Sexual Offenses and Offenders

Sexual Offenses and Offenders

There are few groups of individuals who are more reviled than sexual offenders. Though this has been true for more than a century, the past two decades have brought forth intense scrutiny from the public, politicians, and policymakers. Several emotionally-charged cases of child sexual abuse were highly publicized in the 1980s and 1990s, reigniting public intolerance for sexual offenders. And although the incidence of sexual offenses has been decreasing, sanctions for sex offenders have been constantly increasing over the last two decades. Unfortunately, empirical research does not show that such sanctions significantly deter offenders or reduce recidivism, and yet this legislation creates significant financial strain for local jurisdictions and states that must implement the policies ( Zgoba et al., 2008 ). Despite the questionable efficacy of these laws, there is no sign of reducing the sanctions for this group.

This is not the first time historically that society has exhibited a “moral panic” about the dangers of sexual abuse. This panic has waned and ebbed throughout the last century. Jenkins ( 1998 , p. 4) explains that the perception of sex offenders is the effect of “socially constructed realities” influenced by existing social and political ideologies. The public desire to incapacitate sex offenders today is similar to social attitudes in the 1930s, when sexual psychopathy laws emerged to incapacitate those considered to be “unfortunate but dangerous wretches” ( Robson, 1999 , p. 2). So although empirical research has consistently shown that sex offenders constitute a heterogeneous population of individuals for whom a one-size-fits-all policy will not be effective, such policies regarding the supervision, monitoring, and incapacitation of sexual offenders have gone full circle since the beginning of the century.

The purpose of this text is to provide the reader with a general understanding of sex offenders and the societal responses to them. Historically, sex offender research has focused on why sex offenders commit such offenses, and the characteristics of different types of offenders. Sex offender research today is centered around three general topic areas: (1) the factors associated with sexual offending, including personal characteristics as well as situational variables; (2) sex offenders’ risk of recidivism; and (3) the efficacy of policies and programs for sex offenders. Before addressing the issue of why people commit sexual offenses and how best to prevent them, however, it is necessary to understand the nature and scope of sex crimes in the United States today.


More than 100 years ago, Richard von Krafft-Ebing ( 1886/1965 , p. 241) made the following observation about sexual behavior:

· Nothing is so prone to contaminate—under certain circumstances, even to exhaust—the source of all noble and ideal sentiments, which arise from a normally developed sexual instinct, as the practice of masturbation in one’s early years. It despoils the unfolding bud of perfume and beauty, and leaves behind only the coarse, animal desire for sexual satisfaction. If an individual, thus depraved, reaches the age of maturity, there is lacking in him that aesthetic, ideal, pure and free impulse that draws the opposite sexes together. The glow of sensual sensibility wanes, and attraction toward the opposite sex is weakened. This defect in the morals, character, fantasy and instinct of the youthful masturbator, male or female, in an unfavorable manner, even causing, under certain circumstances, desire for the opposite sex to become entirely absent; thus masturbation becomes preferable to the natural mode of sexual satisfaction.

At that time, masturbation, homosexuality, and other sexual practices regarded as common today were not only condemned, but were also considered pathological and loathsome. Attitudes toward sexual behavior are structured through social and political ideologies, and they have changed drastically throughout the centuries. Some harmful sexual acts are—and should continue to be—illegal in nearly every community. One such example is rape, which constitutes a violation of the person and can cause irreparable harm both physically and psychologically. In describing rape, the Policy Advisory Committee on Sexual Offences in England stated that

· rape involves a severe degree of emotional and psychological trauma; it may be described as a violation which in effect obliterates the personality of the victim.… Rape is also unpleasant because it involves such intimate proximity between the offender and the victim. ( Criminal Law Revision Committee, 1984 )

The legally and socially accepted boundaries of other sexual behaviors, however, are not as clear, and sexual violence is not unique to any one culture or historical period ( Stermac, Segal, & Gillis, 1990 ). Sexual behaviors other than those for the purposes of procreation (for example, homosexuality, incest, adultery, masturbation, bestiality, and sexual activity with children) have vacillated among social acceptance, stigmatization, and illegality.

