Arrested Development

A Denver therapist wants to lock up sexual predators -- forever. But patients say the treatment is just making them bitter.

Once a year, clients at T.H.E. are brought into a room where, individually, they sit down before a screen. With their pants down and a wire attached to their penis, they view pastoral scenes of lakes and falling leaves. They use a slide-show clicker to advance to the next photo, and with each click, the pictures grow more risqué, although none are pornographic. Some are of women in lingerie, others are of shirtless men. Many are of children. All the while, an audio recording of a man whispering suggestive things plays. "I'll never forget this: There was a photo of a newborn baby and a voice-over saying, 'I'd like to snap you up and carry you off,'" says Rosberg. "It was just sick."

His PPG revealed an attraction to adult men and primary-school-age boys. Rosberg admits being attracted to teenagers and young men but disputes being turned on by younger boys. "That was an out-and-out lie," he says of the finding.

Another method T.H.E. clients complain about is the use of noxious smells as a deterrent to perversion. On their own time, sex offenders are supposed to sniff a vial containing ammonia or rotten meat whenever they start to entertain a deviant fantasy. In the daily journals they're required to keep, the offenders are supposed to report all of their sexual thoughts and the methods used to stave them off. Sometimes they're quizzed about their truthfulness on those matters during polygraphs.

Anthony Camera
Psychologist James Selkin says T.H.E. is overkill for most patients.
Anthony Camera
Psychologist James Selkin says T.H.E. is overkill for most patients.

For the opportunity to participate in this therapy, patients pay $500 a month.

Greig Veeder, executive director of Teaching Humane Existence, isn't surprised by the criticism. He's heard it all before. Sex offenders, he says, are adept at coming up with excuses for their behavior and blaming everyone but themselves for their predicament.

Denial and minimization are hallmarks of a sex offender's psyche. These men, he explains, often blame the victim for seducing them, even when the victim is a child; they often portray themselves as victims; and they lie constantly, saying that the only offenses they committed were the ones for which they were caught. As proof, Veeder cites Colorado Department of Corrections statistics: In 1998, DOC records showed that the median number of known victims per sex offender was two, but after taking polygraphs, offenders revealed that they'd assaulted a median of 184 victims before being caught.

Given the mental distortions of sex offenders, it's a colossal understatement to say that Veeder has a tough job. And it was a job no one else wanted nineteen years ago when he started his program. A Missouri native who had earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work, Veeder was working with abusive husbands and was on the board of the Colorado Association for Sex Therapy in 1983, making him one of the only professionals in the state dealing with men, sex and violence.

A Jefferson County probation officer who had been noticing a spike in his sex-assault caseload approached Veeder about starting a treatment program for sex offenders. The early 1980s marked the beginning of a rise in sex-crime arrests that has yet to subside; Veeder attributes the increase to the feminist and domestic-violence movements of the 1970s. "Other forms of abuse were getting more recognition, and that led to more awareness and more reporting of sexual assaults," he says. Without fully realizing what he was getting into, Veeder agreed to help.

"There were very few people doing treatment for sex offenders at that time and no literature in the field," he recalls. "I spent the next decade spending my every waking hour thinking about what to do with these people. I traveled the country talking to everyone I could about this and borrowing ideas, and it rapidly became apparent that there's no cure for these people."

It also became apparent to Veeder that treating sex offenders is contingent on keeping the public safe. "Containment is central to treatment; it is treatment," he says. "It's just like not drinking and staying out of bars is treatment for someone who's trying to get sober."

No one, he says, wants to believe that the problem is as bad as it is, even though the numbers are astounding: According to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, there are 7,766 registered sex offenders in Colorado, and Veeder says that one out of three girls and one out of six boys are sexually abused by the age of eighteen. Widespread denial of the problem, Veeder says, is the reason the drastic measures he advocates are hard for many people to support.

Polygraphs and PPGs, he says, are crucial. Without those tests, he has no way of knowing what his clients are doing when they're not under his watch. But Veeder and the members of T.H.E.'s board of directors realize that not all therapists agree with those methods. Still, PPGs are the most widely used tool for measuring arousal because they're the most accurate, according to Josh Davis, one of just seventeen PPG technicians in Colorado. The other option, the Abel Screen, is used by only three treatment providers that he can remember. Rather than detecting an erection, the Abel Screen measures the amount of time an offender looks at a potentially stimulating photograph -- the theory being that the more someone is aroused by an image, the longer he'll stare at it.

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