Sex Offenses

Karen J Terry. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. 2009. Sage Publications.

Sex offenders constitute a heterogeneous group of individuals. The term sex offender describes one who has committed any of a variety of offenses, including rape, child sexual abuse, possession of child pornography, exhibitionism (flashing), and even consensual sex among teenagers. Sexual offenders can be adults or juveniles, male or female, and the perpetrators may be strangers, acquaintances, or related to their victims. These offenders have different characteristics and motivations for committing their offenses, and as such, differing responses are appropriate in order to accurately treat, manage, and supervise them. This chapter will review types of offenses and offenders; the prevalence of sexual abuse and recidivism; and responses to sexual offending, including treatment, supervision, and management practices for this population.

Types of Sexual Offenses and Offenders

There are few objective standards of what is acceptable sexual behavior, and “normal” sexual behavior is a socially constructed reality that is constantly adapting (Jenkins, 1998). Definitions of deviant sexual behavior are largely culture-bound and vary across religions, nations, and even states. These definitions adapt to the prevailing social norms of the time, and punishments for sexual offenders depend largely upon the political and social ideologies of the day. Several highly publicized cases of sexual abuse and murder in the 1980s and 1990s have brought forth increased public, political, and academic attention to sex offenders, resulting in substantially enhanced punishment, management, and supervision of sex offenders today. Though these policies primarily intend to target sexual abusers of children, they have been applied to all sex offenders.

Various sexual behaviors are criminalized today. These acts may include sexual contact (touching the intimate parts of the body either without the consent of the victim or when one person is incapable of consenting under the law); no contact (behaviors committed for the purposes of sexual gratification such as exposure of the offender’s genitals or “peeping”); and acts related to the possession or distribution of child pornography (any filming or photographing of a child that is for the purpose of sexually gratifying an adult) (Terry, 2006). The names of these offenses, definitions of the crimes, the class of the crimes (as felonies or misdemeanors), and the punishments for these offenses vary by state. Some sexual behaviors, even when consensual, are considered offenses, such as incest and statutory rape (sexual behavior between an adult and a minor under the age of consent). For most sexual behaviors to be considered criminal, however, there must be a lack of consent on the part of the victim and some level of intent on the part of the offender. The laws in most states stipulate that consent is lacking from a sexual act when any of the following holds true (Terry, 2006):

  • The act is the result of force, threat, or duress.
  • A reasonable person would understand that the victim did not consent due to a clear or implied statement that he or she would not want to engage in the sexual act.
  • The victim is incapable of consenting because he or she is below the age of consent (this ranges from 16 to 18 in various states); is mentally disabled; is mentally incapacitated; is physically helpless; is under the custody of correctional services; or is placed within the care of Children and Family Services (or any other organization in charge of monitoring and caring for those in the charge of the state).


Rapists are a heterogeneous group of offenders. They commit sexual offenses for a variety of reasons and have largely varying rates of recidivism. Rapists do tend to share certain characteristics, however. Many men who rape women have negative views of women, endorse rape myths, condone violence, and display a hyperidentification with the masculine role. Other common characteristics include low self-esteem, alcohol or substance abuse problems, and an inability to manage aggression; it is not uncommon for rapists to have come from broken homes where punishment was frequent and the parents had alcohol or substance abuse problems (see Marshall, Laws, & Barbaree, 1990; Scully, 1990).

Some researchers, beginning with Groth (1979), attempted to classify rapists into typologies based upon the primary motivation of their offenses. Groth distinguished rapists based upon the degree of aggression used, the underlying motivation of the offender, and the existence of other antisocial behaviors. Knight and Prentky (1990) expanded upon Groth’s framework when they developed the MTC:R3 classification system with typologies of opportunistic, pervasively angry, vindictive, and sexual rapists. Within this system, they created nine subtypes of rapists, including opportunistic, low social competence; opportunistic, high social competence; pervasively angry; sexual sadistic, nonfantasy; sexual sadistic, fantasy; sexual, nonsadistic, social competence; sexual, nonsadistic, high social competence; vindictive, low social competence; and vindictive, high social competence.

