Myths and Facts About Sex Offenders
There are many misconceptions about sexual offenses,
sexual offense victims, and sex offenders in our society. Much has been
learned about these behaviors and populations in the past decade and this
information is being used to develop more effective criminal justice interventions
throughout the country. This document serves to inform citizens, policy
makers, and practitioners about sex offenders and their victims, addressing
the facts that underlie common assumptions both true and false in this
rapidly evolving field.
"Most sexual assaults are committed by strangers."
Most sexual assaults are committed by someone known to
the victim or the victim's family, regardless of whether the victim is
a child or an adult.
Statistics indicate that the majority of women who have been raped know
their assailant. A 1998 National Violence Against Women Survey revealed
that among those women who reported being raped, 76% were victimized by
a current or former husband, live-in partner, or date (Tjaden and Thoennes,
1998). Also, a Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that nearly 9 out
of 10 rape or sexual assault victimizations involved a single offender
with whom the victim had a prior relationship as a family member, intimate,
or acquaintance (Greenfeld, 1997).
Approximately 60% of boys and 80% of girls who are sexually victimized
are abused by someone known to the child or the child's family (Lieb, Quinsey,
and Berliner, 1998). Relatives, friends, baby-sitters, persons in positions
of authority over the child, or persons who supervise children are more
likely than strangers to commit a sexual assault.
"The majority of sexual offenders are caught,
convicted, and in prison."
Only a fraction of those who commit sexual assault are
apprehended and convicted for their crimes. Most convicted sex offenders
eventually are released to the community under probation or parole supervision.
Many women who are sexually assaulted by intimates, friends,
or acquaintances do not report these crimes to police. Instead, victims
are most likely to report being sexually assaulted when the assailant is
a stranger, the victim is physically injured during the assault, or a weapon
is involved in the commission of the crime.
A 1992 study estimated that only 12% of rapes were reported
(Kilpatrick, Edmunds, and Seymour, 1992). The National Crime Victimization
Surveys conducted in 1994, 1995, and 1998 indicate that only 32% of sexual
assaults against persons 12 or older were reported to law enforcement.
(No current studies indicate the rate of reporting for child sexual assault,
although it generally is assumed that these assaults are equally under-reported.)
The low rate of reporting leads to the conclusion that the approximate
265,000 convicted sex offenders under the authority of corrections agencies
in the United States (Greenfeld, 1997) represent less than 10% of all sex
offenders living in communities nationwide.
While sex offenders constitute a large and increasing
population of prison inmates, most are eventually released to the community.
Some 60% of those 265,000 convicted sex offenders noted above were supervised
in the community, whether directly following sentencing or after a term
of incarceration in jail or prison. Short of incarceration, supervision
allows the criminal justice system the best means to maintain control over
offenders, monitor their residence, and require them to work and participate
in treatment. As a result, there is a growing interest in providing community
supervision for this population as an effective means of reducing the threat
of future victimization.
"Most sex offenders reoffend."
Reconviction data suggest that this is not the case.
Further, reoffense rates vary among different types of sex offenders and
are related to specific characteristics of the offender and the offense.
Persons who commit sex offenses are not a homogeneous
group, but instead fall into several different categories. As a result,
research has identified significant differences in reoffense patterns from
one category to another. Looking at reconviction rates alone, one large-scale
analysis (Hanson and Bussiere, 1998) reported the following differences:
child molesters had a 13% reconviction rate for sexual offenses
and a 37% reconviction rate for new, non-sex offenses over a five year
rapists had a 19% reconviction rate for sexual offenses and
a 46% reconviction rate for new, non-sexual offenses over a five year period.
Another study found reconviction rates for child molesters
to be 20% and for rapists to be approximately 23% (Quinsey, Rice, and Harris,
Individual characteristics of the crimes further distinguish
recidivism rates. For instance, victim gender and relation to the offender
have been found to impact recidivism rates. In a 1995 study, researchers
found that offenders who had extrafamilial female victims had a recidivism
rate of 18% and those who had extrafamilial male victims recidivated at
a rate of 35%. This same study found a recidivism rate for incest offenders
to be approximately 9% (Quinsey, Rice, and Harris, 1995).