Sexual offenses vary across time and cultures, and even across various jurisdictions in the United States. The types of sexual acts that may be criminalized can be broadly categorized in four ways, though these are not necessarily mutually exclusive:

· 1. Sexual acts with contact . Most sexual offenses are within this category, where there is touching of the intimate part(s) of the body or penetration either without the consent of the victim or when one person is incapable of consenting under the law (for example, a person who has not yet reached the age of consent, a person who is not conscious, or a person who is dead). This category involves all contact acts, from touching over the clothes to forced sexual intercourse.

· 2. Noncontact sexual behavior . This involves acts that are for the purpose of sexual gratification, but no contact is made between the perpetrator and the victim (for example, exposure of the genitals, voyeurism (peeping), and telling children to perform sexual acts).

· 3. Viewing, possessing, or producing child pornography . This third category includes any act involving the viewing or producing of any visual material of a child that is for the purpose of sexually gratifying an adult. This may include sexual contact with children or the sexual exploitation of children in photos and films. Recent examples include “sexting,” or texting sexual pictures of oneself to another person (discussed further in Chapter 7 ).

· 4. Sexual solicitation or trafficking . Acts included in this category are based upon sexual services exchanged for financial or other types of compensation. Sexual solicitation may involve prostitution in a traditional sense (solicitation of sexual services through face-to-face meetings). Alternatively, adults may seek sexual relationships with adolescents, usually online, which may or may not result in a face-to-face meeting. Trafficked victims may be adults or minors, domestic or international, and are generally lured into performing sexual services for promises of money and/or a better life.

There are some offenses common across all jurisdictions in the United States, though the terminology differs depending on the jurisdiction. For example, although most states use the term rape to define offenses involving nonconsensual oral, anal, and/or vaginal penetration, this is called sexual imposition or gross sexual imposition in North Dakota and is called sexual assault in Colorado. Additionally, the specific definitions of this crime differ in terms of who can be a victim or an offender (male and/or female), the class of felony or misdemeanor, and the age of the victim (some define the different degrees by age ranges, with acts committed against younger victims being more serious offenses).

Many states also label some consensual sexual acts as offenses. Thirteen states listed consensual sodomy as a criminal act as recently as 2003, when sodomy laws were invalidated and declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court ( Lawrence v. Texas, 2003 ). Other consensual acts that continue to be illegal in some states include incest (intergenerational and between siblings), adultery, bigamy, female genital mutilation, fornication, masturbation for hire, indecent dancing, prostitution, and public indecency ( Leiter, 1999 ). In addition to these offenses, other crimes that are not necessarily sexual in nature are registerable offenses, such as kidnapping.

For most sexual offenses, there must be a lack of consent on the part of the victim and some level of intent on the part of the offender. The laws in most states stipulate that consent is lacking from a sexual act when:

· ▪ The act is the result of force, threat, or duress;

· ▪ A reasonable person would understand that the victim did not consent due to a clear or implied statement that he or she would not want to engage in the sexual act; or

· ▪ The victim is incapable of consenting because he or she is below the age of consent (this ranges from age 16 to age 18 in various states), is mentally disabled, is mentally incapacitated, is physically helpless, is under the custody of correctional services, or is placed within the care of children and family services (or any other organization in charge of monitoring and caring for those in care of the state).

Offenses vary by type, degree of severity, class of offense, and length of sanction. In some states, these are defined simply by class of felony or misdemeanor. In other states, they are divided into first, second, and third degree offenses, with first degree offenses being the most severe. For example, Table 1.1 shows how New York classifies rape into three degrees. The sanctions associated with the degree of the offense increase as the severity of the offense increases.

TABLE 1.1 New York Penal Code Definition of Rape

Code Section







He or she engages in sexual intercourse with another person, to whom the actor is not married, who is incapable of consent and is not less than 17 years old; actor is over 21 years old and engages in sexual intercourse with someone less than 17 years old. Class E Felony.



