Sexual Offenses and Offenders

There are few groups of individuals who are more reviled than sexual offenders. Though this has been true for more than a century, the past two decades have brought forth intense scrutiny from the public, politicians, and policymakers. Several emotionally-charged cases of child sexual abuse were highly publicized in the 1980s and 1990s, reigniting public intolerance for sexual offenders. And although the incidence of sexual offenses has been decreasing, sanctions for sex offenders have been constantly increasing over the last two decades. Unfortunately, empirical research does not show that such sanctions significantly deter offenders or reduce recidivism, and yet this legislation creates significant financial strain for local jurisdictions and states that must implement the policies ( Zgoba et al., 2008 ). Despite the questionable efficacy of these laws, there is no sign of reducing the sanctions for this group.

This is not the first time historically that society has exhibited a “moral panic” about the dangers of sexual abuse. This panic has waned and ebbed throughout the last century. Jenkins ( 1998 , p. 4) explains that the perception of sex offenders is the effect of “socially constructed realities” influenced by existing social and political ideologies. The public desire to incapacitate sex offenders today is similar to social attitudes in the 1930s, when sexual psychopathy laws emerged to incapacitate those considered to be “unfortunate but dangerous wretches” ( Robson, 1999 , p. 2). So although empirical research has consistently shown that sex offenders constitute a heterogeneous population of individuals for whom a one-size-fits-all policy will not be effective, such policies regarding the supervision, monitoring, and incapacitation of sexual offenders have gone full circle since the beginning of the century.

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The purpose of this text is to provide the reader with a general understanding of sex offenders and the societal responses to them. Historically, sex offender research has focused on why sex offenders commit such offenses, and the characteristics of different types of offenders. Sex offender research today is centered around three general topic areas: (1) the factors associated with sexual offending, including personal characteristics as well as situational variables; (2) sex offenders’ risk of recidivism; and (3) the efficacy of policies and programs for sex offenders. Before addressing the issue of why people commit sexual offenses and how best to prevent them, however, it is necessary to understand the nature and scope of sex crimes in the United States today.


More than 100 years ago, Richard von Krafft-Ebing ( 1886/1965 , p. 241) made the following observation about sexual behavior:

· Nothing is so prone to contaminate—under certain circumstances, even to exhaust—the source of all noble and ideal sentiments, which arise from a normally developed sexual instinct, as the practice of masturbation in one’s early years. It despoils the unfolding bud of perfume and beauty, and leaves behind only the coarse, animal desire for sexual satisfaction. If an individual, thus depraved, reaches the age of maturity, there is lacking in him that aesthetic, ideal, pure and free impulse that draws the opposite sexes together. The glow of sensual sensibility wanes, and attraction toward the opposite sex is weakened. This defect in the morals, character, fantasy and instinct of the youthful masturbator, male or female, in an unfavorable manner, even causing, under certain circumstances, desire for the opposite sex to become entirely absent; thus masturbation becomes preferable to the natural mode of sexual satisfaction.

At that time, masturbation, homosexuality, and other sexual practices regarded as common today were not only condemned, but were also considered pathological and loathsome. Attitudes toward sexual behavior are structured through social and political ideologies, and they have changed drastically throughout the centuries. Some harmful sexual acts are—and should continue to be—illegal in nearly every community. One such example is rape, which constitutes a violation of the person and can cause irreparable harm both physically and psychologically. In describing rape, the Policy Advisory Committee on Sexual Offences in England stated that

· rape involves a severe degree of emotional and psychological trauma; it may be described as a violation which in effect obliterates the personality of the victim.… Rape is also unpleasant because it involves such intimate proximity between the offender and the victim. ( Criminal Law Revision Committee, 1984 )

The legally and socially accepted boundaries of other sexual behaviors, however, are not as clear, and sexual violence is not unique to any one culture or historical period ( Stermac, Segal, & Gillis, 1990 ). Sexual behaviors other than those for the purposes of procreation (for example, homosexuality, incest, adultery, masturbation, bestiality, and sexual activity with children) have vacillated among social acceptance, stigmatization, and illegality.

Sexual offenses vary across time and cultures, and even across various jurisdictions in the United States. The types of sexual acts that may be criminalized can be broadly categorized in four ways, though these are not necessarily mutually exclusive:

· 1. Sexual acts with contact . Most sexual offenses are within this category, where there is touching of the intimate part(s) of the body or penetration either without the consent of the victim or when one person is incapable of consenting under the law (for example, a person who has not yet reached the age of consent, a person who is not conscious, or a person who is dead). This category involves all contact acts, from touching over the clothes to forced sexual intercourse.

· 2. Noncontact sexual behavior . This involves acts that are for the purpose of sexual gratification, but no contact is made between the perpetrator and the victim (for example, exposure of the genitals, voyeurism (peeping), and telling children to perform sexual acts).

· 3. Viewing, possessing, or producing child pornography . This third category includes any act involving the viewing or producing of any visual material of a child that is for the purpose of sexually gratifying an adult. This may include sexual contact with children or the sexual exploitation of children in photos and films. Recent examples include “sexting,” or texting sexual pictures of oneself to another person (discussed further in Chapter 7 ).

· 4. Sexual solicitation or trafficking . Acts included in this category are based upon sexual services exchanged for financial or other types of compensation. Sexual solicitation may involve prostitution in a traditional sense (solicitation of sexual services through face-to-face meetings). Alternatively, adults may seek sexual relationships with adolescents, usually online, which may or may not result in a face-to-face meeting. Trafficked victims may be adults or minors, domestic or international, and are generally lured into performing sexual services for promises of money and/or a better life.

There are some offenses common across all jurisdictions in the United States, though the terminology differs depending on the jurisdiction. For example, although most states use the term rape to define offenses involving nonconsensual oral, anal, and/or vaginal penetration, this is called sexual imposition or gross sexual imposition in North Dakota and is called sexual assault in Colorado. Additionally, the specific definitions of this crime differ in terms of who can be a victim or an offender (male and/or female), the class of felony or misdemeanor, and the age of the victim (some define the different degrees by age ranges, with acts committed against younger victims being more serious offenses).

Many states also label some consensual sexual acts as offenses. Thirteen states listed consensual sodomy as a criminal act as recently as 2003, when sodomy laws were invalidated and declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court ( Lawrence v. Texas, 2003 ). Other consensual acts that continue to be illegal in some states include incest (intergenerational and between siblings), adultery, bigamy, female genital mutilation, fornication, masturbation for hire, indecent dancing, prostitution, and public indecency ( Leiter, 1999 ). In addition to these offenses, other crimes that are not necessarily sexual in nature are registerable offenses, such as kidnapping.

For most sexual offenses, there must be a lack of consent on the part of the victim and some level of intent on the part of the offender. The laws in most states stipulate that consent is lacking from a sexual act when:

· ▪ The act is the result of force, threat, or duress;

· ▪ A reasonable person would understand that the victim did not consent due to a clear or implied statement that he or she would not want to engage in the sexual act; or

· ▪ The victim is incapable of consenting because he or she is below the age of consent (this ranges from age 16 to age 18 in various states), is mentally disabled, is mentally incapacitated, is physically helpless, is under the custody of correctional services, or is placed within the care of children and family services (or any other organization in charge of monitoring and caring for those in care of the state).

Offenses vary by type, degree of severity, class of offense, and length of sanction. In some states, these are defined simply by class of felony or misdemeanor. In other states, they are divided into first, second, and third degree offenses, with first degree offenses being the most severe. For example, Table 1.1 shows how New York classifies rape into three degrees. The sanctions associated with the degree of the offense increase as the severity of the offense increases.

TABLE 1.1 New York Penal Code Definition of Rape

Code Section







He or she engages in sexual intercourse with another person, to whom the actor is not married, who is incapable of consent and is not less than 17 years old; actor is over 21 years old and engages in sexual intercourse with someone less than 17 years old. Class E Felony.



