Sexual Offending Behavior

Jason Sikorski. 21st Century Psychology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: Stephen F Davis & William Buskist. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2008.

Few acts evoke comparable levels of contempt and fear as those perpetrated by sexual offenders. These feelings are likely spurred by several factors. First, research shows that sexual offending behavior is not uncommon. Many people have experienced firsthand the psychological, social, and physical consequences of sexual victimization. If not a victim, it is highly likely that one knows someone who has been sexually offended against in some way (e.g, exhibitionism, frotteurism, stranger rape, date rape, child molestation). Additionally, sexual offending behavior has been the focus of popular television programs (e.g., Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Dateline NBC: To Catch a Predator) and numerous televised news segments claiming to provide a poignant and polished look into the lives of sexual offenders and their victims. These programs are produced and directed to facilitate our identification with victims of sexual abuse. In addition, shocking and sensitive details about the actions perpetrated during sexual offenses are provided. For most, these dramatic details appear to be far out of the realm of “normal” humanity. Despite the fact that television programs and our own emotional reactions to sexual offending behavior look and feel accurate, more often than not they hamper us from taking an objective and balanced look at the subject matter.

Public opinion toward sexual offenders, often without associated empirical evidence, is at least partly responsible for a dramatic shift in public policy pertaining to the treatment and management of sexual offenders. Citizens all across the country can visit a Web site, punch in an address, and obtain the names and addresses of past perpetrators of sexual offending behavior residing near a location of interest. Some of us may have even experienced the distinct displeasure of receiving a letter or a visitor informing us of a “dangerous” sexual offender living in our neighborhood. Sexual offender registries and community notification laws are intuitively appealing. However, these dramatic policy changes are not supported by evidence that these methods reduce the risk posed by sexual offenders to society. The question becomes whether our gut reactions to sexual offenders are reliable, valid, and useful.

In short, the topic of sexual offending behavior is emotionally charged and value laden. There is more to individuals who commit sexual offenses than the heinousness of their acts or what the media chooses to cover pertaining to them. In reality, to prevent sexual offenses, we need to treat apprehended sexual offenders and manage them in our communities upon release. However, the knowledge utilized to make treatment and management decisions of critical importance must be derived from sound empirical research rather than subjective emotional reactions and public outcry. This chapter summarizes the relevant research pertaining to sexual offending behavior in adolescents and adults.

The current analysis begins by summarizing the prevalence of sexual offending behavior in society. Next, characteristics of the heterogeneous population of sexual offenders are outlined and potential subgroup differences are examined. Treatment programs for sexual offenders are then highlighted briefly, with a particular emphasis on programs with the most empirical support. To conclude, statistics on the rates of sexual offense recidivism are presented, risk factors outlined, and methodological difficulties discussed.

Some Statistics on Sexual Offending Behavior

Research conducted in the late 1990s by the United States Department of Justice provided a range of useful information to help understand the unique characteristics of sexual offenders. This comprehensive statistical report summarizes relevant rates and characteristics of sexual offending behavior in 1995. The data provided are consistent with the empirical findings since then and are thought to represent a reasonable approximation of the current rates of sexual offending. This detailed report can be accessed at

In 1995, individuals above the age of 12 reported experiencing over 260,000 attempted or completed rapes and around 95,000 threatened or completed sexual assaults other than rape (e.g., child molestation). Upwards of 40 to 50 percent of the victims of rape are below the age of 18, and imprisoned sexual offenders report that about two thirds of their victims are children or adolescents. What is most staggering about prevalence statistics is that they likely represent only a fragment of the true number of sexual offenses. There are multiple reasons why victims of sexual offending behavior might not report their crimes. Some may fear retribution from the offender. Other victims might prefer to avoid the emotional upheaval and personal humiliation associated with discussing their victimization in court. Regardless of the reasons, the United States Department of Justice indicated that less than one in three victims of sexual offending behavior report their victimization to police officials. For these reasons and others, some researchers rely more on community surveys of men who are most likely to be potential perpetrators. This research shows that from 5 to 20 percent of men admit to perpetrating at least one act of sexual offending behavior in their lifetime (Koss, 1987).