Until the late 1960s, rape was seen almost entirely as a crime motivated by sexual needs or deviant sexual interests. However, rape is now typically viewed as a crime motivated by the need for power and control. By the 1970s, feminist researchers such as Brownmiller (1975) began to analyze rape from a cultural, political, and historical context. They theorized that sexual assault was systemic to a patriarchal society, and rape was simply an exaggeration of prevailing norms rather than a departure from them. Feminist researchers viewed rape as a tool to dominate and control women and as a consequence of deep-rooted social traditions of male dominance and female exploitation. Empirical studies such as those by Scully (1990) support the assertions that rape is often motivated by power and control, and that the men who commit such acts make justifications and excuses for their behavior. Though women can also commit the offense of rape, most empirical research today considers only rape committed by men.

Child Sexual Abusers

Like rapists, child sexual abusers constitute a heterogeneous population of individuals who abuse for a variety of reasons. Many have common characteristics, such as poor social skills, low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, a sense of worthlessness and vulnerability, difficulty forming normal adult relationships, or previously frustrating experiences with adult relationships. Many child molesters seek out mutually comforting relationships with children and find comfort with those children who are passive, dependent, psychologically less threatening than adults, and easy to manipulate. Stranger abduction and abuse is rare; the majority of child molesters abuse someone they know, and often a child to whom they are related or with whom they have a nurturing/mentoring relationship. They “groom” their victims, or use various techniques to manipulate potential victims into complying with the sexual abuse. Some of these techniques include games, emotional manipulation, verbal coercion, threats, seduction, and enticements (see Pryor, 1996; Terry, 2006).

Researchers created classification systems for child molesters beginning in the early 1980s. These systems were based upon the offenders’ motivation for committing the sexually deviant behavior. Groth, Hobson, and Gary (1982) proposed the fixated/regressed typology system, which is one of the most fundamental classification schemes and is rooted around two basic issues: the degree to which the deviant sexual behavior is entrenched in the abuser and the basis for psychological needs. Fixated abusers are those who are primarily attracted to children, are often exclusively attracted to children, and are usually attracted to children from adolescence. Regressed abusers, on the other hand, tend to commit sexual offenses against children that are situational and precipitated by external stressors such as unemployment; marital problems; substance abuse; or negative affective states such as loneliness, stress, isolation, or anxiety. Regressed offenders are primarily attracted to adults, but regress to the abuse of children to whom they have easy access.

Many researchers have further developed the typologies based upon this fixated/regressed system. Most notably, Knight and Prentky (1990), in their MTC:CM3 classification system, developed multidimensional typologies of offenders on two axes. Axis I addresses the degree to which an offender is fixated with children and also considers the offender’s level of social competence. Axis II evaluates the amount of contact an offender has with children, and the offender is analyzed according to the meaning (interpersonal or sexual) of that contact. This axis further evaluates the amount and type of physical injury involved in the contact. Through this system, each offender is assigned a separate Axis I and Axis II typology (see Finkelhor, 1984, for more information about child sexual abuse).

Female Sex Offenders

Compared to the vast literature available on male sex offenders, few empirical studies have been conducted regarding female sex offenders. One reason for this is the small number of known female sex offenders—approximately 2% of adult sex offenders and 10% of adolescent offenders. Many of the studies that have been conducted focus on typologies of female offenders, though they often lack sufficient numbers to be statistically tested. Most of the studies that evaluate female sex offender characteristics show that, compared to male sex offenders, female offenders are less likely to use force, are more likely to initiate their behavior at an early age, often commit their offense with a partner, are less likely to be diagnosed with any paraphilia, are more likely to admit their behavior, and are less likely to have offended prior to adulthood.

Typologies of female sex offenders differ substantially from male sex offender typologies. One of the most commonly cited typology systems is that created by Matthews, Matthews, and Speltz (1991), consisting of teacher/lover, male coerced/male accompanied, and predisposed types. However, because of the small number of known sex offenders who are women, it is unlikely that any of the typologies can be empirically tested anytime soon.

