Research: Offender characteristics

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Common assumptions about the characteristics of adult-minor sex offenders (including the prevalence of pedophilia) are unsupported. The Dutch Rapporteur [1] recently carried out a fine graded analysis of "paraphilia" (i.e. pedophilia) rates among different types of child sex offender. Rather revealingly, although overall rates were low, levels of pedophilia fall to almost zero among the forcible contact offenders (see graphic at bottom of page).

Prevalence of pedophilia among CSOs

If pedophilia is defined as a preferential orientation towards prepubescent children, it is incredibly rare in the population of "child sex offenders" (including all minors under the age of consent) and strikingly absent in many adult-prepubescent sex offenders. Most child sex offenders are motivated by opportunism and anti-social traits rather than a sexual preference for children.

  • Okami, P., & Goldberg, A. (1992). "Personality Correlates of Pedophilia: Are They Reliable Indicators?," Journal of Sex Research, 29(3), 297-328.
    ". . . most data suggest that only a relatively small portion of the population of incarcerated sexual offenders against minors consists of persons for whom minors (particularly children) represent the exclusive or even primary object of sexual interest or source of arousal (Freund, Watson, & Dickey, 1991; Gebhard et al., 1965; Howells, 1981; Lang et al., 1988; Langevin, 1983; McCormack & Selvaggio, 1989; Marshall, Babaree, & Butt, 1988; Marshall & Eccles, 1991; Mohr et al., 1964; Quinsey, Chaplin, & Carrigan, 1979; Righton, 1981; Rowan, 1988; Schofield, 1965; Swanson, 1968)."
  • Kesicky, D. et al (2014). "Pedophiles and (or) child molesters," European Psychiatry, Volume 29, Supp 1, Page 1.
    "Experimental sample consists of 146 forensic cases (all men), they committed child molestation in years 2005–2012. According to the criteria (DSM-IV-TR) for pedophilia, penile plethysmography (PPG), actual clinical and case history data were used for the diagnosis determination. Obtained clinical and sociodemographic data were statistically evaluated. Only a small part (16,2 %) of sexual offenders against children meet the criteria (DSM-IV-TR) for pedophilia."
  • World Health Organization (1986). "Child sexual abuse: report on a consultation, Copenhagen, 11-12 December 1985."
    "Some sex offences against children are committed by pedophiles, that is, persons who are sexually attracted to children rather than adults. Most child molestors, however, are not particularly attracted to children, but merely seeking sexual stimulation through encounters with children to compensate for a preferred, but unobtainable or inadequate (sexual) relationship with adults."
  • Lautmann, Rüdiger (1994). "Attraction to Children." Ingrid Klein Pubs. Inc., Hamburg. ISBN 3-89521-015-3.
    "This exhaustive and authoritative work is based on a three-tiered typology of offen[ders] against children, [the first type being] the true pedophile [who] has a general interest in social contact with children, including a sexual dimension. […] In this book I am concerned exclusively with the first type, which constitutes approximately 5% of all pedosexually active men."
  • Joint submission from the Northern Territory Government and Police, 9 March 1995, p. 4. Cited by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority.
    "Of [extrafamilial child sex offenders from 1990 to 1995], only ... 14.8% of the total ... had been identified as paedophiles or suspected paedophiles."
  • Wilson, Singer, & Dowd (2006). Handbook of Children, Culture, And Violence, p. 68.
    "Indeed, Howells (1981) maintains that "There is good reason to think that such persons [pedophiles] form a minority in the total population of people who become sexually involved with children" (p.76). Other researchers have come to a similar conclusion (Bromberg & Johnson, 2001; Mohr, Turner, & Jerry, 1964; Swanson, 1968)."
  • Seto, M. C., Cantor, J. M., & Blanchard, R. (2006). "Child pornography offenses are a valid diagnostic indicator of pedophilia," Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 115, 610-615.
    "The proportions of men in each of the nine study groups—two groups of child pornography offenders, three groups of offenders against children, three groups of offenders against adults, and one group of general sexology patients [who had no history of charges for child pornography or sexual offenses] —who met a diagnostic criterion for pedophilia used at the Kurt Freund Laboratory (pedophilic index greater than .25; Blanchard et al., 2001) are shown in Figure 1. There was a significant difference between groups in the proportions who met this diagnostic criterion: 61% of child pornography offenders, 35% of offenders with child victims, 13% of offenders with adult victims, and 22% of general sexology patients." According to the authors, the 35% figure may be inflated because study participants were referred due to clinical or legal concerns about their sexual interests or behavior, and the study included an inordinate number of people who had convictions for both child pornography and child molestation.