It is noteworthy that recidivism rates for sex offenders
are lower than for the general criminal population. For example, one study
of 108,580 non-sex criminals released from prisons in 11 states in 1983
found that nearly 63% were rearrested for a non-sexual felony or serious
misdemeanor within three years of their release from incarceration; 47%
were reconvicted; and 41% were ultimately returned to prison or jail (Bureau
of Justice Statistics).
It is important to note that not all sex crimes are solved
or result in arrest and only a fraction of sex offenses are reported to
police. The reliance on measures of recidivism as reflected through official
criminal justice system data (i.e., rearrest or reconviction rates) obviously
omits offenses that are not cleared through an arrest (and thereby cannot
be attributed to any individual offender) or those that are never reported
to the police. For a variety of reasons, many victims of sexual assault
are reluctant to invoke the criminal justice process and do not report
their victimization to the police. For these reasons, relying on rearrest
and reconviction data underestimates actual reoffense numbers.
"Sexual offense rates are higher than ever and continue
Despite the increase in publicity about sexual crimes,
the actual rate of reported sexual assault has decreased slightly in recent
The rate of reported rape among women decreased by 10%
from 1990 to 1995 (80 per 100,000 compared to 72 per 100,000) (Greenfeld,
1997). In 1995, 97,460 forcible rapes were reported to the police nationwide,
representing the lowest number of reported rapes since 1989.
More recently, when examining slightly different measures,
it appears that rates have continued to drop. The arrest rate for all sexual
offenses (including forcible rape and excluding prostitution) dropped 16%
between 1993 and 1998. In 1998, 82,653 arrests were logged for all sexual
offenses, compared to 97,955 arrests in 1993 (Federal Bureau of Investigations,
1997 and 1998).
"All sex offenders are male."
The vast majority of sex offenders are male. However,
females also commit sexual crimes.
In 1994, less than 1% of all incarcerated rape and sexual
assault offenders were female (fewer than 800 women) (Greenfeld, 1997).
By 1997, however, 6,292 females had been arrested for forcible rape or
other sex offenses, constituting approximately 8% of all rape and sexual
assault arrests for that year (FBI, 1997). Additionally, studies indicate
that females commit approximately 20% of sex offenses against children
(ATSA, 1996). Males commit the majority of sex offenses but females commit
some, particularly against children.
"Sex offenders commit sexual crimes because they are
under the influence of alcohol."
It is unlikely that an individual who otherwise would
not commit a sexual assault would do so as a direct result of excessive
Annual crime victim reports indicate that approximately 30% of all reported
rapes and sexual assaults involve alcohol use by the offender (Greenfeld,
1998). Alcohol use, therefore, may increase the likelihood that someone
already predisposed to commit a sexual assault will act upon those impulses.
However, excessive alcohol use is not a primary precipitant to sexual assaults.
"Children who are sexually assaulted will sexually assault
others when they grow up."
Most sex offenders were not sexually assaulted as children
and most children who are sexually assaulted do not sexually assault others.
Early childhood sexual victimization does not automatically
lead to sexually aggressive behavior. While sex offenders have higher rates
of sexual abuse in their histories than expected in the general population,
the majority were not abused. Among adult sex offenders, approximately
30% have been sexually abused. Some types of offenders, such as those who
sexually offend against young boys, have still higher rates of child sexual
abuse in their histories (Becker and Murphy, 1998).
While past sexual victimization can
increase the likelihood
of sexually aggressive behavior, most children who were sexually victimized
never perpetrate against others.
"Youths do not commit sex offenses."
Adolescents are responsible for a significant number
of rape and child molestation cases each year.
Sexual assaults committed by youth are a growing concern
in this country. Currently, it is estimated that adolescents (ages 13 to
17) account for up to one-fifth of all rapes and one-half of all cases
of child molestation committed each year (Barbaree, Hudson, and Seto, 1993).
In 1995, youth were involved in 15% of all forcible rapes cleared by arrest—approximately
18 adolescents per 100,000 were arrested for forcible rape. In the same
year, approximately 16,100 adolescents were arrested for sexual offenses,
excluding rape and prostitution (Sickmund, Snyder, Poe-Yamagata, 1997).
The majority of these incidents of sexual abuse involve
adolescent male perpetrators. However, prepubescent youths also engage
in sexually abusive behaviors.
"Juvenile sex offenders typically are victims of child
sexual abuse and grow up to be adult sex offenders."