Juvenile Sex Offenders

Juveniles are responsible for committing many sex crimes—approximately 15% of forcible rapes and 17% of other sex crimes reported in the UCR (see Weinrott, 1996, for more information about juvenile sex offenders). These juveniles vary in age, development, maturity, and understanding of sexual issues. Many have academic difficulties, learning disorders, and mental disorders, and many suffer from impulse control. The majority of juvenile sex offenders are male—90%—and the average age of offenders is 14 years. While recent literature shows that few juvenile sex offender continue to commit sexual crimes into adulthood (Zimring, Piquero, & Jennings, 2007), many adult serious sexual offenders began their offending behavior as juveniles. As such, it is important to understand why juveniles commit such offenses and address the underlying problems of the deviancy early.

One difficulty in assessing juvenile sex offenders is understanding whether their actions constitute experimentation or offending behavior. To do this, it is necessary to know how much sexual knowledge the juvenile has. Sexual behavior is learned, and children may learn about sex through peers, television, their parents, or self-exploration. It is normal for children to explore their own bodies, and it is normal for children to be curious about children of the opposite sex. The question is, at what point does this experimentation become an offense?

To better understand why juveniles commit sexual offenses, many researchers have attempted to create typologies of the offenders. At the most basic level, juveniles can be separated into two categories: those who abuse young children (preadolescents) and those who abuse peers. Those who abuse younger children often target those they know or are related to, while the offenders who abuse peers are likely to target strangers, use weapons, and cause injuries to their victims. Several researchers have created typologies of juvenile offenders (see O’Brien & Bera, 1986; Prentky, Harris, Frizzell, & Righthand, 2000), though more research needs to be done to fully understand who is likely to continue offending into adulthood.

Cyber Offenders

In the last 10 years, a new type of offender has emerged: the cyber offender. This term generally refers to someone who makes available or sends pornographic images of children to others via the Internet, sends children pornographic images, or solicits children online. Though several laws have been passed to protect children from these offenses, it is still difficult to identify and control cyber offending largely due to the anonymity of the Internet.

According to U.S. Code Title 18, Part I, Chapter 110, Section 2256, child pornography is “any visual depiction of a person under the age of 18 engaged in” any of the following: actual or simulated vaginal intercourse, oral or anal intercourse, bestiality, masturbation, sexually sadistic or masochistic behavior, or exhibition of the genitals. States have also included offenses such as penetration of the vagina or rectum digitally or with foreign objects, and excretory functions performed in a lewd manner. Images are also considered pornographic if the child is the focal point of a sexually suggestive setting, the child is in an unnatural pose or inappropriate attire, the depiction suggests coyness or willingness to engage in sexual activity, or the depiction is intended to elicit a sexual response in the viewer.

According to Wortley and Smallbone (2006), those who view child pornography may have differing levels of interest in this material, ranging from recreational to at-risk to sexually compulsive. Citing Krone (2004), they identified nine typologies of child pornographers:

  • Browsers—They may accidentally find child pornography but purposely save the images; they do not network with other offenders or employ strategies to avoid detection.
  • Private fantasizers—They create their own images of children to satisfy their desires; they do not network with other offenders or employ security strategies to avoid detection.
  • Trawlers—They seek child pornography through open browsers; they engage in minimal networking and employ few strategies to avoid detection.
  • Nonsecure collectors—They seek out child pornography in nonsecure chat rooms; they have engaged in high levels of networking and do not employ strategies to avoid detection.
  • Secure collectors—They are members of closed groups or other organizations like pedophile rings; they engage in high levels of networking and employ sophisticated measures to protect their activities from detection.
  • Groomers—They develop online relationships with children and send pornography to children as part of the grooming process; they may or may not network with other offenders, but they are at risk of detection because of their contact with children.
  • Physical abusers—They sexually abuse children; child pornography is one part of the sexual gratification process for them; they may or may not network with other abusers.
  • Producers—They record the sexual abuse of children to disseminate it to others; they likely network with other offenders, but the extent of this networking depends on whether they are also distributors.
  • Distributors—They disseminate images of sexual abuse; the interest in child pornography may be financial and/or sexual; they likely have a large network. (pp. 15-17)