Actor is over 18 years of age and he or she engages in sexual intercourse with someone less than 14 years of age; victim is otherwise mentally disabled or mentally incapacitated. Class D Felony.



He or she engages in sexual intercourse with a person by forcible compulsion; who is incapable of consent because he or she is physically helpless; who is less than 11 years of age; who is less than 13 years old and the actor is over 18. Class B Felony.

SOURCE: New York Penal Law (2000)


SEXTING: The Emergence of New Sexual “Offenses” in the 21st Century

Accepted sexual behaviors change over time and by place, and are regulated by social and cultural norms. Over the last few decades, there has been an emergence of new behaviors, often related to developing technology, that are being considered sexual offenses. One such phenomenon is “sexting,” in which people text nude or semi-nude photos of themselves to others. Though this has become a widespread practice generally, it is particularly common among adolescents. A survey of 1300 teens conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen & Unplanned Pregnancy and found that one in five teens had sexted, even though the majority knew it was a crime.

Several sexting cases have made media headlines, since sexting can have serious legal consequences for those who partake in this activity. One such example was of Phillip Albert, a teenager in Orlando, Florida. After an argument with his 16-year-old girlfriend, Phillip, then 18, sent a picture of his naked girlfriend that she had texted him to her family and friends. Phillip was charged with sending child pornography, convicted, and sentenced to five years of probation. Additionally, he is required to register as a sex offender until age 43. Phillip’s attorney is appealing the conviction, noting that “sexting is treated as child pornography in almost every state and it catches teens completely off-guard because this is a fairly natural and normal thing for them to do. It is surprising to us as parents, but for teens it’s part of their culture” ( Feyerick & Steffen, 2009 ).

Another high-profile sexting case occurred in Pennsylvania. Marissa Miller was 12 years old when she and a friend took pictures of themselves wearing training bras while at a slumber party. The picture soon surfaced on another classmate’s cell phone. The district attorney for the county told Miller and her friend that they could take probation and re-education classes or be charged with sexual abuse of a minor. Miller’s mother, along with another family, refused to take the deal; instead, they contacted the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and with its help is suing the district attorney to stop him from filing charges.

Phillip Albert’s attorney noted that “Some judges have the good sense and reasonableness to treat this as a social problem and others are more zealous in their efforts to put everybody away and I think it’s time as a society that we step back a little bit and avoid this temptation to lock up our children” ( Feyerick & Steffen, 2009 ).


· 1. What should be the consequences for teens who “sext”?

· 2. What are the potential harms that can result from “sexting”?

· 3. Explain the similarities and differences between sexting and transmitting or possessing child pornography.

© Cengage Learning


It is impossible to accurately assess the extent of sexual offending and the characteristics of offenders. Most data on sex offenders relate to those who are either arrested or convicted, a group that represents a small portion of all sexual offenders. From 1992 to 2000, only 31 percent of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to the police ( Hart & Rennison, 2003 ). Of those that are reported, not all end in arrest, and not all of those go on to indictment or conviction. This “funnel” system means that the further researchers are from the point at which the crime was committed, the further they are from knowing the true nature and scope of the problem of sexual offending. Furthermore, nearly all data on sex offenders relate to the male population of offenders. As such, the female sex offender population constitutes an even higher rate of the underreported and underresearched proportion of the total sex offender population ( Righthand & Welch, 2001 ; Travin, Cullen, & Protter, 1990 ).

What is certain about sexual abuse, particularly child sexual victimization, is that it is widespread, and it remains so despite the precipitous decline in abuse cases in the 1990s (see Child Maltreatment Report, 2001 ; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004 ; Jones & Finkelhor, 2004 ). One meta-analysis summarizing prevalence studies found that overall rates of sexual victimization were approximately 30 percent for girls and 13 percent for boys in one’s lifetime ( Bolen & M. Scannapieco, 1999 ). According to Finkelhor ( 2008 ), children who experience sexual abuse often experience multiple types of abuse. Finkelhor, Ormrod, Turner, and Hamby ( 2005 ) found that in 2002–2003, nearly half (49 percent) of the youth sampled in their study had experienced more than one form of direct (assault, maltreatment, sexual victimization) or indirect (witnessed) victimization. The concept of “multiple victimization” is consistent with findings from longitudinal studies by Cathy Widom and her colleagues (see Horwitz, Widom, McLaughlin & White ( 2001 ); Widom, Czaja, & Dutton, 2008 ).

The high rate of sexual victimization is not simply a criminal justice problem, but is also a public health problem ( Abel et al., 1994 ). Those who are victimized as youths show higher levels of mental health problems as adults ( Horwitz et al., 2001 ). Confounding this issue is the low rate of reporting of victimization, or when it is reported, the delay in disclosure. The literature shows that several factors are commonly associated with the delay in disclosure (see Terry & Tallon, 2004 ), including the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator ( Arata, 1998 ; Hanson et al., 1999 ; Smith et al., 2000 ; Wyatt & Newcomb, 1990 ); the severity of abuse ( Gries et al., 1996 ; Kogan, 2005 ; DiPietro et al., 1997 ); the likely consequences of the disclosure ( Berliner & Conte, 1995 ; Hershkowitz et al., 2007 ; Lamb & Edgar-Smith, 1994 ; Roesler & Weisssmann-Wind, 1994 ; Sorenson & Snow, 1991 ); age, developmental, and cognitive variables ( Campis et al., 1993 ; Keary & Fitzpatrick, 1994 ; Lamb & Edgar-Smith, 1994 ); and “grooming” behavior that offenders use to entice children to participate in the sexually abusive behavior ( Pryor, 1996 ).

Most studies indicate that when compared with their male counterparts, females are more likely to have been sexually abused during childhood. Furthermore, females are more likely than males to disclose information regarding sexual abuse, and male victimization seems to be acutely underreported ( Brochman, 1991 ; Devoe & Coulborn-Faller, 1999 ; Finkelhor, 2008 ; Gries et al., 1996 ; Lamb & Edgar-Smith, 1994 ; McMullen, 1992 ; Tewksbury, 2007 ; Walrath, Ybarra, & Holden, 2003 ). That being said, reports are beginning to emerge about high rates of sexual abuse of boys in particular institutions and organizations. The lack of knowledge about male sexual victimization is striking; because so few males report, most information about their victimization is anecdotal or derived from studies with small sample sizes. As such, little statistical knowledge is available about males’ long-term physical, psychological, and emotional effects, or about abuse events themselves.

Knowledge of sex offenders and rates of victimization are based upon two primary sources: official data (including criminal justice reports, victimization surveys, and social service data) and empirical studies. Table 1.2 shows the strengths and weaknesses of the different data sources.

TABLE 1.2 Comparison of Data Sources

Source of Data



Uniform Crime Reports (UCR)

· ▪ Most common source of official criminal justice data in the United States

· ▪ Reliable because it measures the same offenses each year

· ▪ Makes it possible to compare the crime rate in jurisdictions of varying sizes

· ▪ Hierarchy rule

· ▪ Relies on official statistics, voluntary reporting by police

· ▪ Definitions of some offenses incomplete

National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS)

· ▪ Gathers incident-based data

· ▪ Detailed information available on offenders, victims, properties, and locations of offenses

· ▪ Not yet widely implemented

· ▪ Complicated, time consuming reporting system

National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)

· ▪ Provides information on the dark figure of crime

· ▪ Gives information on why crimes are underreported

· ▪ Most extensive bounded study

· ▪ Self-reports not totally reliable

National Incidence Study (NIS)

· ▪ Extensive data collection in four reports

· ▪ Reports data on children reported to CPS, screened out, and reported by “sentinels”

· ▪ Data from a nationally representative sample from 126 CPS agencies in 122 different counties

· ▪ Abuse underreported and not always recognized

National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS)

· ▪ Provides annual reports of child abuse

· ▪ State-by-state information distinguished by types of child abuse

· ▪ Information is not always reported to social services and thus may be incomplete

Empirical Studies

· ▪ Can provide deeper analysis of issues by observing samples of the population

· ▪ Studies use varying methodologies and definitions, and thus may not be comparable

© Cengage Learning

Official Data on Sexual Victimization

Official statistics on sexual offending are derived from several sources. The primary criminal justice data sources include arrest and conviction rates. Since it is difficult to gather this on a local level, the most common sources used to understand prevalence rates are federal reports, including the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), and National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). Victimization surveys, namely the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), provide data about the amount of victimization that is underreported in official statistics. Social service data sources provide more detailed information about the extent and nature of child sexual abuse allegations, and the key sources for this information include the National Incidence Study (NIS) and the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS). Though not evaluated in this text, key resources for crime data internationally include the European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics ( 2006 ) and the International Crime Victimization Survey ( Van Dijk, Van Kesteren, & Smit, 2008 ).

