Vdovichenko Denis/Shutterstock
Source: Vdovichenko Denis/Shutterstock

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?

Same Offense: Very Different Offenders

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):

  • James is a 26-year-old male arrested after the IT department at his work, during a routine maintenance check, found about a dozen illegal (underage) images and videos on his laptop computer. In addition to the illegal material, there were hundreds more legal images and videos, mostly depicting adult women. In therapy after his arrest, James immediately admitted that he’d downloaded the illegal pornography even though he knew it was wrong and he felt ashamed about doing it. “This has been going on for a few years. Once I saw the first picture it was like a boulder rolling downhill. I just couldn’t stop myself. My pattern is that I find some illegal content, download it, and then I end up completely hating myself and I delete it. But then a week or two later I do the same thing.” In therapy, James is highly motivated to permanently end his use of all pornography, to maintain his relationship with his long-term girlfriend, and to stay out of prison.
  • Robert is a 32-year-old male arrested after the IT department at his work, during a routine maintenance check, found about a dozen illegal (underage) images and videos on his laptop computer. There was no other pornography. In therapy after his arrest, Robert initially denied that he downloaded the illegal material, stating that somebody in his workplace must be out to get him. A review of his life history reveals that he has never had a serious romantic relationship; moreover, he’s been arrested multiple times for a variety of minor offenses (though none of a sexual nature, until now). Eventually, after many sessions and a great deal of therapeutic rapport building, Robert admitted that he “likes young girls,” and that prior to his arrest he had a much larger stash of illegal porn on an external storage device. “I trashed it after I got arrested because I didn’t want the cops to find it.” In therapy, Robert is highly motivated to stay out of prison. Beyond that, he is unmotivated to make life changes. Mostly he wishes that people would stop “spying on him” and “intruding on his personal life.” Moreover, he defends his right to be turned on by whomever and whatever he finds arousing.

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. 

Types of Sexual Offenders

Clinically speaking, there are five primary categories of sexual offenders, delineated below, with some groups more likely to reoffend than others.

  1. Violent Offenders: These are men (and sometimes women) who commit forcible sexual offenses, including rape and child molestations of the snatch and grab variety. These individuals are relatively rare, but they get a lot of press. As such, their behavior largely informs public opinion about sexual offending, creating a perceived need for harsh punishments for all sex offenders. Typically, these offenders do not respond well to treatment, and their risk for reoffending is high.
  2. Fixated/Dedicated Child Offenders: For these individuals, the primary and often sole sexual attraction is toward children and/or teens. When attracted to prepubescent children, they are clinically referred to as pedophilic. When attracted to adolescents, they are clinically referred to as hebephiliac. Research suggests that around 3% of adult males have a primary sexual attraction to children, though only a small percentage ever act on it.[ii] These offenders typically have a difficult time in treatment and their risk for reoffending is high.
  3. Situational/Regressed Child Offenders: These offenders are attracted to adults as well as minors. In fact, many have healthy adult romantic attachments. Their sexual behavior with minors tends to be purely opportunistic rather than planned. For instance, they may stumble across child pornography while surfing for porn in a more general way, and then choose to explore that. Others will offend related to drug or alcohol abuse, job loss, stress, too much free time, etc. These offenders typically respond in positive ways to appropriate treatment, and their risk for reoffending is generally minimal.
  4. Situational Offenders (Non-Child): These are men and women who occasionally, when an opportunity presents itself, engage in illegal sexual behaviors—peeping, prostitution, public sex, etc. Generally speaking, these offenders have relatively normal sex lives most of the time, and people would not typically think of them as sex offenders (a label we typically reserve for “perverted” individuals). Nevertheless, because their sexual behaviors do break the law, they technically qualify as sex offenders. Generally, these individuals respond positively to appropriate treatment, and their risk for reoffending is minimal.
  5. Sexually Addicted Offenders: These are men and women who compulsively engage in sexual behaviors as a way to avoid feelings of stress, depression, anxiety, and the like. They use sexual fantasy and the pursuit of sex (including masturbation, pornography, webcams, prostitution, sexting, and the like) to “escape from life” and to self-regulate their internal emotional state. Unfortunately, as with other addictions, sex addiction tends to escalate. In the same way that a substance abuser might escalate from alcohol to painkillers to heroin, a sex addict might escalate from vanilla porn to illegal porn, or from affairs with co-workers to the serial use of prostitutes. These offenders typically respond positively to informed treatment, and they are relatively unlikely to reoffend—except in the early stages of sex addiction recovery, where short-term relapses are somewhat common.

Other factors that may hinder successful treatment and increase the odds of reoffending include:

  • If the sex offense is just one aspect in a larger antisocial or criminal lifestyle.
  • If the sex offense included bizarre or ritualistic acts, like extreme bondage or enemas.
  • If the offender consistently and persistently denies the offense occurred or that he or she committed it.
  • If the offender consistently and persistently externalizes the blame for the offense. (For instance, “She wanted me to do it.”)
  • If the sex offense is secondary to an unremitting condition of serious mental illness and/or mental retardation.

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.

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