  • Kutchinsky, Berl (1973). "The effect of easy availability of pornography on the incidence of sex crimes: The Danish experience," Journal of Social Issues, 29(3), p. 178.
    "According to Gebhard et al. (1965), only one-fourth to one-third of the sexual offenders of girls examined were classified as pedophiles, and in about half of those cases "some degree of socio-sexual deprivation existed at the time of the offense, which may have triggered the behavior [p. 74]." Gebhard et al. further mention that "the term 'pedophile' is somewhat unfortunate since these men did not consciously prefer children as sexual partners, but simply found them acceptable [p. 74]." In other words, to the majority of sexual offenders against children the criminal interference with children was not a coveted goal in itself; rather it served as a poor substitute for a preferred, but unobtainable normal heterosexual experience. A number of other facts about the heterosexual offender of children (discussed by Gebhard et al., 1976) are relevant: [...] his masturbation fantasies are quite average, that is, he does not especially fantasize about children."
  • Frenzel, R. R., & Lang, R. A. (1989). "Identifying sexual preferences in intrafamilial and extrafamilial child sexual abusers," Annals of Sex Research, 2, 255-275.
    "Erotic preference profiles among child sexual abusers, both familial and nonfamilial, are heterogeneous. Some men prefer adult females, others exclusively a male or female child, while others exhibit a pan-gynephilic profile, in which any aged female apparently has a similar erotic valence. Precisely how many of these incestuous or nonincestuous men are 'true' pedophiles is uncertain; possibly as many as 1 in 4 (Langevin, & Lang, 1988), or as few as 1 in 10, as suggested by the present data."
  • Howells, K. (1981). "Adult sexual interest in children: Considerations relevant to theories of aetiology," in Cook, M. & Howells, K. (eds.), Adult sexual interest in children, London: Academic Press, pp. 55-94; as summarized on MHAMic.
    Some have a persistent sexual preference for children beginning in adolescence, while others have a preference for adults but act with children due to situational factors (e.g., marital problems, loss of wife, abuse of alcohol, or stress). Most theories focus on the former type since the latter type are really not pedophiles. However, most clinical and criminal studies find the latter type to be the majority of those who offend.
  • James, A. J. (2004). "Plethysmograph: a disputed device,", version of 12 April 2006.
    [The citation's use of "pedophile" is almost certainly in reference to offenders - NewgonWiki].
    "Bradford (1997) candidly reviews the problems in penile response in testing. He collected data from a group of 200 subjects, 100 of whom were admitted child molesters and 100 of which were volunteer "community control" subjects. Even using an admitted population of child molesters, Dr. Bradford's penile tumescence testing could only correctly classify 62% of the admitted homosexual child molesters and 52% of the admitted heterosexual child molesters. According to the report, twenty-five (25%) accuracy in classification would have been expected from mere chance. Other studies report that plethysmography has an even poorer accuracy record. Simon & Schouten cite a study (Wormith) in which 42% of the pedophiles were classified as having normal sexual preferences. Another study they cite (Barbaree and Marshall) found that only 35% of pedophiles demonstrated the "pure" child-preference profile (Simon 1993, at 508). See also McAnulty 1990. [...] For instance, according to Bradford (1997), only 40% of child molesters are classified as pedophiles (p. 213). Johnston (1997) notes one-third of the molesters in study identified as fixated and 2/3 as regressed.; Abel (1988) states that the majority of subjects in the study could become involved with adult partners; paraphilic and nonparaphilic behavior and coexisted in most subjects."
  • Levine, J. (2002). Harmful to Minors, p. 25-26
    "More important, sexual contact with a child does not a pedophile make. "The majority of reported acts of sexual abuse of children are not committed by pedophiles," but by men in relationships with adult women and men, said John Money, of Johns Hopkins, a preeminent expert on sexual abnormalities."

