How would you describe a sex offender? In all likelihood, you would describe a monster — someone who lurks behind bushes and rapes unsuspecting women or abuses children. And that is how sex offenders are portrayed in the media. For most of us, much of what we know about sex offenders comes from movies, TV shows and news stories. However, those stories are often sensationalized portrayals — or cases that are the exception to the rule — rather than the norm. While cases like these do exist, they remain statistically rare, in that they happen very infrequently. In this article, we are going to review the myths and realities of sex offenders and sex offending behavior. It is important that, as parents, you know the true facts — knowledge is power. We have set up this article in a myth versus fact format, as myths about sex offenders abound, and it is important to separate myth from reality.
* * *
Myth: Most sex offenses are committed by strangers.
Fact: The large majority of sex offenders are known to the victim.
This is perhaps one of the most dangerous and most important myths about sexual offending. Most people imagine sex offenders as strangers lurking in the bushes or driving white vans. This is categorically untrue. The vast majority of sex offenders are known to their victim. Fewer than 10 percent of children are assaulted by a stranger.
One study found:
- 34 percent of children were assaulted by a family member,
- 59 percent of children were assaulted by an acquaintance, and
- 7 percent of children were assaulted by a stranger.
This knowledge is incredibly important because it shows that many of us are scared of the wrong people. This is what we call the stranger danger phenomenon. It is the belief that sex crimes are predominantly committed by strangers when, in reality, they are most often committed by those who are known to us and to our children. What is even scarier is that many of our laws and policies are based on this stranger danger myth. As a consequence of the stranger danger myth, we no longer let our children walk to their friends’ houses or the park by themselves—but we readily drop them off for playdates or leave them with family members, babysitters, and community leaders, often without so much as a second thought about their safety and security.
* * *
Myth: All sex offenders will reoffend.
Fact: Only a small percent of released sex offenders will reoffend sexually.
There is a common belief that all sex offenders will reoffend, and thus the majority of our sexual violence prevention policies are based on this assumption. In reality, however, sex offenders have the lowest reoffense rates of all types of offenders. Over a three-year period, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that only 5 percent of released sex offenders committed another sex crime.
The most comprehensive study to date used a sample of almost 20,000 released sex offenders, and researchers found that over a period of five to six years:
- 13.7 percent of all types of sex offenders reoffended sexually and
- 12.4 percent of all child molesters reoffended sexually.
While these rates are not zero, they are not 100 percent either. Given that there is no psychological profile of a sex offender (see next myth), it is easiest to focus on those who have already committed a sexual offense, since there is an increased likelihood they will do it again if they have done it once before. But as we see from the statistics, most sex offenders will not reoffend sexually.
An important study was done in New York State where researchers examined all the new sex crimes that took place over a twenty-year period. They found that only 5 percent of all new sex crimes were committed by someone who had previously committed a sex offense. That means 95 percent of the sex offenders were unknown to authorities before their crime occurred.
This New York study has important implications for sexual violence prevention. Our current sex offender laws and policies focus almost exclusively on already detected sex offenders—the ones who commit 5 percent of the new sex crimes—and very few resources are dedicated to prevent the abuse caused by the other 95 percent. These policies are already very costly, and there is not much money dedicated to prevention. In other words, the lion’s share of the resources go to preventing only a small part of the overall offenses. These laws can also give us a false sense of security: by focusing on a tiny sect of the population known to have committed crimes, we ignore less obvious, but in fact much larger, risks.
* * *
Myth: There is a specific type of a person who becomes a sex offender.
Fact: There is no sex offender profile, and we still do not know what makes some people commit sexual offenses.
Profiling shows on television make it look like it is easy to figure out who committed a crime because of certain personality and behavioral characteristics (i.e., a profile) associated with criminal offenses. There has been a lot of research done to try and determine a sex offender profile, but what the research has in fact shown is that there is no specific profile for those who commit sexual offenses. In general, those who are involved in the criminal justice system tend to be less educated and have lower incomes, but this is not the case for sex offenders, as neither socioeconomic status nor level of education are risk factors for sexual offending behavior. Sex offenders come from all strata of society—they can be unemployed, but they can also be lawyers, doctors, educators, and members of the clergy. Some people assume that those who have been abused themselves are at much higher risk of committing sexual abuse. But the evidence here is thin. One important study showed that only physical abuse and neglect—and not childhood sexual abuse—predicted future sexual offending behavior.
