Fact Sheet: Sex Offenders

About the fact-sheet series: Fact sheets summarize current literature into a short (2 page) document intended for distribution. Fact-sheets are extremely useful for academics, professionals or laypeople who are in contact with offenders, victims, corrections or the legal system in any way. They provide a means to disseminate empirically based information in a way that is both quick and useful.

About the authors: This article was co-authored. The primary (guest) author is Bianca Baker, who recently obtained her MSc in Forensic & Legal Psychology at the University of Leicester (England). The co-author and editor is Julia Shaw, EAPL-S co-president and Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia (Canada).

View this document in it's full glory by downloading the pdf here.

Remember to also read our fact sheets on sex offender treatment, and rape myths.


When looking at crime as a whole, sexual offenses make up about 5% of the total correctional population in the United States. However, the amount of press and attention that sexual crimes receive, makes them seemingly more prevalent than they actually are. Nevertheless, sexual crimes are unquestionably serious. This fact sheet answers some of the most frequently asked questions concerning sex offenders.

Child Molesters vs. Rapists

Child molesters are persons who engage in sexual activities with persons generally under the age of 14 years old, but the age varies between countries. A child molester is not necessarily a pedophile. The definition of a pedophile is an abnormal sexual arousal or fetish for children. However, there can be sexual offenses committed towards children that are more situational than simply a sexual preference. Child molesters commit offenses such as indecent exposure, sexual contact with a child, physical contact with the child’s genitals or viewing it for the reasons of sexual gratification. Although crime generally declines with age, the age of child molesters does not. This means that child molesters can equally be 50 or 18 years of age. Also, most child molesters know their victims; they are often relatives, friends of the family or are otherwise acquainted.

The term rapist refers to individuals who penetrate orally, vaginally or anally against the will of another person. Rapists can assault against victims of all ages, and can be all ages. However, rapists who commit offenses against non-child victims are thought to be younger, on average, than child molesters. Rapists are also more likely than child molesters to show antisocial or delinquent behavior.

Why it occurs

Motivations underlying sexual offending can be very diverse. Sexual offenders may deliberately hurt their victims, convince themselves they are not harming their victims, or feel unable to stop themselves. Additionally, inadequate social functioning appears to play a key role in the origins of sexual offending. This includes characteristics such as mistrust, hostility, and insecure attachment. These traits in turn, facilitate social rejection, loneliness, negative peer associations and delinquent behavior. Problematic psychological traits, emotional problems and social difficulties, combined, contribute towards sexual offending, which are thought to be a result of poor family environments. Indicators such as childhood sexual abuse are found in many sexual offenders’ pasts. However, current research explains that childhood sexual abuse is not a cause of sexual offending. Rather it can be said that a large portion of the population has incurred sexual abuse and that some of these individuals become abusers themselves. Additionally, learning disabilities can play a role in sexual offending.

Learning disabled (LD) individuals are disproportionately responsible for sexual crimes compared to mentally ill and normal offenders. This does not mean that most LD individuals are sexual offenders, just that a large number of sexual offenders are LD. Further, LD sexual offenders show a larger preference for victims under the age of 11 and more male victims than normally-abled sexual offenders.

Treatment and Risk Assessment

Contrary to popular belief, only about 4% of convicted child molesters and 7% of rapists are rearrested for any sex offense within five years after release from custody (on average, across all types of sex offenders). Additionally, treatment appears to be effective, reducing sexual recidivism by an average of 37%. Treatment typically focuses on sexual interests, offence-related attitudes and cognition, social competence, relationship management, and self-management. While most treatments focus on these cognitive-behavioral aspects, in certain countries (such as the USA) organic treatments such as chemical castration may also be mandated or recommended in treatment.

The two major predictors of sexual recidivism for both adult and adolescent sexual offenders are deviant sexual preferences and antisocial orientation. Several tests used to measure such risk factors have been developed, mainly to measure potential recidivism risk of imprisoned offenders. There are many psychometric tests, but some of the most widely used include the Structured Assessment of Risk and Need (SARN), the Sexual Offender Risk Appraisal Guide (SORAG), the SVR-20 (Sexual-Violence-Risk 20) and the Static-99. Physiological measures such as the Penile Plethysmograph (PPG) can also be used to measure arousal to inappropriate sexual images. The final risk assessment is typically based on a mix of psychometric testing and clinical judgment.


While sexual offending is often seen as a particularly nasty form of crime, it is important to dispel the myths surrounding the issue. We need to keep in mind that the reasons behind sexual offending are diverse and not always malicious, that most sexual offenders do not reoffend and benefit from treatment, and that appropriate risk assessment and supervision can help maximize the effectiveness of reintegration efforts.

Quick Summary

  • Not all child molesters are rapists
  • Rapists penetrate victims (of all ages) orally, vaginally, or anally
  • Many sex offenders have poor social functioning
  • Treating sex offenders helps reduce re-offense rates
  • Risk assessments can help professionals manage sex offenders

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1.    Baker, B. (2010). Do learning disabled sexual offenders have a specific victim fixation? (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Leicester, Leicester, UK.

2.    Cooper, A. J. (1995). Review of the role of two antilibidinal drugs in the treatment of sex offenders with mental retardation. Mental Retardation, 33(1), 42-48.

3.    Craig, L. & Hutchinson, R. (2005). Sexual offenders with learning disabilities: Risk, recidivism and treatment. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 11, 289-304.

4.    Greenfield, L. (1997). Sex offenses and offenders: An analysis of data on rape and sexual assault. Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse.

5.    Hanson, K. (2002). Recidivism and age: Follow- up data from 4,673 sexual offenders. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 17, 1046-1062.

6.    Hanson, R., Morton-Bourgon, K. (2005). The characteristics of persistent sexual offenders: A meta-analysis of recidivism studies. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73, 6, 1154-1163.

7.    http://criminal.findlaw.com/crimes/a-z/rape.html

8.    http://www.victimsofviolence.on.ca/rev2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=331&Ite mid=21

9.    Langan, P., Schmitt, E. & Durose, M. (2003).

10.    Lave, T. (2011). Inevitable recidivism—The origin and centrality of an urban legend. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 34(3), 186-194. doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2011.04.005

11.    Lösel, F., & Schmucker, M. (2005). The effectiveness of treatment for sexual offenders: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 1(1), 117-146. doi:10.1007/s11292-004-6466-7

12.    Martin, J., Anderson, J., Romans, S., Mullen, P. & O’Shea, M. (1993). Asking about child sexual abuse: Methodological implications of a two stage survey. Child Abuse & Neglect, 17(3), 383-392.

13.    McGuire (2009). Understanding Psychology and Crime. McGraw-Hill International: New York, NY.

14.    Recidivism of sex offenders released from prison in 1994. U.S. Department of Justice: Statisticians, Bureau of Justice Statistics. NCJ 198281.

15.    Rezmovic, E., Sloane, D., Alexander, D., Seltser, B. & Jessor, T. (1996). Cycle of sexual abuse: Research inconclusive about whether child victims become adult abusers. US Government Accountability Office General Government Division, United States. Retrieved from: http://www.gao.gov/archive/1996/gg96178.pd f

16.    School of Psychology (2009). Module 5: Management and Treatment of Offenders, 2009-2011. Leicester: School of Psychology. Forensic Section, University of Leicester.

17.    Whealin, J. (2007). Child Sexual Abuse. National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, US Department of Veterans Affairs.

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