Although there is some evidence that rates of sexual abuse are declining in our society (see Finklehor & Jones, 2004), the reasons for this trend are unknown and may be indicative of methodological anomalies as opposed to real societal change. Sexual assaults continue to take place in epidemic proportions. The public health implications of having so many victims of sexual abuse include the costs related to comprehensive care for victims and their families, rehabilitating sexual offenders, community notification, and after-care management of sexual offenders. However, the costs extend well beyond financial considerations. Mountains of research have documented the potential long-term emotional and behavioral costs associated with being a victim of sexual abuse. To add to this complexity, sexual offenders represent a heterogeneous population with a range of characteristic differences among individual sexual offenders.

Sexual Offenders: A Heterogeneous Population

There are many different types of sexual offending behavior, and the individual perpetrators vary in multiple ways as well. The case studies given below attest to the heterogeneous nature of sexual offending behavior and sexual offenders themselves.

Joseph is a twice-married 41-year-old. He lives with his wife and two stepdaughters (ages 8 and 11), and works full-time in construction. He has a chronic and persistent history of depression that dates back to his childhood, which was characterized by the sudden death of his father when he was 9 years old and sexual victimization by a paternal uncle. Joseph has never been arrested before and volunteers at church and community functions. Recently, both of his stepdaughters have come forward to allege that he forced sexual intercourse on them for the last 2 years. In addition, he reportedly threatened to kill their mother if either of the stepdaughters told of his sexual offending behavior. Joseph vehemently denies these allegations. His wife has elected to support her husband by living with him and having her children move to live with a close relative.

Harry is a 16-year-old who lives with his mother and six other siblings. They reside in an inner-city neighborhood characterized by high crime and poverty. Harry has been an active gang member since the age of 13. He has been arrested 15 times and served time in a juvenile correctional facility on five separate occasions. Harry’s arrest record includes convictions for assault, grand theft auto, and drug possession with intent to sell. He has abused cannabis since the age of 11. Most recently, Harry was arrested for reportedly forcing anal intercourse on a 14-year-old female peer at a party. He allegedly videotaped the assault. Harry’s victim suffered a broken right arm and multiple lacerations during the commission of the offense.

Oliver is a 48-year-old single male. He previously worked as a gym teacher at a local elementary school. Fifteen years prior, Oliver was charged and convicted of eight counts of sexual misconduct after several children in his class came forward and alleged that he had taken nude pictures of them and fondled their bodies on multiple occasions. His offenses were committed against both males and females. All victims were between the ages of 6 and 9 at the time of the offenses. Oliver served 13 years in prison, and during his treatment while incarcerated, he admitted to committing hundreds of sexual offenses against over 50 victims. Upon release from prison, Oliver has worked for the last 2 years at a local supermarket. Most recently, he was charged with lewd and lascivious acts when he was observed exposing himself and masturbating while watching young children play outside the local elementary school.

In reading these hypothetical case studies, several factors should be evident. Perpetrators vary in age, family background, criminal history, and types of sexual offending behavior. Victims of sexual offenders run the entire gamut of demographic characteristics in our society. The brief nature of this chapter prevents us from describing the characteristics of sexual offenders completely. However, an introduction to the varying characteristics of sexual offenders is provided by analyzing the evidence associated with five myths about sexual offenders in our society.

Myth 1: Kids Commonly Experiment With Sexual Activity and Are Not Capable of Committing Serious Sexual Offenses

Harry, our adolescent sexual offender, does not represent an enigma in the field of sexual offending behavior. In fact, it is estimated that 30 to 50 percent of serious sexual offenses are committed by individuals under the age of 18 (Davis & Leitenberg, 1987). Moreover, approximately 50 percent of adult sexual offenders reported their first sexual offense in adolescence and feature two to five times more offenses than apprehensions (Groth, Longo, & McFadin, 1982). The offenses committed by adult sexual offenders appear similar in modus operandi and victim choice to those offenses committed by juveniles. In short, juvenile sexual offenders are responsible for many sexual offenses in our society, and sometimes these behaviors in adolescence can continue into adulthood. The importance of intervening early with individuals engaging in sexual offending behavior cannot be overemphasized.