Some sexual offenders are diagnosed with paraphilias—diagnosable sexual disorders—and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists eight main ones. The features of these paraphilias are recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies or urges involving nonhuman objects, or suffering or humiliation of oneself or one’s partner, children, or other nonconsenting persons (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Paraphilias may be mild (the individual may be markedly distressed by his feelings but not act upon them), moderate (the individual occasionally acts upon his urges), or severe (the individual repeatedly acts upon his urges). The fantasies and stimuli may be episodic or necessary to achieve erotic arousal, but to be diagnosable the behavior, urges, or fantasies must last at least 6 months and lead to distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning. The eight primary paraphilias listed in the DSM-IV are the following:

  • Exhibitionism—exposure of genitals to a stranger; may include exposure only or masturbation during the exposure
  • Voyeurism—watching a stranger who is naked, disrobing, or engaging in a sexual act; no sexual activity sought with the victim
  • Frotteurism—touching or rubbing up against a nonconsenting person in a crowded area; may rub genitals against or fondle the victim
  • Sadism—the act of humiliating, binding, beating, or making another person suffer in some way; sexual excitement the result of control over the victim
  • Masochism—the act of being humiliated, bound, beaten, or made to suffer in some way; may occur with a partner or during masturbation
  • Fetishism—sexual attraction to nonliving objects, such as a shoe or undergarment; individual often masturbates while holding the object or has a partner wear the object during sexual encounters
  • Transvestic fetishism—cross-dressing; heterosexual man sexually aroused by himself wearing female clothing
  • Pedophilia—sexual activity with a prepubescent child; may involve own children or children nonrelated, males or females

Other paraphilias are also mentioned in the DSM, such as necrophilia (sexual urges about dead people), zoophilia (sexual urges about animals), and telephone scatologia (sexual urges about making obscene phone calls). In addition to these, the DSM notes that other behaviors may be labeled paraphilias that are “otherwise not specified.”

Prevalence and Scope of Sexual Offending

It is impossible to accurately assess the extent of sexual offending because it is highly underreported. For example, from 1992-2000, it is estimated that only 31% of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to the police (Hart & Rennison, 2003). Cases of child sexual abuse are underreported, and when they are reported, it is often after a substantial delay.

There are a number of reasons for this underreporting, including the following (see Arata, 1998; R. F. Hanson, Saunders, Saunders, Kilpatrick, & Best, 1999; Lamb & Edgar-Smith, 1994):

  • Gender—Several researchers have found that females are more likely, both as children and as adults, to report sexual abuse than males.
  • Victim-perpetrator relationship—Victims are less likely to report or delay the report of child sexual abuse if the perpetrator is well-known to the child. This relationship is most significant if the perpetrator is a relative or stepparent.
  • Anticipated outcome of the disclosure—Children are more likely to report abuse if they believe they will be supported by family. Those who do not feel they will be supported often wait until adulthood to report abuse, when they can choose to disclose to someone who will support them. Older children who are able to understand and anticipate social consequences of sexual abuse, and who may feel more shame and guilt about the abuse, are less likely to report than young children.
  • Severity of abuse—Some researchers have found that children are less likely to report sexual abuse if the abuse is severe or they fear that their disclosure will result in further harm. Others, however, have found that the more severe the sexual abuse, the more likely the victims were to report the abuse sooner.

Based on data in the National Crime Victimization Survey, Hart and Rennison (2003) showed that victims of sexual abuse are more likely to report it if the perpetrator was male, if the offender was black, if the perpetrator was young (12-14 years of age), if there were multiple perpetrators, if the offense was committed by a stranger, or if weapons were used. They also noted that victims said the most common reason for reporting sexual offenses was to prevent future violence, while the most common reason not to report was because of privacy issues. It is worth noting that the cases most likely to be reported are the most unusual or extreme cases.

