Our society operates under a cloud of myths, misconceptions, and ill-fated policies and beliefs when it comes to sex offending and offenders. This includes much of the public, most elected officials, many of those involved in the criminal justice system, and even recognized experts.
When so-called facts prove to be false or dangerously incomplete, when scientific evidence is ignored, and when fear, denial, and media-fed emotions are relied on by those all too eager to find simplistic answers to complex problems, then any attempt to effectively deal with the problem becomes truly difficult. Wrong decisions get made, ineffective or insufficient programs are put into place, and resources are misallocated or not allocated at all. There is a need to get past the highly emotionally charged and misleading talk to take a serious look at solutions that can work.
Information is increasingly available to challenge many of these myths. What is called for is an informed public dialogue on the issue by citizens, policy makers, and practitioners. Here in capsule form are some of the facts.


In the public eye, under the law, and in the minds of many policy makers and criminal justice personnel, all sorts of sex offenders and offending are lumped together. Sex offenders are variously defined to include rapists, child molesters, predators (those with mental abnormality), users of pornography, pedophiles, statutory rapists (under age sex), internet scanners, exhibitionists, voyeurs " even people who have urinated in public, child photographers, masturbators, artists, and homosexuals " and also people who have only thought about committing a sex crime. This emphasis on labeling, rather than looking at each case individually, results in incorrect diagnosis, misleading assessments, and ineffective treatment-service protocols.


Experts say sex offenders fit no recognizable profile but are a diverse group that mirrors the general population in terms of race, income, looks, education, employment, marital status, family life, criminal record, mental health, and other observable behavior. According to a major study, 87 % of people arrested for sex crimes were individuals who had not previously been convicted of a sex offense. The vast majority is male, but females represent about 3%. Offenders under the age of 18 make up about 23% of the total rape and child molestation cases. While an estimated 30% of sex offenders were sexually abused as children, 70% were not. Alcohol and drug abuse may increase the likelihood of sex offending for those already predisposed to commit such a crime, but not otherwise. Sex offenders over the age of 50 re-offend after prison at half the rate of those younger.


Sexual violence against children as well as adults is overwhelmingly perpetrated by family members or acquaintances including authority figures, even though programs, laws and media attention focus largely on stranger committed sex crimes. Approximately 27% of offenders are strangers to their victim. Victims under the age of 18 knew their abuser in 9 of 10 cases; of these about 1/3 were family members, the others friends and acquaintances.


An estimated ¾ of all sex crimes are never reported to authorities; 27% of reported sex assault crimes are never solved. In 2005 there were 191,670 recorded victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault, age 12 and older. An estimated 89,500 cases of child sexual abuse were substantiated by child protective agencies. Rape and sexual assaults are 3.7% of all violent crimes against people over 12 years of age.
Despite the increase in publicity about sex crimes, the actual rate of reported sexual assault has decreased. Over the period 1993-2005 the rate of reported adult rape and sexual assaults declined 69%. Cases of child sexual abuse substantiated by child protection agencies fell 40% between 1992 and 2000.


The U.S. has approximately 704,000 registered sex offenders; 60% of these are supervised in the community by probation or parole personnel. Between 10,000 and 20,000 are released into the community every year. In 2005, approximately 265,000
(15 % of all prison cells) were occupied by convicted sex offenders. The location of an estimated 100,000 convicted sex offenders is unknown to law enforcement agencies.


The sex offender recidivism rate is much lower than most people believe. An analysis of 29,000 sex offenders found that within 6 years of release, 14% were rearrested or convicted for a new sex crime, compared to as many as 63% of arrests for all offenders. The re-offending rate for juvenile sex offenders is about 10%. A study of 9,691 male offenders released from prison in 15 states found that within three years, 5.3% were arrested, and 3.5% convicted for a new sex offense against a child. A recent study covering a ten year period showed that about ¾ of re-arrested sex offenders were taken in for technical parole and probation violations and not for committing a new sex offense.