Myth 2: All Sexual Offenders Have Been Sexually Abused in the Past

According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), about in 1 in 5 females and 1 in 30 males in the general population have a history of sexual abuse victimization. Rates of sexual abuse victimization in individuals who have engaged in sexual offending behavior are generally higher than national population estimates; however, variability is common across different samples. Becker and Murphy (1998) reported that across different categories of sexual offenses, approximately 30 percent of sexual offenders had been sexually abused in the past. This finding suggests that the majority of sexual offenders do not have a history of being sexually abused. However, several researchers have found that rates of sexual abuse victimization vary considerably across different types of sexual offenders. For instance, compared to individuals who committed sexual offenses against children, rapists have been shown to be much less likely to have a history of sexual abuse victimization. Worling (1995) found that around 25 percent of a sample of juvenile sexual offenders who victimized females exclusively had a history of sexual abuse victimization, whereas about 75 percent of youths who sexually offended against young, male children had been victimized sexually.

Myth 3: Sexual Offenders Are Specialists Who Rarely Commit Other Types of Criminal Offenses

Sexual offenders also vary according to whether their sexual offending behavior is accompanied by a history of committing other types of criminal acts. As Soothill and colleagues (2000) eloquently articulated, it is important to know whether sexual offenders are specialist criminals or generalists whose sexual offending behavior represents only one aspect of a diverse criminal repertoire. Recent research has found sexual offenders to have fewer subsequent criminal offenses than do other types of criminals and less extensive past arrest histories. Sexual offenders appear in many ways to be less specialized in their offense patterns than are other offenders. In fact, 60 percent of sexual offenders had only one arrest for a sex offense in their criminal careers. Men who offended against young children (e.g., child molesters) were more specialized in their offense patterns than were those who targeted adult victims (e.g., rapists; Miethe, Olson, & Mitchell, 2006). Studies of both juvenile and adult sexual offenders have shown that those who victimize peer-aged or adult victims tend to have extensive histories of prior criminal activity that is not reserved to sexual offending behavior alone. In essence, the literature supports the contention that “rapist type” sexual offenders are often generalists and commit a range of violent and nonviolent criminal acts not reserved to sexual offending behavior.

Myth 4: All Sexual Offenders Are Mentally Ill

Many sexual offenders exhibit a range of internalizing and externalizing symptoms of psychopathology. Loneliness, social skills weaknesses, and intimacy deficits have been implicated across many studies (Marshall, 1996). Others, as mentioned above, have highlighted how some groups of sexual offenders are highly impulsive and prone to antisocial acting out (Prentky & Knight, 1991). However, the psychiatric histories of sexual offenders vary extensively. Addressing depression or anxiety may represent an important aspect of treatment for some sexual offenders; however, these issues may be entirely irrelevant for others. Generalities regarding the mental health histories of sexual offenders are useless and attest to the importance of conducting a comprehensive assessment of sexual offenders’ individual strengths and weaknesses to inform the treatment process.

Myth 5: Almost All Sexual Offenders Reoffend

This myth will be addressed in detail later in this review. However, the research clearly documents that most sexual offenders apprehended for committing a sexual offense in the past do not reoffend sexually.

Across many descriptive studies, the characteristics of sexual offenders differ extensively, and undoubtedly vary as a function of the characteristics of the sample studied. Studies of prison-based populations are likely to include those offenders representing the highest risk to society, whereas outpatient samples may comprise individuals who represent a reduced risk for sexual and nonsexual recidivism. Combining studies that focus on different samples of sexual offenders is not likely to provide the type of information needed to make reliable and conclusive statements about individual sexual offenders.