Actor is over 18 years of age and he or she engages in sexual intercourse with someone less than 14 years of age; victim is otherwise mentally disabled or mentally incapacitated. Class D Felony.



He or she engages in sexual intercourse with a person by forcible compulsion; who is incapable of consent because he or she is physically helpless; who is less than 11 years of age; who is less than 13 years old and the actor is over 18. Class B Felony.

SOURCE: New York Penal Law (2000)


SEXTING: The Emergence of New Sexual “Offenses” in the 21st Century

Accepted sexual behaviors change over time and by place, and are regulated by social and cultural norms. Over the last few decades, there has been an emergence of new behaviors, often related to developing technology, that are being considered sexual offenses. One such phenomenon is “sexting,” in which people text nude or semi-nude photos of themselves to others. Though this has become a widespread practice generally, it is particularly common among adolescents. A survey of 1300 teens conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen & Unplanned Pregnancy and found that one in five teens had sexted, even though the majority knew it was a crime.

Several sexting cases have made media headlines, since sexting can have serious legal consequences for those who partake in this activity. One such example was of Phillip Albert, a teenager in Orlando, Florida. After an argument with his 16-year-old girlfriend, Phillip, then 18, sent a picture of his naked girlfriend that she had texted him to her family and friends. Phillip was charged with sending child pornography, convicted, and sentenced to five years of probation. Additionally, he is required to register as a sex offender until age 43. Phillip’s attorney is appealing the conviction, noting that “sexting is treated as child pornography in almost every state and it catches teens completely off-guard because this is a fairly natural and normal thing for them to do. It is surprising to us as parents, but for teens it’s part of their culture” ( Feyerick & Steffen, 2009 ).

Another high-profile sexting case occurred in Pennsylvania. Marissa Miller was 12 years old when she and a friend took pictures of themselves wearing training bras while at a slumber party. The picture soon surfaced on another classmate’s cell phone. The district attorney for the county told Miller and her friend that they could take probation and re-education classes or be charged with sexual abuse of a minor. Miller’s mother, along with another family, refused to take the deal; instead, they contacted the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and with its help is suing the district attorney to stop him from filing charges.

Phillip Albert’s attorney noted that “Some judges have the good sense and reasonableness to treat this as a social problem and others are more zealous in their efforts to put everybody away and I think it’s time as a society that we step back a little bit and avoid this temptation to lock up our children” ( Feyerick & Steffen, 2009 ).


· 1. What should be the consequences for teens who “sext”?

· 2. What are the potential harms that can result from “sexting”?

· 3. Explain the similarities and differences between sexting and transmitting or possessing child pornography.

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It is impossible to accurately assess the extent of sexual offending and the characteristics of offenders. Most data on sex offenders relate to those who are either arrested or convicted, a group that represents a small portion of all sexual offenders. From 1992 to 2000, only 31 percent of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to the police ( Hart & Rennison, 2003 ). Of those that are reported, not all end in arrest, and not all of those go on to indictment or conviction. This “funnel” system means that the further researchers are from the point at which the crime was committed, the further they are from knowing the true nature and scope of the problem of sexual offending. Furthermore, nearly all data on sex offenders relate to the male population of offenders. As such, the female sex offender population constitutes an even higher rate of the underreported and underresearched proportion of the total sex offender population ( Righthand & Welch, 2001 ; Travin, Cullen, & Protter, 1990 ).