Lack of intelligence among offenders or "pedophiles"

The intellectual capacity of adults involved in intergenerational relationships, or pedophiles per se, does not appear to differ from the general population. On some occasions, differences have been identified within criminal sampes - however these differences are more likely to be confounded with general offender characteristics (impulsivity, tendency to act conspicuously and thus be detected). When "pedophilic offenders" are separated, they tend to be more intelligent than situational offenders, and even controls in some cases. The Eastvold study below defines "pedophilic offenders" very broadly (including totally normative self-admitted hebephilic/ephebophilic interest). While Eastvold does show higher functioning among the "pedophilic" offenders, other studies occasionally show little or no relationship.[2][3]

  • Eastvold, A et al. (2011). Executive function profiles of pedophilic and nonpedophilic child molesters, Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 17 (2), 295-307.
    "Results revealed that (a) child molesters exhibited an overall executive profile that was different from that of NSOs, with PEDs differing from NSOs but not from NPEDs; (b) child molesters on the whole performed better than NSOs on abstract reasoning and more poorly on inhibition; and (c) PEDs performed better than NPEDs on planning and exhibited better overall performance accuracy relative to NPEDs. These results suggest that PEDs exhibit a more deliberate, planful response style characterized by greater self-monitoring; whereas NPEDs appear to respond more impulsively. The current report further elucidates neurocognition among child molesters and highlights the need for future research examining subtypes of child molesters."
  • Schiffer B., Vonlaufen C. (2011). Executive dysfunctions in pedophilic and nonpedophilic child molesters, Journal of Sexual Medicine, 8: 1975–1984.
    "Results indicate that pedophilic child molesters exhibited less performance deficits in cognitive functioning than nonpedophilic child molesters. Compared to healthy controls and nonsexual offenders, the pedophilic child molesters only showed executive dysfunction concerning response inhibition, whereas the nonpedophilic child molesters revealed more severe dysfunction, especially on tasks associated with cognitive flexibility and verbal memory. Conclusions: These results enhance our knowledge about executive dysfunction associated with criminality and/or pedophilia, as they suggest different profiles of impairment between groups. In summary, data suggest that nonpedophilic child molesters showed more severe cognitive deficits than pedophilic child molesters. However, as response inhibition is associated with prefrontal (i.e., orbitofrontal) functioning, the deficits observed in both child molester groups indicate dysfunction in the orbitofrontal cortex. This has to be further examined with functional imaging approaches in larger samples and a full-factorial approach which allows for a clear distinction between criminality and pedophilia in a factorial manner."
  • Okami, P. & Goldberg, A. (1992). "Personality Correlates of Pedophilia: Are They Reliable Indicators?," Journal of Sex Research, 29(3), 297-328.
    "As can be seen, few if any differences in intelligence have been found for pedophiles or sex offenders against minors. The impression of pedophiles lacking intelligence may have origated in clinical work among samples which included persons suffering from senility and mental retardation (Langevin et al., 1985a)."
    A chart is included:
  • Okami intelligence.PNG
  • Howitt, Dennis (1995). Paedophiles and Sexual Offences Against Children, John Wiley & Sons, p. 44.
    "The possibility of finding a simple personality profile that differentiates paedophiles from other men has appeared increasingly unrealistic as the research and clinical base has widened. Simplistic notions such as social inadequacy driving men to sex with children become unviable as highly socially skilled paedophiles are found."

Cantor and others' non-starter "perturbation" theory

James Cantor and others have made various assertions re. brain functioning/structure (linked to early brain traumas), left handedness and reduced stature in "pedophiles" or "pedohebephiles" identified within unrepresentative criminal samples. These theories tend to fall apart when researchers look at broader samples.

  • Jahnke et al. (2021): Neurodevelopmental Differences, Pedohebephilia, and Sexual Offending: Findings from Two Online Surveys.Archives of Sexual Behavior (Preprint).
    "The neurodevelopmental theory of pedohebephilia states that sexual interests in children arise from early neurodevelopmental perturbations, as, for example, evidenced by increased non-right-handedness, more childhood head injuries, and reduced intelligence and height. As corroborating evidence largely rests on samples of convicted men, we conducted online surveys among German-speaking (Study 1, N = 199) and English-speaking men (Study 2, N = 632), specifically targeting community members with pedohebephilic or teleiophilic interests. Although we detected theoretically meaningful sexual interest patterns in an embedded viewing time task, we could not detect expected neurodevelopmental differences between teleiophilic and pedohebephilic men in any of the two studies. Strikingly, pedohebephilic men who reported convictions for sexual offences emerged as smaller and less intelligent than pedohebephilic men without convictions in Study 2."