Multiple factors, not just sexual victimization as a
child, are associated with the development of sexually offending behavior
Recent studies show that rates of physical and sexual
abuse vary widely for adolescent sex offenders; 20 to 50% of these youth
experienced physical abuse and approximately 40 to 80% experienced sexual
abuse (Hunter and Becker, 1998). While many adolescents who commit sexual
offenses have histories of being abused, the majority of these youth do
not become adult sex offenders (Becker and Murphy, 1998). Research suggests
that the age of onset and number of incidents of abuse, the period of time
elapsing between the abuse and its first report, perceptions of how the
family responded to the disclosure of abuse, and exposure to domestic violence
all are relevant to why some sexually abused youths go on to sexually perpetrate
while others do not (Hunter and Figueredo, in press).
"Treatment for sex offenders is ineffective."
Treatment programs can contribute to community safety
because those who attend and cooperate with program conditions are less
likely to re-offend than those who reject intervention.
The majority of sex offender treatment programs in the
United States and Canada now use a combination of cognitive-behavioral
treatment and relapse prevention (designed to help sex offenders maintain
behavioral changes by anticipating and coping with the problem of relapse).
Offense specific treatment modalities generally involve group and/or individual
therapy focused on victimization awareness and empathy training, cognitive
restructuring, learning about the sexual abuse cycle, relapse prevention
planning, anger management and assertiveness training, social and interpersonal
skills development, and changing deviant sexual arousal patterns.
Different types of offenders typically respond to different
treatment methods with varying rates of success. Treatment effectiveness
is often related to multiple factors, including:
the type of sexual offender (e.g., incest offender or rapist);
the treatment model being used (e.g., cognitive-behavioral,
relapse prevention, psycho-educational, psycho-dynamic, or pharmacological);
the treatment modalities being used; and
related interventions involved in probation and parole community
Several studies present optimistic conclusions about the
effectiveness of treatment programs that are empirically based, offense-specific,
and comprehensive (Lieb, Quinsey, and Berliner, 1998). The only meta-analysis
of treatment outcome studies to date has found a small, yet significant
treatment effect—an 8% reduction in the recidivism rate for offenders who
participated in treatment (Hall, 1995). Research also demonstrates that
sex offenders who fail to complete treatment programs are at increased
risk for both sexual and general recidivism (Hanson and Bussiere, 1998).
"The cost of treating and managing sex offenders in the
community is too high—they belong behind bars."
One year of intensive supervision and treatment in the
community can range in cost between $5,000 and $15,000 per offender, depending
on treatment modality. The average cost for incarcerating an offender is
significantly higher, approximately $22,000 per year, excluding treatment
As noted previously, effective sex offender specific treatment
interventions can reduce sexual offense recidivism by 8%. Given the tremendous
impact of these offenses on their victims, any reduction in the reoffense
rates of sex offenders is significant.
Without the option of community supervision and treatment,
the vast majority of incarcerated sex offenders would otherwise serve their
maximum sentences and return to the community without the internal (treatment)
and external (supervision) controls to effectively manage their sexually
abusive behavior. Managing those offenders who are amenable to treatment
and can be supervised intensively in the community following an appropriate
term of incarceration can serve to prevent future victimization while saving
taxpayers substantial imprisonment costs (Lotke, 1996).
Statistics and Characteristics
of Adult and Juvenile Sex Offenders
Sexual assault statistics:
1995 estimates indicate that 260,300 rapes and attempted
rapes and nearly 95,000 sexual assaults and threats of sexual assault were
committed against persons 12 years of age or older (Greenfeld, 1997).
In 1998, 20,608 arrests were made for forcible rape and 62,045
arrests were made for other sexual offenses (FBI, 1998).
43% of all rapes/sexual assaults occur between 6 p.m. and
Six out of every 10 rapes/sexual assaults occur in the homes
of victims, family members, or friends (Greenfeld, 1997).
Sexual assault victimizations are highest among young adults
between the ages of 16 and 19, low income individuals, and urban residents
Criminal history characteristics of adult sex offenders:
In 1994, it was estimated that 12% of imprisoned violent
sex offenders had a prior conviction for rape or sexual assault, while
61% had a prior felony conviction for other crimes (Greenfeld, 1997).
In 1997, approximately 234,000 convicted sex offenders were
under the care, custody or control of corrections agencies on an average
day. Nearly 60% were under conditional supervision in the community (Greenfeld,
1997). By 1998, this number grew to 265,000.