What is certain about sexual abuse, particularly child sexual victimization, is that it is widespread, and it remains so despite the precipitous decline in abuse cases in the 1990s (see Child Maltreatment Report, 2001 ; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004 ; Jones & Finkelhor, 2004 ). One meta-analysis summarizing prevalence studies found that overall rates of sexual victimization were approximately 30 percent for girls and 13 percent for boys in one’s lifetime ( Bolen & M. Scannapieco, 1999 ). According to Finkelhor ( 2008 ), children who experience sexual abuse often experience multiple types of abuse. Finkelhor, Ormrod, Turner, and Hamby ( 2005 ) found that in 2002–2003, nearly half (49 percent) of the youth sampled in their study had experienced more than one form of direct (assault, maltreatment, sexual victimization) or indirect (witnessed) victimization. The concept of “multiple victimization” is consistent with findings from longitudinal studies by Cathy Widom and her colleagues (see Horwitz, Widom, McLaughlin & White ( 2001 ); Widom, Czaja, & Dutton, 2008 ).

The high rate of sexual victimization is not simply a criminal justice problem, but is also a public health problem ( Abel et al., 1994 ). Those who are victimized as youths show higher levels of mental health problems as adults ( Horwitz et al., 2001 ). Confounding this issue is the low rate of reporting of victimization, or when it is reported, the delay in disclosure. The literature shows that several factors are commonly associated with the delay in disclosure (see Terry & Tallon, 2004 ), including the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator ( Arata, 1998 ; Hanson et al., 1999 ; Smith et al., 2000 ; Wyatt & Newcomb, 1990 ); the severity of abuse ( Gries et al., 1996 ; Kogan, 2005 ; DiPietro et al., 1997 ); the likely consequences of the disclosure ( Berliner & Conte, 1995 ; Hershkowitz et al., 2007 ; Lamb & Edgar-Smith, 1994 ; Roesler & Weisssmann-Wind, 1994 ; Sorenson & Snow, 1991 ); age, developmental, and cognitive variables ( Campis et al., 1993 ; Keary & Fitzpatrick, 1994 ; Lamb & Edgar-Smith, 1994 ); and “grooming” behavior that offenders use to entice children to participate in the sexually abusive behavior ( Pryor, 1996 ).

Most studies indicate that when compared with their male counterparts, females are more likely to have been sexually abused during childhood. Furthermore, females are more likely than males to disclose information regarding sexual abuse, and male victimization seems to be acutely underreported ( Brochman, 1991 ; Devoe & Coulborn-Faller, 1999 ; Finkelhor, 2008 ; Gries et al., 1996 ; Lamb & Edgar-Smith, 1994 ; McMullen, 1992 ; Tewksbury, 2007 ; Walrath, Ybarra, & Holden, 2003 ). That being said, reports are beginning to emerge about high rates of sexual abuse of boys in particular institutions and organizations. The lack of knowledge about male sexual victimization is striking; because so few males report, most information about their victimization is anecdotal or derived from studies with small sample sizes. As such, little statistical knowledge is available about males’ long-term physical, psychological, and emotional effects, or about abuse events themselves.

Knowledge of sex offenders and rates of victimization are based upon two primary sources: official data (including criminal justice reports, victimization surveys, and social service data) and empirical studies. Table 1.2 shows the strengths and weaknesses of the different data sources.

TABLE 1.2 Comparison of Data Sources

Source of Data



Uniform Crime Reports (UCR)

· ▪ Most common source of official criminal justice data in the United States

· ▪ Reliable because it measures the same offenses each year

· ▪ Makes it possible to compare the crime rate in jurisdictions of varying sizes

· ▪ Hierarchy rule

· ▪ Relies on official statistics, voluntary reporting by police

· ▪ Definitions of some offenses incomplete

National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS)

· ▪ Gathers incident-based data

· ▪ Detailed information available on offenders, victims, properties, and locations of offenses

· ▪ Not yet widely implemented

· ▪ Complicated, time consuming reporting system

National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)

· ▪ Provides information on the dark figure of crime

· ▪ Gives information on why crimes are underreported

· ▪ Most extensive bounded study

· ▪ Self-reports not totally reliable

National Incidence Study (NIS)

· ▪ Extensive data collection in four reports

· ▪ Reports data on children reported to CPS, screened out, and reported by “sentinels”

· ▪ Data from a nationally representative sample from 126 CPS agencies in 122 different counties

