Myths About Sex Offenders

There are many commonly held misconceptions about sexual crimes and the people who commit them, according to the Center for Sexual Offender Management, which is a project of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs.

Myth 1 — Most sexual assaults are committed by strangers.

Most sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim or the victim's family, regardless of whether the victim is a child or an adult.

For adult victims, statistics indicate that the majority of women who have been raped know their assailant. A 1998 National Violence Against Women Survey revealed that among those women who reported being raped, 76 percent were victimized by a current or former husband, live-in partner, or date. A 1997 Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that nearly nine out of 10 rape or sexual assault victimizations involved a single offender with whom the victim had a prior relationship as a family member, intimate, or acquaintance.

Among children, approximately 60 percent of boys and 80 percent of girls who are sexually victimized are abused by someone known to the child or the child's family, according to a 1998 study. Relatives, friends, baby sitters, persons in positions of authority over the child, or persons who supervise children are more likely than strangers to commit a sexual assault.

Myth 2 — The majority of sexual offenders are caught, convicted, and in prison.

Only a fraction of those who commit sexual assault are apprehended and convicted of their crimes. Most convicted sex offenders eventually are released to the community under probation or parole supervision.

Many women who are sexually assaulted by intimates, friends, or acquaintances do not report these crimes to police. Instead, victims are most likely to report being sexually assaulted when the assailant is a stranger, the victim is physically injured during the assault, or a weapon is involved in the commission of the crime.

The National Crime Victimization Surveys conducted in 1994, 1995 and 1998 indicate that only 32 percent of sexual assaults against persons 12 or older were reported to law enforcement. There are no current studies on the rate of reporting for child sexual assault, but it generally is assumed that these assaults are equally under-reported.

The low rate of reporting leads to the conclusion that more than 90 percent of all sex offenders are living in communities nationwide without ever having been charged for their crime.

Some 60 percent of convicted sex offenders are supervised in the community, whether directly following sentencing or after a term of incarceration in jail or prison.

Myth 3 — Most sex offenders reoffend.

Reconviction data suggest that this is not the case. Further, reoffense rates vary among different types of sex offenders and are related to specific characteristics of the offender and the offense.

Persons who commit sex offenses are not a homogeneous group, but instead fall into several different categories. As a result, research has identified significant differences in reoffense patterns from one category to another. Looking at reconviction rates alone, one large-scale analysis (Hanson and Bussiere, 1998) reported the following differences:

Child molesters had a 13 percent reconviction rate for sexual offenses and a 37 percent reconviction rate for new, non-sex offenses over a five-year period.

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