Common Characteristics of Sex Offenders: The Myth of the “Sex Offender Profile”
Do you believe that sex offenders are more similar to other community members than they are different? Why or why not?
In reality, however, the research has consistently shown that there is no such thing as a “sex offender profile.” That’s because time and time again, despite attempts to identify a finite and specific set of characteristics that fits for all sex offenders, researchers continue to find that they are a diverse and heterogeneous population.
But let’s remember what the victimization data told us about who these perpetrators tend to be: people we know, including our acquaintances and family members. Sex offenders are a diverse group of individuals who may in fact be more similar to us than they are different.
Sex Offenders Come From All Walks of Life
To illustrate that point, let’s talk about just a few variables:
- There is no usual age that represents the sex offender – some are young, some are middle-aged, and some are more elderly. It does appear that, within samples of adult sex offenders, older sex offenders recidivate at lower rates than younger adult offenders. But we know that people of all ages commit sex offenses, and that a person’s age really doesn’t provide us any insight into whether they might “be” a sex offender.
- Nor can any generalizations be made about where they are most apt to fall along the socioeconomic spectrum or social achievement spectrum. This is different from other types of crime, whereby socioeconomic status or level of social achievement seems to be a risk factor.
- In terms of intellectual functioning or other functional status, we know that some sex offenders are exceptionally bright, others are “average,” and still others may have significant intellectual limitations.
- Although people might argue that an individual must be “crazy” to commit a sex offense, the reality is that most sex offenders are not psychotic or crazy in the truest sense of the word.
What About Gender?
As you saw, although we know that females do commit sex offenses, the vast majority of sex offenders that come to the attention of the authorities are male.
Common Characteristics of Sex Offenders
Researchers have examined multiple factors, traits, and characteristics of large samples of sex offenders, and they have found several issues that seem to be common, at least to broad groups of these offenders.
It is important to remember that not all of these issues are present in every sex offender. Nor does it mean that the presence of any of these variables – either alone or in combination – “makes” an individual a sex offender or necessarily causes them to commit sex offenses.
Commonly Identified Characteristics
Deviant sexual arousal, interests, or preferences
For decades, researchers have found that some sex offenders have interests in – or are aroused to – things that are considered to be outside the realm of healthy or appropriate sexual interests or behavior, including, but not limited to, the following:
- Engaging in sexual contact with young children or adolescents;
- Having sexual contact with others against their will or without their consent;
- Inflicting pain or humiliation on others;
- Participating in or watching acts of physical aggression or violence;
- Exposing oneself in a public setting; and/or
- Secretly watching others who are undressing, unclothed, or engaging in sexual activities.
- Either through self-report or through the use of certain types of physiological assessment instruments, the presence of some of these and other types of deviant sexual interests or arousal patterns can be identified.
- Some sex offenders may even prefer one or more of these types of behaviors over healthy, consenting sexual relationships with age-appropriate partners – hence, the term deviant sexual preferences.
- Because these types of interests, urges, arousal, or even preferences can be so strong, it is believed that they are a significant driving force behind the initial onset of sexually abusive behaviors for some sex offenders.
- Additionally, researchers have found that deviant arousal, interests, or preferences are linked to recidivism.
Remember, though, not all sex offenders actually have evidence of these deviant interests, arousal patterns, or preferences. And there may also be people in the general public who have some types of deviant interests or preferences – but they may not ever engage in sex offending behaviors. Nonetheless, it is an important risk factor for sex offenders.
Cognitive Distortions or Pro-Offending Attitudes
- Those who work in this field generally agree that sex offenders are aware that acts such as rape and child molestation are not only illegal but also harmful to others. Yet they engage in this behavior anyway. This is likely the result of cognitive distortions, or pro-offending attitudes.
- What happens is that sex offenders may tell themselves (and even tell others) that the behavior is not harmful or that it is less serious or claim that the victim enjoyed the behavior or initiated the sexual contact,
- Or they may come up with justifications for engaging in sex offending behaviors, such as believing that women deserve to be treated in these ways. In so doing, these self-statements give the offenders “permission” to do something that they know is wrong, and therefore they may not feel as badly about themselves for doing it.
The reality is that we all use different types of cognitive distortions to some extent. Put simply, the process of using cognitive distortions is not unique to sex offenders. The types of cognitive distortions that sex offenders use, however, are often related specifically to their own problem behaviors, including general antisocial behaviors or sex offending behaviors.
- Not surprisingly, researchers have attempted to measure these kinds of cognitive distortions among samples of sex offenders, and have found that they are fairly common – and oftentimes to a much greater extent than they are found in other samples of criminals or the general public.
- Intuitively, it would seem that these kinds of self-statements that condone or support sex offending behaviors would increase the likelihood that someone would engage in this type of behavior.
- It also seems logical that cognitive distortions would be related to continued offending. And the research seems to indicate just that – pro-offending attitudes have indeed been found to be associated with recidivism among sex offenders.
Social, Interpersonal and Intimacy Deficits
Another cluster of characteristics that seems to be fairly common among sex offenders involves problems in the social or interpersonal realm, with issues such as ineffective communication skills, social isolation, general social skills deficits, or problems in intimate relationships; and some experts believe that these characteristics have some role in the development of sexually abusive behavior. And a few of these issues, such as problems establishing and maintaining intimate relationships, are also associated with an increased risk for sexual recidivism.
Victim Empathy Deficits
A specific interpersonal problem that is believed to be a common to many sex offenders is that of empathy deficits. This concept is about putting oneself in another person’s shoes, so to speak, or even feeling what another person may be feeling. For some time it was believed that sex offenders lacked the ability to be empathic in general, although later it was suggested that their deficits were more specific to their victims.
This specific factor has not been found to predict recidivism among sex offenders.
