Addressing Sexual Deviance: Does Making Art Help or Hinder?

Justifying the art making process for murderers and sexual deviants

Posted Apr 22, 2014

Drawing by Kevin--defendant in Art on Trial

Drawing by Kevin--defendant in Art on Trial

Last month, as part of a series of lectures, discussions and book signings in Kansas and Oklahoma, I presented at Emporia State University’s Art Therapy Discovery Day. While there, I met Dr. Katrina Miller, a generous, thoughtful and esteemed counseling professor who works closely with ESU’s incredible art therapy program. She later emailed me a great yet complicated question, thoroughly deserving of its own post, which has proven to elicit an equally complicated answer. With permission, her question is restated below.

"Dave, I enjoyed your presentation and I’m enjoying your blog (Well, I couldn’t edit this out, could I?). My question concerns your post on benign or safe-r expressions of inmate aggression through artwork [in the post “Art Therapy with a Recalcitrant Sociopath—What’s the Point?”]

When I was a doctoral student gathering data at a men’s state prison, I observed a hearing where inmate-produced artwork was evidence of an infraction. A pornographic drawing was discovered in an inmate’s cell  [Image not available].

 It was a pencil drawing, rendered realistically. It was an image of a prepubescent female with ponytails, dressed in a bared midriff and a short skirt. She was smiling, looking over her shoulder as she rode a skateboard. Her schoolgirl-style skirt was flipped up in the rear, and she was not wearing underwear. Prominently displayed between her legs was a vulva.

As a sex offender, he was not permitted to possess pornography. He claimed the drawing was a woman. The officer who found the drawing testified the figure was a child, citing the lack of breasts, the ponytails, and the toys.

Treatment for sex offenders includes avoiding triggers and breaking cycles of escalation. In this context, the art would appear to increase predatory urges rather than serving as an outlet [as described in your post].

Realizing that it’s difficult to generalize, I ask your perspective on spontaneously created artwork that violates social and legal boundaries.

Artwork expressing aggression or violence may be viewed as an acceptable or humorous outlet in the controlled prison environment. Does this hold true elsewhere? For instance, was the inmate who murdered his child (as featured in your book Art on Trial [as explored in this blog post) temporarily deterred by artistic expression, or spurred on by artistic expressions of his mental disturbance?

In the case of inmates who are sex offenders, would you advocate that creating artwork depicting pedophilia or pornography is an alternative outlet?”    

The particular post Dr. Miller referred to introduced the case of Vince. Although I would not signify that art making is benign, this post argued that through the humorous rechanneling of Vince’s ‘sociopathic’ and aggressive tendencies, a safer environment may have emerged. This case differs greatly from the one Dr. Miller described; even still, they both differ significantly from the one presented in the book, Art on Trial.  While all succumbed to very primitive impulses, they each had very different drives, and all used the art differently. 

The question allows me to clarify the difference between cathartic output and sublimation of libidinal impulses through art making, and underscores the difference of an unconscious manifestation revealed through art from a deliberate re-creation of masturbatory fantasies.

According to Kramer, sublimation requires the transformation of primitive urges into complex acts that do not serve instant gratification, is considered socially productive (not necessarily acceptable), and among other characteristics, requires displacement and symbolization. It differs from catharsis, which is simply instant gratification and release through primitive and impulsive expression (1993).

Granted, some may consider these terms archaic, traditional and, dare I say, out of date notions—but that doesn’t make them any less applicable. Whether you subscribe to a psychoanalytic perspective or not, therapeutic benefits are more likely to emerge from a redirection of libidinal impulses into a more socially productive symbolic expression, rather than blatant, impulsive representation.



Vince’s art piece (Do Not Lift—Bite Me) sublimated his aggression and need for dominance through symbolic metaphor. It displaced and redirected his violent tendencies in a way that was certainly more socially productive than picking up a chair and throwing it at someone. While the viewer was still attacked, it was done metaphorically, not literally.   If he instead depicted violent imagery, it could have reinforced, not rechanneled, his tendencies. The new way allowed for a safer environment.

This is substantially different than Dr. Miller’s example where the offender cathartically expressed his libidinal impulses through a blatant image of a sexualized little girl.

It is what it is.

There is neither displacement nor symbolic redirection. His picture reinforced a continual recycling of his predatory tendencies without interrupting the instant gratification and sexually misplaced urges. In short, it allowed him to relive his deviant experiences.

Of course, this is not to say that the response should have been to sanction the image and the offender. Anything can be turned into therapeutic grist for the proverbial mill.

Many factors need to be considered:

  • What was his intent with the image?
  • Does the offender recognize his offense? Is it even possible that he can?
  • Is he locked up, in a prison, where he can’t harm his potential victims? For how long?
  • And lastly, can the image be used as a catalyst for further therapeutic exploration with the offender?

In this particular case, the offender was not willing to take responsibility for the image; he lied about its intent and clearly created the image for his own titillation. It wasn’t for therapeutic gain or cathartic expression— it was simply for self-gratification, in which case, he broke the laws of the facility. There should be repercussions.

However, it is still possible that creating such an image managed to contain his primitive urges; it may still have been a safer means of expression, especially in a setting where he may not have been able to act on his predatory tendencies. In other words, the question may be, was it safer for him to express such images in a prison where he won’t get out, and then can such expressions be used as a catalyst for further exploration? Like all situations, “it depends.” Granted, goals for therapy often run counter to the goals of corrections.

Certainly, I would not advocate creating pedophilic or pornographic images as an alternative outlet. However, if such images do emerge spontaneously, it is important that the clinician not condemn them out of hand, but rather considers all options to determine their potential, therapeutic viability.

This is even further differentiated from Kevin, the subject of my latest book Art on Trial, whose art became almost self-medication for over 20 years.

Pen ink portrait by Kevin

Pen ink portrait by Kevin

As the book reveals, it is likely he suffered a severe mental illness for all of those years. While Dr. Miller asked if the art instigated the violent act, I believe that the art may have prevented him from acting sooner. Making art grounded him, allowed him to focus on the here and now, and diverted him from his usual delusional processes. Rather than propagate his violent impulses, the art became a container. It is my belief that had he a therapist who could recognize the significance of his creative output as self-medication, such aggression could have been deterred.

So what we see are three very different scenarios with distinct drives towards aggressive acts—sociopathy, pedophilia, and severe mental illness. All are handled differently, but all can benefit from the sublimation process the art offers.

Understanding these differences is what an art therapist does—knowing which particular therapeutic trajectory may be best suited for the individual client, in turn helping determine which creative expressions are beneficial and which should never see the light of day.


Gussak, D. (2013). Art on Trial: Art Therapy in Capital Murder Cases. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gussak, D. & Virshup E. (eds.). (1997) Drawing Time: Art Therapy In Prisons And Other Correctional Settings, Chicago, IL: Magnolia Street Publishers.

Kramer, E. (1993). Art as therapy with children (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: Magnolia Street Publishers.

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About the Author

David Gussak, PhD, ATR-BC, is a professor and chair-person for the Florida State University Department of Art Education, and a clinical coordinator of its Graduate Art Therapy Program.

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