The most common cases, such as sexual assault by someone known to the victim, are the least likely to be reported to the police. As such, it is important to remember that knowledge of sexual offenders is skewed.

Despite these limitations, it is possible to estimate the extent of sexual abuse based upon information from a combination of official data, victimization surveys, and research statistics. The Uniform Crime Report (UCR), which is compiled annually by the FBI and contains information from approximately 17,000 local police departments, shows that the rate of forcible rape in the United States has remained relatively stable over the last 20 years. In 1987, the rape rate was 37.6 per 100,000 residents, and decreased to 30.9 per 100,000 residents by 2006 after brief fluctuations in the 1990s.

Child sexual abuse is more difficult to measure through official statistics because of differences in state statutes, reporting agencies, and methods of compiling the data. The best source of official statistics on the prevalence of child sexual abuse is the annual Child Maltreatment Reports, which contain incident-level reports from state child protective services collected by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS). These reports show a decrease in cases of sexual abuse throughout the 1990s, and Jones and Finkelhor (2004) found that Child Protective Services substantiated significantly fewer cases each year in this time period.

Statistics derived from academic studies on the incidence and prevalence of sexual abuse vary greatly, but all show that sexual victimization is common. One meta-analysis showed that the overall prevalence of sexual abuse of male children is 13% and for female children is between 30 and 40% (Bolen & Scannapieco, 1999). In other words, approximately 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 3 girls is abused in his or her lifetime.

Also important is the assessment of recidivism rates of sex offenders. It is often presumed that sex offenders recidivate at very high rates, and many policies have been enacted to control sex offenders based upon this premise. However, research shows that recidivism rates are actually much lower for sex offenders than for almost all other types of offenders. R. K. Hanson and Morton-Bourgon (2004) conducted a meta-analysis of 95 studies of sex offenders and found that nearly 14% recidivated with a new sexual offense and approximately 36% recidivated with any offense within a 5-year follow-up period. Caution should be given, however, because these studies only measure offenses that are officially processed through the criminal justice system. Even so, the research clearly shows that “sex offenders” are actually more likely to commit nonsexual offenses than sexual ones. Like other types of offenders, sex offenders are more likely to be “generalists” than they are to specialize in a particular type of deviant behavior throughout their careers (see R. K. Hanson & MortonBourgon, 2004; Lussier, Beauregard, Proulx, & Nicole, 2005; Miethe, Olson, & Mitchell, 2006; Simon, 2000; and Smallbone & Wortley, 2004, for a discussion about versatility and specialization in offending).

Despite the low levels of recidivism based upon conviction rates, it is clear that sexual victimization is a widespread problem, and it is important to understand why people commit sexual offenses and how they can be prevented from doing so in the future.

Victims of Sexual Abuse

Much of the research on sexual victimization indicates that it is a severe and intrusive violation against a person and that it can lead to negative physical, psychological, and emotional effects. Child sexual abuse can be particularly traumatic, with psychological effects lasting into adulthood. In addition to the potential physical effects of sexual victimization (e.g., injury, pregnancy, or sexually transmitted diseases), sexual victimization may lead to psychological effects, the most prevalent of which seem to be fear and anxiety. The fear often leads to nervousness, specific anxiety about future sexual abuse, and ultimately a generalized anxiety. Many adults who were sexually abused as children develop anxiety-related disorders, such as phobias, panic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders or other weight regulation practices, and sleep disturbances (see Calhoun & Atkeson, 1991; Lundberg-Love, 1999).

Some researchers have found that victims of sexual abuse may develop symptoms similar to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and delayed disclosure of abuse may enhance those symptoms. Others, however, have noted that PTSD is more likely to result from a discrete event (e.g., a rape), whereas the negative effects of childhood sexual abuse tend to develop as a result of the process of the abusive relationship. The type and severity of abuse, however, does not seem to have an effect on the development of trauma symptoms (see Bal, De Bourdeaudhuij, & Crombez, 2005; Browning & Laumann, 1997; Finkelhor, 1988; Ullman, 2007).

