Typically most people think about sex offenders as violent rapists or “snatch and grab” child molesters. In truth, only a small minority of sex offenders fit either of these media-driven stereotypes.
The reality is that sex offenders are men, women, teens, and sometimes even younger children who are, for the most part, relatively functional human beings who go to school or work, have friends and family members who love them, and feel deep shame about their sexual behaviors. Many are not even aware that they are sex offenders. Think about a person who hires a prostitute once in a while, or a person who likes to occasionally have sex in his/her car or in the woods, or a person who stumbles upon “naturist” videos with children in them while looking at online porn. Most folks who engage in these behaviors would not consider themselves to be sex offenders, even if they feel intense guilt, shame, and remorse about what they sometimes do, yet in most jurisdictions any and all of these people could very easily be arrested, charged, convicted, and labeled as a sexual offender.
Below, some of the more common myths about sexual offending are examined and rebuked.
Myth #1: All illegal sexual behaviors meet the clinical definition of sexual offending, and vice versa.
Fact #1: The clinical definition of sexual offending is nonconsensual sexual behavior. The legal definition of sexual offending varies by jurisdiction. Consider a 20-year-old and a 17-year-old who engage in consensual sex after dating for two years. In one state this might be a crime, while in a neighboring state it might not be a crime. And even in states where this behavior is a crime the level of the offense and the potential consequences can vary significantly. Either way, from a clinical perspective this sexual activity most likely does not meet the criteria for sexual offending. In short, the clinical definition of sexual offending is subjective, while the legal definition is objective and usually based on the morality of a particular community at a specific point in time.
Myth #2: All sex offenders are adult males.
Fact #2: Most convicted sex offenders are male, but not all. In fact, approximately 5 percent of convicted sex offenders are female. And both genders typically report committing their first offense before the age of 16. Usually the offending behavior started small (peeping, exhibiting, etc.) and escalated over time, growing more noticeable and less socially acceptable.
Myth #3: All sex offenders are serial recidivists, and we should lock them up and toss away the key.
Fact #3: Generally speaking, convicted sex offenders have a less than 10 percent chance of reoffending if they receive useful treatment. In most cases, if the underlying causes of the offender’s problematic behaviors are similar to the underlying causes of bad behavior in addicts and alcoholics—depression, severe anxiety, unresolved childhood trauma, attachment deficit disorders, and the like—that person is an excellent candidate for long-term behavior change.
Myth #4: All sex offenders can be “saved” with proper treatment.
Fact #4: A small minority of sex offenders have proven very difficult to treat. Violent offenders, fixated child offenders (those who are only interested in children), and offenders who are unwilling to admit what they’ve done fall into this troublesome category. Some are incapable of being honest. Others are inherently sociopathic. Still others are simply hardwired with a sexual attraction to children. Sometimes these men and women can be helped to not act on their desires, but only if they desperately want to conform to societal norms. Even then, their ability to not reoffend is tenuous.
Unfortunately, research studies on sexual offending are few and far between, and those that exist are often outdated, not taking into account the best treatment modalities, not factoring in the possibility of sexual addiction escalating to offending behaviors, not looking at sexual offenses by young people or women, etc. However, it is clear from both the little research we have and the plethora of anecdotal evidence provided by treatment specialists working with the offender population that most sex offenders are neither violent nor overly dangerous, and they can be effectively treated by those who know how to proceed appropriately. In simplest terms, most sex offenders are damaged human beings in need of (and deserving of) support, empathy, and proper counseling.
Join us next month for the continuation of this article, “Can Sex Offenders Recover?“