Poor Coping or Self-management Skills
Some offenders have difficulties managing their emotions appropriately, and some are highly impulsive and tend not to think carefully about the consequences of their behaviors before they act – or they may have difficulty resisting their urges from time to time.
We all know that many people in the general public have difficulties managing certain emotions at times, and many of us can and do act in impulsive ways occasionally. So, although these kinds of problems or features are seen commonly among groups of sex offenders, it does not mean that they are unique to sex offenders. Nor does it mean that these kinds of variables cause people to commit sex offenses.
Nonetheless, the research and literature does indicate that some of these factors – specifically emotional and behavioral self-regulation difficulties – may be part of what leads someone down the path to sex offending, and they are also associated with reoffending.
Under-detected Deviant Sexual Behaviors
The offense for which an individual is apprehended may not actually be the first or only abusive behavior in which he has engaged.
History of Maltreatment
How many of you have heard that most sex offenders have been sexually abused themselves?
Some have been, and some have not.
There does seem to be a relatively high prevalence of sexual or physical abuse among samples of sex offenders. This seems to suggest that there may be some sort of relationship between having been maltreated and later engaging in sex offending behaviors, especially when other kinds of vulnerability or risk factors are present.
We know that there are many people who have been subjected to physical, sexual, or emotional abuse during their childhood or adolescence, yet they never go on to commit sex offenses.
Characteristics Associated with Sexual Recidivism
So that you have a clear understanding of the kinds of factors that are related to recidivism, I will highlight them based on the kinds of factors that are static or unchangeable, and those which have the potential to change over time.
Key Examples of Static Risk Factors
For example, among other factors, researchers have found the following static factors tend to predict sexual recidivism:
- A younger age of onset of sex offending;
- Having prior convictions for sex offenses;
- Targeting male victims;
- Having unrelated, unfamiliar victims – as opposed to victims who are within the family or who are known to the offender;
- The presence of deviant sexual interests, or preferences;
- Being unmarried; and
- Having an antisocial personality disorder, or the presence of psychopathy.
Key Examples of Dynamic Risk Factors
And in addition, among the kinds of factors or variables that have the potential to change over time, and which predict sexual reoffending, are the following:
- Problems with intimacy, or conflicts in intimate relationships;
- Increased hostility;
- Emotional identification with children;
- Becoming preoccupied with sexual matters or activities;
- Lifestyle instability and self-regulation difficulties, such as employment problems, impulsivity, and substance abuse;
- Attitudes and beliefs that tend to support or justify criminal or antisocial behaviors; and
- Demonstrating non-compliance with supervision or treatment expectations.
Summary: Interpreting Variability Among Characteristics
So, in thinking about some of these characteristics or traits, do you have a clear image for what a typical sex offender “looks like?”
Well, based on what we’ve covered – and perhaps based on your own experiences with sex offenders – many of you may be having difficulty envisioning the one set of characteristics and features that defines the prototypical sex offender and may be saying to yourselves, “There really isn’t a typical sex offender.” Which is precisely the point that I discussed earlier. Sex offenders are not all alike.
In fact, even though there are some characteristics that many sex offenders share, it appears that there is more variability – and potential for differences – within the sex offender population overall than there are sweeping similarities. That’s part of what makes sex offender management such a challenge. So although there may be a desire to find the “magic bullet” for treatment, supervision, or even legislation that will fit for all sex offenders, the variability of the sex offender population as a whole makes that impossible.
Does this variability mean that our management efforts are a lost cause? Not at all! More apt to be the case is that different subtypes, subgroups, or typologies of sex offenders exist. And in the next section, that’s exactly what we’ll review. By attempting to identify these subtypes or typologies and the common characteristics or features within each of these subtypes, it may be possible to develop more tailored and effective approaches to intervention, rather than attempting to use a single, “one size fits all” approach to managing these offenders.
1 See e.g., Becker & Murphy, 1998; Chaffin, Letourneau, & Silovsky, 2002; Schwartz, 1995 2 Marshall, 1996 3 See e.g., Hanson & Bussiere, 1998; Harris & Hanson, 2004 4 See e.g., Gendreau, Goggin, & Little, 1996 5 Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2005 6 See, e.g., Laws & O’Donohue, 1997 7 Hanson & Bussiere, 1998; Hanson & Harris, 2000; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004 8 Abel, Gore, Holland, Camp, Becker, & Rathner, 1989; Bumby, 1996; Hanson, Gizzarelli, & Scott, 1994 9 Hanson & Bussiere, 1998; Hanson & Harris, 2000; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004; Rice & Harris, 2003 10 See, e.g., Bumby, 2000; Marshall, 1989; Seidman, Marshall, Hudson, & Robertson,1994; Ward, Hudson, Marshall, & Seigert, 1995 11 Hanson & Bussiere, 1998; Hanson & Harris, 2000; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004 12 See, e.g., Bumby, 2000; Ferndandez, Marshall, Lightbody, & O’Sullivan, 1999; Marshall, O’Sullivan, & Fernandez, 1996 13 Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004
14 See, e.g., Laws, 1989; Laws, Hudson, & Ward, 2000; Marshall, Anderson, & Fernandez, 1999; 15 Hanson & Bussiere, 1998; Hanson & Harris, 2000; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004 16 Abel, Becker, Mittelman, Cunningham-Rathner, Rouleau, & Murphy, 1987; Ahlmeyer, Heil,
McKee, & English, 2000; Freeman-Longo & Blanchard, 1998; Heil, Ahlmeyer, & Simons, 2003 17 Marshall, 1996 18 Hanson & Slater, 1988; Dhawan & Marshall, 1996 19 Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004 20 Hanson & Bussiere, 1998; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004 21 Hanson & Harris, 2000; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004