· ▪ Abuse underreported and not always recognized

National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS)

· ▪ Provides annual reports of child abuse

· ▪ State-by-state information distinguished by types of child abuse

· ▪ Information is not always reported to social services and thus may be incomplete

Empirical Studies

· ▪ Can provide deeper analysis of issues by observing samples of the population

· ▪ Studies use varying methodologies and definitions, and thus may not be comparable

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Official Data on Sexual Victimization

Official statistics on sexual offending are derived from several sources. The primary criminal justice data sources include arrest and conviction rates. Since it is difficult to gather this on a local level, the most common sources used to understand prevalence rates are federal reports, including the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), and National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). Victimization surveys, namely the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), provide data about the amount of victimization that is underreported in official statistics. Social service data sources provide more detailed information about the extent and nature of child sexual abuse allegations, and the key sources for this information include the National Incidence Study (NIS) and the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS). Though not evaluated in this text, key resources for crime data internationally include the European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics ( 2006 ) and the International Crime Victimization Survey ( Van Dijk, Van Kesteren, & Smit, 2008 ).

Criminal Justice Data Sources In the 1920s, the government began to measure and track crime trends on a federal level for the first time through the UCR. The UCR is compiled annually by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and contains information provided by nearly 17,000 local police departments ( Grant & Terry, 2011 ). The local police agencies or state agencies give their arrest data to the FBI on a voluntary basis, and the FBI then tabulates the data on a national level. Despite its voluntary nature, there is a 97 percent compliance rate among police agencies.

The UCR consists of two sections: Part I and Part II offenses. Part I offenses, which are also called index offenses, are divided into categories of violent and property offenses, of which there are four each. The four violent offenses are murder (and nonnegligent manslaughter), forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, and the four property offenses are burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson. Part II offenses consist of all other offenses, including simple assaults, other sexual offenses, forgery, fraud, vandalism, embezzlement, vice crimes such as gambling and prostitution, weapons violations, alcohol and drug violations, and curfew violations.

The UCR is used to determine the crime rate in the United States and in local jurisdictions. In order to compute the crime rate, you take the number of total reported crimes, divide by the total population of the reporting area, and multiply by 100,000. The most significant strength of the UCR is its reliability; it measures crimes using the same definitions every year and across all jurisdictions. Therefore, it allows jurisdictions to understand how their crime rates change each year and how they compare to crime rates in other jurisdictions, even those with different populations (for example, rural and urban areas).

Unfortunately, the UCR has several weaknesses. Most significantly, crime is underreported, and this measures only the number of crimes that are reported and cleared by arrest or exceptional means. Since sexual offenses are the least-reported crimes, the UCR is not necessarily a valid measure of sexual offense statistics. A second weakness with the UCR is that it follows the “hierarchy rule,” meaning that it compiles data only on the most serious offenses if multiple offenses are committed at one time. In other words, if a person breaks into a house, rapes the occupant, murders her, and steals her car, only the murder will be counted in the UCR. A third weakness of the UCR is that it uses one definition for each crime, yet the definitions of crimes vary by jurisdiction. This is particularly troublesome for sexual offenses, as the UCR defines forcible rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will. Attempts or assaults to commit rape by force or threat of force are also included; however, statutory rape (without force) and other sex offenses are excluded” ( Uniform Crime Report, 2009 ). Thus, the UCR is beneficial in giving us a comparison of statistics on the forcible rape of women by men, but not other sexual offenses. These are complied into the broad category of “sexual offenses” in Part II crimes, defined as “Statutory rape and offenses against chastity, common decency, morals, and the like. Attempts are included” ( Uniform Crime Report, 2009 ).

Despite its weaknesses, the UCR remains the best source of official statistics for crimes. According to the Uniform Crime Report ( 2009 ), the rate of forcible rape was estimated at 56.6 rapes per 100,000 people, a 3.4 percent decrease from 2008. Rapes by force accounted for 93 percent of the reported rapes in 2009, whereas attempts or assaults to commit rape accounted for 7 percent. The forcible rape rate decreased 10.4 percent from 2000.

