Sex offenders released in 1994 who Recidivated within 3 years

Sex Offending and Sex Offenders: Theories, Factors, and Treatment

No crimes elicit the same degree of public concern as do sexual offenses. Between 1 in 4 and 1 in 10 adult women will be raped or sexually abused sometime in their lives in the United States (Koss, 1993) and worldwide, one in three women will be beaten in their lifetimes. Every year in the United States between 2 million and 4 million American women are beaten by their husbands or boyfriends (see Violence Against Women). Thus, sexual offending is a pervasive problem with a powerful and traumatizing effect on communities and victims. Equally powerful is the dissemination of media reports, government publications, television shows, and films that both construct a public fear of sexual perversion as well as develop a crippling stigma that is at many times irreversibly applied.

It may surprise many, however, that so little of the federal inmate population (both in Canada and in the US) is incarcerated for sexual offences, a number that is currently hovering around 15% of all federal offenders, according to Correctional Services Canada. US studies from 1994 report that approximately 5% of all convicted offenders were sex offenders, however this number varied considerably, with almost 10% in state prisons and only 1% in federal prisons (BJS 1994). Similarly contrary to popular belief, only a small percentage of sexual offenders actually go on to commit new sexual offences. For example, sexual recidivism rates for sex offenders remain fairly steady at 13-14%, and are steadily decreasing. Recidivism rates for any offence, sexual or non-sexual, remain at slightly below 37% (Hanson 2004). While this is not to say that sexual offending should not be a concern to communities, it dispels many popular notions that our society is being "over-run" by repeat child molesters and rapists.

Success Rates of Sex Offender Treatment3

success rates of sex offender treatment


Over the years, researchers have formulated several conceptions of sexual offender typologies. Four major theories on sexual offending stand out in the research literature, 2 of which attempt to explain child sexual offending, and two of which attempt to explain sexual offending in general.

Precondition Theory

  • Developed by Finkelhorin 1984, Precondition Theory states that in order for sexual offending to occur, certain preconditions must first be met. First, offenders must possess either an emotional attachment or a special communicative connection or understanding with children. Second, they must be sexually aroused to these children. Third, they must have social deficits or poor interpersonal skills that prevent them from forming natural relationships with other adults their own age. Fourth, they must experience disinhibition of their impulses, or possess certain dysfunctional skills that invoke rationalizations, neutralizations or explanations for their behaviour. When all of these conditions are met, individuals are at higher risk of committing a sexual crime.

Integrated Theory

  • Developed by researchers Marshall and Barbaree in 1990, this theory attempts to integrate the many different potential correlates to sexual offending into a broad framework encompassing biological, psychological, socio-cultural, and situational components (in short, entitled bio-psycho-social-situational theory). Biological factors include hormonal defects; Developmental factors surround control and abuse issues in early childhood, and highlight a child�s natural inclination to view violence and sex as the same entity. Sociocultural factors include the influence of the media and popular culture, possibly including labeling and symbolism as a method of forming a sexually-deviant identity. Situational factors are perhaps the most unstable of all, but also the most treatable; they include justifications for spousal abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse, stressful situations, victim access, and so on.

Quadripartite Model

  •  Hall and Hirschman's popular theory addresses the causes of sexual aggression in particular. They first claim that sexually aggressive offenders distinctively employ techniques of "neutralization" and rationalization, concepts known among many theorists since the 1960s as necessary prerequisites for allowing repeat-offenders to continue to commit crime. Originally developed by researchers Sykes and Matza in the 1960s, these techniques of accounting for one's criminal impulses include: denying that there was a victim of one's crime, denying that there was an injury resulting from the crime, denying that one is even responsible for committing the crime, condemning those who sanction the crime, and appealing to one's own concepts of "greater good," such as the need to satisfy one's tension, provide for one's family, and so on. For rapists, Hall and Hirschman note anger management problems as among the top list of priorities for treatment. In addition, psychopathic or antisocial tendencies are significant contributor's to violence, especially violence against women.

Pathways Model

  •  Ward and Siegert developed their "pathways" model in 2002 to account for child sexual abuse. They point to problems such as intimacy deficits, employing deviant sexual "scripts" (for example, developing chronic behaviour patterns that come to confuse the achievement of intimacy with the achievement of sexual intercourse), suffering from emotional dysregulation, and being antisocial, as probable correlates to committing child sexual abuse.

Predictors and Risk Factors of Sex Offending

Presented below in order of their strength of causal relationship are several major risk factors for sexual offending, 4 of which are dynamic (can change over time), and 6 of which are static (do not change over time).

 Dynamic Factors

  • Deviant Sexual Interest
    • Measured by phallometric assessment, a method whereby correctional staff strap an elastic-like penile assessment gauge around the sex offender's penis, present deviant and non-deviant sexual or erotic visual or auditory stimuli, and measure any increase in penile tumescence (erection).
  • Attitudes supportive of sexual offending
  • Intimacy Deficits
  • Antisocial Personality and Impulsivity

Static Factors

  • Male victims
  • Stranger victims
  • Age
  • Absence of Marital history
  • Prior sex offences


For many years it was widely believed by researchers that sex offender treatment was ineffective at reducing sexual recidivism rates, however subsequent studies that have emerged in the last 20 years demonstrate that evidence-based cognitive-behavioral treatment strategies do indeed work and significantly reduce sexual recidivism rates among sex offenders (Nagayama Hall, 1995. Sexual Offender Recidivism Revisited: a Meta-Analysis of Recent Treatment Studies, J Cons Clin Psyc). However, even successful treatment strategies do not often have dramatic effects on sexual recidivism rates, with only 8 in every 100 sex offenses being eliminated each year because of treatment. While this is a comparably small amount, it is still 8 fewer victims for every 100 victims affected each year in the United States. If we take as a given that there are 2-4 million sexual offenses committed each year in the United States, then the reduction due to treatment would be approximately 240,000 victims saved, but it should be kept in mind that the 2-4 million figure represents all forms of reported and unreported sexual abuse for which many perpetrators will never be convicted, and thus will never receive treatment for.

Treatment for sex offenders consists of cognitive-behavioural therapy. Sessions are approximately 10-15 hours per week, consist of group discussions and independent homework, and require maintenance therapy after treatment concludes. Treatment addresses faulty cognitions, irrational assumptions and rationalizations about sexual offending, problems with self-regulation and lifestyle management, deviant sexual arousal and deviant fantasization, emotions management, and victim empathy. It also follows a relapse prevention framework in that it attempts to prevent offenders from relapsing by making them identify those high-risk situations that may potentially cause dysfunctional behaviours to be re-invoked.


1. U.S. Department of Justice. 2003. "Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994."
2. U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics. 1994. "Sex Offenses and Offenders."
3. Nagayama Hall, GC, 1995. Sexual Offender Recidivism Revisited: a Meta-Analysis of Recent Treatment Studies, J Cons Clin Psyc.

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