Section 2: Overview
2 Hours


Use SlideUse Slide #11: Suggested Differences

For example, juveniles do not seem as likely as adults to have “fixed” or “exclusive” patterns of deviant sexual interests, preferences, or arousal. What this means is that some adult sex offenders appear to have rather well–established patterns of being particularly interested in or “turned on” sexually by inappropriate contacts. Being primarily attracted to or focused on young children is a key example, such as adults who are diagnosed with pedophilia. With those adults, deviant sexual interests, arousal patterns, or preferences can be fairly easily identified. With many juvenile sex offenders, this does not appear to be the case. This is in part a function of the period of adolescence, when sexuality is emerging, evolving, and dynamic. So juveniles’ sexual interests and preferences may not be fully formed or established yet, and measuring sexual interest or arousal reliably may be more challenging during this developmental period.18

It is important to be aware of this important difference because deviant sexual arousal and interests are significantly correlated with recidivism for adults.19 But because these sexual deviancy variables do not seem to be as prevalent among juveniles, it still remains a question as to whether deviant arousal or interests are a driving factor that “cause” juveniles to begin engaging in this behavior in the first place. These factors do, however, seem to be associated with sexual re–offending among youth.20 But again, that doesn’t mean that most youth have problems is this area, nor does it mean that deviant arousal is a primary reason that most youth commit sex offenses.

Another important difference between juvenile and adult sex offenders that seems to be a function of these youths’ developmental status is that of psychopathy. Psychopathy is a construct that is used to describe individuals who show longstanding problematic behavioral patterns and negative character traits that include a parasitic lifestyle, repeatedly lying to and using others, an inability (or unwillingness) to be empathic or remorseful, impulsive behaviors, extreme narcissism, shallow emotions, and superficial charm that tends to hide many of these negative qualities.21

As you can imagine, the presence of psychopathy is strongly related to criminal behavior, and it significantly predicts both sexual and violent recidivism among adults.22 It is generally recognized that psychopathy can be reliably identified in adults, but there is debate and controversy about whether or not it is an appropriate construct to be applied to juveniles.23 Many believe that psychopathic traits and patterns probably begin during adolescence and, of course, some of the defining “traits” are observable in youthful populations.24

At the same time, some of these features, such as impulsivity, unstable emotions, empathy deficits, and narcissism are fairly characteristic of adolescence. So the common presence of these traits in youth clouds the picture, making it more difficult to be certain about the identification of juvenile psychopathy. A juvenile may show some of these characteristics, but they may be fleeting, and they may simply mature and “grow out of” some of these ways of interacting or behaving. And we should be careful about assigning that kind of label prematurely.

Nonetheless, a small subset of adolescents do in fact demonstrate considerable psychopathic traits, and they continue to show these patterns over time—and especially as they enter young adulthood—we are better able to accurately confirm its existence. And researchers who have examined psychopathic traits among youth have found that these characteristics are correlated with violence and aggression.25 Psychopathic traits in juvenile sex offenders specifically have also been found to be correlated with general recidivism.26

The bottom line is that we have no sound reason to believe that psychopathy is as common among juvenile sex offenders as it is with adult sex offenders. Much more research needs to be conducted with respect to psychopathy among youth, including those who commit sex offenses.

Since I’ve just mentioned impulsivity, let’s talk about it in terms of juvenile versus adult sex offenders.

If you look back at your own behaviors as a teenager, or if any of have you have or had teenagers of your own, it won’t come as much surprise to you that impulsive behaviors are fairly common among adolescents. Adolescents don’t always carefully think things through before they act, do they? And they don’t always think about the ramifications of their behaviors, do they?


So, consistent with what we know about adolescents in general, juveniles who commit sex offenses are prone to showing impulsive and opportunistic tendencies as well.

I have another question: Has anyone ever heard a sex offender say that their offense “just happened?”


That’s right. Some sex offenders, at least early on in treatment, will maintain that they didn’t really think about, fantasize about, or plan their offenses. But as I mentioned earlier, experts have found that in most instances, people who commit sex offenses do engage in fantasizing, planning, and grooming, and that for some offenders, their offenses follow a fairly predictable pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.27 Certainly, then, it is fairly evident that most sex offenses do not truly “just happen.”

However, because they are adolescents, impulsive and opportunistic offending behaviors among sexually abusive youth may in fact be more common, at least in comparison to adult sex offenders.

This does not mean that youthful sex offenders don’t plan their offenses, engage in grooming behaviors, or think about or fantasize about these behaviors beforehand. Quite the contrary. It simply means that, much like adolescents in general, youth who commit sex offenses tend to have difficulties with thinking carefully about the consequences of their behaviors before they act. And in some ways, during the period of adolescence, part of that can be a function of brain development.28 For example, the frontal lobe—the part of the brain that is responsible for emotional and behavioral regulation, and for reasoning and problem solving—does not fully mature until adulthood. In addition, brain development can be further impacted by trauma, which can lead to further difficulties with their ability to effectively manage their emotions and behaviors. And we know that emotional and behavioral regulation, reasoning, and problem solving are important for making a successful transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Impulsivity isn’t an excuse for their offending behaviors, and it definitely doesn’t fully explain why they do what they do. But we need to remember this and other developmental variables when we approach our work with these youth.

Another important difference between adults and juveniles who commit sex offenses involves the importance of environmental factors.

As you may know, research on juvenile delinquency and youth violence indicates that we have to take into account multiple determinants beyond the individual youth.29 In other words, we have to consider the influence of environmental variables such as peers, family, school, and the neighborhood or community. This differs pretty significantly from how we commonly think about adult sex offenders, doesn’t it?

It doesn’t mean that environmental issues are not at all important with adults. Rather, we know that these factors are especially critical for youth. For example, research suggests that exposure to violence within the home or community, exposure to aggressive role models, and exposure to pornography may be associated with the development of sexually abusive behaviors in youth.

And traumatic experiences such as sexual victimization may also be related to sex offending behaviors in youth.30

Keep in mind that being victimized doesn’t cause people to commit sex offenses. In fact, most victims do not go on to commit sex offenses.31 Despite decades of research on the relationship between a history of sexual victimization and sex offending among adult sex offenders, no significant or consistent link has emerged. But there does appear to be some kind of link between sexual abuse and juvenile–perpetrated sex offenses.

Some researchers have found that this may be particularly true for juvenile sex offenders who were sexually abused at an early age, by older males outside the family, who were abused multiple times, experienced more intrusive abusive acts, and delayed disclosures of their abuse. 32

Finally, a very important difference that has been identified is that juvenile sex offenders—as a group—appear to have better treatment outcomes and lower recidivism rates than adult sex offenders overall.33 This may not come as a surprise to many of you. In fact, many professionals feel more optimistic about working with youth because they are believed to be more malleable and more amenable to change than adults, who tend to have more entrenched patterns of thinking and behaving.

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