The question as to which variables serve us best in constructing more homogeneous subcategories of sexual offenders is a pivotal focus in the sexual offending literature. Research to date suggests that distinguishing sexual offenders based on single variables (e.g., age of victim, degree of force used in the commission of the offense, type of relationship with the victim[s]) is largely inadequate. Leaders in the literature on sexual offending behavior, like Robert Prentky and Raymond Knight (1991), advocate for and attempt to construct multivariate models to discriminate types of sexual offenders (e.g., rapists) from other sexual offending groups (e.g., child molesters). Efforts to uncover subgroups among specific types of sexual offenders (e.g., rapists) are also underway. With greater specification of differences among sexual offenders will likely come an enhanced capability to predict sexual offense recidivism, tailor treatment programs to unique needs, and develop useful theories on the etiology and maintenance of sexual offending behavior.

Theory-Based Treatment

G. Alan Marlatt and colleagues (2005) developed the relapse prevention model as a cognitive-behavioral intervention to be used in treating alcohol and drug addictions. The theory, in conjunction with social learning explanations, came to be applied regularly in treating sexual offenders around the 1980s. Among an already increasing wave of discontent surrounding strict behaviorally based models of classically conditioned deviant sexual arousal (Brownmiller, 1975), relapse prevention models and social learning theories caught on quickly in the field (Marshall & Laws, 2003).

Tenets of the relapse prevention treatment model specify how sexual offenders encounter both internal and external triggers that can lead them to commit sexual offenses, and that the offenders themselves have control over their actions, thoughts, and emotions. This accountability-based approach to sexual offender treatment had far-reaching appeal for those in both mental health and criminal justice, a rare feat in the real world of working with sexual offenders.

Treatment in the spirit of social learning and relapse prevention models of sexual offending behavior include having each individual offender outline and discuss factors that were related to their prior sexual offending behavior. For instance, external triggers for sexual offending behavior might include viewing pornography, babysitting a young child, being rejected by a potential companion, or going to a playground to eat lunch. Internal triggers usually refer to emotional states and/or cognitions like feeling depressed, getting very angry, feeling lonely and withdrawn, or fantasizing about past sexual offending behavior. Experiencing a “trigger” event was thought to place an individual on a cognitive and behavioral course toward sexual offending. Treatment is initially intended to provide the individual with prosocial ways of avoiding high-risk situations that could serve as external triggers, and developing effective coping skills to manage emotions and thought processes linked in the past with sexual offending behavior.

A second important aspect to applying the relapse prevention model to sexual offenders is to recognize and expect that mistakes will be made in applying learned principles to reducing sexual offending behavior. Treated individuals will sometimes fail in managing their emotions or avoiding risky situations. In fact, some sexual offenders might even engage in sexual offending behavior. These failures to implement a workable and personalized relapse prevention model are termed lapses. These lapses can be viewed in one of two ways by sexual offenders. First, they can interpret their lapse as being representative of treatment failure and, in essence, use it as an excuse to ignore what they have learned and completely relapse into old and dangerous patterns of behavior. This cognitive bias is termed the abstinence violation effect (AVE), and represents an important target for treatment in most relapse prevention-based treatment models. An alternative response to a lapse is to chart mistakes and rededicate oneself to ensure that a single mistake does not lead one to reimmerse oneself in a criminally deviant lifestyle (see Wheeler, George, & Marlatt, 2006, for an excellent review of relapse prevention models and the abstinence violation effect).

The cognitions of sexual offenders have long been implicated as problematic and potentially conducive to sexual offending behavior. For instance, child molesters have been shown to articulate views that children enjoy sex or benefit from it in some way. Other child molesters have suggested that their child victims seduced them and pursued sexual contact in some way. Rapists, on the other hand, have been shown to possess a range of “hypermasculine” attitudes. Rapists sometimes perceive that women enjoy rough sexual contact or say “no” to sexual contact when they really mean “yes.” These “cognitive distortions” used by sexual offenders to explain their sexual offending behavior are usually targeted as part of a comprehensive treatment program. The offenders are guided in articulating these pro-offending views, and their views are systematically challenged and eventually revised in hopes of further elucidating an individual’s trajectory toward sexual offending behavior.