Another psychological consequence of sexual abuse is depression, which is more likely to develop if the abuse was ongoing and the perpetrator was someone close to the victim. Many of those abused experience low self-esteem and self-blame, and they are likely to withdraw from social interaction. This withdrawal can further perpetuate the cycle of depression, because when victims most need social support they are instead avoiding those close to them. Though the effects of such psychological problems fade over time for some victims, others do experience long-term depression or other significant effects such as dissociative disorders that emerge to help them cope with the trauma (see Browning & Laumann, 1997; Calhoun & Atkeson, 1991; Lundberg-Love, 1999).

Sexual abuse also seems to affect the victims’ “sexual trajectories.” Some victims, both male and female, may experience sexual dysfunction as a result of sexual victimization, particularly if they are experiencing long-term anxiety about the assault. Even if there is no physical dysfunction, victimization may result in altered sexual practices. While some researchers have shown that sexual abuse victims may have an increased likelihood of avoidance or loss of sexual satisfaction, other more extensive studies show that victimization is more likely to result in increased sexual activity (Browning & Laumann, 1997).

For men in particular, sexual abuse can be stigmatizing, lead to confusion and anxiety about sexual identity, and cause concern about their gender identity. Watkins and Bentovim (1992) showed that boys who were sexually abused were 4 times more likely to engage in homosexual activity than boys who were not abused, and boys who were abused and identify as homosexual often link their sexual identity to the abuse. Males who were abused may attempt to reassert their masculinity by acting out and by stigmatizing others.

Some studies have shown a link between childhood victimization and future delinquency, sexual offending, or deviant sexual interests. Alcohol abuse and substance abuse tend to be common coping strategies for those victimized as children (Terry, 2006). Widom, Schuck, and White (2006) found a direct path from early victimization to later violence for males, though not for females. Smallbone and McCabe (2003) found that offenders with a history of sexual abuse reported having begun masturbating at an earlier age than nonabused offenders, hypothesizing that these images of sexual abuse may be associated with this early masturbation and tied to the development of deviant interests through classical conditioning. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (1997) reported that offenders who had perpetrated sexual assaults were substantially more likely than other groups of offenders to report having been physically abused or sexually victimized during childhood, though two thirds of sex offenders did not report having been physically abused or sexually assaulted as a child. Weeks and Widom (1998) found that, among a sample of convicted felons, perpetrators of sexual offenses reported higher rates (26.3%) of childhood sexual victimization than other offenders (12.5%). R. K. Hanson and Slater (1988) found that adult sex offenders who had perpetrated offenses against a male child were more likely to have a history of childhood sexual abuse (39%) than those who had perpetrated offenses against female children (18%). Similarly, Worling (1995) found that adolescents with a history of having assaulted a male child were more likely to have disclosed sexual abuse (75%) than adolescents who had assaulted females, peers, or adults (25%). As Coxe and Holmes (2001) note, factors such as victim age at time of abuse; the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator; response to the report of sexual abuse; as well as the extent, frequency, and duration of abuse may be important with regard to the development of deviant beliefs or offense behaviors.

Responses to Sexual Offending

Sex Offender Policy

Many laws have been enacted since the early 1990s that increase the punishment, supervision, and management of sex offenders. The catalyst for most of these was the kidnapping, sexual assault, and/or murder of a child. The aim of these laws is to protect the community from sex offenders who are considered to be at risk to repeat their offenses, and the policies fall into three main categories: registration of sex offenders and notification to the community about where they are living, the restriction of where sex offenders live in the community, and the incapacitation of sex offenders with a “mental abnormality or defect” who are dangerous. The courts have upheld these laws as constitutional because their aim is to protect the public. It is not clear how effective these laws are at preventing recidivism because few methodologically sound studies have been conducted to analyze their efficacy.

Registration and Community Notification Laws (RCNL)

In 1994, 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and killed by recidivist sex offender Jesse Timmendequas, who was living across the street from her. Timmendequas had two prior convictions for violent sexual offenses, but his neighbors in this New Jersey suburb were unaware of his background. As a result of Megan’s death, her mother went on a crusade to get laws passed that would allow the community to be notified about sex offenders living in the area. As a result of Mrs. Kanka’s advocacy, New Jersey passed “Megan’s Law,” and the federal government and all states soon followed.