In an effort to improve the compilation and reporting of crime data, the FBI devised the NIBRS database in 1989. NIBRS is an incident-based reporting system, and as such allows for the calculation of multiple offenses, multiple victims, multiple offenders, and multiple arrests within a single incident. It still has flaws, however. Currently, police departments representing only 17 percent of the population submit data to NIBRS. Also, like the UCR, the NIBRS relies on reported offenses. However, it does eliminate the hierarchy rule by counting all offenses in each incident. It is also beneficial in that it collects detailed data on the offenders, victims, locations, properties, and arrests on each single crime incident, thus offering insight into offenses not currently available with the UCR.

Victimization Surveys Victimization surveys provide valuable information on the extent of sexual abuse. The NCVS, in particular, is the largest and most significant national survey in the United States and is central to our understanding of the “dark figure” of crime, or the extent to which crimes are underreported.

In order to better understand the magnitude of the underreporting of crime and the reasons why it is underreported, the Bureau of Justice Statistics began conducting an annual survey of approximately 49,000 households in 1972. The survey collects self-report data on all crimes against the household and individuals in the household who are over the age of 12. The NCVS finds that crime is severely underreported, with only about 37 percent of all crimes reported to the police. It has found that crime is underreported for numerous reasons, including that the offenses were personal (particularly domestic violence and sexual offenses), the victim believes that the police will not be able to do much about catching the offender, the victim does not trust the police, the victim fears that his or her own criminal behavior (for example, drug use) would be exposed, the victim fears that his or her reputation would be damaged, and the victim thinks the perpetrator will retaliate.

Like all sources of official statistical data, however, there are some drawbacks to victimization surveys. In particular, the reliability of self-reported data is questionable, and the NCVS does not provide a way to gather victimization information from young children who may be victims of abuse. Nonetheless, victimization surveys tell us the following in regard to race and ethnicity, age, and victim-offender relationship for victims aged 12 and older ( Rennison, 2001 ; Rennison & Rand, 2003 ):

· ▪ Race and Ethnicity Though there are differences in victimization rates, there is no significant distinction between victims of sexual offenses on the basis of race and ethnicity. Whites are victims of sexual offenses at a rate of .8 per 1000 in the population, Blacks are victimized at a rate of 2.5, and those of other races are victimized at a rate of 1.2. Additionally, Hispanics were victimized at a rate of .7 per 1000. The rate of victimization for Blacks increased from 2000, when the rate was 1.2 per 1000. At the same time, the rate of victimization for Whites decreased, from 1.1 per 1000.

· ▪ Age The highest rate of victimization for a sexual offense is with victims aged 16–19, whose rate of victimization in 2000 was 4.3 per 1000 and rose to 5.5 in 2002. In 2002, those at the next highest level of risk were aged 20–24 (at a rate of 2.9) and aged 12–15 (at a rate of 2.1). The NCVS does not collect data on victims under the age of 12, which would likely be a large percentage of the victim population based on arrest and conviction statistics.

· ▪ Victim-Offender Relationship It was more common for both male and female victims to be abused or assaulted by a nonstranger than a stranger. With male victims, 52 percent were abused by nonstrangers, all of whom were friends or acquaintances (this was based on a small sample size, so the results may not be generalizable). Female victims know the perpetrator in 69 percent of the cases, with the highest percentage of abusers (57 percent of all cases) being friends or acquaintances.

Another victimization survey on sexual abuse is the Minnesota Student Survey. This self-report survey was administered to 6th, 9th, and 12th grade students in Minnesota in 1989, 1992, 1995, 1998, and 2001, and more than 90 percent of students in these grades in Minnesota participated in the surveys each year. The survey contains two questions about sexual abuse, the results of which show a slight rise in abuse between 1989 and 1992, followed by a 22 percent drop from 1992 to 2001.