Another aspect of a comprehensive cognitive-behavioral treatment program almost inevitably involves challenging sexual offenders to admit the entire range of their sexual offending behavior. The implicit assumption behind this element of therapy is that individual relapse-prevention plans cannot be constructed if the individual is dishonest about the scope and nature of the sexual offending behavior. Other comprehensive treatment programs are very likely to include training in social skills and perspective taking. Ideally, individual offenders with a past history of parent-child attachment issues and/or sexual abuse victimization receive therapeutic services designed to assist them in coping with their turbulent pasts.

In a recent review, Hanson and Harris (2002) used meta-analysis to compare recidivism rates of sexual offenders receiving traditional cognitive-behavioral treatment (e.g., relapse prevention model) with an untreated comparison group. Untreated sexual offenders committed a subsequent sexual offense after treatment (17 percent) more frequently than did treated sexual offenders (10 percent). This relatively modest benefit from treatment, coupled with other studies showing no differences in recidivism rates amongst treated and untreated offenders, led leaders in the field of sexual offender assessment and treatment to begin to challenge the relapse prevention model of treatment (Laws, Hudson, & Ward, 2000).

As theories are refined and applied empirically to subcategories of sexual offenders, there are several important issues to consider. As in many areas of mental health, theories that guide assessment and treatment do not often account adequately for cultural variables. Theories of sexual offending behavior need to be supplemented with culture-specific heuristics if theory-based treatment is to work equally well across different ethnic and cultural groups (Nagayama-Hall, Sue, DeGarmo, & Stephens, 2005). Some researchers have argued that sexual offender treatment highlights negative factors while failing to emphasize positive strengths that an individual sexual offender might utilize to initiate a more fulfilling existence (e.g., Mann, 2004). With such considerable emphasis being placed on common factors research in psychotherapy treatment studies, process issues in treating sexual offenders are being discussed (empathy, therapist warmth, genuineness, etc.). In addition, a realization of the importance associated with intervening to address sexual offending behavior in high-risk juvenile sexual offenders has been established. The importance associated with creating empirically derived pathway models that chart the development of sexual offending behavior from adolescence to adulthood represents the future of theory development in the sexual offender literature (Knight & Prentky, 1991).

To date, no single theory is capable of explaining all sexual offending behavior. Thus, no single treatment program is likely to work equally well for all sexual offenders. Grouping all treatment completers together and assessing reconviction trends does not necessarily provide information on the effectiveness of treatment for sexual offenders. The treatment might work well for some and poorly for others. The resulting data may represent a potentially meaningless average of treatment success and treatment failure (Friendship & Beech, 2005). Nonetheless, research on the treatment of sexual offenders is burgeoning. Gains in knowledge are expected in the coming decades as refinements are made to the relapse prevention model, developmental and cultural variables are considered, and pathway models are utilized to understand the origins of offending behavior throughout life.

Predicting Sexual Offense Recidivism

The history of psychology has taught us many important lessons that can be applied to predicting the risk of sexual offense recidivism in sexual offenders. Since the early 1950s, empiricists like Paul Meehl (1954) have strenuously challenged assumptions that experts in mental health are capable of using their own intuition and training to make accurate predictions about human behavior. Across a range of prediction contexts, the intuitive judgments of intelligent and highly trained individuals have obtained accuracy rates for their predictions that pale in comparison to those derived from simple statistical formulas or actuaries.

Human beings are prone to become distracted by extraneous variables and do not think linearly. However, computers run statistical formulas without bias: Variables are not weighted differentially with computers. In contrast, human beings are fallible and easily biased. It would be easy for a clinician or judge to focus on some individual variables as being more important to consider than others. For instance, if asked to predict the risk for sexual offense recidivism in an individual, which variables would you consider most important? Despite the fact that every aspect of our intuition suggests that offenders who injure their victims are more likely to recidivate sexually, research has shown that the forcefulness of the sexual offending behavior is not predictive of sexual offense recidivism. The debate continues on whether there exist certain pieces of information that one might obtain clinically that could override the conclusions of an actuary altogether or at least reduce or enhance the degree of confidence associated with the actuarial conclusion.

