Sex offenders: Monstrous...or misunderstood?

The words "sex offender" spark public revulsion and anger. In our week-long series about the probation service, the YEP speaks to those who rehabilitate men.

Ask the average man or woman on the street how to tackle the problem and the response will probably involve restoring the death penalty or permanent incarceration, particularly in cases of paedophilia or rape.

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But Rita and Sarah, respectively practice manager and operations manager with the sex offender programme of West Yorkshire Probation Service, insist that wouldn't solve the problem.

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Simply branding every sex offender as a monster and depriving them of their lives or liberty would mean they never get to understand – and therefore prevent – further offending, they say.

Most importantly, they argue, where would you draw the line? After all, the programme deals with people who are on the sex offenders' register, which encompasses the whole spectrum of crimes.

Rita says: "Would you lock someone up and throw away the key who, perhaps, got drunk and indecently assaults a woman by, uninvited, touching her bum in a pub? Because if that were reported to police you could be charged and convicted for that.

"In a lot of cases there's a very blurred area surrounding consent too. Let's say a girl is 15 years old and appears to be consensual towards someone in their 20s.

"He's potentially convicted because he's the adult and should have taken responsibility to establish her age and ensure she can give informed consent. Would you throw away the key on someone like that?

"After all, there are some rare cases where a 17-year-old lad has ended up on the sex offenders' register because he had sex with a girl two years younger than him."

They say there is a sliding scale of offences and circumstances which need careful consideration because there are so many grey areas that drawing the line would be potentially perilous.

Instead those running the sex offenders' programme believe that treatment, in combination with a prison sentence when meted out, is invariably the best solution.

"It's a very difficult thing for people to accept and understand," says Sarah. "It's not palatable for many people, but we do this job because we believe in it.

"We have a very skilled group of staff who are passionate about what they do and that has a positive impact – it works.

"But just removing people from society and compartmentalising them doesn't actually tackle the problem. What we've learned helps with the detection of offences.

"For example, what we've learned about female sex offenders isn't something that was ever imagined 30 years ago. But now we have a greater understanding of sexual offending of all kinds."

The programme, based in Leeds, includes around 50 men at any one time. (It is only open to men since female sex offenders are so few in number and they would require separate treatment anyway).

Those who are referred to the unit have a combination of group work, coursework, home visits and one-on-one consultations to establish the exact nature of an individual's offending, make them accept what they did was wrong and how best to avoid and manage risky situations in the future.

But doesn't that seem a little optimistic and woolly?

Rita says: "I know the work we do prevents further victims – that's good enough for me. Despite what some people may think, there is actually a very low rate of re-offending among men who commit sexual offences. But, after treatment, there's evidence of a further decrease

in that rate."

Sarah added: "I take the view we're here as public servants and represent the interests of the community. We know that sex offending is

very emotive and is difficult to engage with.

"But our staff are always very mindful of the victim. The skill of the staff in creating sex offending programmes is about balancing the need to create an environment where men can talk openly about themselves and remembering what they've done.

"But we do challenge the men – there's nowhere to hide when we confront them with their offending."

Perhaps the most unsavoury element of their work is approaching offenders with a relatively open-mind and accepting them as humans, not monsters.

"I would hate to come across that I have any sympathy with people who abuse children or rape people," says Rita. "Because that behaviour is indisputably wrong, illegal and harmful.

"But the way I make sense of doing this work goes back to an old adage: 'you can despise the sin but care for the sinner'.

"And, through doing the work, I have realised the vast majority of men who commit sexual offences aren't the monsters they're often portrayed to be.

"You become aware of how varied the expression of human sexuality can be and how important sex is in people's lives. They can be totally preoccupied by it, which leads to massive distortions about what is and isn't acceptable.

"I've been a probation officer for about 20 years and specialised in working with sex offenders for the last 10 years, but human sexuality is still a revelation to me.

"The difficulty is that when we're working with sex offenders we can't always have the victims at the forefront of your mind because it stops you working empathetically with the offender.

"You certainly can't forget the victims, but in order to exact change in the offenders they have to be aware that we're on their side and see them as human beings."

Rita and Sarah say their work has shown them that there are many men who lead apparently normal lives.

"The majority of the individuals we meet wouldn't fit the stereotype of what people may expect from a sex offender – they hold down jobs, they have families, they can lead otherwise successful lives."

But their sexual norms can become warped due to certain triggers, understanding those circumstances and triggers is key.

Sarah says: "It's as simple as this: the more we know about sex offending, the more we can prevent sex offending."

"It's a very difficult thing for people to accept and understand. It's not palatable for many people, but we do this job because we believe in it - and it works."

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