Social Service Data There are two primary sources of social service data through which the incidence of child sexual abuse is estimated: The NIS and the NCANDS. The NIS is a congressionally-mandated effort from the Department of Health and Human Services to assess the overall incidence of child maltreatment in the United States ( U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2010 ). Data were collected in 1979 and 1980 for the NIS-1, followed by the NIS-2 in 1986 and 1987, and the NIS-3 in 1993 and 1995. The Fourth NIS (NIS-4) provides estimates of the incidence of child abuse and neglect in the United States 2005–2009 based on substantiated and unsubstantiated cases. These studies provide child, perpetrator, and family characteristics, and demographical information about the nature and severity of the maltreatment, as well as the extent of changes in the incidence over time.

In order to measure the scope of child abuse and neglect, the NIS includes not only children who were investigated by Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies, but also children who were not reported or who were screened out by CPS agencies. The study expanded its data by utilizing a sentinel methodology, which required community professionals to look for victims or possible victims of child abuse and neglect. The “sentinels,” as they are called, are staff members who have contact with children and families in various social service contexts (such as law enforcement agencies, medical services, educational institutions, and other social services). This methodology is designed to look beyond official abuse reports and include children who come to the attention of community professionals.

The NIS-4 includes a nationally representative sample of data collected from 126 CPS agencies in 122 different counties. The 126 CPS agencies provided demographic data on all children who were reported and accepted for investigation between September 4 and December 3, 2005 and between February 4 and May 3, 2006. Data for the NIS-4 were also collected from 10,791 community professionals in 1094 sentinel agencies. A total of 6208 forms were collected from the sentinels and 10,667 forms were completed on cases at participating CPS agencies.

Children were evaluated according to standard definitions of abuse and neglect as previously used in the NIS-2 (1986) and NIS-3 (1993). In order to be classified as abuse or neglect, the Harm Standard requires that an act or omission result in demonstrable harm. The Endangerment Standard includes all children who meet the Harm Standard, but also includes children deemed by the sentinels and their professional opinion as endangered or if the child’s maltreatment was substantiated in a CPS investigation. Only children who fit these standards of abuse (physical, sexual, and emotional) and neglect (physical, emotional, and educational) were used to generate national estimates.

According to the Harm Standard from the NIS-4, one child in every 58 in the United States experienced maltreatment. The number of children who experienced physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse under the Harm Standard decreased 26 percent from the NIS-3 to theNIS-4. The estimated number of sexually abused children decreased 38 percent from the NIS-3 along with a 44 percent decrease in the rate of sexual abuse. The estimated number of physically abused children decreased 15 percent from the NIS-3 along with a 23 percent decrease in the rate of physical abuse. The estimated number of emotionally abused children decreased 27 percent from the NIS-3 along with a 33 percent decrease in the rate of emotional abuse. There were no significant changes in neglect since the NIS-3. Results showed a 57 percent decrease in the number of children for whom injury could be inferred due to the nature of the maltreatment. Overall, the NIS-4 shows a 19 percent decrease in the total number of maltreated children in the United States since the NIS-3 in 1993. This decline in incidence is significant compared to the 56 percent increase between the NIS-2 in the mid-1980s and the NIS-3 in the mid-1990s.

According to the Endangerment Standard, one child out of every 25 in the United States has been maltreated. Results, however, did not show any reliable change since the NIS-3. Of those who were maltreated, 29 percent of children were abused and 77 percent were neglected. Of the 29 percent who were abused, 22 percent were sexually abused. In all of the NIS reports, girls were more likely to be sexually abused than boys.

The other well-known source of information for child abuse statistics is NCANDS, a national data collection and analysis system created for the purpose of documenting the scope and nature of child maltreatment reporting (Family Life Development Center, n.d.). The NCANDS Child File consists of case-specific data of all investigated reports of maltreatment to state child protective service agencies. NCANDS defines maltreatment as an “act or failure to act by a parent, caretaker, or other person as defined under State law which results in physical abuse, neglect, medical neglect, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm to a child” (Family Life Development Center, n.d.). Child File data are collected annually through the voluntary participation of states and include the demographics of children and their perpetrators, types of maltreatment, investigation dispositions, risk factors, and services provided.