Abused-abuser relationship

Some psychologists have suggested that pedophilia or "abusing" itself is caused by childhood sexual abuse, or sexual interactions with adults as a minor. In some instances, even generalized "sexual behavior" in childhood has been linked to later offending, even though 40-70+% of children have behaved "sexually" by the age of 13.[4][5][6]

Empirical support for the abused-abuser hypothesis is thin, and plagued by methodological issues. Where a relationship is identified, it is typically weak enough to have been caused by a confounding variable such as non-normative orientation, social nonconformity, sensation seeking, sexual agreeableness, etc.

  • Widom, C. S., & Massey, C. (2015). "A Prospective Examination of Whether Childhood Sexual Abuse Predicts Subsequent Sexual Offending", JAMA Pediatrics, January 5, 2015.
    "The widespread belief that sexually abused children are uniquely at risk to become sex offenders was not supported by prospective empirical evidence. These new findings suggest that early intervention programs should target children with histories of physical abuse and neglect. They also indicate that existing policies and practices specifically directed at future risk for sex offending for sexually abused children may warrant reevaluation."
  • Leach C, Stewart A, Smallbone S. (2016). Testing the sexually abused-sexual abuser hypothesis: A prospective longitudinal birth cohort study. Child Abuse Negl. 2016 Jan;51:144-53.
    "The sexually abused-sexual abuser hypothesis posits that persons, especially males, who are sexually abused as children are at particular risk of sexually abusing others later in life. We tested this hypothesis by prospectively examining associations between maltreatment and offending in a birth cohort of 38,282 males with a maltreatment history and/or at least one finalized offense. We examined these associations within the context of the wider birth population. Proportionally few boys were the subject of official notifications for sexual abuse (14.8% of maltreated boys, and 1.4% of the birth population); proportionally very few of these sexually abused boys (3%) went on to become sexual offenders; and, contrary to findings typically reported in retrospective clinical studies, proportionally few sexual offenders (4%) had a confirmed history of sexual abuse. Poly-victimization (exposure to multiple types of maltreatment) was significantly associated with sexual offending, violent offending, and general (nonsexual, nonviolent) offending. We found no specific association between sexual abuse and sexual offending, and nor did we find any association between sexual abuse and sexual offending specifically within the poly-victimized group."
  • Freund, Kurt; Watson, R.; and Dickey, R. (1990). "Does sexual abuse in childhood cause pedophilia: an exploratory study," Archives of Sexual Behavior, 19(6), 557-568.
    "The first however, to investigate the reliability of these offenders retrospective reports was Hindman (1988). This therapist compared paroled male adult sexual offenders against children in two periods: In the first (1980-1982) she interviewed 40 patients and in the second (1982-1988) she saw 129. The second period differed from the first in that the patients were told that they would have to submit to a polygraph test and that if their self-reports were contradicted they would be returned to jail. In the first period, during which patients were not threatened with polygraph testing, 67% indicated that they had been molested when children. In the second period, however, only 29% of the offenders indicated that they were abused as children. Hindman’s results imply that in a therapeutic climate where professionals tend to subscribe to the theory that pedophilia is caused by earlier sexual abuse of the offender himself, some offenders could fabricate such an event as an excuse for their erotic attraction to children. [...]
    A second question addressed by this study, and which had been investigated only by the Hindman (1988) study, was whether positive reports about sexual abuse in childhood sufficiently reflect true events. [...] The results of the present study are in agreement with those of Hindman, in that they demonstrate that the empirical basis of the molestation theory of pedophilia is unreliable."
  • McMillan, Dean; Hastings, Richard P.; Salter, Daniel C.; and Skuse, David H. (2007). "Developmental Risk Factor Research and Sexual Offending against Children: A Review of Some Methodological Issues," Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37(6), 877-890.
