Sex Offenders Essay

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Sex offenders, especially those who victimize children, are among the most despised of all violent criminals, and their crimes, sexual victimizations, are a leading cause of injury in the United States. Still, much of what people believe as facts about sex offenders are based more in folklore than in science. The media’s intense coverage of stranger-related kidnappings and murders of young girls by dangerous sex offenders misdirects fear and attention toward stranger-danger and has created a new category of laws (sex offender legislation) that is unlikely to protect victims or deter sex offenders.

Victim–Offender Relationship

The vast majority of sexual victimizations, especially those involving females and young children, are committed by offenders who are related to or know the victim prior to the attack. In fact, only 3% of the youngest victims (under the age of 6) are sexually assaulted by strangers. These data are contrary to popular perception, which harbors the notion that most sex crimes are committed by strangers. Although victims are less likely to be sexually assaulted by strangers than by someone they already know, stranger-induced sex crimes are a serious social problem because these offenders tend to be the most dangerous and violent.

Prevalence and Vulnerability to Sex Crimes

Underreporting makes it impossible to determine the true number of sex crimes that occur. Because victims experience high levels of denial, fear, shame, and embarrassment, they are often reluctant to notify police or even to confide in family members or friends about the sexual assault. More specifically, as many as 85% of women who are sexually assaulted do not report the crime to authorities. Still, conservative estimates indicate that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. These numbers climb even higher among certain populations such as the disabled, women in college, and young children. For instance, women are about 10 times more likely than men to be the victim of a sexual assault, and 1 in 5 college-age women has experienced forced sexual intercourse. Investigations into sexual victimization and age indicate that nearly two thirds of reported sex crimes are committed against minors. Stated slightly differently, being female, young, and physically or emotionally vulnerable dramatically increases the odds of becoming a victim of a sexual assault.

Consequences of Sex Crimes

Sex crimes are related to countless short and long-term physical and emotional problems, ranging from rape trauma syndrome and death to sexually transmitted diseases, psychosomatic disorders, chronic pain disorders, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Children who are sexually abused suffer a host of other problems, such as acting out in sexually inappropriate ways, developing severe emotional and behavioral problems, experiencing intense guilt and shame about what happened, feeling betrayed by the abuser—who is often a family member or friend—and experiencing intense fear that they are powerless to protect themselves from further harm.

The emotional consequences are most intense when the offender was perceived by the victim as being safe. In other words, when the victim and offender share a familial, intimate, or emotional connection with one another, the consequences are more intense and the recovery longer and more complicated than for victims who are sexually assaulted by strangers. This is likely due to the fact that victimizations between known persons tend to occur repeatedly and increase in severity. In comparison, sexual assaults by strangers usually occur only once and tend to be less physically intrusive. In spite of the increase in victim-related suffering associated with known assailants, sexual assaults between strangers continue to be viewed and treated as a more serious crime, even when controlling for other factors.

Recidivism of Sex Offenders

The question of the extent to which sex offenders recommit their crimes is highly disputed. Variability in the way recidivism is defined, measured, and studied impacts sexual re-offense rates and partially explains the disparate outcomes across investigations. The best estimates of recidivistic behavior come from longitudinal studies that allow for long periods of observation. These types of investigations suggest that within a 15-year time period researchers expect some types of convicted sex offenders (incest offenders, for example) to have a 10% re-offense rate, while other categories of sex offenders (rapists of adult women are a prime example) will reoffend nearly half the time. In other words, when sex offenders are tracked over a period of many years, sex offender recidivism rates tend to range from 10% to 50%. The key factors associated with a low or high sexual recidivism rate include the category (or type) of sex offender under investigation, the prior sex offense history of the offender, the presence or absence of violence as part of the sex crime, the victim– offender relationship, the victim’s age and gender, and the demographics of the sex offender population. On average, convicted sex offenders have lower official re-offense rates than nearly all other kinds of serious criminals.

Legal and Clinical Responses to Sex Offenders

In recent decades, the criminal justice system has become increasingly punitive, and its response to sex offenders is no exception. Images of grieving parents who have lost their children at the hands of murdering sex offenders have helped pave the way for targeted state and federal laws, such as sex offender registration with community notification, involuntary civil commitment, longer prison sentences, and the creation of predator-free zones. These zones, for example, mandate that convicted sex offenders stay 2,000 feet away from schools and parks. Although all of these legal measures are designed with the public’s safety in mind, social scientists doubt that they will translate into measurable reductions in sexual violence. As a rule, sex offender laws are viewed as kneejerk reactions to horrific crimes—and attempts at quick fixes—rather than scientifically based legislative responses to the complex and systemic problem of sexual violence.

The few existing studies investigating the impact that sex offender registration and community notification have on incidents of rape and other sex crimes have produced mixed results. Some states indeed experienced a decrease in documented instances of rape and sexual assault after the implementation of the laws. However, other states experienced no change, and some jurisdictions actually reported increases in sex crimes after sex offender registration and community notification requirements were in place. These contradictory outcomes are troubling. Whether involuntary civil commitments make communities safer has received even less scholarly attention than sex offender registration and community notification, thus precluding any definitive efficacy conclusions about this type of legislation. Science has already demonstrated that increasing the frequency and duration of prison stays is not the answer to reducing crime, and predator-free zones are likely to be just as ineffective and ant therapeutic as other get-tough-on-crime laws.

The use of specialized community-based supervision is another trend in the criminal justice system’s response to sex offenders. The majority of convicted sex offenders will spend at least some portion of their sentence on probation or parole. It is nearly universal for probation and parole departments to control and supervise their sex offender clients differently than they do other criminal populations. This task is generally accomplished by assigning sex offenders to specially trained officers or units, increasing their contact with and surveillance of these criminals, mandating compliance with a host of sex offender specific supervisory conditions, as well as requiring intensive therapy designed exclusively for sexual criminals.

Sex offender treatment can occur in prison or more commonly as part of probation or parole. The clinical landscape to sex offender therapy has changed dramatically over the years. Cognitive behavioral modification group therapy, which focuses on relapse prevention and victim empathy, is currently the psychological treatment of choice for sex offenders. Although treatment research is plagued by methodological problems, many scientists are cautiously optimistic about meta-analysis results indicating that much of the sex offending population benefits from this type of therapy. In general, these studies suggest that sex offenders who successfully complete this therapeutic regimen sexually reoffend less often and less quickly than their untreated counterparts. Additionally, psychotropic medications and/or hormonal therapies are sometimes used to treat high-risk sex offenders like pedophiles in hopes of reducing sexual interest and impulsivity. Medical interventions of this sort are often referred to as chemical castration and can be effective when used in conjunction with other therapeutic measures.


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  2. Losel, F., & Schmucker, M. (2005). The effectiveness of treatment for sexual offenders: A comprehensive metaanalysis. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 1, 117–146.
  3. Meloy, M. (2006). Sex offenses and the men who commit them. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
  4. Salter, A. (1995). Transforming trauma: A guide to understanding and treating adult survivors of child sexual abuse. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  5. Snyder, H. (2000). Sexual assault of young children as reported to law enforcement: Victim, incident, and offender characteristics. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  6. S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2005). Criminal victimization, 2004. Washington, DC: Author.
  7. Walker, J. T., Madden, S., Vásquez, B. E., VanHouten, C., & Ervin-Mcarty, G. (2006). The influence of sex offender registration and notification laws in the United States. Little Rock: Arkansas Crime Information Center. Retrieved May 31, 2017, from

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