. Because so much variation exists, we need treatment programs that are responsive to individual differences. Readers, then, will come away from this book with an appreciation and understanding of the many differences among sex offenders. In addition, differences between clinician and patient must also be considered. Marie Connolly, in "Cultural Components of Practice," reminds clinicians of the need to monitor themselves so that they do not impose their own cultural values and assumptions on their clients. This point may seem obvious, but Connolly does a very good job of motivating this claim by analyzing interactions in an actual case.

Connolly is one of the few authors who includes an example or case study, and the meager offering of examples is unfortunate. Theory comes to life with examples for readers to work with. And, while probably only a reviewer would sit down and read this book cover to cover, I do think it is a bit dry even in shorter spurts. The editors could have omitted some of the chapters and expanded others with examples. Those who use this book for teaching purposes will need to find a way to incorporate the problems and needs of actual living people who sexually offend in order to flesh out (so to speak) the theory and science in the book.

Another area where this anthology could have been stronger is that of philosophical connections. I realize that the subject matter is science, not philosophy, but many of the authors touch on important philosophical issues such as what it means to live a good life, what empathy is, or what constitutes ethical treatment of sex offenders. Those subjects are clearly philosophical, and readers would benefit if the authors had incorporated readings from the discipline of philosophy. (Ward and Stewart draw on Martha Nussbaum's work, but this is the exception.) For example, having done research myself on the victim empathy focus of a sex offender treatment program, it was with great eagerness that I read the chapter on victim empathy by Devon L. L. Polaschek. But Polaschek's discussion of empathy as a concept is thin and misleading for readers. She says that empathy is difficult to define and raises questions to which philosophers have already worked out sophisticated and rich answers.[2] The chapter "Developmental Antecedents of Sexual Offending" has a discussion of theory of mind that fails to draw upon the rich body of knowledge in philosophy of mind. I can see many areas where some philosophical material (or collaboration with philosophers) would bolster arguments and clarify concepts.

Nevertheless, it is unusual to find an anthology where the authors consistently define their terms. This style of writing makes the material accessible to the non-clinician and non-researcher and provides clarity in a subject where there is room for much misunderstanding. In addition to defining terms, many authors offer a conceptual analysis of terms. Ruth E. Mann and Anthony R. Beech, for example, point out that the idea of cognitive distortion which underpins both explanatory theory for some offending and cognitive behavioral treatment approaches assumes that we know what cognitive distortion is and even what a cognitive schema is. They offer analyses of both concepts, although the emphasis is on the former.

Still, I would have liked a rigorous definition and defense of the umbrella term sexual deviance--and deviance in general, for that matter.[3] Given the title, readers might expect the book to include normatively deviant behavior for which the status could be challenged. And in fact, Richard Laws does briefly raise the question about what counts as deviant or normal in "Harm Reduction and Sexual Offending." But where is the analysis of those who enjoy spankings? Or have shoe fetishes? How does deviant behavior differ from transgressive behavior?

It turns out that "sexual deviance," as these authors frame it, concerns criminal sexual expression and not just socially deviant sexual expression. (One might wish the title had clearly signaled the domain.) 

The focus on criminal sexual deviance does not lead to reducing individuals to their offences, though. Many of the authors emphasize the humanity of those who sexually offend. This point is crucial to make, because many people who come into contact with sex offenders only in legal professions tend to carry with them assumptions about the "sickness" or "evil" of people who commit sex crimes. (I hear this bias when I teach philosophy of law, as well.) While I worked with inmates in the victim personalization phase of the sex offender treatment program, one of the most significant shifts in my cognition was in the way I perceived the men--that is, as human beings and not mere offenders. William Glaser is emphatic on this point, criticizing current treatment programs for being dogmatic and exercising control over the thoughts and feelings of those who offend. Glaser's chapter gives a balanced and lucid discussion of pharmacological treatments for sexual offenders, but he also attends to ethical problems in treatment such as coercion. He ends with a strong indictment of treatment programs: "Indeed, it is debatable as to whether (ethically speaking) they now carry out 'treatment' at all. 'Social control' or even 'social defense' might be more accurate (and less hypocritical) definitions of their aims."

The importance of reconceptualizing the offending person and sexual deviance is taken up by Laws in "Harm Reduction and Sexual Ofending." In this chapter, Laws applies a model from substance abuse treatment programs that focuses on harm reduction rather than complete abstinence. The idea is that, instead of ostracizing, medicalizing, criminalizing, or psychologizing sexually deviant people, we should keep them in the human community and treat them as best we can. Laws carefully argues for this position, responding to anticipated objections in a persuasive manner. Harm is on a continuum, and if we examine what is actually accomplished in treatment programs, harm reduction is the result. I was initially resistant when reading this chapter, but I found myself agreeing with Laws on many points. It is a provocative chapter that challenges fundamental conceptual frameworks and norms in many societies and should be read by everyone working in the field of sex offenders.

It is curious that not once in this anthology is the possibility raised that an offence-prone individual may be encouraged to see others as objects through cultural imagery. It is true that pornography is mentioned in passing. But images of eroticized violence and sexualized children abound in mainstream media and, while such images do not cause people to be sexually offend, they might convey the message to those already at risk to offend that some human beings exist for their pleasure. Even the chapter by Laws on sexual offending as a public health problem doesn't take up the question of the role that sexual representations may play in shaping cognitive schemas; laws discusses the importance of public education but does not raise the issue of educating the public into a culture of respect. Perhaps that educational objective is too ambitious for a public health campaign, and perhaps, too, the subject of possible effects of media representations on at-risk individuals is beyond the scope of the book. What this book does have to offer is a broad array of theories and research ideas for working with sexual offenders, and that is no small offering.


© 2003 Nancy Nyquist Potter


Nancy Nyquist Potter, Department of Philosophy, University of Louisville, Kentucky.

[1].  My philosophical analysis can be found in "Can Prisoners Learn Victim Empathy? An Analysis of a Relapse Prevention Program in the Kentucky State Reformatory for Men," in  Putting Peace into Practice: Evaluating Policy at Local and Global Levels, ed. Nancy Potter, Amsterdam: Rodopi Press forthcoming.

[2]. See, for example, Nancy Snow, "Empathy," American Philosophical Quarterly Jan 2000; 37(1): 65-78; Arne Johan Vetlesen, Perception, Empathy, and Judgment: An Inquiry into the Preconditions of Moral Performance, University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University 1994; Diana Tietjens Meyers, Subjection and Subjectivity: Psychoanalytic Feminism and Moral Philosophy, New York: Routledge, 1994; or, for analyses of empathy using simulation theory, Empathy and Agency: The Problem of Understanding in the Human Sciences, ed. Hans Kogler and Karsten Stueber, Boulder, Colo: Westview, 2000.

[3]. See David Downs and Paul Rock, Understanding Deviance, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, Ch. 1 for a discussion of the messiness of just the concept of deviance.


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