* * *
Myth: Sex offenders are “sick.”
Fact: The majority of sex offenders do not have a serious mental illness.
One way that we rationalize to ourselves that people could do such heinous acts is to think that there is something wrong with them or that they are sick or mentally ill. While there is some truth to that myth—in that sex offenders do have a higher rate of serious mental illness, including disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, than the general population—the large majority of sex offenders are not seriously mentally ill.
One study found that 24 percent of all sex offenders had been hospitalized for a psychiatric problem as compared to 5 percent of the general population. This means that while the rates of mental illness are higher among sex offenders, more than 75 percent of them do not have a serious mental illness. It is thus difficult to understand how and why someone would commit a sex crime—and that is precisely what researchers are trying to figure out.
Myth: Only men commit sexual offenses.
Fact: While it is true that most sex offenses are committed by men, women also commit sex offenses.
Many may find it hard to imagine that women commit sex offenses, but they do. Official sexual abuse data indicates that females perpetrate between 4 to 10 percent of all reported sexual assaults.10 It has been suggested that the rates of sexual abuse committed by women are in fact higher, but go unreported. We have all watched with interest cases such as that of Mary Kay Letourneau, the Washington State school teacher who was incarcerated for sexually abusing her twelve-year-old student (and who later married that student upon her release from prison), but most female-perpetrated sex crimes take place in the context of caregiving activities. Therefore, it is sometimes more confusing for the child to know whether he or she has been victimized, and even if they feel that anything has happened at all, so much so that they do not report it. One of the reasons female sex offenders go undetected or unreported is due to our social beliefs that men cannot be sexually assaulted by women or that women are nurturers and thus would not hurt a child. While the vast majority of women do not harm children, there are some that do. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that women perpetrated half of the non-penetration sexual abuse reported by men.
* * *
Myth: Only adults commit sex offenses.
Fact: About one-third of all sex crimes against children are committed by someone under the age of eighteen.
This includes what we more traditionally think of as date rape among adolescents, but it also includes young people who offend against children under the age of twelve and whose offense behaviors mirror that of child molesters as opposed to rapists. About one in eight youth who commit sexual offenses are under the age of twelve.
The research shows that youth who commit sexual offenses are different from adults who commit sexual offenses. While most adult sex offenders act alone, about 15 percent of all youth who commit sexual offenses do so in groups. About 12 percent of these offenses take place at school. Further, they are more likely to offend against those known to or related to them. Finally, when youthful offenders target victims under twelve, they are more likely to offend against boys.
Youth who commit sexual offenses are more likely to be male, and only 7 percent of all reported cases are females. However, girls who commit sexual offenses tend to be younger than boys—31 percent of girls are under the age of twelve when they commit their offense.
* * *
Myth: Youth who commit sexual offense go on to become adult sex offenders.
Fact: The majority of youth who commit sexual offenses do not commit another sexual offense in adulthood.
The good news is that youth who commit sex crimes before the age of eighteen rarely go on to become adult sex offenders. It is estimated that between 7 and 13 percent of those who commit a sexual offense as a minor will commit another offense over a five-year period. The number that will commit another sex offense once they reach adulthood is even less: estimates put it at fewer than 10 percent.
* * *
Myth: Most sex crimes take place in public areas like parks.
Fact: Most sex crimes against children take place in private settings.
There has been a lot of debate in parenting forums about “free-range parenting,” which entails—in part—letting children hang out in the neighborhood and go to parks unsupervised. While this was normal behavior in our youth, in more recent years cultural norms have changed. Parents have actually been investigated, and sometimes charged with neglect, for leaving their children in parks by themselves. One reason for this strong reaction is the fear that children who are unsupervised in the community will fall prey to a sexual predator. In one of our own studies, we found that only about half of one percent (0.5 percent) of all the sexual offenses in a sample of nearly 1,500 sexual offenses took place in a public location, such as a park or a school, and were perpetrated by a stranger against a child victim. In another one of our studies, we found that 75 percent of individuals who committed a sexual offense met their victims in private (typically residential) settings. This also ties in with the research on who is a sex offender. As we talked about before, we are often worried about our children getting snatched from the street and the playground, but most offenders get to know their victims in more intimate settings because they are family, friends, and community members. Thus, the laws created to keep sex offenders away from areas in which children hang out do little to keep them safer, because this is not where the crimes are occurring.