Criminal Justice Data Sources In the 1920s, the government began to measure and track crime trends on a federal level for the first time through the UCR. The UCR is compiled annually by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and contains information provided by nearly 17,000 local police departments ( Grant & Terry, 2011 ). The local police agencies or state agencies give their arrest data to the FBI on a voluntary basis, and the FBI then tabulates the data on a national level. Despite its voluntary nature, there is a 97 percent compliance rate among police agencies.

The UCR consists of two sections: Part I and Part II offenses. Part I offenses, which are also called index offenses, are divided into categories of violent and property offenses, of which there are four each. The four violent offenses are murder (and nonnegligent manslaughter), forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, and the four property offenses are burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson. Part II offenses consist of all other offenses, including simple assaults, other sexual offenses, forgery, fraud, vandalism, embezzlement, vice crimes such as gambling and prostitution, weapons violations, alcohol and drug violations, and curfew violations.

The UCR is used to determine the crime rate in the United States and in local jurisdictions. In order to compute the crime rate, you take the number of total reported crimes, divide by the total population of the reporting area, and multiply by 100,000. The most significant strength of the UCR is its reliability; it measures crimes using the same definitions every year and across all jurisdictions. Therefore, it allows jurisdictions to understand how their crime rates change each year and how they compare to crime rates in other jurisdictions, even those with different populations (for example, rural and urban areas).

Unfortunately, the UCR has several weaknesses. Most significantly, crime is underreported, and this measures only the number of crimes that are reported and cleared by arrest or exceptional means. Since sexual offenses are the least-reported crimes, the UCR is not necessarily a valid measure of sexual offense statistics. A second weakness with the UCR is that it follows the “hierarchy rule,” meaning that it compiles data only on the most serious offenses if multiple offenses are committed at one time. In other words, if a person breaks into a house, rapes the occupant, murders her, and steals her car, only the murder will be counted in the UCR. A third weakness of the UCR is that it uses one definition for each crime, yet the definitions of crimes vary by jurisdiction. This is particularly troublesome for sexual offenses, as the UCR defines forcible rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will. Attempts or assaults to commit rape by force or threat of force are also included; however, statutory rape (without force) and other sex offenses are excluded” ( Uniform Crime Report, 2009 ). Thus, the UCR is beneficial in giving us a comparison of statistics on the forcible rape of women by men, but not other sexual offenses. These are complied into the broad category of “sexual offenses” in Part II crimes, defined as “Statutory rape and offenses against chastity, common decency, morals, and the like. Attempts are included” ( Uniform Crime Report, 2009 ).

Despite its weaknesses, the UCR remains the best source of official statistics for crimes. According to the Uniform Crime Report ( 2009 ), the rate of forcible rape was estimated at 56.6 rapes per 100,000 people, a 3.4 percent decrease from 2008. Rapes by force accounted for 93 percent of the reported rapes in 2009, whereas attempts or assaults to commit rape accounted for 7 percent. The forcible rape rate decreased 10.4 percent from 2000.

In an effort to improve the compilation and reporting of crime data, the FBI devised the NIBRS database in 1989. NIBRS is an incident-based reporting system, and as such allows for the calculation of multiple offenses, multiple victims, multiple offenders, and multiple arrests within a single incident. It still has flaws, however. Currently, police departments representing only 17 percent of the population submit data to NIBRS. Also, like the UCR, the NIBRS relies on reported offenses. However, it does eliminate the hierarchy rule by counting all offenses in each incident. It is also beneficial in that it collects detailed data on the offenders, victims, locations, properties, and arrests on each single crime incident, thus offering insight into offenses not currently available with the UCR.

Victimization Surveys Victimization surveys provide valuable information on the extent of sexual abuse. The NCVS, in particular, is the largest and most significant national survey in the United States and is central to our understanding of the “dark figure” of crime, or the extent to which crimes are underreported.

In order to better understand the magnitude of the underreporting of crime and the reasons why it is underreported, the Bureau of Justice Statistics began conducting an annual survey of approximately 49,000 households in 1972. The survey collects self-report data on all crimes against the household and individuals in the household who are over the age of 12. The NCVS finds that crime is severely underreported, with only about 37 percent of all crimes reported to the police. It has found that crime is underreported for numerous reasons, including that the offenses were personal (particularly domestic violence and sexual offenses), the victim believes that the police will not be able to do much about catching the offender, the victim does not trust the police, the victim fears that his or her own criminal behavior (for example, drug use) would be exposed, the victim fears that his or her reputation would be damaged, and the victim thinks the perpetrator will retaliate.

Like all sources of official statistical data, however, there are some drawbacks to victimization surveys. In particular, the reliability of self-reported data is questionable, and the NCVS does not provide a way to gather victimization information from young children who may be victims of abuse. Nonetheless, victimization surveys tell us the following in regard to race and ethnicity, age, and victim-offender relationship for victims aged 12 and older ( Rennison, 2001 ; Rennison & Rand, 2003 ):

· ▪ Race and Ethnicity Though there are differences in victimization rates, there is no significant distinction between victims of sexual offenses on the basis of race and ethnicity. Whites are victims of sexual offenses at a rate of .8 per 1000 in the population, Blacks are victimized at a rate of 2.5, and those of other races are victimized at a rate of 1.2. Additionally, Hispanics were victimized at a rate of .7 per 1000. The rate of victimization for Blacks increased from 2000, when the rate was 1.2 per 1000. At the same time, the rate of victimization for Whites decreased, from 1.1 per 1000.

· ▪ Age The highest rate of victimization for a sexual offense is with victims aged 16–19, whose rate of victimization in 2000 was 4.3 per 1000 and rose to 5.5 in 2002. In 2002, those at the next highest level of risk were aged 20–24 (at a rate of 2.9) and aged 12–15 (at a rate of 2.1). The NCVS does not collect data on victims under the age of 12, which would likely be a large percentage of the victim population based on arrest and conviction statistics.

· ▪ Victim-Offender Relationship It was more common for both male and female victims to be abused or assaulted by a nonstranger than a stranger. With male victims, 52 percent were abused by nonstrangers, all of whom were friends or acquaintances (this was based on a small sample size, so the results may not be generalizable). Female victims know the perpetrator in 69 percent of the cases, with the highest percentage of abusers (57 percent of all cases) being friends or acquaintances.

Another victimization survey on sexual abuse is the Minnesota Student Survey. This self-report survey was administered to 6th, 9th, and 12th grade students in Minnesota in 1989, 1992, 1995, 1998, and 2001, and more than 90 percent of students in these grades in Minnesota participated in the surveys each year. The survey contains two questions about sexual abuse, the results of which show a slight rise in abuse between 1989 and 1992, followed by a 22 percent drop from 1992 to 2001.

Social Service Data There are two primary sources of social service data through which the incidence of child sexual abuse is estimated: The NIS and the NCANDS. The NIS is a congressionally-mandated effort from the Department of Health and Human Services to assess the overall incidence of child maltreatment in the United States ( U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2010 ). Data were collected in 1979 and 1980 for the NIS-1, followed by the NIS-2 in 1986 and 1987, and the NIS-3 in 1993 and 1995. The Fourth NIS (NIS-4) provides estimates of the incidence of child abuse and neglect in the United States 2005–2009 based on substantiated and unsubstantiated cases. These studies provide child, perpetrator, and family characteristics, and demographical information about the nature and severity of the maltreatment, as well as the extent of changes in the incidence over time.