Methodological Issues Related to Predicting Risk for Recidivism

Even if the decision is made to use one of many reliable and valid clinical tools to predict sexual offense recidivism instead of human judgment, many methodological problems impact accuracy rates. For instance, sexual offenders are often notorious for their ability to deceive even the most seasoned clinician. After all, they have had plenty of practice deceiving others—much of their lives have been spent committing social taboos without detection. Once apprehended, treated, and released, the sexual offender cannot be relied on to report whether he committed another sexual offense. Rather, reconviction or arrest data are most often utilized to obtain estimates of sexual offending behavior. In all likelihood, the use of reconviction or rearrest data underestimates actual rates of sexual offense recidivism. (Remember, though, that victims may choose not to alert police to their victimization and offenders are very adept at keeping their sexual offending behavior undercover [Friendship & Beech, 2005].)

Another important methodological challenge when attempting to predict risk for sexual offense recidivism is what researchers call the base rate problem. Simply stated, you are more likely to make errors in prediction if you are forced to predict the occurrence of a low-likelihood event. As will be reviewed in the next section, sexual offense recidivism rates are relatively low. Thus, predicting sexual offense recidivism is likely to result in frequent false positive predictions (e.g., predicting that individuals will reoffend when they do not). Hope is derived from the fact that complex statistical techniques that are sensitive to the base rate problem in prediction research have been applied to research on sexual offender recidivism (e.g., receiver operating characteristics [ROC]).

Rates of Sexual Offense Recidivism

Over a 4- to 5-year follow-up, meta-analyses have shown that about 13 percent of sexual offenders committed another sexual offense and only about 33 percent committed criminal offenses that were not sexual in nature (Hanson & Bussiere, 1998; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004). In contrast to media portrayals reporting the imminent risk of sexual offenders recapitulating their prior offenses in the future, these stable findings pertaining to rates of recidivism for sexual offenders are considerably lower than recidivism rates for other types of offenders (Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004). With this information in hand, the task is to find information that can be used to predict those individual sexual offenders who are most likely to recidivate sexually so that more intensive types of treatment and community management can be implemented.

Types of Risk Factors

There are many different types of information that can be collected, coded, and utilized to predict an individual’s risk for sexual offense recidivism. Static risk factors represent those variables that are historical and unchangeable in nature. For instance, individuals who have a history of prior criminal offenses, past sexual abuse victimization, or a documented history of committing multiple sexual offenses cannot have this information stricken from their record. Rather, these types of variables become an enduring aspect of their history.

Dynamic risk factors are changeable. Stable dynamic risk factors represent variables that can be altered in an individual. However, these changes are often very difficult to achieve (e.g., deviant sexual preoccupations, substance dependence). More acute dynamic risk factors are characteristics or contexts that can be seemingly changed more readily (e.g., being intoxicated, having direct contact with potential victims, becoming very angry). However, it is far more difficult to track dynamic changes reliably in an individual than it is to record historical information. This problem likely explains why the overwhelming majority of objective risk assessment measures and studies of sexual offense recidivism have focused primarily on static risk information.

Risk Factors for Sexual Offense Recidivism

The primary predictors of sexual offense recidivism for diverse samples of adolescent and adult sexual offenders have consistently fallen in two construct domains that represent static risk factors. First, exhibiting a history of pervasive antisocial tendencies is predictive of sexual offense recidivism, as well as other types of criminal recidivism (e.g., assault). Second, both historical and dynamic measures of deviant sexual interest are also highly predictive of future offending behavior. Having male victims and victims unrelated to the offender are also suggestive of a poor outcome (Hanson, Morton, & Harris, 2003).

Dynamic risk factors associated with sexual offense recidivism are much harder to come by. Preliminary evidence suggests that some dynamic or changeable information may be related to sexual offense recidivism. However, additional empirical support is required before this information is widely accepted as reliable in nature. As such, sexual preoccupations, intimacy deficits, antisocial attitudes, impulsive behavior, and the instability of one’s personal and social lives have received some support as potential predictors of sexual offense recidivism (Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004).

