The Nature and Scope of Sex Offending
As a starting point, I’d like to ask you a few questions about sexual victimization.
- What percentage of the victims of these offenses reports their victimization to the authorities?
- What percentage of victims is targeted by a stranger?
- What percentage of sex offenders is known to reoffend?
Incidence and Prevalence of Sexual Victimization
Sexual assault is a widespread occurrence. According to the National Violence Against Women Survey, approximately 302,100 women and 92,700 men are forcibly raped in the United States each year.
- It is estimated that one in six women and one in 33 men in the United States have experienced an attempted or completed rape sometime in their lives.
- Similarly, approximately one in four girls and one in seven boys are sexually assaulted before the age of 18.3
Age of victims
According to the National Incidence Based Reporting System, roughly two thirds – or 67% – of all victims of reported sexual assaults were under 18 years of age. And more than half of these victims were under the age of 12.6
Gender of victims
As you may have noticed from some of the statistics women and girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault. According to official reports, they are more than six times as likely as males to be victimized sexually. And, whereas the chances of a male being targeted decrease as he enters into adolescence and beyond, the chances of a female being sexually victimized actually increase as they move from childhood to adolescence, peaking at around the age of 14.8
Another particularly important finding is that most victims of sexual abuse know the person who abuses them. In fact, when we look at the data, only a relatively small percentage of perpetrators are strangers to their victims; most of the offenders are either family members or acquaintances. And that holds true for rapes and cases of child sexual abuse.
When you think about these various statistics about sexual victimization, what is your reaction? What – if anything – surprises you about them?
Under-reporting of sexual victimization
A significant problem with statistics and other information that we have about these crimes is that they are limited by what is known to the authorities. In others words, they are based only on the cases that are reported. And unfortunately, sexual assault is perhaps the most underreported crime.
In fact, researchers have found that the majority of victims of sexual assaults – about 84% – do not report their victimization to law enforcement.
Can you think of any reasons why this might be the case? In other words, why might someone choose not to report their sexual victimization to police?
Reasons for Not Reporting
(Possible answers include: the victim is afraid to report the assault; the victim feels like they provoked the assault; the victim may feel ashamed.)
- Some victims do not report it to police because they believe nothing can be done or because they worry that there may not be enough proof.
- They might also choose not to report these crimes out of fear of retaliation by the offender, or because they or their loved ones were threatened.
- And in some cases, particularly intra-familial child sexual abuse or domestic partner rapes, the victims may have strong attachments to the abusers, may want to protect them, may be emotionally or financially dependent on them, may not want the family to be disrupted, or may not want them to be punished.
- Many who have been victimized simply do not want to discuss it with others – especially someone that they don’t know.
- Some victims may be concerned about others finding out about what happened to them.
- Not only might a person who has been victimized already feel as though they are somehow responsible, but they may also worry that others will blame them for what happened.
- Or they may worry that law enforcement officials – or even their own friends, family, or loved ones – will not believe what happened to them was really an assault; in fact, some victims may wonder about this very issue themselves.
Male victims of sexual assault may face additional concerns about reporting their victimization to police and are, as a result, less likely to report their sexual victimization.
- Whereas the average rate of reporting sexual assault for females is approximately 17%, some experts estimate the average rate of reporting sexual assault for males is as low as 5%.
- Male victims who are targeted by male perpetrators may fear that if they disclose their sexual victimization to police and others, others might question their sexual orientation or identity, their masculinity, or their strength for not stopping the attack.
- And if the offender was female, male victims may worry that others will question how they could possibly be victimized by a female, which may be in part related to biases within our society about the potential for women to commit sex offenses.
- Regardless of the gender of the offender, male victims – similar to female victims – may often question their own response to the attack, as well.
So what does this mean for those of us who are involved in this work? (Possible answers include:
- we are only aware of a fraction of the sexual assaults that actually occur;
- we underestimate not only the rate of sexual violence against all victims, but male victims in particular;
- we are not able to catch or apprehend the offenders of these crimes;
- we know very little about the offenders of these crimes.)
Sex Offenders Who Come to the Attention of the Authorities
Because sexual abuse is such a hidden crime, the individuals who commit sex offenses often remain hidden to us, too. Let’s talk for a few minutes, then, about what we know about sex offenders – at least those who come to the attention of the criminal justice system.
Arrests of sex offenders
And as you can see, males account for approximately 95% of arrests for sex crimes.
What percentage do you think are represented by sex offenses specifically?
Sex offenses represent only 1% of arrests for all crimes. Yet it is estimated that between 10 and 30% of our prison populations are comprised of sex offenders.