In order to measure the scope of child abuse and neglect, the NIS includes not only children who were investigated by Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies, but also children who were not reported or who were screened out by CPS agencies. The study expanded its data by utilizing a sentinel methodology, which required community professionals to look for victims or possible victims of child abuse and neglect. The “sentinels,” as they are called, are staff members who have contact with children and families in various social service contexts (such as law enforcement agencies, medical services, educational institutions, and other social services). This methodology is designed to look beyond official abuse reports and include children who come to the attention of community professionals.

The NIS-4 includes a nationally representative sample of data collected from 126 CPS agencies in 122 different counties. The 126 CPS agencies provided demographic data on all children who were reported and accepted for investigation between September 4 and December 3, 2005 and between February 4 and May 3, 2006. Data for the NIS-4 were also collected from 10,791 community professionals in 1094 sentinel agencies. A total of 6208 forms were collected from the sentinels and 10,667 forms were completed on cases at participating CPS agencies.

Children were evaluated according to standard definitions of abuse and neglect as previously used in the NIS-2 (1986) and NIS-3 (1993). In order to be classified as abuse or neglect, the Harm Standard requires that an act or omission result in demonstrable harm. The Endangerment Standard includes all children who meet the Harm Standard, but also includes children deemed by the sentinels and their professional opinion as endangered or if the child’s maltreatment was substantiated in a CPS investigation. Only children who fit these standards of abuse (physical, sexual, and emotional) and neglect (physical, emotional, and educational) were used to generate national estimates.

According to the Harm Standard from the NIS-4, one child in every 58 in the United States experienced maltreatment. The number of children who experienced physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse under the Harm Standard decreased 26 percent from the NIS-3 to theNIS-4. The estimated number of sexually abused children decreased 38 percent from the NIS-3 along with a 44 percent decrease in the rate of sexual abuse. The estimated number of physically abused children decreased 15 percent from the NIS-3 along with a 23 percent decrease in the rate of physical abuse. The estimated number of emotionally abused children decreased 27 percent from the NIS-3 along with a 33 percent decrease in the rate of emotional abuse. There were no significant changes in neglect since the NIS-3. Results showed a 57 percent decrease in the number of children for whom injury could be inferred due to the nature of the maltreatment. Overall, the NIS-4 shows a 19 percent decrease in the total number of maltreated children in the United States since the NIS-3 in 1993. This decline in incidence is significant compared to the 56 percent increase between the NIS-2 in the mid-1980s and the NIS-3 in the mid-1990s.

According to the Endangerment Standard, one child out of every 25 in the United States has been maltreated. Results, however, did not show any reliable change since the NIS-3. Of those who were maltreated, 29 percent of children were abused and 77 percent were neglected. Of the 29 percent who were abused, 22 percent were sexually abused. In all of the NIS reports, girls were more likely to be sexually abused than boys.

The other well-known source of information for child abuse statistics is NCANDS, a national data collection and analysis system created for the purpose of documenting the scope and nature of child maltreatment reporting (Family Life Development Center, n.d.). The NCANDS Child File consists of case-specific data of all investigated reports of maltreatment to state child protective service agencies. NCANDS defines maltreatment as an “act or failure to act by a parent, caretaker, or other person as defined under State law which results in physical abuse, neglect, medical neglect, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm to a child” (Family Life Development Center, n.d.). Child File data are collected annually through the voluntary participation of states and include the demographics of children and their perpetrators, types of maltreatment, investigation dispositions, risk factors, and services provided.

Reports of child maltreatment are collected by social services across the United States; however, states are not required to submit data to NCANDS. The reporting agency investigates and decides whether the case of abuse is substantiated by evidence or not. Reports may contain information about multiple children, abuse types, and perpetrators. Information is not collected about the perpetrator(s) for unsubstantiated cases. Data on substantiated cases, however, include the perpetrator’s gender, race, and relationship to the child. Additionally, the Child File also contains information about the support services provided to the family and any problems identified for the child, caretaker, or family.

Annual datasets for calendar years from 1990 through 2002 are available from NCANDS. In 2003, the data collection period changed to fiscal years. The 2004 dataset included a total of 3,134,026 records from 44 states and Washington, DC, whereas the 2003 dataset included 1,216,626 total records from 22 states and Washington, DC. The most recent available data are for federal fiscal year 2004.

The state-level rates of child sexual abuse in 1992 range from a minimum of 87 per 100,000 children in New Jersey to a maximum of 688 per 100,000 children in Alaska. The average for 48 states and the District of Columbia is 246 children per 100,000. Table 1.3 shows the state-by-state comparison of child sexual abuse statistics in 1992 and 2000, and how there was a significant decrease in nearly every state during that decade.

TABLE 1.3 Child Sexual Abuse Statistics (1992 and 2001)


Percentage Children Abused (1992)

Percentage Children Abused (2001)

Rate of Children Abused per 100,000 (1992)

Rate of Children Abused per 100,000 (2001)

Percentage Change Between 1992 and 2001







































































































































































































































































































© Cengage Learning

Research Estimates

In the 1980s, there was a rise in the number of reports involving sexual offenses by acquaintances, whether in regard to child sexual abuse or rape. These allegations shattered the stereotyped images of sex offenders at the time, leading to further research of this population. Studies found that there was an increase in cases of date rape, rape in marriage, and intrafamilial abuse—cases that would have largely gone unreported prior to that time for reasons of stigma, self-blame, fear of not being believed, or a desire to protect the friend or family member who committed the offense ( Scully, 1990 ). Even today, those who are most likely to serve prison sentences for sexual offenses are those who have raped strangers, used weapons, had multiple minor victims, physically injured their victims, and/or committed other crimes in addition to the sexual offense ( Grant & Terry, 2001 ). As of 2008, an estimated 235,000 individuals convicted of sex offenses were under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Approximately 60 percent of these were supervised within the community ( Demichele, Payne, & Button, 2008 ).

Studies have found that sexual offending does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, educational level, or any other stable characteristics for either offenders or victims. Sex offenders, particularly those who abuse children, do not necessarily “age out” of their deviant behavior, as do many property offenders, and sex crimes are generally considered to be psychologically motivated offenses. Sexual offenders are often diagnosed with personality or mental disorders, particularly paraphilias (discussed in Chapter 5 ) ( Abel, Becker, & Cunningham-Rathner, 1984 ), and this makes them a unique population. Despite the heterogeneity in offenders and the etiology of their offending behavior, there are many similarities in the population as a whole. They tend to have poor social and relationship skills, most have had poor relationships with their parents, many abuse alcohol or drugs, and many were either physically and/or sexually abused as children.

It is difficult for researchers to ascertain a true assessment of the prevalence and incidence of sexual abuse, which refer, respectively, to the total number of cases in a given population at a specific time and the rate of occurrence over a period of time. Individuals who are sexually abused by family members or acquaintances are least likely to report the sexual abuse to the criminal justice system. Thus, most individuals who were sexually abused as children or were sexually abused as an adult by someone known to them do not report the abuse to criminal justice authorities.

Studies on the incidence of sexual abuse, which concentrate on estimating the number of new cases occurring over a particular period of time, gained greater urgency in the 1980s, indicating that the scope of sexual victimization is extensive.

Studies often show varying levels of prevalence of sexual abuse. As an example, study statistics show that:

· ▪ One in six women has been raped ( Tjaden & Thoennes, 2006 ), and one in three girls is likely to be abused by an adult ( Russell, 1984 ).

· ▪ Seventeen to twenty-two percent of women and 2 to 8 percent of men have been victims of sexual assault ( Levenson & D’Amora, 2007 ).

· ▪ 12.8 percent of females and 4.3 percent of males reported a history of sexual abuse during childhood ( MacMillan et al., 1997 ).

