Even sexual offenders have a story to tell

lockedupAnthropologist James Waldram of the University of Saskatchewan tackles a controversial but important topic in the latest issue of Qualitative Health Research. In his article Everybody Has a Story: Listening to Imprisoned Sexual Offenders he discusses how he gained the trust of incarcerated sex offenders, and explores the ethical and pragmatic aspects of listening to an often-demonised population:

When I first developed the idea of working with sexual offenders in prison, I was told by various individuals “in the know” that these inmates would never talk to me (p.963), [so] …As an anthropologist I employed participant observation as a research technique. This meant that I engaged with the men in what appeared to be nonresearch contexts. I sometimes ate with them, watched television and played board games with them, and basically just “hung out” on the unit (p.965).

He concludes:

Why should we hear the stories of convicted sexual offenders? Why should we bear witness to their lives? The answer is as straightforward as it is complex. If we do not make an attempt to understand those who violate our social norms by perpetrating violence, and yet are unwilling to provide life sentences or support capital punishment, then we are most certainly likely to fall victim again. Sometimes it is in our best interests to listen, however difficult that may be (p.969).



In this article the author addresses two basic questions found at the intersection of ethics and qualitative research methodology: Why are some people reluctant to share their stories? and Are there some people whose stories ought not to be heard? Focusing on imprisoned sexual offenders, the author argues that the establishment of trust in the research relationship is essential to creating safe places for people living with “problem experiences” to tell their stories. He also argues that however repugnant, the stories of society’s worst offenders must be heard if we as a society are to better understand their actions and protect ourselves.

Photo credit: R.Sanque, Creative Commons License

4 thoughts on “Even sexual offenders have a story to tell”

  1. This is exactly where I, too, am called to serve. Currently in the process of obtaining my higher degree, I talk with inmates whom resist talking. I think they sense that I am truly there to listen to their stories…and they are eager to be heard. Bless you.

  2. It depends on what sort of story they’re telling you. I’ve interviewed countless offenders in and out of prison as a psychologist and the nature of the story that you’re being told depends on why they’re telling it to you. Offenders often tell stories that minimize their blame, transfer the blame to the victim, etc. Even the ones who admit their guilt and are hoping for parole or some sort of lenient treatment tell me what they think I want to hear. While gaining their trust is important, it would be best to take anything they tell you with a grain of salt. Forgive the cynicism but I came by it the hard way.


    Russell Eisenman, Ph.D.
    Department of Psychology
    University of Texas-Pan American
    Edinburg, Texas 78539-2999

    E-mail: russell_42303@hotmail.com

    For close to two years I worked in a state prison treatment program for youthful male offenders. Our offenders ranged in age from 14-25 years old, with the exception of one sex offender who was 28-years old, brain damaged, and not suitable for any other program. Many of the offenders in our prison were sex offenders, especially child molesters. The modal age of all the prisoners was 16 the first year I worked there and 18 in my second year. I came up with the following categorization of sex offenders, based on my experiences working with them in individual and group psychotherapy: violent vs. seductive.

    Waldram (2007)), an anthropologist, established rapport with sex offenders and got them to talk with him. In psychotherapy, the therapist establishes rapport with the patient (if they know how to do it correctly) which leads the patient to want to talk openly with the therapist. Thus, I learned a lot from the sex offenders I worked with. I learned that they had what I consider two basic ways of victimization. One group was violent, like rapists. They used direct force: a gun, a knife, violently removing clothing from the victim, threatening to kill them unless they complied, etc. The other group was less violent, mostly using what I call seduction: promising the victim ice cream if they took off their clothes, getting the victim to share their bed then escalating with touching, kissing, etc.

    The seductive group was not totally free of violence. For one thing, the hugh disparity in size between an adult and a child meant that they had a threat hanging over the child. For another, if the victim did not comply readily enough they might resort to some degree of violence, such as forcibly removing some clothing. They might kiss the victim when the victim indicated–verbally, or by pulling away–that they did not want to be kissed.

    However, I think the violent vs. seductive distinction is useful, if we keep in mind that the seductive group uses violence some. Perhaps they could be called mostly seductive vs. mostly violent. Anyway, I found in therapy that the violent group was also more “violent” in their language about the victimes, calling them whores, sluts, etc. All sex offenders tend to use denial, including, often, denigration of the victim. However, in therapy the violent sex offenders denigrated their victims more than did the seductive offenders.

    I hope that others will use my distinction of violent vs. seductive sex offenders. I have found that the more you know about criminals the better you understand them (Eisenman, 2007). Any classification has its strengths and weaknesses, but I did see a distinction between the two kinds of sex offenders, violent vs. seductive, and such a classification could be useful in diagnosis, treatment, and research.


    Eisenman, R. (2007). Creativity, mental illness and crime. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

    Waldram, James B. (2007). Everybody Has a Story: Listening to Imprisoned Sexual Offenders. Qualitative Health Research 17(7): 963-970

  4. I read with interest your webpage regarding those seual offenders who have a story to tell. I am a Psychology student entering the first quarter of my thesis. the title I’d chosen is,”How the actions of one influence the outcome of many: A look inside sex offenders.” At present I am struggling how to approach such a study. Is there anything you could/would recommend.

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