I have spent 25 years treating serious sexual offenders – this is what I’ve learned

“I’ve got a list of questions I’d like to ask you about your sexual offending against children, if that’s OK,” I say. “You might find some of them … ” I pause, unable to find the words, “ … a bit detailed and personal.” The grizzled old man sitting in front of me nods, but does not make eye contact. I don’t know who is dreading the interview most, him or me.

This was the first time I had been left on my own, in a cell, in a maximum-security prison, with a man convicted of serious sexual offences. It would be far from my last. I have spent the 25 years since that day in the mid-90s, when I was just 22 years old and in possession of a shiny new psychology degree, assessing, treating and researching men who commit sexual offences, including sexual murder.

I was drawn into forensic psychology because, like most people, I found crime interesting. Essentially, though, I wanted to understand why offenders behaved as they did; how they made decisions that had such appalling, long-term consequences for their victims. And to figure out exactly how they differed from the rest of us.

I’ve learned that men who commit sexual offences can be deceitful, manipulative, cruel, deluded, distorted and damaged. But also, that they can be remorseful, ashamed, introspective, funny, polite and willing to try to stop their harmful behaviour. I’ve learned that there is usually a combination of identifiable underlying reasons why they commit their crimes, even if the offences appear to come out of the blue. These can include a backdrop of trauma and abuse (although not always), difficulties in relationships with others, distorted thinking about women, children and sex, unhelpful personality traits, poor problem-solving and coping skills, and again, often but not always, an interest in, or a capacity to be aroused by, sexual violence.

In my job, I’ve heard about the most disgusting and degrading things that human beings do to one another, and in the tiniest detail – and it is always tough to hear it, to read the files and to look at the photographs. Occasionally I’ve met a victim, which is one of the very hardest things about the job.

Over the years I’ve learned to try to leave the work at the prison gate when I go home. I approach each case as a puzzle to be solved, assimilating and analysing the information to try to understand what happened. The cognitive task helps me to detach and to lessen my emotional reaction. I don’t eat when I read files – it can make me feel sick – and now that files are electronic, I don’t look at them anywhere else in the house but my office, in order to keep a degree of separation between the offences and my life.

Still, the offences inevitably spill over. As much as I consider myself hardened – as I think most of us who work in this field do – some crimes affect me more than others, for example those that relate to the ages and genders of my own children. I also have the occasional flashback, or bad dream, where sometimes I’m the murderer myself and I’m reliving an offence.

Over the years I’ve become more suspicious of people generally. I first spotted it in my early 20s when engaging with prisoners in intensive treatment; I became wary of men in bars, friends’ boyfriends, people on trains or buses at night. I started to notice strangers with children – constantly on alert, like an overactive smoke alarm – for evidence of kidnap or abuse in harmless situations such as in a park or supermarket. When I had my own children, I became hyper-vigilant and overprotective – shunning male babysitters, unable to let my children go into public toilets on their own, cautious of male sports coaches.

I am acutely aware of my own safety. I fear walking on my own in the dark, or even alone in the day on a country path with my dogs. Seeing a lone male in the countryside without a dog would cause my senses to prickle. But I think most women and vulnerable people experience these fears, particularly in dark and isolated places. I don’t know how much more affected I am because I’ve worked with the perpetrators of serious sexual violence, but I do try to do all the right things to cope – peer supervision, counselling, exercise. Undoubtedly, “gallows” humour with colleagues is an effective way to decompress, too.

Despite all of this, I’ve kept doing the work because I believe it is vitally important to try to prevent further victims of serious sexual and violent offences. And the work is extraordinary and complex, bringing intellectual challenge, self-analysis, purpose, a sense of achievement and altruism, and an array of interesting, dedicated colleagues into my life.

I also do it to help the men themselves. Just about all of the offenders I’ve ever met don’t want to offend again, and most sexual offenders do not reoffend. They want to be useful members of society. However, released sexual offenders face many barriers to this: stigma, ostracism, lack of work, housing, friends, family, human connection. For the minority of sex offenders who do reoffend, it is exactly these types of problems that make it more likely that they may do so.

Men who have committed sex offences are released every day in the UK – we typically do not lock people up and throw away the key. As difficult as it might be, an openness to the possibility that these kinds of offenders can change, and a mindful tolerance of them, would help those who are to be released live safely in our society. That – and many more resources both in prison and in the community to manage them. In my view, these things would contribute to reducing the likelihood of further victims – surely the most important thing?

I never predicted that I would discover that the thinking styles of many of the men I treated in prison were not that different from my own. For example, needing to be the first or best at something or struggling to trust a partner in a relationship. Ultimately, I realised that underneath it all, they were simply human beings: people who had committed dreadful crimes, yet who were essentially just people.

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