· ▪ Nearly a quarter of all children will be sexually assaulted before their 18th birthday; 74 percent of those assaulted as children are girls ( Spinazzola, Ford, & Zucker, 2005 ).

· ▪ Twenty-seven percent of females and 16 percent of males disclosed a history of childhood sexual abuse; 42 percent of the males were likely to never have disclosed the experience to anyone, whereas 33 percent of the females never disclosed ( Finkelhor, Hotaling, Lewis, & Smith, 1990 ).

· ▪ The lifetime prevalence of sexual assault among 12–17-year-olds is 1 in 12 ( Finkelhor, Ormrod, Turner, & Hamby, 2005 ), and 74 percent of child victims know the abuser well ( Snyder, 2000 ).

· ▪ The overall prevalence of sexual abuse of male children is 13 percent and female children is between 30 and 40 percent ( Bolen & Scannapieco, 1999 ).

Official statistics indicate that rates of sexual abuse have declined in the past decade. Research findings corroborate this, and indicate that there has been a simultaneous reduction in related factors such as domestic violence incidents among intimate adults, and pregnancies and births among teenagers. It is not clear what has caused this reduction in sexual abuse or related factors, though it coincides with a reduction in various types of violent and property crime. It also coincides with increased sanctions for sexual offenders, including an increased likelihood of incarceration and civil sanctions such as registration, notification, civil commitment, and residency restrictions (to be discussed in Part III).


Crime is underreported. Sexual crimes are the most underreported offenses, though more individuals reported their victimization to the police in 2000 than in any year of the previous decade ( Hart & Rennison, 2003 ). In order to understand how accurate statistics are on sexual offending, it is important to understand who reports, why, after how long, and with what accuracy.

The NCVS shows the following about individuals over the age of 12 who reported their sexual assaults to the police from 1992 to 2000 ( Hart & Rennison, 2003 , p. 5):

· ▪ Gender Victims were more likely to report sexual offenses to the police if the offender was male (32 percent) than female (13 percent).

· ▪ Race Victims were more likely to report sexual offenses if the offender was Black (39 percent) than White (29 percent).

· ▪ Age Victims reported sexual offenses to the police 40 percent of the time when the perpetrator was 12–14 years of age, the highest percentage of reporting in any age category.

· ▪ Number of Perpetrators Victims were more likely to report the sexual abuse to police if there were two perpetrators (44 percent) rather than one perpetrator (33 percent).

· ▪ Victim-Offender Relationship Victims were more likely to report sexual offenses committed by strangers (41 percent) than nonstrangers (27 percent).

· ▪ Use of Weapons Victims were more likely to report a sexual offense if the perpetrator had a weapon present during the offense (49 percent), particularly a firearm (62 percent), than if no weapon was present (28 percent).

· ▪ Reasons for Reporting The most common reason for victims to report sexual offenses to the police was to prevent future violence. The most common reason for victims not to report sexual offenses to the police was because of privacy issues.

Empirical research supports the findings in the NCVS, though the benefit of such studies is that they can also include victims under the age of 12. Child sexual abuse is the least reported of sexual offenses. Studies that analyze reporting trends of child sexual abuse all indicate that a high percentage of victims who report their abuse to authorities do so many years after the abuse occurred, and many do not ever disclose. The most common studies conducted to analyze reporting trends on child sexual abuse are adult retrospective studies. Like the NCVS, these studies found that the process of disclosing childhood sexual abuse depends on numerous variables. Of note:

· ▪ Only one-third of the victims reported the abuse to authorities before age 18, and the average age of disclosure was 25.9 ( Roesler & Weissmann-Wind, 1994 , in a study of 228 adult female victims of child sexual abuse by adult—primarily male—family members).

· ▪ The average age of child sexual abuse victims was just over 8, and approximately 41 percent of victims disclosed the abuse at the time it occurred ( Arata, 1998 , in a study of 204 female victims of child sexual abuse).

· ▪ The average age at the time of the child sexual abuse was 10, and 64 percent of the victims disclosed the abuse as adults ( Lamb & Edgar-Smith, 1994 , in a study of 45 adult female and 12 adult male child sexual abuse victims).

· ▪ The majority of victims waited more than eight years to report their childhood sexual abuse ( Smith, Letourneau, & Saunders, 2000 , in a study assessing disclosure rates of females raped when they were children).

· ▪ Disclosure of child sexual abuse by minors may be spontaneous or prompted, and many children and adolescents need assistance with disclosure ( DeVoe & Coulborn-Faller, 1999 ).

· ▪ Disclosure of childhood sexual abuse may be purposeful or accidental, with accidental disclosure more common in preschool-aged children and purposeful disclosure more common in adolescents ( Sorenson & Snow, 1991 ).

A significant factor in whether a child reports sexual abuse and the manner in which the abuse is reported is the potential for the person to whom the child is disclosing to believe his or her report on the abuse, especially law enforcement ( Campbell, 2005 ). Approximately half of the children who recant their reports of childhood sexual abuse do so under pressure from their guardians ( Bradley & Wood, 1996 ). The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome, a model of reporting outlined by Summit ( 1983 ) that consists of five components, suggests reasons why child sexual abuse victims delay disclosure. First, the abuse is usually carried out in privacy, and the abuser encourages secrecy. Second, because children are obedient to adults, they are helpless and maintain the secrecy that the adult encourages. Third, the child becomes entrenched in the abusive situation, begins to feel guilt and responsibility for the abuse, and continues to accommodate the perpetrator. Fourth, the victim delays disclosure because of the promise of secrecy and feelings of guilt and shame. Finally, after delayed disclosure, the victim often retracts the report due to disbelief about the abuse by those trusted by the victim.

In addition to a general delay in disclosure of child sexual abuse, many victims report the abuse in stages. Sorenson and Snow ( 1991 ) identified four stages of disclosure in their study of 630 victims of child sexual abuse: denial (experienced by 72 percent of the victims in their sample), disclosure (78 percent of the victims progressed from tentative to active disclosure), recantation (experienced by 22 percent of the victims), and reaffirmation (93 percent of those who recanted later confirmed their original reports).

Adult retroactive studies not only help us to understand the process of disclosure, but also explain the reasons that victims disclose. The most significant variables that seem to hinder disclosure of abuse are the age of the victim at the time the abuse occurred, the victim-perpetrator relationship, the gender and cognitive or developmental abilities of the victim, the type of sexual abuse that occurred, and the chance of negative consequences related to disclosure.

The gender of the victim has an impact on the disclosure of sexual abuse, as females are more likely both as children and as adults to report sexual abuse than are males ( DeVoe & Coulborn-Faller, 1999 ; Gries, Goh, & Cavanaugh, 1996 ; Lamb & Edgar-Smith, 1994 ; Walrath, Ybarra, & Holden, 2003 ). Paine and Hansen ( 2002 ) do show, however, that although gender is an important factor in the decision to report abuse, victim-perpetrator relationship is the most important factor in determining whether a victim of child sexual abuse will eventually disclose.

Several studies indicate that a victim is less likely to report or delay the report of child sexual abuse if the perpetrator is well known to the child ( Arata, 1998 ; Hanson, Saunders, Saunders, Kilpatrick, & Best, 1999 ; Smith et al., 2000 ; Wyatt & Newcomb, 1990 ). This relationship is most significant if the perpetrator is a relative or stepparent. Arata ( 1998 ) showed that 73 percent of victims did not disclose the abuse in such a situation; when the perpetrator was an acquaintance 70 percent of the victims did not report. The desire not to report familial sexual abuse is compounded if the victim feels responsible for the abuse, and in such cases the victim often waits longer to disclose the abuse ( Goodman-Brown, Edelstein et al., 2003 ; Roesler & Weissmann-Wind, 1994 ).