    "Any observed association between a risk factor and sexual perpetration may be a result of the fabrication of an experience rather than the actual experience of the risk. Hindman and Peters (2001) examined this potential source of bias in three studies. The first, originally reported in Hindman (1988), obtained self-reports of sexual offenders who were referred to a clinic between 1980 and 1988. The clinic began polygraph testing in 1982, and this provided an opportunity to assess the effects of testing on self-reported rates of victimization. Before the introduction of testing, 40 offenders were interviewed about their sexual history, and 67% reported that they had been sexually victimized; this compares to a rate of 29% (N = 129) made by those referred after its introduction. A second study, conducted in 1994, compared adult sex offenders (N = 76) who gave self-reports of their sexual history with a group who took a polygraph test (N = 152). By this time, all offenders referred to the clinic were polygraphed, but the self-report group was either sentenced or excluded from the clinic before testing could take place. The results were similar to the 1988 study, with the non-polygraph group reporting a higher rate of child sexual abuse (65%) than the polygraph group (32%). The final study used a repeated-measures design in which the researchers compared the self-reports of sexual victimization made with and without polygraph testing in 173 adult offenders. The results were broadly comparable with the earlier studies (61% without testing vs. 30% with testing). Hindman and Peters (2001) concluded that the base rate of victimization appears to change markedly when subject to the scrutiny of a polygraph test. [...]
    Hindman, J., & Peters, J. M. (2001). Polygraph testing leads to better understanding of adult and juvenile sex offenders. Federal Probation, 65, 8–15."
  • Hanson, R. K., and Slater, S. (2004). "Sexual victimization in the history of sexual abusers: A review," Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 1(4), 485-499.
    "While findings in individual studies ranged between 0% and 67%, on average about 28% of the offenders reported being sexually victimized as children. This rate is higher than the base rate for community samples of non-offending males (about 10%), but is similar to the rates found in other sexual or non-sexual offender populations. The relationship between childhood sexual victimization and sexually abusing children as an adult does not appear to be specific; rather, it is probable that many forms of childhood maltreatment can lead to many forms of behavioral and psychological problems in adulthood."
  • Cannon, Mary (2001). "Invited commentaries on: Cycle of child sexual abuse: links between being a victim and becoming a perpetrator," The British Journal of Psychiatry, 179, 495-496.
    "The use of self-reports of childhood sexual abuse from individuals who are, themselves, child abusers is bound to raise questions about the reliability of these data. Reporting sexual victimisation in childhood may be an attempt on the part of the perpetrators to explain their abusive behaviour and elicit sympathy from the therapist. Glasser et al used information in social service, probation and medical reports to complement self-report data for the assessment of perpetrator status but it is not clear whether this was also done for victim status. Recall bias is usually thought of as an unconscious action, a form of ‘search after meaning’ rather than deliberate lying or fabrication, but all these processes will lead to biased associations. Additionally, a form of interviewer bias may have operated if the therapists subscribed to the idea of a cycle of child sexual abuse and were more likely to enquire about such childhood experiences during assessment of perpetrators. [...]
    Widom & Ames (1994) used a prospective cohort design to assess the criminal consequences of childhood sexual abuse. Official criminal records were traced for a large sample (n=908) of children with a validated history of sexual abuse, physical abuse or neglect, and a control group matched for age, gender, race and family socio-economic status. The authors found no evidence for a cycle of sexual abuse as proposed by Glasser et al. Rather, they found that all three of the abuse groups (sexual, physical and neglect) were significantly more likely to be arrested for a sexual offence (including prostitution) than were the controls. In fact, although children who had been sexually abused were significantly more likely than controls to have an adult arrest for prostitution, they were not significantly more likely than controls to have adult arrests for other sex crimes."
  • Feierman, J. (1994). "Pedophilia: Paraphilic Attraction to Children," in Krivacska J. J., and Money, J. (eds.), The Handbook of Forensic Sexology: Biomedical & Criminological Perspectives (New Concepts in Human Sexuality), 49-79.
    "The 'abused/abuser hypothesis,' which perhaps should be renamed "the master's myth" because of its uncritical acceptance by so many master's level psychotherapists, is an example of a learning theory model gone awry. The best one can say about the abused/abuser hypothesis is as follows: Having been sexually abused as a child is neither a necessary nor a sufficent determinant of a previously sexual abused child’s becoming an adult sexual abuser of children. Nevertheless, there appears to be a weak correlation between being sexually abused as a child and again as an adult. No casual relationship can be concluded from a mere correlation, however (Garland & Dougher 1990). Most of the myriad adult psychopathologies attributed to the sequelae of previous childhood sexual contact with an adult are without scientific bases."

Excerpt Graphic Library

Although arguments re. offender characteristics are less commonly deployed nowadays (meaning that quoting directly from the relevant paper will usually suffice), our below summary of the prevalence of pedophilia in criminal vs general samples may be of use.