Myths and Misconceptions About Sex Offenders

 

Many myths and misconceptions about sex offenders impair opportunities to intervene appropriately, and as a result, protection of victims and Oregon communities are jeopardized. The information presented below addresses some of the most common misunderstandings about those who abuse. In honor of past, current and future victims of sexual assault, we offer this educational effort.

From the Offender Management Committee of the Oregon Sexual Assault Task Force, we thank you for your interest. It is only through knowledge and understanding, challenging myths and misconceptions, that together we will be able to eliminate sexual assault and contribute to community safety.

 

Myth: All sex offenders are the same and they can be easily detected.

Reality:

  • Sex offenders are not all the same and in order to effectively respond to abusers, their differences should be noted.
  • A “one size fits all” approach does not contribute to community safety, since the most dangerous offenders will often be supervised the same as low risk offenders.
  • Some sex offenders prefer child victims and some adult victims. Some are opportunistic and may not have a specific preference.

CHILD ABUSERS

  • A small percentage of those who offend children would be considered “pedophiles” and would be described as having a sexual preference for undeveloped bodies without secondary sexual characteristics.
  • The majority of child abusers have more of a “thinking problem” rather than a sexual preference for children. These offenders have a capacity to sexually assault children rather than having a sexual preference for children and they tend to have significant “cross over” rates, often committing rape or other types of sexual assault.

RAPISTS

  • A small percentage of those who commit sexual assault have sexual preference for sexual violence, victim humiliation and shame, which usually renders them dysfunctional under consenting circumstances.
  • The majority of rapists have more of a “thinking problem” rather than an arousal connection to violence, demonstrating a capacity to rape under certain circumstances. These situational rapists tend to have significant “cross over” rates into molesting children.

 

Myth: Juveniles never commit sexual assaults.

Reality:

  • It is estimated that in the United States, juveniles account for up to one fifth of all rapes and up to one half of all cases of child molestation committed each year. (CSOM, 1999)
  • Juveniles are 36% of all sex offenders who victimize children. Seven out of eight are at least 12 years old, and 93% are boys. (Crimes Against Children Research Center, UNH, 2010)
  • Juveniles are more likely than adults to commit sex offenses in groups, and their victims are younger and more likely to be male. (Crimes Against Children Research Center, UNH, 2010)
  • Subsequent sexual recidivism among juveniles was relatively infrequent once the offending was officially recognized. (Righthand & Welch 2001)

 

Myth: Sex offenders prey on strangers.

Reality:

  • Statistics indicate that the majority of rape victims know their offender. A 1998 National Violence Against Women Survey revealed that 76% of rapes were committed by a current or former husband, live-in partner, or date acquaintance.
  • A Bureau of Justice Statistics study found 9 out of 10 rapes involved a single offender with whom the victim had a prior relationship as a family member, intimate partner, or acquaintance. (Greenfield 1997)
  • For child abuse victims, 60% of boys and 80% of girls were assaulted by a family member or acquaintance. (Lieb, Quinsey, Berliner, 1998)
  • “Almost two thirds of all rapes were committed by someone who is known to the victim. 73% of sexual assaults were perpetrated by a non-stranger—38% of perpetrators were a friend or acquaintance of the victims, 28% were an intimate and 7% were another relative.” (National Crime Victimization Survey, 2005)

 

Myth: Sexual assault offenders are very different than those who molest children.

Reality:

  • Several studies suggest that many offenders commit crimes of child molestation and rape.
  • 64% of rapists molested children and 59% of intra-familial child abusers sexually assaulted adolescents or adults outside the home. (O’Connell, 1998)
  • 32% of rapists also offended a child, 34% of extra-familial abusers offended outside the home, and 50% of intra-familial child abusers sexually assaulted adults/teens outside the home. (Weinrott & Sailer, 1991)
  • Using polygraph (lie detector) verification, 82% of child abusers admitted raping adults. 50% of those who raped adults also admitted to molesting children. (Heil, Ahimeyer, Simons & English, 2003)
  • These crossover studies suggest that considering managing sex offenders, allocating resources or passing laws for “only” child molesters or “only” rapists may be misguided.

 

Myth: Sexual offenders commit their crimes as a result of being sexually abused themselves.

Reality:

  • Most sex offenders were not sexually assaulted as children and most children who are victimized do not grow up to become offenders.
  • Among adult and juvenile offenders (verified by polygraph examination), approximately 30% had been sexually abused. (Hindman, Peters 2001)
  • Those offenders who molest young boys, however, tend to have higher rates of childhood sexual abuse. (Becker, Murphy 1998)
  • Juvenile offenders were determined to have higher rates of physical and sexual abuse in their childhoods (Hunter, Becker 1998)
  • This issue is important since many factors other than being abused in childhood contribute to sexual offending and prevention of sexual assault must consider those additional issues.

 

Myth: Tough penalties and harsh punishments are the best response to sexual assault.