RCNL statutes vary in every state, but there are some commonalities. Sex offenders are required to register with law enforcement or another state agency, and that agency is charged with maintaining the central registry of sex offenders. Sex offenders must provide their names and aliases; addresses where they live and work; and additional information such as the type of car they drive, tattoos, and so forth. The requirement to register is triggered by the conviction of offenses specified by statute. These include any sexually based offenses, completed or attempted, and, in most states, offenses against children such as kidnapping. Each state has a way to assess the risk level of sex offenders, and in most states they are designated into one of three tiers of risk: low, moderate, or high. Lowand moderate-risk offenders must verify their addresses annually, and high-risk offenders must verify their information every 90 days. The offenders must stay on the registry for a set amount of time, ranging from 10 years to life. Failure to register or knowingly providing false information is an offense, ranging from a violation to a felony. Every state now maintains an online registry of sex offenders that can be publicly accessed, and some states also have some type of “active” notification, like sending out flyers or going door-to-door to warn neighbors about offenders living in the community.

RCNL was controversial at its inception and has been challenged often in state and federal courts. Sex offenders challenged nearly all the provisions in RCNL statutes, claiming violations of ex post facto, due process, cruel and unusual punishment, equal protection, and search and seizure, among other issues. Other challenges have been brought on grounds that the state failed to notify the offender of his duty to register (another type of due process challenge), that the offense for which the offender was convicted should not have triggered registration under the statute (e.g., a juvenile offense), that the offender did not knowingly violate the registration law, that failure to register was not a continuing offense (a type of ex post facto challenge), that the tier risk level assigned was improper, that the court lacked jurisdiction, and that Internet notification is too broad. These challenges have resulted in varying degrees of success, but the courts have unanimously declared that RCNL is constitutional (for a full review of RCNL, see Terry & Furlong, 2008).

Residency Restrictions

Residency restrictions limit the places where sex offenders can live and, sometimes, where they can work. They are based upon the premise that geographical proximity to offense opportunities increases the likelihood that offenders will recidivate. The goal of residency restriction statutes is to increase public safety by limiting sex offenders’ access to the places “where children congregate.” The places of congregation and the length of the restriction vary by jurisdiction. Residency restrictions typically bar offenders from living within a 1,000 to 2,500-foot distance from schools, day care centers, parks, or other places densely populated by children (see Nieto & Jung, 2006). Though many states—22 as of 2006—have implemented general residency restrictions, these are more commonly implemented on a local (city or county) level.

Sex offenders have challenged residency restrictions in court but, like RCNL, they have been upheld. The Supreme Court has ruled that residency restrictions are not, on their face, unconstitutional, even though they may deprive sex offenders of housing options; may force offenders to move from supportive environments and employment opportunities; and, subsequently, could increase rather than decrease recidivism risk.

Few empirical studies have thus far addressed the outcome of this legislation, and the empirical studies that do exist have produced conflicting results. Studies in Minnesota, Ohio, Colorado, and San Diego, California, have indicated that residency restrictions lead to a shortage of available housing alternatives for sex offenders. This could force sex offenders into isolated areas that lack services, employment opportunities, or adequate social support, which could actually destabilize offenders (see Levenson & Cotter, 2005).

Sexually Violent Predator Legislation

Several states have passed legislation allowing for the civil commitment of “sexually violent predators” (SVP) to a mental institution if they are assessed as having a mental abnormality or personality disorder and are dangerous to themselves or others. Washington was the first state to enact SVP legislation as part of the Community Protection Act of 1990, and 20 states currently have some version of SVP laws. The goal of this legislation is to incapacitate sex offenders at high risk of reoffending until they are rehabilitated. SVP laws are similar to legislation from the 1930s-1950s, which allowed “sexual psychopaths” to be incapacitated in mental health facilities instead of prison with the understanding that “sexual psychopathy” was a disorder that could be “cured.”

