Dams, barriers and beating yourself up: Shame in groupwork for addressing sexual offending

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Shame is a powerful emotional experience embedded in prevailing social and cultural norms. It is the judgement or fear of judgement for who we are rather than what we have done. Braithwaite (1989) proposes shame can be re-integrative or stigmatising, where re-integrative shaming condemns the behaviour not the person, to enable their re-entry into society. Shame is relevant to sexual offending and its treatment, yet little research has explored how it is expressed or responded to in treatment programmes. We applied conversation analysis and discourse analysis to examine expressions of shame in 12 video recorded sessions of a court mandated groupwork programme addressing sexual offending. Both social workers and the other men on the programme distinguished between being a bad person (shame) and being responsible for a bad act (guilt) as a way to empathise with the individual, build motivation, instil hope and leverage optimism towards positive change. We demonstrate that shame constitutes topics, resources and actions drawn on to achieve the programme’s rehabilitative aims, including separating the person from the behaviour, as per re-integrative shaming, demonstrating empathy and congruence, and motivating change. We discuss the paradoxes and dilemmas of shame for practice that addresses sexual offending.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)369-384
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Social Work Practice
Issue number4
Early online date21 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2019


  • shame
  • sexual offending
  • groupwork
  • conversation analysis
  • desistance
  • discourse analysis


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