SEX CRIMES evince such strong feelings of revulsion and repugnance that it is perhaps not surprising that people misunderstand their nature. The public, whose opinions are reinforced by portrayals in the media and in popular culture, believes that sex offenders will almost always repeat their predatory acts in the future and that all treatments for perpetrators are ineffective. The truth is not so cut and dried—and gives us cause for hope in certain cases.
Before we discuss these beliefs, a few basics are in order. The two most common types of sex offenses are rape and child molestation, but others exist. In most cases, the victim, usually female, knows the perpetrator, generally male. By some estimates, one third or more of all sex offenders are under the age of 18, with some even as young as five years. Most begin to offend sexually in adolescence. Now what does the research tell us about common beliefs?
First, the notion that recidivism (repeat offending) is inevitable needs a second look. Recently sex crimes researcher Jill Levenson of Lynn University in Florida and her colleagues found that the average member of the general public believes that 75 percent of sex offenders will reoffend. This perception is consistent with media portrayals in such television programs as Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, in which sex offenders are almost always portrayed as chronic repeaters.
The evidence suggests otherwise. Sex crimes researchers R. Karl Hanson and Kelly E. Morton-Bourgon of Public Safety Canada conducted a large-scale meta-analysis (quantitative review) of recidivism rates among adult sex offenders. They found a rate of 14 percent over a period averaging five to six years. Recidivism rates increased over time, reaching 24 percent by 15 years. The figures are clearly out of alignment with the public’s more dire expectations.
Also contrary to media depictions, most offenders do not “specialize” in one type of sex crime. Most are “generalists” who engage in a variety of sex and nonsexual crimes as well. Hanson and Morton-Bourgon found that sex offenders had a total recidivism rate (for both sex crimes and nonsexual violent crimes) of approximately 36 percent over a period of five to six years. Nevertheless, perpetrators of different types of sex crimes exhibit varying rates of repeat offending. The 15-year recidivism rate is 13 percent for incest perpetrators, 24 percent for rapists, and 35 percent for child molesters of boy victims.
When providing clarifications about the lower than generally acknowledged rates of recidivism, we must be careful not to oversimplify. Recidivism research is as difficult as it is important. For instance, although average rates tell us what percentage reoffends one or more times, we also need to be aware that a subset reoffends at a frighteningly high rate. In addition, there are reasons to think that published findings underestimate the true rates. Most research necessarily omits those offenders who were not detected and arrested or whose victims did not report the crime. Further, many sex offenders plea-bargain down to a nonsexual offense.
Still, there are other reasons to believe that recidivism rates may not be that different from what researchers have found. Frequent offenders are more likely than other offenders to be caught. Many safeguards probably help to keep the recidivism rate in check. Sex offenders released on probation are closely monitored, and those who are considered to be at high risk for recidivism are required to register with authorities. These registries are distributed to law-enforcement personnel. Finally, states are legally required to publicly identify higher-risk sex offenders. The Department of Justice coordinates a Web site (www.fbi.gov/hq/cid/cac/registry.htm) that enables anyone to search for the identity and location of known offenders.
Taking the research and its limitations into account, it is still likely that the public’s belief that very high recidivism rates are well documented is incorrect, although this verdict may change in the future.
If recidivism is not as common as people generally believe, how do their impressions of treatment’s failure or success hold up? Levenson and her colleagues also found that a whopping 50 percent of the public believes that treatment for sex offenders is ineffective and will not prevent them from relapsing. Yet some studies have shown that treatment can significantly reduce recidivism for both sex and nonsexual crimes. Hanson and his colleagues conducted a meta-analysis on treatment and found that 17 percent of untreated subjects reoffended, whereas 10 percent of treated subjects did so. When recidivism rates for sex and nonsexual violent crimes were combined, 51 percent of untreated and 32 percent of treated subjects reoffended.
The advantage for treatment over nontreatment does not appear to be that large; because meta-analyses group studies together, they may mask the fact that some of them found fairly large effects of treatment and others found smaller or no effects. Results of this meta-analysis also suggest that we might be making progress. More recent studies show significantly larger treatment benefits than do the older studies.
Most approaches employ a number of treatments. The majority include two components: cognitive-behavior therapy, which aims to change sexually deviant thoughts, behaviors and arousal patterns, and relapse prevention, which aims to teach sex offenders how to anticipate and cope with problems (such as feelings of anger or loneliness) that can lead to reoffending.
Although the development of treatments for sex offenders is still in its infancy, studies show that therapy can make a difference. Sex offenders are not all fated to repeat their horrible crimes, and we—through the actions of the general public, policy leaders and legislators—can encourage hope by supporting further research on such therapies.