To be designated an SVP, a person must generally (a) be convicted of a sexually violent offense and (b) suffer from a mental abnormality or personality disorder that is likely to put the person at high risk of committing a future act of sexual violence. To be committed, an offender is referred to the court before release from prison. There is then a hearing to determine if there is probable cause to believe the sex offender fits the criteria of an SVP and, if so, the offender undergoes a risk assessment evaluation. Sex offenders assessed as dangerous then have a trial to assess whether they should be incapacitated. States differ on their burden of proof necessary at trial to determine if the offender is an SVP; some states require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but others merely require clear and convincing evidence. Offenders have due process rights throughout the hearing process.

SVP facilities differ across the states. Some use “secure facilities” run by the state (e.g., South Carolina, Illinois, and Iowa), while others have secure facilities run by private corporations (e.g., Florida), state hospitals (e.g., Arizona, California, North Dakota, and Wisconsin), correctional mental health facilities (e.g., Kansas, New Jersey, and Washington), mental health hospitals (e.g., Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin), or even outpatient commitment facilities (e.g., Texas). States have varying regulations about the length of time the SVP can be confined, the most common being indefinite/indeterminate commitment with reviews every set number of years (e.g., every 2 years).

SVP legislation is controversial for several reasons. First, it allows for the confinement of offenders after they have completed their criminal sentences. Second, the risk assessment process is fallible. Assessment processes vary in each state, and no process can accurately predict all those who may or may not be dangerous, resulting in both false negatives and false positives. Third, few offenders are ever released because, once incapacitated, offenders have difficulty showing that they are “rehabilitated.” Most releases have been due to technical issues rather than an assessment that the offenders were rehabilitated. Finally, civil commitment is very expensive—approximately 2 to 3 times the cost of incapacitation in maximum security prisons.

Almost immediately after its inception, offenders challenged SVP legislation in the courts on grounds of ex post facto application, double jeopardy, due process, equal application, vagueness of the statute, and definition of an SVP. The U.S. Supreme Court stated that the law is constitutional, however, because it is a civil rather than a criminal statute. As such, it does not violate double jeopardy clauses by adding additional punishment because the purpose of civil commitment is neither retribution nor deterrence (see Kansas v. Hendricks 521 U.S. 346 [1997]).

Treatment for Sex Offenders

Treatment is often required for sex offenders serving some or all of their sentences in the community (e.g., on probation or parole). The most common type of treatment for sex offenders today is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT was developed from earlier behavioral models and focuses on reducing sexually deviant behavior through a number of processes. First, the treatment must address deviant sexual fantasies. Several behavioral approaches are used to accomplish this while at the same time increasing sexual arousal to appropriate stimuli. These include covert sensitization (the pairing of a negative consequence with the sexual arousal stimulus), aversion therapy (the sexual arousal stimulus is paired with an aversive event), and masturbatory satiation (masturbating to ejaculation while verbalizing an appropriate sexual fantasy).

The second step of CBT is to enhance the offenders’ social and relationship skills, and help them to understand appropriate social interaction and empathy. CBT targets issues such as social problem solving, conversational skills, social anxiety, assertiveness, conflict resolution, intimacy, anger management, and self-confidence. A third aspect of CBT addresses cognitive restructuring. The goal is to reduce cognitive distortions, or the internal rationalizations, excuses, and justifications that sex offenders make for their behavior (see Marshall & Barbaree, 1990). A final part of CBT is to teach offenders how to manage their own behavior. This phase follows the idea that offenders should understand their high-risk situations and be able to manage them by making appropriate decisions.

Though CBT is the most common form of treatment today, it is sometimes used in combination with other treatment approaches such as “chemical castration.” Chemical castration treatments usually consist of taking regular doses of antiandrogens such as medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) that reduce the level of serum testosterone in males. Other pharmacological treatments may include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as sertraline (Zoloft), fluoxetine (Prozac), fluvoxamine, desipramine, and clomipramine.