Most sex offender prisoners who are going to sexually re-offend do so soon after their release from prison. In one major study, of all re-arrests from prison for new sex crimes during the three years following release, 40% occurred in the first year. For offenders who remained offense free for five years, their recidivism rate for the next 10 years declined to 12%. After 15 years the recidivism rate for the following five years was 4%. Over the complete 15-year period it was 24%. In other words, three out of four did not re-offend.


The reality is that the experts don't agree on why sex offenders commit their crime, perhaps because it is not one behavior, the dynamics are so complex, and the situations are so diverse. There are those who believe sex offending is caused by a mental illness or psychopathology associated with irresistible impulses resulting in uncontrollable sexually aggressive tendencies. However, there are those who argue that sex offenders are more likely to be rational, calculating human beings who expend time and energy in planning their sexual criminality and are not really mentally ill. The theory of deterrence and rational choice is sometimes applied as a leading cause, where offenders rationally select the benefits (pleasure-sex) over the risks (pain-jail).
There are those who think of sex offending as an addiction. Feminists may explain sexual abuse primarily in terms of society's acceptance of male dominance and power over the female. Sexual assault as a child may be a contributor to later adult sex crime behavior, but not necessarily as the prime determining cause. Others look to the media and popular culture as a cause citing the glamorization of unacceptable sexual behavior. Or the blame is put on the prevalence of permissive family life or the lack of suitable religious upbringing. Or on personality characteristics such as poor self-image, stress, and the inability to have positive personal relationships.


Contrary to popular belief long term treatment is now deemed effective for some, but certainly not all, sex offenders, particularly when carried out alongside certain management and containment measures. A recent mega study review found a 41% reduction in recidivism for offenders who participated compared to those who did not. However, many sex offenders do not receive long-term community based therapy. The favored, but not only, treatment approach is cognitive-behavioral, along with (as needed), relapse prevention, victim-empathy, social and personal skill development, and the changing of deviant sexual arousal patterns. Relapse therapy (AA, 10 step programs) is considered ineffective. Treatment is typically carried out in a group setting and less frequently individually, primarily in prison, but also upon re-entry where it may be required as a condition for probation.


For some, not all, sex offenders leaving prison, a structured rehabilitative transitional housing program is recommended. However, from reading the newspapers you might come to the conclusion that sex offenders living in group facilities are always a danger to people living nearby, particularly children; that they lower property values; and that they should be tightly restricted through zoning and other measures. Not so. These have proved to be safe and quite successful, as well as cost effective. The only alternative may be for them to be housed in unsuitable quarters (including living on the streets) without access to services, supervision or a community to relate to, resulting in increased risk to re-offend.


An empirical study covering 50 states by Human Rights Watch (Nov. 2007) came to the conclusion that sex offender registration, community notification, and residency restrictions are largely ill-considered, poorly crafted, and in many ways counterproductive. For example, Megan's Law requires that their photos, housing, place of employment, and car licenses be shown on the Internet for all to view. These regulations are required for many who pose no safety risk, encourage public harassment and violence, push offenders underground or to live in an environment dangerous to themselves and to others, and generally make it ever more difficult to live a decent life in the community without re-offending. Probation and parole have their own set of regulations and restrictions which when carried out capriciously or under misguided policy can prove to be counterproductive.


Responsibility for dealing with sex offenders is commonly thought to be the job of the criminal justice system, but a new way of thinking argues that it is equally the responsibility of the community-at-large–that it is here where the ultimate solutions lie. Parole and probation officers play a role but at some point their responsibility ends. Without a supportive community the likelihood of recidivism looms high. This means they must have access to suitable housing, employment, social services, and, if they wish, to a faith community. Where suitable family and friends are absent (which is often the case), this means access to mentors or a volunteer circle of support and accountability.
Data is from sources quoted in the following publications: US Dept of Justice, Center for Sex Offender Management, Myths an Fact About Sex Offenders", 2005; The Council of State Government's Sex Offender Management Policy in the States, 2010; Human Rights Watch's study, No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in US, 2007; NY State Office of Sex Management's Myths and Facts: Current Research on Managing Sex Offenders, 2008.