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.

Rapists had a 19 percent reconviction rate for sexual offenses and a 46 percent reconviction rate for new, non-sexual offenses over a five year period.

Another study found reconviction rates for child molesters to be 20 percent and for rapists to be approximately 23 percent.

Recidivism rates for sex offenders are lower than for the general criminal population. For example, a Bureau of Justice Statistics study of 108,580 non-sex criminals released from prisons in 11 states in 1983 found that nearly 63 percent were rearrested for a non-sexual felony or serious misdemeanor within three years of their release from incarceration; 47 percent were reconvicted; and 41 percent were ultimately returned to prison or jail.

It is important to note that not all sex crimes are solved or result in arrest and only a fraction of sex offenses are reported to police. For these reasons, relying on rearrest and reconviction data underestimates actual re-offense numbers.

Myth 4 — Sexual offense rates are higher than ever and continue to climb.

Despite the increase in publicity about sexual crimes, the actual rate of reported sexual assault has decreased slightly in recent years.

Myth 5 — All sex offenders are male.

The vast majority of sex offenders are male. However, females also commit sexual crimes.

In 1994, fewer than 1 percent of all incarcerated rape and sexual assault offenders were female (fewer than 800 women). By 1997, however, 6,292 females had been arrested for forcible rape or other sex offenses, constituting approximately 8 percent of all rape and sexual assault arrests for that year, according to FBI statistics.

Additionally, studies indicate that females commit approximately 20 percent of sex offenses against children.

Myth 6 — Children who are sexually assaulted will sexually assault others when they grow up.

Most sex offenders were not sexually assaulted as children and most children who are sexually assaulted do not sexually assault others.

Early childhood sexual victimization does not automatically lead to sexually aggressive behavior. While sex offenders have higher rates of sexual abuse in their histories than expected in the general population, the majority were not abused.

Among adult sex offenders, approximately 30 percent have been sexually abused. Some types of offenders, such as those who sexually offend against young boys, have still higher rates of child sexual abuse in their histories.

While past sexual victimization can increase the likelihood of sexually aggressive behavior, most children who were sexually victimized never perpetrate against others.

Myth 7 — Youths do not commit sex offenses.

Adolescents are responsible for a significant number of rape and child molestation cases each year.

Sexual assaults committed by youth are a growing concern in this country. Currently, it is estimated that adolescents (ages 13 to 17) account for up to one-fifth of all rapes and one-half of all cases of child molestation committed each year.

In 1995, youth were involved in 15 percent of all forcible rapes cleared by arrest — approximately 18 adolescents per 100,000 were arrested for forcible rape. In the same year, approximately 16,100 adolescents were arrested for sexual offenses, excluding rape and prostitution.

The majority of these incidents of sexual abuse involve adolescent male perpetrators. However, prepubescent youths also engage in sexually abusive behaviors.

Myth 8 — Treatment for sex offenders is ineffective.

Treatment programs can contribute to community safety because those who attend and cooperate with program conditions are less likely to reoffend than those who reject intervention.

Different types of offenders typically respond to different treatment methods with varying rates of success. Treatment effectiveness is often related to multiple factors, including: the type of sexual offender (e.g., incest offender or rapist); the treatment model being used; and related interventions involved in probation and parole community supervision.

Several studies present optimistic conclusions about the effectiveness of treatment programs that are empirically based, offense-specific, and comprehensive. Research also demonstrates that sex offenders who fail to complete treatment programs are at increased risk for both sexual and general recidivism.

Myth 9 — The cost of treating and managing sex offenders in the community is too high and they should always remain behind bars.

One year of intensive supervision and treatment in the community can range in cost between $5,000 and $15,000 per offender, depending on treatment modality. The average cost for incarcerating an offender is significantly higher, approximately $22,000 per year, excluding treatment costs.