I recently read a case where a man plead guilty to burglary and a "sexually directed" crime. Apparently, the sexual part of the crime was that he stole pair of underpants. While he did not have any contact with the person that owned the underwear (he stole them from the house he burglarized), at one point he wore the underpants. Police arrested him after he admitted to wearing the underpants;however, he stated that he never masturbated with the underpants on. In the end, he was convicted of a sex offense and sent to prison. The question that was posed related to this crime: Is he really a sex offender?
Let's explore various aspects of this crime:
1) What is the crime that he actually committed? Burglary (which seems obvious), a "sex offense", or both? And, if he committed a sex offense, clinically does he fit under the label of "sex offender"? Some research suggests that while there is often some overlap between the legal and clinical constructs of sexual offending, they are not congruent, particularly related to disorders of sexual preference.
He indeed committed a burglary by breaking into a person's home and stealing. But did he really sexually offend? I presume that the argument can go both ways; one way being yes he offended against the person whose underwear he stole. The other being no, an object such as underwear is just that; an object. It may be offensive and strange to steal it and wear it, but it is not necessarily a sex offense.
2) Stealing underwear can mean a variety of things to an individual. I know this because I work with many men who come to Namasté describing what appears to be sexual compulsion (or rather, the controversial term "sex addiction"). They often report that since childhood, they have stolen other people's underwear and either smelled it, worn it, and/or masturbated with it on. Many men that participate in this behavior describe unresolved childhood trauma and/or clear attachment issues related to his mother. There is indeed significant shame attached to their past trauma and current coping behavior.
Some report that wearing their mother's underwear as a youth made them feel "closer" to their primary caregiver (a coping skill), while wearing it as an adult is a replication of this type of connection, but now with women they may not feel comfortable getting close to (i.e., for fear of rejection). It can also be a way for an individual to feel more comfortable in their skin if there is a severe history of abuse and trauma. This too is typically a trauma response and is often a result of being abused as a child, for instance for being the son in the family who "got the brunt of it". Therefore, some men believe that wearing and touching the sensation of the underwear is soothing; it comforts them to have it on.
Still, some men have described feeling like they are more like a woman by wearing women's underwear, but not in the sense of wanting to be female. Based on their history of abuse, they report wearing underwear as a way to relieve the pressure of being male. This may not make sense to any of us, but to the person struggling with this behavior, once we shed light on the historical basis of their behavior, which is often one of the things I have described, they feel a huge sense of relief (and consequently, start to change the behavior).
2) Why do people commit theft or burglary such as this? Some might say that the obvious answer is that they are Antisocial and do not have a value system or moral compass. Others might say that it is as simple as them needing something and not having the money to buy it.
However, there are other, deeper reasons why people steal besides having a personality disorder or needing something they cannot afford. If you look at a person's upbringing and how they were nurtured (or not), it often sheds light on their choice to steal from others. For instance, I once had a female client who stole from her aunt when she was 12 years old. In therapy she described her aunt being a very large woman who would sit on my client when she was angry at her. My client shared being so angry with her aunt that as a "pay back", she stole her jewelry because her aunt loved it so much. This type of behavior is called Monetized Rage. It involves stealing money or items in an attempt to resolve unresolved anger, pain, sadness or hurt.
How are Monetized Rage and Eroticized Rage for that matter, potential aspects in this case? Monetized rage is similar to eroticized rage, which is sexualizing behavior in an attempt to resolve anger, pain, sadness, hurt. For instance, some of my clients have reported looking at porn with their wife next to them in bed as a way to "get back" at their wife for not being in the mood to sex with them. Out of anger, they look at porn. Their maladaptive thinking is, "Fine, I will satisfy my own needs!" Neither monetized rage nor eroticized rage are healthy, but people partake in this type of behavior as a form of coping.
Are we being too broad in how we label sex offenses? Let's look at some "sex crimes" that are questionable sex offenses but still on the legal books (even though they are rarely prosecuted). Fornication, for instance, is sexual intercourse between two unmarried people. Adultery Fornication, is sexual intercourse with someone other than one's spouse. Both are still considered non-forcible sex offenses that have been recognized since early American common law. These are still considered unlawful under some state statutes. However, neither fornication nor adultery is prosecuted with much regularity. The requirements of penetration that must be proved in other sexual offenses involving sexual intercourse also must be proved for fornication and adultery.
Along with this, teens are now being charged federally as committing sexual offenses in some jurisdictions for producing child porn if they send a nude picture of their genitalia to another person. Some have to register as sex offenders for committing what has been labeled as self-produced pornography.
Other factors to consider: What if this man is exploring his own gender identity issues or simply likes wearing women's underwear? There are many men who have stolen underwear and worn it because they are exploring their own gender identity. Is this a crime? Stealing might be, but is wearing the underwear as part of one's gender exploration/identification process? What if he likes wearing women's underwear for not other reason than he "likes it." Can we let that be what it is? Or do we have to pathologize it?
As a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, my role is to accurately assess what the client (and often his or her significant partner, the law, work, family members) deem as damaging to self, relationships, and their lives. If someone enjoys wearing the opposite sex's underwear and it is not causing harm to others, who cares? The issue in this case is that this individual broke the law by stealing the underwear (by breaking into a person's home). Clearly illegal behavior.
What might treatment for this type of individual look like? I would not jump immediately to clinically labeling this person, including labeling him as a sex offender. I would explore his life history, looking for any trauma and origin of various coping skills, including sexual and non sexual. I would also explore his attachment style to his primary caregivers and as an adult, and the possibility that he may not know how to get his non-sexual and sexual needs met in a healthy way, so he "takes" and possibly "gets off-gets his dopamine high" with the goal of no one noticing. I would assess and treat any paraphilic disorders (if appropriate), explore and treat (if applicable) "sex addiction", underlying shame, and any trauma (these are the "why" of his behaviors). I would also focus on the origins of his stealing behavior as well as any thinking errors, accountability, empathy, etc., and work on him learning to ask for what he needs, and getting what he needs in a healthy way rather than taking things illegally. If he simply likes to wear women's underwear then so be it. More power to him; the goal again would be to wear underwear that he purchases. I would treat the issues accurately instead of using the one size fits all stamp of sex crime = sex offense = sex offender treatment. If he needs sex offender treatment, then that is what I would recommend. But not without doing an accurate and complete assessment of all the information first.
Final Note: I realize I may be thinking WAY outside the box related to sex crimes and sex offending and that my blog may offend some individuals. I respect that. But, perhaps it is time for our society to take a more open-minded approach to treating various sex crimes instead of labeling all behavior that appears to be sexual in nature as "sex offenses". After all, there are a lot of unmarried fornicators and adultery fornication going on (remember the recent Ashley Madison hack and scandal?). I am being somewhat facetious in saying this as I realize that committing burglary is quite different than these two more common sexual behaviors (which, in my opinion, should no longer be in the legal books as a sex offense). What if we provided accurate assessments and treatment interventions for folks with varying degrees of what we consider to be sexually deviant behavior so that they too can heal? Doesn't everyone deserve that?