Knowledge can also be derived from examining those factors that have not received empirical support as reliable predictors of sexual offense recidivism. Variables like having a history of sexual abuse victimization, forcefulness of sexual offending behavior, low self-esteem, adaptive skills deficits (e.g., social skills), and overall psychological functioning seem intuitively to represent risk factors for sexual offense recidivism. However, they have not been found to aid in predicting this outcome. Perhaps of even more interest is the fact that many variables highlighted in treatment programs for sexual offenders have not been found to relate significantly to sexual offense recidivism (e.g., low victim empathy, low treatment motivation, lack of progress in treatment, denial of offenses, minimization of sexual offenses; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004). In short, the variables that our clinical judgment might suggest will help us identify the most dangerous of offenders are not always the same variables that research shows to be of paramount importance.

Obtaining information on both dynamic and static predictors of sexual offense recidivism is imperative. Many static variables have been found to predict reoffense rates. However, once incarcerated, decisions still have to be made regarding how offenders are treated and managed in the community upon release. Leaders in the field of sexual offender assessment such as Karl Hanson have repeatedly articulated the importance associated with documenting reliable dynamic predictors of sexual offense recidivism. Developmental variables like attachment history are historical and unchangeable. However, one’s attachment history can impact an individual’s current and future functioning and affect more dynamic and changeable variables. The need to address interactions between variables throughout development has been highlighted in risk assessment and treatment models across several recent studies (e.g., Craissati & Beech, 2006). For instance, the application of attachment models to improve predicting risk of sexual offense recidivism represents an evolving focus in research on sexual offending behavior.


Sexual offending behaviors are diverse, and the individuals who commit these acts differ to such an extent that grouping them in a single category we term “sexual offenders” is essentially useless. In fact, sexual offenders can be juveniles or adults, have different family and social backgrounds, and display sexual offending behaviors that differ in innumerable ways (e.g., intrusiveness of the offense, relationship to the victim, use of violence or force). Although not widely known to laypersons, a considerable number of sexual offenders are not abused sexually as children or exhibit a chronic pattern of severe psychiatric disturbance. Only a small minority of sexual offenders abducts its victims, and few commit homicide during the commission of their offenses. In short, there is no typical sexual offender. However, clearly sexual offenders highlighted on television are atypical in their presentations. Scholarship and critical synthesis are the preferred routes to improving our understanding of this multifaceted population.

There are multiple theories that researchers have introduced to explain the etiology of sexual offending behavior. Cognitive-behavioral theories appear to be most popular and have acquired considerable research support. However, there are no theories that explain the paths that lead to sexual offending behavior in all sexual offenders, which attests again to the heterogeneity of this population. Interestingly, the overwhelming majority of treatment programs for both juvenile and adult sexual offenders utilize a specific cognitive-behavioral, relapse prevention approach to treat all sexual offenders. Not surprisingly, given that relapse prevention strategies are unlikely to work well for all types of sexual offenders, rates of success in treatment have varied. It is likely that a more nuanced and individualized approach to treating each unique offender may prove most useful in reducing the number of sexual offense victims in our society.

Sexual offenders, once apprehended for a sexual offense, do not always commit another sexual offense, as the media would like us to believe. Many static risk factors (e.g., antisocial orientation, deviant sexual arousal) have been implicated in predicting those individuals most likely to commit a subsequent sexual offense. In addition, some dynamic factors show promise in identifying the riskiest offenders in need of intensive treatment and management. Rather than relying on clinicians’ unstructured judgments of risk, based on their intuition or personal data combination strategies, statistical formulas (e.g., actuaries) are now available that feature impressive predictive accuracy rates (e.g., sensitivity, specificity). Yet, even these structured measures have weaknesses. There is much work to be done in refining the empirical basis by which important dispositional decisions are made regarding how to treat and manage apprehended sexual offenders once returned to the community.