Reality:

  • Sex offender registration, sex offender notification and increased prison sentences have not shown to be effective in reducing recidivism.
  • When all sex offenders are managed the same, resources are shared and the most dangerous offenders may be supervised the same as less dangerous offenders.
  • Studies show that comparing sex offenders sentenced to prison versus community sentences, the recidivism rate was 7% higher for prisoners compared to those offenders kept in the community. Additionally, longer prison terms also increased risk upon release. (Smith, Goffin & Gendreau, 2002)
  • Sex offender notification and registration has not been found to be significantly effective since secrecy is such a part of sexual offending. Studies show that registration and notification have little impact on stopping offending; however, when crimes were committed, apprehension was easier. (Washington State Institute for Public Policy, Leib 1996)
  • When sex offenders are driven underground (without supervision) because of harsh penalties, they are considerably more dangerous.
  • When offenders are connected to their communities, when they are allowed to work and are intensely involved with a therapeutic community, recidivism was significantly reduced. (Wilson, Picheca & Prinzo, 2005)
  • Since most individuals are offended by someone known to them (often in their family), harsh penalties can further traumatize victims. Sadly, others in the relationship realm of the victim and offender often turn against the person making the report.
  • Even though punishment makes communities, legislatures, and many in the media feel vindicated, that response is not always shared by victims.
  • Additionally, harsh penalties often make victims, or the caretakers of victims, reluctant to report and subject the acquaintance or family member to punishment, sometimes even making the sexual assault problem worse.

 

Myth: The majority of sex offenders are caught, convicted and in prison for a lifetime sentence.

Reality:

  • Studies suggest that sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes. In 2005, an estimated 60% of rapes were never reported to police. (U.S. DOJ, 2005 National Crime Victimization Study) Most advocates believe even fewer rapes are reported to police.
  • It is believed that the 265,000 convicted sex offenders under the authority of corrections represents only 10% of sex offenders. (Greenfield, 1997)
  • With low reporting rates, many sex offenders remain in American communities, undetected.
  • In spite of harsh punishments, most sex offenders do not remain in prison and will be released into communities and will be returned to their community of conviction.
  • Harsh punishments tend to provide a false sense of safety for most Americans in spite of the reality that they may not be more effective than creative prevention efforts.
  • Factoring in unreported rapes, only about 6% of sex offenders ever spend a day in jail. (RAINN, 2011)

 

Myth: Sexual offending is on the increase.

Reality:

  • Despite the increase in publicity about sexual crimes, the actual rate of reported sexual assault has decreased in recent years.
  • The rate of reported rape decreased by 85% from the 1970s to the present. (DOJ, 2006)
  • The drop in reported rates however, must be considered in the context of under reporting of sexual assault.

 

Myth: Sex offender treatment doesn’t work.

Reality:

  • In answering the question regarding whether treatment is effective for sex offenders, several distinctions must be made.
  • Treatment success rates will depend upon the (1) the type of offender (arousal rapist, incest offender, etc.), (2) the type of treatment, and (3) the management/supervision of the offender.
  • Effective treatment strategies include cognitive/behavioral, relapse prevention, psycho-educational, psychodynamic & pharmacology.
  • Several studies present optimistic conclusion about the effectiveness of treatment that are empirically based, offense-specific and comprehensive. (Lieb, Quinsey & Berliner, 1998)
  • Even though harsh penalties for sex offenders are more common responses than treatment, studies show that community (cognitive/behavioral) treatment decreased risk more than prison treatment and more than only supervision/management of sex offenders. (Aos, Miller & Drake, 2006)
  • Sexual offense recidivism rates are much lower than commonly believed, averaging between 14 and 20% over 5-year follow-up periods. Studies that have tracked sex offenders over longer follow-up periods have found that pedophiles who molest boys, and rapists of adult women, were the types of offenders most likely to recidivate at rates of 52% and 39% respectively. Repeat offenders are more likely to reoffend than first-time offenders. Those who comply with probation and treatment have lower reoffense rates that those who violate the conditions of their release. Sex offenders who target strangers are more dangerous than those with victims inside their own family. It is also important to recognize that official recidivism statistics are always lower than actual reoffense rates, because some sex offenders commit many sex crimes that go unreported and undetected. (ATSA, 2011)
  • Prison sentences without sex offender treatment have not been found to reduce recidivism. (Aos, Miller, Drake 2006)
  • The most effective response to sexual offenders in the community is a combination and partnership of treatment and supervision.
  • Research has found that identifying youth with sexual behavioral problems and implementing early treatment is significantly effective. (Worling, 2010)
  • It is also important to consider the victim’s needs in treating sex offenders. Treatment should remain innovative and  victim-centered, where healing for those who suffer is of paramount importance.

 

Myth: Once a sex offender, always a sex offender.

Reality:

  • Clearly, some sex offenders choose not to change their behavior, but generally recidivism tendencies reveal promising data.
  • Rapists had a 19% reconviction rate for sexual offenses and 46% reconviction rate for new, non-sexual offenses over a 5 year period.
  • Another study found reconviction rates for child molesters to be 20% and for rapists, 23%. (Quinsey, Rice, Harris, 1995)
  • It is noteworthy that recidivism rates for sex offenders are lower than for the general criminal population. (Bureau of Justice Statistics)
  • Reconviction data suggest that sexual offenders do not necessarily continue their abusive patterns.
  • Persons who commit sex offenses are not a homogeneous group and as a result, research has identified varying differences in re-offense patterns.
  • Treatment has effective outcomes, especially if sexual and non-sexual recidivism is considered.
  • It is also important to recognize that the medical model of “cure” is inappropriate for considering sexual criminal conduct.