Almost all offenders – at least 97% – will eventually return to our communities. This equates to as many as 20,000 sex offenders being released into local communities each year.
Officially undetected offenses
On average, these offenders admitted to having many more victims and offenses than were known to the authorities.
Something else that was very noteworthy in this particular study was that some rapists of adult women reported that they had also committed sex offenses against children, and some child sexual abusers reported that they had also perpetrated rapes against adult women. This is referred to as “crossover.”
Taken together, these studies demonstrate how – compared to official records – we may glean a much fuller picture of sex offenders based on their own self disclosure.
But why do you think this information is important? What does it tell us?
What this suggests is that we need to fully understand the sex offenders and that we need to get as complete a “picture” of them.
Therefore, we can’t simply base any of our decisions on a single document or single piece of information, whether that is a police report, other record, or an offender’s self report. Comprehensive assessment information about each individual offender will help us determine how to respond and intervene most appropriately and responsibly.
When I asked you earlier about what percentage of sex offenders is known to reoffend, a number of different estimates were offered. What do you think that the general public believes the recidivism rate is?
Contrary to public perception and common myths that exist about sex offenders, recidivism rates for sex offenders are relatively low. For example, some of the most recent research, looking at thousands and thousands of sex offenders – some treated, some not, some who were incarcerated, some who were not – reveals an average recidivism rate of less than 15% over a 5-6 year follow-up period. Not surprisingly, when following them for longer periods of time, the rates go up to some extent. For example, in one study that followed approximately 4,700 sex offenders, the recidivism rate of the group as a whole was 14% at the 5 year follow-up, 20% at the 10 year follow-up, and 24% after 15 years of follow-up.
You should know, however, that recidivism rates for sex offenders can vary significantly depending upon a number of variables, including whether they have been convicted of prior sex offenses and the types of victims they target.
- As a group, the individuals with prior convictions for sex crimes had higher rates of sexual recidivism than those without a prior sex crime conviction.
- Those who committed sex offenses within the family (incest offenders) had the lowest rates of recidivism over time, and
- Those who molested male children outside of the family had the highest rates.
- The overall recidivism rate for sex offenders is lower than that of other criminal populations – both for violent and non-violent offenders.
- Sex offenders – when they are arrested or convicted again – tend to have committed non-sex crimes rather than new sex offenses.
And even though these observed rates of recidivism are relatively low, we must remember the impact that additional sex offenses have on victims, families, and communities can be very significant.
We’ve covered a lot of data and statistics in this section in order to offer you a sense for the nature and extent of this challenging issue. Taken together, these statistics and some of the research we’ve reviewed suggest that our knowledge of the scope of sex offending and victimization is, by no means, complete. Nonetheless, we have to work within the parameters of what we do know, and we need to develop interventions, strategies, and policies that are informed by the best information available – even though it may be limited – rather than attempting to address the problem of sex offending based on myths or misinformation.
1 Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998
2 Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998
3 Finkelhor, 1994
4 Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998
5 Kilpatrick, Edmunds, & Seymour, 1992
6 Snyder, 2000
7 Snyder, 2000
8 Snyder, 2000
9 Snyder, 2000
10 Bachman, 1998
11 Kilpatrick et al., 1992
12 Brochman, 1991; Scarce, 1997
13 Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998
14 Brochman, 1991; Hecht Schafran, 1993
15 Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2005
16 Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2005
17 Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2005
18 Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2005
19 Bynum, Huebner, & Burgess-Proctor, 2002; Greenfeld, 1997; Harrison & Beck, 2003
20 Harrison & Beck, 2006
21 Greenfeld, 1997
22 Hughes & Wilson, 2003; Hughes, Wilson, & Beck, 2002
23 Bumby, Talbot, & Carter, in press
24 Glaze & Palla, 2005; Greenfeld, 1997
25 Greenfeld, 1997
26 Abel, Becker, Mittelman, Cunningham-Rathner, Rouleau, & Murphy, 1987; Freeman-Longo & Blanchard, 1998
27 Abel et al., 1987
28 Freeman-Longo & Blanchard, 1998
29 Ahlmeyer, Heil, McKee, & English, 2000; Heil, Ahlmeyer, & Simons, 2003
30 Ahlmeyer et al., 2000; Heil et al., 2003
31 Hanson & Bussiere, 1998; Harris & Hanson, 2004; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004
32 Hanson & Bussiere, 1998; Harris & Hanson, 2004
33 Hanson & Bussiere, 1998
34 Langan & Levin, 2002
35 Langan, Schmitt, & Durose, 2003