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The Development of a Sexual Predator

Multiple offense patterns begin early.

Key points

  • Criminals become known by the offense for which they are arrested, but that's often not the full story.
  • Sex offenders have committed many types of non-sexual offenses.
  • Sex offenders begin committing crimes early in life, and misconduct can date to grade school.

Perpetrators of sex crimes begin committing offenses early in life. When they are caught and prosecuted for an illegal sex act, they are designated “sex offenders.” However, in most instances, they have been involved in other types of crimes as well. When these individuals are finally caught, they are likely to blame others, deny culpability, and offer elaborate explanations. Having deployed tactics numerous times to divert and deceive others, they disclose as little as possible. However, a film of their daily lives would show a lengthy history of criminality.

I cite a single case in order to make several points about the psychology of sexual predators:

1. They commit many types of offenses, even though they eventually become known as “sex offenders” because of their arrest for a sexual offense.

2. Their violating patterns start early in life, usually in elementary school.

3. Their parents only know what their children get into trouble for. These boys and girls successfully conceal most of their illegal activities.

4. When confronted, these perpetrators deploy a variety of tactics to absolve themselves of culpability, often quite successfully.

5. They show little remorse for their offenses.

6. Most reject interventions, including professional help, and regard counselors and other mental health professionals as adversaries whom they strive to fool and defeat.

7. Only if they are apprehended and are facing what they consider to be highly unpalatable consequences do these offenders become self-revealing and then, only to a limited extent.

I met Richard Tyner (name changed to protect his identity) when he was sixteen. His distraught parents brought him to me as he had been picked out of a police lineup as a suspect in an attempted rape.

Richard came from an upper middle-class family. He had an older brother who had never been in legal trouble. In fact, the two boys were so completely different, it was hard to believe that they came from the same family.

Not uncharacteristically, Mr. and Ms. Tyner were in a state of shock and disbelief. Expressing complete incredulity, Ms. Tyner said, “It’s hard to believe this if you know this child.” An earlier incident had occurred in which Richard was suspected of exposing himself to a young girl. Ms. Tyner was outraged that her son was implicated and declared to me, “He wasn’t out of my sight. I wasn’t going to have him charged with something he didn’t do.” As it turned out, he did not get charged. Then there were rumors that Richard had set fires. However, his mother dismissed this as someone having told the police “wild stories.”

Before his arrest for attempted rape, the Tyners had taken Richard to several therapists. None of the mental health professionals found him to have “sexual problems.” Given that he barely spoke to them, much less confided in them, that was not surprising. At one point, he became an inpatient so that he could have an intensive evaluation. The psychologist wrote, “This psychological evaluation reveals a young man of average intelligence with no significant signs of psychopathology. He feels he was wrongly accused of self-exposure.”

As to Richard’s opinion of mental health professionals, the boy told me, “It was my parents’ choice to send me to them. I never talked to them.” He declared that he learned absolutely nothing from therapy. This teenager remarked, “Everything awful happens to me. It’s bad luck.”

Richard was extremely frightened by the prospect of being confined for a long time. Both his parents and his lawyer wanted me to evaluate him. He decided that he ought to talk. Between his willingness to be more self-disclosing and my access to school records and to his parents, I was able to obtain information revealing that Richard had been a problem to others since he was six years old.

Richard’s first grade teacher rated him on his report card as “needs improvement” in the areas of considering the rights of others, accepting responsibility, showing good sportsmanship, and working cooperatively. She wrote, “My greatest concern is his sneaking crayons and chopping them on the floor and other destructive behavior when I’m not looking.” His high school records showed dozens of detentions for misconduct. Richard commented, “The school had a very bad reputation. None of the kids liked it.” He also asserted, “The teachers don’t know how to teach.” Such comments were typical of his pattern to become angrily defensive and blame others, rather than assume accountability for his own behavior.

We established that a film of Richard’s life would show that he started making “prank” phone calls when he was eight, later made harassing calls to neighborhood children. He “found a checkbook” and had a friend show him how to forge a check to buy fireworks. Richard said he had “never been caught in a fight” but asserted, “I don’t let people do things to me. I don’t want my friends calling me a wimp.” As to his friends, Richard acknowledged, “They look mean and thuggy. Some have done bad things in the past, but they’re alright now.” He finally acknowledged that he had been in more than a dozen fights.

Richard had a fascination with guns and had shot BB guns, air guns, and a .22 rifle, all ostensibly at inanimate targets. He stole small amounts of cash from his parents and drove his sister’s car even though he had no license. Richard was a suspect in an arson in which a small structure was lit afire. He learned to make aerosol bombs and ignited torches. Fascinated by fire, he had a collection of more than a dozen cigarette lighters.

As I inquired about his sexual behavior, Richard snapped, “It’s not anybody’s business.” He emphatically said about allegations of sexual misconduct, “I might have done some of those things. I don’t remember doing those things.” When he was younger, a neighbor reported that he was masturbating in front of a window at his house. He reportedly induced a younger child to undress and fondled her. In a swimming pool, he grabbed a little girl inappropriately. He acknowledged “flashing a lady on a bike trail as a joke.” He said that he had accosted a woman and touched her breasts. He also positioned himself in a girls’ bathroom stall so he could observe.

As he spoke with me for many hours, Richard Tyner wanted to be seen as cooperative. I wrote in my report that I thought Richard would continuing committing crimes unless he arrived at a point where he wanted to change. Moreover, I said that I thought the teenager had only begun to reveal the degree of his irresponsibility and that he continued to harbor contempt for people who wanted to help him change. I concluded that his attitude did not “augur well” for the likelihood of his making significant changes in the future.