Many behaviors now treated as prosecutable sexual offenses were not always considered crimes. The legal concept of a sexual offender has evolved to include those whose victims are spouses, children, and other family members; acquaintances and romantic partners; and employees and coworkers. In a quest for reduction of harm, laws prohibiting such sexual acts have been developed.
What exactly such a list should contain, however, continues to evolve and is often debated. The list of behaviors considered unacceptable has at times included premarital, extra marital, as well as adulterous sexual activities. Sexual assault, child molestation, and other sexual acts performed on unwilling individuals through force or coercion are generally considered “immoral” regardless of an individual’s specific ethical or moral perspective. However, acts of sexual deviance, or perversion, are more controversial. Sodomy, or nonvaginal intercourse, was illegal in many states until 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sodomy laws unconstitutionally stigmatized homosexuals. Nonmonogamous marriages, pornography, and masturbation have been considered perverted and continue to be deemed “unnatural” or at least prohibited by some, particularly religious conservatives.
Sex offenders, along with drug offenders, are the fastest growing part of prison populations. The number of sex offenders supervised by correctional jails, prisons, or in the community has significantly risen since the beginning of the 21st century. Every U.S. state has a sex offender registry of some kind. Nationwide, more than 700,000 convicted sex offenders have registered their whereabouts with local police. Ernie Allen, president and chief executive officer of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, points out that 100,000 sex offenders are not even currently registered with states.
Contributing to the rise in numbers are advancements in science, DNA testing, and other developments in forensic studies and forensic science. The rise may also have to do with reduced stigma on victims. Individuals are now more informed and educated about sexual offenses. This includes training provided by organizations regarding what is or can be deemed as sexual harassment. The justice system has become better trained, educated, and prepared to respond to allegations of sexual impropriety. Victims and the general public are more assured of law enforcers’ crediting reports of sexual offenses and providing necessary protection against potential reprisals. This follows the passing of legislation that defines sex offenses more clearly, aids in the prosecution of sex offenders, and toughens sanctions on convicted sex offenders.
Despite the wide array of legislation regulating sexual conduct, correctional networks typically deal with offenders convicted of rape or sexual assault, adults who have committed sexual crimes against a child, and sex workers—those who are paid to provide sexual services. Examinations of such victims and offenders by the Bureau of Justice Studies in the United States from the early 1990s illustrate that only roughly 5 percent (an average of 10 percent in state prisons and 1 percent in federal prisons) of all convicted offenders are sex offenders. Contrary to the prevalent belief that sex offenders are highly recidivistic, only a small percentage of sexual offenders in fact go on to perpetrate new sexual crimes. Sex-offender recidivism rates in 2004 hovered at 13 to 14 percent, compared with an overall recidivism rate of about 37 percent, and were reported to be gradually declining.
Explanations, in the form of sexual offender typologies, have been explored by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics. These include attempts to explain child sexual offending in particular, as well as sexual offending in general.
Precondition theory, developed by David Finkelhor in 1984, states that certain preconditions must exist in order for sexual offending to occur. These conditions include emotional attachment, sexual arousal, and social deficits or poor interpersonal skills; and offenders must experience disinhibition of their impulses or possess certain dysfunctional skills that invoke rationalizations, neutralizations, or explanations for their behavior. When all of these conditions are met, individuals are at higher risk of committing a sexual crime.
Integrated theory, developed by W. L. Marshall and H. E. Barbaree in 1990, attempts to integrate the many different potential correlates of sexual offending into a broad framework encompassing biological, psychological, sociocultural, and situational components. G. C. N. Hall and R. Hirschman’s quadripartite model theory addresses the causes of sexual aggression and the sexually aggressive offenders’ techniques of “neutralization” and rationalization, concepts known among many theorists since the 1960s as necessary prerequisites for allowing repeat offenders to continue to commit crime. The pathways model was developed by T. Ward and R. J. Siegert in 2002 to account for child sexual abuse. They point to problems such as intimacy deficits, emotional dysregulation, and an antisocial personality as probable correlates to committing child sexual abuse.
An article by the DOJ and the DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics defines predictors and risk factors of sex offending. Four dynamic factors (which can change over time) and five static factors (which do not change over time) are presented. The dynamic factors include (1) deviant sexual interest measured by phallometric assessment, (2) attitudes supportive of sexual offending, (3) intimacy deficits, and (4) antisocial personality and impulsivity. The static factors are (1) male victims, (2) stranger victims,(3) age, (4) absence of marital history, and (5) prior sex offenses.
Predicting human behavior, including the acts of sex-offenders, remains difficult. The efficacy of sex offender treatment is questionable at best. Treatment in some states may include surgical castration or chemical castration, that is, injecting convicted male sexual offenders with medroxyprogesterone acetate (Depo-Provera), as a condition of release (parole). Studies have not yet determined whether an increase or decrease of hormone level has any impact on correcting deviant behavior.
Though draconian measures may be politically popular, confrontational strategies may be anti-therapeutic as compared with motivational treatment such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
Sexual offending provokes an exceedingly strong reaction from the public and may have a devastating effect on victims. Offenders are the focus of public terror and bear a crippling stigma for as long as they are required to be enrolled in a public registry of sex offenders. Sex offenders present a unique challenge for both community corrections and institutional corrections managers and treatment providers.
Recent studies during the last two decades establish that evidence-based cognitive-behavioral treatment strategies might be successful in decreasing sexual recidivism rates among sex offenders. This type of therapy helps the offender learn to deal with faulty cognitions, irrational expectations, or suppositions and rationalizations about sexual offending; unproductive emotions, difficulties with regulating self and lifestyle; and deviant sexual arousal and deviant tantalization; as well as develop empathy for would-be victims. The National Institute of Justice identified a five-part containment process mandating (1) safety for the victim, (2) individualized case management for the offender, (3) a truly multidisciplinary approach, (4) utilization and upgrade of the knowledge base of effective management, and (5) a quality-control component that will measure and balance policies being implemented as intended and that produces the desired impact.
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