The gender of the perpetrator also seems to be an important factor in reporting, as offenses by female offenders are reported less often than those by male offenders ( Righthand & Welch, 2001 ). There are several reasons why victims may not report sexual abuse by females. Many female-perpetrated offenses are within the family and, as indicated earlier, intrafamilial acts of abuse are the least-reported sexual offenses. Also, women are traditionally seen as caregivers, nonviolent nurturers who are either not willing or not capable of harming children. Many adult and adolescent males are also reluctant to report abuse because of the shame of being a victim. Alternatively, they may not view the actions against them as abuse ( Elliot & Briere, 1994 ). Kasl ( 1990 ) states that underreporting is the result of a social taboo, and that the stigma caused by female sexual abuse must be abolished.

In order to report the abuse in a timely manner, it appears that children need to feel as though they will be supported by the person to whom they disclose the abuse. Children who believe that they will not be supported when they disclose abuse will wait longer to report, often until adulthood when they can choose a person they trust to support them ( Lamb & Edgar-Smith, 1994 ). Shame and guilt also appear to play a role in the decision about disclosure. Older children who are able to understand and anticipate social consequences of sexual abuse are less likely to report the abuse than are younger children ( Campis, Hebden-Curtis, & DeMaso, 1993 ; Keary & Fitzpatrick, 1994 ).

Some researchers have found that children are less likely to report sexual abuse if the abuse is severe ( Arata, 1998 ; DiPietro et al., 1997 ; Gries, Goh, & Cavanaugh, 1996 ) or they fear further harm as a result of their disclosure ( Berliner & Conte, 1995 ; Roesler & Weissmann-Wind, 1994 ; Sorenson & Snow, 1991 ). Sorenson and Snow ( 1991 ) found that victims who fear further reprisals will not report the abuse if the perpetrator is present or the disclosure could lead to further abuse, and Roesler and Weissmann-Wind ( 1994 ) found that one-third of the victims they spoke to delayed reporting until adulthood because they feared for their safety. Hanson et al. ( 1999 ), on the other hand, found the inverse relationship true of severity of abuse and disclosure. They discovered that in a sample of women who were raped when they were children, the more severe the sexual abuse the more likely the victims were to report the abuse sooner.


When victims report their crimes or complete victimization surveys long after the crime occurred, they often remember the crime as occurring earlier or later than it actually happened (Sudman & Bradburn, 1973, as cited in Schneider & Sumi, 1981 ). This phenomenon is called telescoping, and it occurs in two forms: forward telescoping, or recalling an event that occurred prior to the reporting period in question, and backward telescoping, which is recalling an event that occurred after the reporting period. Telescoping is not unique to crime victims. All individuals “telescope” events that they recall long after the events happened. However, telescoping events of victimization creates challenges for researchers trying to understand criminal statistics ( Schneider & Sumi, 1981 ). Accurate crime statistics are deemed essential by government agencies, and as such controlling for temporal telescoping is imperative to attain analyzable, accurate data.

In the 1970s, many researchers began conducting studies on telescoping to better understand its effect on crime statistics. Not surprisingly, researchers found that memory disorientations, including telescoping, occur more often in older respondents, particularly those over age 55 (Sudman & Bradburn, 1974, as cited in Gottfredson & Hindelang, 1977 ). Researchers also found that forward telescoping is more common than backward telescoping ( Schneider & Sumi, 1981 ) and that the more prominent the event, the more likely the person is to forward telescope (Neter & Waksberg, 1964, as cited in Gottfredson & Hindelang, 1977 ). The problem with this, in terms of crime statistics, is that individuals are going to report crime as occurring more recently than it did. Another issue is that victims of nonreported events tend to telescope more than victims who report events of victimization to the police ( Schneider & Sumi, 1981 ), thus creating a potential flaw with chronological information included in victimization surveys.

Researchers are also interested in the prevalence of telescoping, and have conducted many surveys to determine the scope of the problem. Skogan ( 1975 , as cited in Levine, 1976 ) found in a Washington, DC, pilot survey that 17 percent of victimizations reported by respondents actually occurred prior to the six-month period specified. Another study revealed that 22 percent of larcenies reported by respondents occurred prior to the reference period mandated by the survey ( Schneider & Sumi, 1981 ). Murphy and Cowan (1976, as cited in Schneider & Sumi, 1981 ) claim that crime victimization interviews have shown that victimization can be overstated by 40 to 60 percent in some surveys.

One factor that influences the accuracy of interviews is whether the survey is bounded or unbounded. Studies have demonstrated that bounded interviews, or interviews conducted after a previous visit with the respondent has occurred, show a much higher accuracy level in data gathered. Those in unbounded interviews, or those where there was no previous visit with the respondent, tend to report nearly twice as much crime as respondents of bounded interviews in the same time period (Turner, 1972, as cited in Skogan, 1975 , p. 25).


· ▪ Sexual offenses vary by type, degree of severity, class of offense, and length of sanction. They can be broadly categorized as contact offenses (where touching occurs), noncontact offenses (where only viewing or talking occurs), sexual solicitation (where sexual acts are traded for compensation) and pornographic offenses (where movies or pictures are involved).

· ▪ Statistics on the prevalence of sexual offending are derived from three types of data: arrest and conviction rates, victimization surveys, and empirical studies. It is difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain the true prevalence of offending in the population. Many researchers and research organizations have calculated rates of victimization.

· ▪ Rates of victimization have decreased in the past decade. The best estimates of victimization rates are that one in four women and one in seven men are sexually abused in their lifetimes.

· ▪ Victims of child sexual abuse often wait many years to report the abusive behavior. The length of delay depends on many factors, including victim-offender relationship, severity of the abuse, cognitive and developmental variables, fear of negative consequences, and gender of the victim.

· ▪ After a delay in reporting, many victims suffer from “telescoping,” and do not report the time of the abuse correctly.


· 1. What are the best sources of statistical information on sexual offenses and offenders? How do these sources of information differ?

· 2. What are the most significant problems in determining the true prevalence of sexual abuse?

· 3. How accurate are reports of sexual offending many years after the abuse occurred? What factors influence the accuracy?

· 4. What should be done to increase reporting of sexual abuse?


· ▪ Did you know that most sexual offenses are committed by family members or acquaintances? Many reports about sexual offenders in the media relate to sexual assaults by strangers, but in fact most perpetrators know their victims.

· ▪ Did you know that recidivism rates for sex offenders are low—substantially lower than recidivism rates for most other crimes? Sexual offenses are greatly underreported, so the true rate of sexual offending is not clear. However, official statistics show that most sexual offenders are not convicted of multiple sexual offenses.

· ▪ Did you know that not all victims of sexual abuse go on to abuse others? Many sex offenders were sexually abused themselves; however, most people who were sexually abused do not go on to become abusers.

© Cengage Learning

2 Historical Perspectives on Sexual Behavior

As explained in Chapter 1 , the concept of “normal” sexual behavior is a socially constructed reality that is continually adapting ( Jenkins, 1998 ). Actions that are defined as sexual offenses vary across religions, cultures, nations, and even states. Additionally, these definitions change over time, adapting to the prevailing social norms and cultures. There are few objective standards for acceptable sexual behavior, and tolerance of various sexual acts depends largely upon the political and social ideologies of the day. An evaluation of sexual behavior over centuries and in various cultures shows the evolution of attitudes toward sexual acts that have intermittently been considered taboo, including homosexuality, bestiality, sadomasochism, adultery, masturbation, and pederasty.


The sexual activity of Greek and Mediterranean cultures has been extensively detailed in art, literature, poetry, mythology, and theater ( Dover, 1978 ). Though there was no word equivalent to homosexualityuntil 1869, same-sex conduct was displayed in visual arts as early as the sixth century B.C. One of the most prominent philosophical depictions of homosexual relationships occurs in Plato’s Symposium, which contemplates the nature of a relationship between Socrates and a young, attractive male. Artistic depictions of transgenerational homosexuality were not uncommon, and many vases and murals show scenes of older males touching the genitals of nude young males ( Dover, 1978 ). Men also wrote love poems about younger boys, particularly those in late adolescence, and sexual activity between older men and younger boys was acceptable and considered beautiful ( Breiner, 1990 ).