Myth: Child molesters spontaneously attack when they find a victim.
Fact: Many child molesters engage in what is known as grooming behaviors.
When many of us think about sex offenses, we think about the stranger in the white van or the Central Park rapist who lurks about and grabs their victims. However, these types of crimes are exceptionally rare. In reality, many of those who molest children use “grooming,” which refers to the behaviors that the sexual offender engages in before abusing the child. This usually involves gaining the trust of the child and parents so that the abuse can take place without detection. Research suggests that
about half of all cases of child abuse involve grooming. However, it is believed that grooming is actually much more common; it escapes detection because these grooming behaviors often make the child much less likely to report the abuse. Many of the more famous cases you have heard of in the media, such as the sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and Jerry Sandusky, involved grooming tactics used to build connections with the victims and gain the support of the parents to avoid detection.
* * *
Myth: Most sex offenders were abused as children.
Fact: The link between childhood abuse and perpetration is far from clear.
Most individuals who are sexually abused in childhood do not perpetrate offenses against others. In fact, only a small minority of them do. While the general public often assumes that childhood trauma and abuse can lead to sexual offending, researchers are not certain about the connection. What’s clear is that there are many pathways to committing abuse. Sexual abuse may certainly play a role for some offenders, but it has not been isolated as an important causal factor. In fact, research shows that childhood neglect puts people at greater risk of committing abuse than childhood sexual abuse does.
* * *
Myth: Sex offenders are incurable.
Fact: Most sex offenders will not commit another sex offense once they have been identified.
There is a considerable body of research showing that the risk for sex offending decreases across the lifespan, such that as those who have committed sexual offenses get older, the likelihood that they will commit new sex crimes decreases.
This also ties in to the question as to whether sex offenders can be treated. Most known sex offenders will receive some treatment either in prison or once they return to the community. There is a lot of debate about whether sex offender treatment works, and the jury is still out on this question. The most recent meta-analytic study (a big study that combines the findings of all existing studies to date) looking at whether sex offender treatment works found that offenders who attend sexual offender group treatment programs are less likely to reoffend than offenders who are not offered treatment (10.1 percent treated versus 13.7 percent untreated). While this difference may be small, the consequences of sexual abuse are so large that even a small reduction is meaningful.
Will those who have committed sex offenses always have urges to offend? We have yet to answer that question. What we do know, however, is that this may not matter. Research shows that there are quite a few people in our society who have deviant and often illegal sexual thoughts and desires, but who do not act on them. Further still, we know that some sex offenders do not have deviant or illegal thoughts or fantasies, yet they commit sexual crimes nonetheless. Results from studies that look at treatment effectiveness look promising, and it seems better to continue to develop and test our treatment approaches rather than simply assuming that offenders cannot be helped.
* * *
Take Home Message
Now that you have all these facts, what do you do with this knowledge? As mentioned at the beginning of the article, knowledge is power. Some of this knowledge may have been new to you, and perhaps your own personal sexual prevention efforts may have been misguided. This information is not meant to scare you—rather, we aim to give you the resources to better target your prevention strategies. Some of this knowledge may make you more afraid (that anyone can be a sex offender); or, it may make you more comfortable letting your children out in the world. For example, knowing that most sex offenders are family and acquaintances may help you to be more vigilant of the people you leave your children with. On the other hand, knowing that few sex offenders are strangers and that sex offenses don’t often happen in public spaces, it may be safer than you thought to let your child play outside or in the local park.
Some of this knowledge is overwhelming, and as parents, we get that. Anytime we let children out of our sight, there are dangers, both sexual and otherwise, from the world around them. However, we hope that by knowing the facts, we will all be better equipped to send our children out in the world aware of the risks, but also aware of what can be done to mitigate some of those risks.