Few criminal acts like sexual assaults perpetrated on women and children generate so much aversion in our society. People often react with incomprehension, horror and shock when sexual aggression is mentioned, because the aggressor is crossing an ethical, social and legal barrier that is unbreakable for many people.
In recent decades, this type of criminal behaviour has attracted a great deal of interest from the scientific community and society in general. The aim is to find ways to make this kind of act practically disappear, and for this reason initiatives such as the Sexual Assault Control Program (SAC) have appeared. Let’s see how it is and what effects its application can have.
Sexual Assault Control Program (SAC)
Many sex offenders commit these acts in order to feel good, have power and control… Getting pleasure this way can be, in part, an escape route from other painful or unpleasant experiences such as shame, fear, anger, etc. They perceive that there is no other way available to obtain that gratification, do not empathize with the victim, and show insufficient control to inhibit and direct their actions.
What response can we give from Psychology to these criminal acts? Is there any treatment for this type of person? Can they be reintegrated into society? What guarantees exist that they will not reoffend again? In this article we are going to talk about a treatment for cognitive-behavioural sex offenders that has given good results in Spain, although we cannot say that it is a panacea.
The sexual assault control program (SAC) has its theoretical basis in the explanatory model of sexual delinquency devised by Marshall and Barbaree (1989), making special reference to the confrontation of pro-criminal cognitive patterns, in Walters’ criminal lifestyle model (1989), and in Pithers’ relapse prevention structure (1987).
The SAC program was designed by Garrido and Beneyto (1996) taking as reference previous works of other specialized authors in the area. It is aimed at sex offenders, and is structured in 3 manuals: manual for the therapist, manual for the intern and evaluation system. The first application of this program was carried out at the same time in two penitentiary centres in the province of Barcelona: Quatre Camins and Brians.
Inclusion requirements and grounds for exclusion
In order to access the program, priority is given to those inmates who have already served the parts of their sentence , or have less than 4 years left to do so. In addition, prison psychologists value very positively the form of voluntariness and the acceptance of criminal responsibility as aspects favouring change.
However, not all prisoners who meet the above requirements can continue with the programme: those who respond with a loss of willingness to follow the programme, those who show behaviours that hinder the progress of the programme, as well as the persistence of a personality structure of risk of recidivism, will be excluded.
What are the objectives of the SAC program?
This program is designed to improve the chances of reintegration and non-recidivism of the inmate who has committed a crime of sexual assault, by improving the effectiveness of their psychosocial skills .
It is a semi-structured therapeutic intervention that combines cognitive-behavioral techniques. These are activities that require introspection, confrontation with oneself and others, structured learning of coping skills and the development of self-control.
This program is usually applied in group mode , in one or two weekly therapeutic sessions, of two hours duration, during about 9-11 months.
As we will see below, the SAC program is structured in several phases of intervention, divided into 2 large blocks: awareness and control. Before starting, muscle relaxation training is carried out to proactively control your states of tension.
Various cognitive and emotional elements are worked on with the aim of making the person more aware of their criminal activities and the risk factors that precipitate them (e.g. cognitive distortions) related to them. Five modules are used to develop this block:
- Analysis of personal history : the subject reviews his own life.
- Introduction to cognitive distortions : she is therapeutically confronted with her errors of thought and distorted interpretation of her criminal behaviour (e.g. “she was provoking me, she was asking me, even if she told me not to”).
- Emotional awareness : the idea is to improve your knowledge and capacity for introspection. To recognize your own and other people’s emotions.
- Violent behaviours : the behaviours of aggression and harm to the victims are analysed.
- Defense mechanisms : it is about reducing the justification of the crime through confrontation. In the program manual, up to 107 typical excuses used by sex offenders are exemplified, such as: “it was not that bad”, “I am not perfect”, “I had a bad night”, “I didn’t hurt him as much as he said”, “he was screaming for it with his way of dressing”.
It is intended that the subject dominates his own behaviour in order to inhibit his criminal activities . This block is composed of 7 modules (2 of them are relapse prevention):
- Cognitive distortions: the subject is informed of the functioning of the distortions, is helped to identify his internal dialogue, classifies irrational and deviant thoughts, challenges those thoughts and seeks to replace them with rational interpretations. Negative beliefs towards adult women are typical in abusers of children, while child abusers rationalize their behavior or accuse their victims of being provocative.
- Positive lifestyle : they are taught to program their daily life.
- Sex education : information about the functioning of human sexuality, from the scientific to the ethical aspects. Special emphasis is placed on consent, on sex as an activity of communication and reciprocal respect for people’s wishes.
- Modification of the sexual impulse : the aim is to reduce the sexual impulse in the face of inappropriate stimuli that imply the use of violence or abuse of minors (self-stimulatory reconditioning or covert sensitization).
- Relapse prevention .
Do these types of programs work?
Unfortunately, sex offenders, along with the population of drug-addicted offenders, are the most difficult subjects to reintegrate and tend to reoffend . Treatment success rates are not as positive as we would all like them to be. However, the most used and effective psychological treatments with sex offenders are those of cognitive-behavioral orientation (Brandes and Cheung, 2009; Marshall and Marshall, 20I4; Zata and Farringtoo, 2016), as is the SAC.
The sexual assault control program has obtained good results , although we must be cautious. In a study carried out by Redondo, Navarro, Martínez, Luque and Andrés (2005) showed that after a 4-year follow-up of inmates who had gone through the SAC program only 4% reoffended for sexual assault crimes (in the control group, untreated, 11% reoffended).
In addition, professionals should take into account that there are a number of factors that correlate with the best prognosis for treatment (e.g., empathy towards the victim, creation of social support, not having mental illness, genuine and true desire to change), and they should be assessed individually to enhance them.