Though same-sex relationships occurred regularly in Greece, the men were not considered homosexual in the sense of the word today. It was acceptable for men to have relationships with both men and women, and same-sex relationships were common to supplement the sexual relationship with a wife. Women were not highly respected and were typically viewed as “mad, hysterical, and possibly dangerous and destructive to men” ( Breiner, 1990 , p. 41). Marriage was considered a necessity for procreation, though sexuality was not linked to marriage and sexual pleasure could thus be received outside the marriage ( Mondimore, 1996 ). The ideal relationship was that of an active older male and a passive younger male ( Breiner, 1990 ; Mondimore, 1996 ), evident even in Greek mythology, which depicts Zeus as attracted to a young boy of legendary beauty ( Dover, 1978 ).

Homosexuality was institutionalized into the Greek culture, and this was apparent by the arts and practices of the people. Plays, particularly comedies, were very sexual in nature and often included overt sexual acts on stage. There were also orgies to the gods that included repeated sexual acts and often the sacrifice of a child ( Breiner, 1990 ). It was common for young boys to be sold into slavery, and socially prominent men would have slaves for their own sexual use. Though the majority of sexual behavior revolved around males, there were also women who were involved in homosexual practices. The most famous of these is Sappho, resident of Lesbos (from which the word lesbian is derived), who wrote love poems to women.

The Greek culture was not the only one to promote homosexuality, pederasty, and the importance of the male figure in society. Boy brothels were also found in Rome, and the Romans believed that sexual relationships with young boys would aid their mental development ( Breiner, 1990 ). Although the Greeks viewed man-boy relationships as beautiful, Romans often subjected boys (particularly slave boys) to violence and abuse. Sadistic activities were enjoyed for entertainment, and this included watching women and children being raped and having sex with animals.

The Egyptians were similar to the Greeks and Romans in their admiration of the male figure and their acceptance of homosexuality. Other sexual behaviors common to the Egyptians included polygamy, incest, sexual play among children, and sexual touching of children by adults ( Breiner, 1990 ). Children participated in sexual play at an early age, and it was expected that this would teach them about sexual behavior. By A.D. 200, brother-sister marriages were common, especially among those in the middle class. Though intercourse between adults and children was considered taboo, adults commonly sucked the penises of boys in order to prepare them for sexual activity later. Sexual activity among adults was very open in Egypt, and the pharaoh in particular was expected to partake in extensive sexual activity with his wives and other women while traveling ( Breiner, 1990 ).

Open sexual activity continued in such a fashion until the early Middle Ages, at which time homosexuality became a crime in Europe. This shift in moral thinking about sexuality was influenced by the church, and all sexual acts that were for enjoyment rather than procreation were considered to be sinful ( Holmes, 1991 ; Mondimore, 1996 ). Sodomy was the catchall category of all “unnatural” sexual acts, including masturbation, bestiality, anal intercourse, fellatio, and heterosexual intercourse in anything other than the missionary position. By the 14th century, sodomy was illegal throughout Europe, and perpetrators could potentially be sentenced to death. Homosexual acts were particularly discouraged, and in 1326 King Edward II of England was brutally killed because of his relationship with another male ( Mondimore, 1996 , p. 25). Though the church continued to have an influence on sexual mores for several hundred years, transgenerational sexual acts became socially acceptable in 16th- and 17th-century Europe. It was common for adults to touch and fondle the genitals of their prepubescent children, though the touching stopped when the children developed into adolescence ( Breiner, 1990 ; Jenkins, 1998 ).

In the 18th century, many children were sent to workhouses and brothels and were victims of murder, assault, or rape. With this exception, there was little danger from adult offenders outside the home. The main focus on sexual behavior continued to be within the home, and separate courts were developed for criminal and moral offenses. Although acts such as incest had been accepted in ancient cultures, the church declared incest an ecclesiastical offense, and incestuous marriages were invalidated ( Thomas, 2000 ). Moral offenses, such as masturbation, were brought before the church courts throughout the beginning of the 20th century. Other types of behavior that were considered more serious offenses—including homosexuality, bestiality, and sexual intercourse with prepubescent children—were brought before the criminal courts and were punishable by sentences as severe as death.

Though the Catholic Church dominated regulation of sexual behavior in Europe, other religions and cultures differed in their sexual mores. Polygamy was (and in some cultures, still is) regularly practiced by Muslims, Mormons, and Hebrews. Hebrew families had strict puritan regulations on sexual behavior, and, like the Catholic Church, considered homosexuality an abhorrence ( Breiner, 1990 ). Masturbation was prohibited; for young men this was equivalent to premarital sex, and a married man who masturbated was guilty of adultery. Men were even discouraged from touching their genitals while urinating, as this was thought to encourage masturbation ( Breiner, 1990 ).

In opposition to the puritan sexual mores of various religious sects, Native American and African cultures often practiced sexual activities similar to those of the ancient Greeks. There was evidence of homosexuality in both North and South American tribes, where sexual play among children was also tolerated. Many tribes believed that sexual activity between children and adults was a necessary aspect of sexual development, and that a boy would have to be sexually intimate with an older man in order to develop masculine qualities ( Mondimore, 1996 ). African tribes had similar rituals, and female circumcision was (and is still) common to many African cultures. That such acts are regularly practiced in other cultures but are condemned in Western societies shows the influence of social ideologies on accepted sexual behavior. There is no objective standard for the types of sexual behavior that should be prohibited, and sexual mores have changed drastically even throughout the previous century.


The beginning of the 20th century witnessed a new philosophy of sexual morality. It was at that time, during the Progressive Era, that concerns began to emerge about a number of issues, including the sexual behavior of women and the abuse of children. With the Industrial Revolution causing vast urban growth, adolescent women began entering the workplace in large numbers for the first time. Subsequently, they began participating in social activities outside of their local neighborhoods, experiencing unprecedented freedom from their families ( Odem, 1995 ). It was this change in social structure that instigated the modification of “age of consent” laws for sexual behavior, and it was at this time that the courts began to regularly monitor sexual behavior.

Researchers during the Progressive Era began focusing on serious sexual offenders, classifying their behavior as a medical problem. Many sexual deviants were labeled pathological or insane and were sent to mental hospitals, where they were treated until they regained their sanity. Shortly thereafter, researchers began to study the possible correlation between hormones and sexually deviant behavior, hypothesizing that organic treatments were necessary in order to control such behavior. Research in the 1950s began to show that sexually deviant behavior might not be simply the result of hormones or psychopathology; the underlying problems might be behavioral in nature. There continued to be a lack of understanding about the complexities of sexually deviant behavior, however, and it was only in the 1970s that researchers began to link sexually deviant behavior to social problems. Researchers at this time began to take into consideration the effects of cognitive processes on the behavior of sexual deviants, and research continues in this area today.

Whether researchers looked at those who committed deviant sexual acts as having medical, psychological, or moral problems, most looked at the population of sexual deviants as unique. Because the motivation of their behavior was not—and is still not—clearly understood, reactions to their behavior have been erratic. Despite the various therapies and legislative acts that have been imposed upon those who commit sexual offenses, the reactions to this population are distinctly cyclical. Figure 2.1 outlines the cycle of legislative proposals, showing how policies regarding sexual offenders are implemented after waves of emotionally-charged, notorious sex crimes occur.

Though new information about sexual offenders was continually attained throughout the century, societal reaction to sexually deviant behavior has shown a repetitive pattern. At three distinct points in the 20th century, there were public outcries to control sexual “fiends,” “psychopaths,” and “predators.” It was the highly publicized cases of sexual abuse, or, more specifically, cases involving the sexual murder of children by strangers, that largely influenced such public reactions ( Jenkins, 1998 ). In between these peaks of interest in stranger attacks, little public attention was paid to sexual abuse. Most considered it to be a problem within the family that was not shared with the public or the courts. Figure 2.2 shows the public perception of sexual abuse and abusers throughout the century.

