Understanding perpetrator behaviour to protect the vulnerable

Jackie Craissati and Kerry Beckley
Thursday, February 2, 2023

Sexually abusive behaviour challenges our moral compass – rightly so – and provokes us to rush to condemn the perpetrator. For those of us whose role it is to protect the the victims and survivors and onlookers, the affront can feel intensely personal.

Adopt a curious approach to understanding perpetrators of sexually abusive behaviour. Picture: Photographee.eu Adobe Stock
Adopt a curious approach to understanding perpetrators of sexually abusive behaviour. Picture: Photographee.eu Adobe Stock

It is for this reason that our initial response to a sexual crime is often one of judgment and our approach is then to seek information that confirms our assumptions. Some of these assumptions – apparently common-sense truths – turn out to be myths.

For example, denial in men who commit sexual offences, and its associated constructs of minimisations, justifications, lack of victim empathy and remorselessness, is one such myth.

It seems completely intuitive that a person who has committed a sexual offence needs to face up to their behaviour, take responsibility for their actions, and understand the impact it has had on the victim and their family.

Ideally, it is assumed this clear sightedness should be linked to a sincere expression of regret. Although this alone may not successfully keep the public safe, surely it reduces the risk of serious reoffending?

Yet research in this area (Craissati, 2015)1 has resulted in consistent findings: denial is not linked with a greater risk of further sexual offending following release: it may even be protective against reoffending in some circumstances.

To understand this counterintuitive idea, we need to get to grips with ideas of perpetrator guilt, shame and anxiety in relation to sexual offending that is associated with potentially devastating harm and social disapproval.

Making sense of the research at an intellectual level is only the first step; the second is to be able to recognise our own emotional need to persist in endorsing these moral imperatives, despite the evidence to the contrary.

This appreciation that we are perhaps susceptible to cognitive distortions and the perpetuation of myths in our work in this emotive field, leads us to another challenge. We hold to the view that there is one truth about a sexual crime.

This truth is driven by victim disclosures, and the social and cultural context in which we work; professional understanding may also be reinforced by the judgment of the court, although this is frustratingly difficult to obtain.

The extent to which a perpetrator subscribes to this truth is, as we know, limited. We have to make a choice: whether or not to be curious about the perpetrator’s ‘truth’.

When we are trying to understand the meaning or function of a sexually abusive act from a perpetrator’s perspective, we have to enter their internal world. This means allowing ourselves to think of sexual offending as representing some form of ‘relationship’ in their mind even though this almost certainly bears no resemblance to the experience and perspective of the victim.

By relationship we do not necessarily mean that there is a connection between the victim and the perpetrator that we would recognise as onlookers, although of course sexual offences can take place within existing intimate and social relationships where there is an objective reality to the connection between victim and perpetrator.

We are also referring to the relational meaning that a victim might represent for a person in that moment when he attacks. Often this might be a displaced relationship in which the perpetrator inflicts on his victim the destructive rage that in fact belongs to another person in his life, perhaps someone who he previously experienced as abusive or humiliating.

In other cases, the relationship might be symbolic; the victim represents a type of person – perhaps someone with experiences of being loved - that the perpetrator feels has been denied to him and which he wishes to take for himself or to spoil.

These ideas are about adopting a truly curious approach to understanding perpetrators of sexually abusive behaviour. If we are determined to protect the vulnerable, and if we intend to work constructively with the perpetrator to achieve this, then we need to accept that there is another truth - the offender’s perspective - which needs to be understood.

Jackie Craissati and Kerry Beckley are specialists with a national reputation for work with high risk and complex individuals with sexual convictions, and have developed Forensic Conversations as a web-based and practical approach to training. Webinars are now supplements with our new bite-size training for individuals and organisations in Understanding Men who Sexually Offend.

1 Craissati, J. (2015). Should we worry about sex offenders who deny their offences? Probation Journal: The Journal of Community and Criminal Justice, 1-11

CYP Now Digital membership

  • Latest digital issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 60,000 articles
  • Unlimited access to our online Topic Hubs
  • Archive of digital editions
  • Themed supplements

From £15 / month


CYP Now Magazine

  • Latest print issues
  • Themed supplements

From £12 / month