A few months ago I was asked by the editors of Sex Offender Law Report to write an article, intended for a legal system readership, discussing the inner-life of sex offenders, including analysis about whether some offenders are more/less dangerous than others, and if we can tell the difference. (They are, and we can.) That article will likely be published in mid-2017. In the interim, I want to present a simplified version here, written for both a clinical and lay audience. And yes, I realize this is a controversial subject. After all, if there’s one group that Americans can nearly always agree to hate, it’s sex offenders.
But what does it mean when our culture unilaterally deems any particular group of people to be the worst of the worst? Instead of automatically judging this group, should we not be trying to educate about who these individuals are, the behaviors they do (and don’t) engage in, why they engage in those behaviors, and the dangers they do (and don’t) present moving forward? And should we not be more focused on resolving issues with assessment and treatment than on locking these people up and trying to forget they exist?
To begin this discussion, I think it’s important to give voice to the idea that not all sexual offenders are created equally. Consider the following two offenders (the same examples I used in my article for the law report):
Obviously, we’re looking at two very different offenders, even though they’re charged with the same crime. Do you think that one of these men seems more dangerous and more likely to reoffend than the other? If so, you are right.
NOTE: More people than you might think are engaging in behaviors similar to James, where they’ve stumbled across illegal imagery, found it arousing, and gone back for more. For instance, one study looking at more than 400 million internet searchers (via Dogpile.com, a meta-engine combining results from Bing, Google, Yahoo, and the like) tells us that 13.5% of porn searches are modified with a variation of the word young (such “teen” or “underage”).[i] So it looks like a whole lot of otherwise perfectly normal people are curious about, searching for, and looking at illegal imagery.
Clinically speaking, there are five primary categories of sexual offenders, delineated below, with some groups more likely to reoffend than others.
Other factors that may hinder successful treatment and increase the odds of reoffending include:
That said, individuals with these issues can still respond positively to appropriate treatment, as long as they are sufficiently motivated. The same is true for both violent and fixated/dedicated offenders. However, most of these individuals are not motivated to change, and that greatly reduces the efficacy of treatment efforts and increases the odds of future offending. In such cases, civil commitment may be a viable public-safety option.[iii]
Unfortunately, we do not have official statistics on what percentage of sexual offenders fall into each of the five primary typologies. However, clinical experience and the small amount of available research strongly suggest that in today’s world, where the internet is “creating” all sorts of sexual offenders, most of whom never come into contact with the legal system, there are many more situational and/or sexually addicted offenders than violent and fixated/dedicated child offenders.[iv] As such, and this has always been the case, the majority of sexual offenders are likely to respond positively to informed treatment, and relatively unlikely to reoffend.
For example, it seems likely that after a full psychosexual evaluation James would be typed as a situational offender (who might also be sexually addicted). As such, he will probably respond well to appropriate treatment and he will probably not reoffend. Robert, on the other hand, would almost certainly be typed as a fixated/dedicated child offender. As such, he is less likely to respond to treatment and more likely to reoffend. Unfortunately for James, when he goes to court he’s going to be lumped in with Robert and sentenced based on the same (occasionally draconian) guidelines.
In a future posting to this site, I will discuss sentencing guidelines for sexual offenders, including how they evolved, their lack of flexibility, and the role that psychotherapists can play both before and after sentencing.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities, including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. He is the author of several highly regarded books, including “Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction” and a forthcoming volume about surviving relationship infidelity, “Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating.” For more information please visit his website at robertweissmsw.com or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.
[i] Ogas, O., & Gaddam, S. (2011). A billion wicked thoughts: What the Internet tells us about sexual relationships. Penguin.
[ii] Seto, M. C. (2008). Pedophilia and sexual offending against children: Theory, assessment, and intervention. American Psychological Association.
[iii] Levenson, J. S. (2004). Sexual predator civil commitment: A comparison of selected and released offenders. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 48(6), 638-648.
[iv] Fortney, T., Levenson, J., Brannon, Y., & Baker, J. N. (2007). Myths and facts about sexual offenders: Implications for treatment and public policy. Sexual Offender Treatment, 2(1), 1-15.