Characteristics of juvenile sex offenders:
Juvenile sex offenders are typically between the ages of
13 and 17.
They are generally male.
30-60% exhibit learning disabilities and academic dysfunction.
Up to 80% have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder.
Many have difficulties with impulse control and judgment.
20-50% have histories of physical abuse.
40-80% have histories of sexual abuse.
The Center for Sex Offender Management (CSOM) would like to thank Rob
Freeman-Longo for principal authorship of this brief. We would also like
to thank Donna Reback for her contributions to this document. Kristin Littel
and Scott Matson edited the document.
Center for Sex Offender Management
8403 Colesville Rd., Suite 720
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Phone: (301) 589-9383
Fax: (301) 589-3505
Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, "Reducing Sexual Abuse
through Treatment and Intervention with Abusers," Policy and Position Statement
(Beaverton, OR, 1996).
Barbaree, H., Hudson, S., and Seto, M., "Sexual Assault in Society:
The Role of the Juvenile Offender," in H. Barbaree, W. Marshall, and S.
Hudson (Eds.), The Juvenile Sex Offender (1993): 10-11.
Becker, J. and Murphy, W., "What We Know and Don’t Know about Assessing
and Treating Sex Offenders," Psychology, Public Policy and Law 4 (1998):
Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Criminal Offender Statistics: Summary
Findings," available on BJS website (www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs).
Center for Sex Offender Management, "Understanding Juvenile Sexual Offending
Behavior: Emerging Research, Treatment Approaches, and Management Practices"
(Silver Spring, MD, 2000).
Federal Bureau of Investigations, "Uniform Crime Reports for the United
States, 1997," U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC.
Federal Bureau of Investigations, "Uniform Crime Reports for the United
States, 1998," U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC.
Greenfeld, L., "Sex Offenses and Offenders: An Analysis of Data on Rape
and Sexual Assault," U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics
(Washington, DC, 1997).
Greenfeld, L., "Alcohol and Crime: An Analysis of National Data on the
Prevalence of Alcohol Involvement in Crime," National Symposium on Alcohol
Abuse and Crime, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics
(Washington, DC, April 5-7, 1998).
Hall, G.C.N., "Sex Offender Recidivism Revisited: A Meta-Analysis of
Recent Treatment Studies," Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology
63 (1995): 802-809.
Hanson, R. and Bussiere, M., "Predicting Relapse: A Meta-Analysis of
Sexual Offender Recidivism Studies," Journal of Consulting and Clinical
Psychology 66 (1998): 348-364.
Hunter, J. and Becker, J., "Motivators of Adolescent Sex Offenders and
Treatment Perspectives," in J. Shaw (Ed.), Sexual Aggression, American
Psychiatric Press, Inc. (Washington, DC, 1998).
Hunter, J. and Figueredo, A., "The Influence of Personality and History
of Sexual Victimization in the Prediction of Offense Characteristics of
Juvenile Sex Offenders," Behavior Modification (in press).
Kilpatrick, D., Edmunds, C., and Seymour, A., "Rape in America: A Report
to the Nation," National Victim Center (Arlington, VA, 1992).
Lieb, R., Quinsey, V., and Berliner, L., "Sexual Predators and Social
Policy," in M. Tonry (Ed.), Crime and Justice (University of Chicago, 1998):
Lotke, E., "Sex Offenders: Does Treatment Work?" Corrections Compendium
Quinsey, V., Rice, M., and Harris, G., "Actuarial Prediction of Sexual
Recidivism," Journal of Interpersonal Violence 10 (1995): 85-105.
Sickmund, M., Snyder, H., and Poe-Yamagata, E., "Juvenile Offenders
and Victims: 1997 Update on Violence," Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency
Prevention (Washington, DC, 1997).
Tjaden, P. and Thoennes, N., "Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences
of Violence Against Women: Findings from the National Violence Against
Women Survey," U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice
(Washington, DC, 1998).
Established in June 1997, CSOM’s goal is to enhance
public safety by preventing further victimization through improving the
management of adult and juvenile sex offenders who are in the community.
A collaborative effort of the Office of Justice Programs, the National
Institute of Corrections, and the State Justice Institute, CSOM is administered
by the Center for Effective Public Policy and the American Probation and
This project was supported by Grant No. 97-WT-VX-K007,
awarded by the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.
Points of view in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily
represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.
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