FIGURE 2.1 Cycle of moral panic and reactions to sex offenders

In order to understand legislative reactions to sex offenders today, it is essential to observe the influence of research, political ideologies, and societal reactions to deviant sexual behavior throughout the 20th century.

1885–1935: The First Wave of Panic

Prior to the 1880s, little was known about those who committed “deviant” sexual acts. It was Richard von Krafft-Ebing ( 1886/1965 ) who, in his groundbreaking book Psychopathia Sexualis, first claimed that deviant sexual acts were the result of psychopathological problems in the individual. He attributed various sexual disorders to psychological abnormalities, stating that the sexual disorders were a permanent part of a person’s character and could not be changed. His book contains case studies of individuals—both male and female—who experienced various sexual disorders and paraphilias, though a significant portion of the book focuses on homosexual activity. Krafft-Ebing said that homosexuality could be blamed on hereditary factors, or it could be acquired from the practice of masturbation. He concluded that sexual deviants, particularly homosexuals, were mentally ill, pathological, loathsome, and a threat to social hygiene.

FIGURE 2.2 Changing concepts of deviant sexual behavior in the 20th century, showing periodic increases in concern about the “stranger danger.”

He published 12 editions of Psychopathia Sexualis, and his work opened floodgates of research on sexual behavior.

Two other influential researchers at the time were Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud. Ellis ( 1899/1942 ) wrote a two-volume, multipart book on the psychology of sex, in which he discussed issues ranging from menstruation to marriage to sexual morality. He recognized that a changing social environment defines sexual morality, and that standards of morality are continually changing. His opinion differed from Krafft-Ebing’s on the issues of homosexuality and masturbation, as he did not consider sexual deviates to be mentally ill or pathological. Though Ellis did not consider homosexuals to be “normal,” he did not think there was reason to try to cure them. He did not believe that homosexuals who went through treatment for their deviation could be cured, and with this Freud agreed. Like Krafft-Ebing, Freud believed that deviant sexual behavior was rooted in psychopathology, and he attributed sexual deviation to character disorders in a 1905 essay on neuroses ( Freud, 1953 ). He explained that “neurotic symptoms represent the patient’s sexual activity,” with more complex symptoms representing the patient’s fantasies ( Freud, 1959 , p. 281). Much of Freud’s research focused on the sexual activity among family members; he stated that incest was a common occurrence and was consequently the root of problems for many girls.

While researchers were focusing on the causes of sexually deviant behavior, in the 1880s the public began receiving information about sexual immorality from social groups. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)—a group primarily consisting of white, middle-class women—began lobbying vigorously in 1889 for the modification of age of consent laws in the United States ( Odem, 1995 , p. 8). They wanted to raise the age of consent from 10 (in most states) to 18, 1 claiming that “male vice and exploitation were responsible for the moral ruin of young women and girls” ( Odem, 1995 , p. 16). Although it was true that many men were taking advantage of young working-class girls, some of the young women themselves were acting promiscuously. The number of women working in factories and other industrial centers nearly tripled from the 1880s to 1910, and working-class women began participating in new social activities outside the home and local neighborhoods. The purity reformers of the WCTU acknowledged the need to protect the sexual autonomy of these women, saving them from “male seducers” who would lead them into vices such as prostitution ( Odem, 1995 , p. 18). Their campaign literature highlighted the increasing frequency of sexual attacks upon women and young girls, and they called for legislative changes in the punishment for these crimes ( Odem, 1995 , p. 9).

The legislative changes they were seeking did materialize, and by 1920 the age of consent was 16 or 18 in nearly every state. 2 It was not just the religious moral reformers who were concerned about sexual activity during this era, however. While they were waging a campaign against “white slavery,” a general panic was rising about sex “fiends” and “perverts” who were preying on children. It was becoming apparent in the larger cities, particularly New York, that child prostitution was rampant among both boys and girls. The number of brothels that would prostitute effeminate boys increased, and they were frequented by some of the more respectable men in the cities. The moral vicissitude was brought about in part by the spreading of venereal diseases, syphilis and gonorrhea in particular, by homosexuals and pedophiles, whose behavior was under scrutiny at this time ( Jenkins, 1998 , p. 27).

It was between 1910 and 1915 that the United States reached its first retributive climax against sexual offenders. This was largely the result of a rise during this time period in sex-related child homicides, many of which were attributed to serial killers. There were sexual murders in New York City, Colorado, North Dakota, Alabama, Washington, and Atlanta ( Jenkins, 1998 , p. 36). The media and the police managed to create a panic in the public by defining the “Jack the Rippers” as intelligent, manipulative criminals who were easily able to elude detection. In an effort to reduce serious sex crimes, police intervention increased for all sexual offenders who committed offenses in public—namely, homosexuals and other public “nuisances”—whereas there was a dearth of intervention for intrafamilial offenders.

During this five-year period, a number of factors influenced legislation and research on sexual offenders. Indeterminate sentences were introduced for serious offenders in most states, and these nearly always affected sex offenders. There was a move toward positivism—the belief that people are social beings who want to conform, but are compelled to commit offences for reasons beyond their control—that came simultaneously with increasing research from European academics and increasing media coverage on the problem of deviant behavior. Because the focus of criminological research at this time was primarily biological and physiological, such as with the newly translated research of Cesare Lombroso (the Italian “father of scientific criminology” who studied biological and physiological theories of crime in the 19th century), remedies for deviant sexual behavior were also physiological. The concept of eugenics, which supposed that some people were genetically unfit and should therefore not procreate, was a popular one. Among criminals fitting this description were sex offenders, and the practice of sterilization was common. In addition to sterilization, surgical castration was a method used to reduce the sexual drive of, and therefore the number of offenses committed by, sexual criminals. At the time, the concept of eugenics was unquestioned, and the sterilization of habitual criminals was allowed until 1942, when it was declared unconstitutional in the case of Skinner v. Oklahoma ( 1942 ). It was only at this time that the science of hereditary criminality was seriously questioned.

Most of the early research on child sexual abusers focused on serious offenders, often men with psychiatric problems. Even though the researchers studied serious offenders who had been convicted or otherwise incapacitated, the sex offenders in these early studies presented a unique typology in terms of characteristics and likelihood of recidivism. For example, Frosch and Bromber ( 1939 ) conducted a psychological study of 709 sex offenders passing through a psychiatric court clinic in New York City. Among their findings were that sex offenders had a low rate of recidivism (a finding that has consistently been replicated in contemporary studies); many were men over age 40 who reported having a strong religious affiliation; alcoholism and mental deficiency were only minor factors in their offending; many of the men in this sample had a maladjusted sex life; and, “pedophiles” had a higher rate of psychopathic personalities and neurotics. In their study of 250 male nonpsychotic pedophiles and exhibitionists at Bellevue Hospital, Apfelberg et al. ( 1944 ) found that more than a quarter of the offenders were married and living with their wives at the time of their offenses; 32 percent had been previously charged with sex offenses; and, 38 percent had been charged with other types of offenses.

The panic over sexual killers subsided in the 1920s. The reasons for this were numerous. First, the focus began to turn away from stranger assaults and toward child molestation and incest. The high amount of venereal disease among children was still questioned, though it was attributed largely to child abuse by relatives or to prostitution rather than to rape. Second, by 1917 the WCTU had essentially completed its campaign to save women and children for a life of social purity. They had, by this time, achieved their main goals: women’s suffrage and an increased age of consent. Third, by the 1930s issues other than sexual offenses became more topical in the media; namely, organized crime and Prohibition. Fourth, the focus of criminologists and sociologists was shifting, and research focused largely on issues in policing (corruption, brutality), organized crime, and juvenile delinquency ( Jenkins, 1998 , p. 46). The trend of medicalizing criminal acts did not diminish in the 1920s, however. Research on incarcerated offenders to determine the levels of psychopathy in criminals increased. It was this trend that led to the hospitalization of sexual offenders in the 1930s.To continue with the answer check on

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