Reports of child maltreatment are collected by social services across the United States; however, states are not required to submit data to NCANDS. The reporting agency investigates and decides whether the case of abuse is substantiated by evidence or not. Reports may contain information about multiple children, abuse types, and perpetrators. Information is not collected about the perpetrator(s) for unsubstantiated cases. Data on substantiated cases, however, include the perpetrator’s gender, race, and relationship to the child. Additionally, the Child File also contains information about the support services provided to the family and any problems identified for the child, caretaker, or family.

Annual datasets for calendar years from 1990 through 2002 are available from NCANDS. In 2003, the data collection period changed to fiscal years. The 2004 dataset included a total of 3,134,026 records from 44 states and Washington, DC, whereas the 2003 dataset included 1,216,626 total records from 22 states and Washington, DC. The most recent available data are for federal fiscal year 2004.

The state-level rates of child sexual abuse in 1992 range from a minimum of 87 per 100,000 children in New Jersey to a maximum of 688 per 100,000 children in Alaska. The average for 48 states and the District of Columbia is 246 children per 100,000. Table 1.3 shows the state-by-state comparison of child sexual abuse statistics in 1992 and 2000, and how there was a significant decrease in nearly every state during that decade.

TABLE 1.3 Child Sexual Abuse Statistics (1992 and 2001)


Percentage Children Abused (1992)

Percentage Children Abused (2001)

Rate of Children Abused per 100,000 (1992)

Rate of Children Abused per 100,000 (2001)

Percentage Change Between 1992 and 2001







































































































































































































































































































© Cengage Learning

Research Estimates

In the 1980s, there was a rise in the number of reports involving sexual offenses by acquaintances, whether in regard to child sexual abuse or rape. These allegations shattered the stereotyped images of sex offenders at the time, leading to further research of this population. Studies found that there was an increase in cases of date rape, rape in marriage, and intrafamilial abuse—cases that would have largely gone unreported prior to that time for reasons of stigma, self-blame, fear of not being believed, or a desire to protect the friend or family member who committed the offense ( Scully, 1990 ). Even today, those who are most likely to serve prison sentences for sexual offenses are those who have raped strangers, used weapons, had multiple minor victims, physically injured their victims, and/or committed other crimes in addition to the sexual offense ( Grant & Terry, 2001 ). As of 2008, an estimated 235,000 individuals convicted of sex offenses were under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Approximately 60 percent of these were supervised within the community ( Demichele, Payne, & Button, 2008 ).

Studies have found that sexual offending does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, educational level, or any other stable characteristics for either offenders or victims. Sex offenders, particularly those who abuse children, do not necessarily “age out” of their deviant behavior, as do many property offenders, and sex crimes are generally considered to be psychologically motivated offenses. Sexual offenders are often diagnosed with personality or mental disorders, particularly paraphilias (discussed in Chapter 5 ) ( Abel, Becker, & Cunningham-Rathner, 1984 ), and this makes them a unique population. Despite the heterogeneity in offenders and the etiology of their offending behavior, there are many similarities in the population as a whole. They tend to have poor social and relationship skills, most have had poor relationships with their parents, many abuse alcohol or drugs, and many were either physically and/or sexually abused as children.

It is difficult for researchers to ascertain a true assessment of the prevalence and incidence of sexual abuse, which refer, respectively, to the total number of cases in a given population at a specific time and the rate of occurrence over a period of time. Individuals who are sexually abused by family members or acquaintances are least likely to report the sexual abuse to the criminal justice system. Thus, most individuals who were sexually abused as children or were sexually abused as an adult by someone known to them do not report the abuse to criminal justice authorities.

Studies on the incidence of sexual abuse, which concentrate on estimating the number of new cases occurring over a particular period of time, gained greater urgency in the 1980s, indicating that the scope of sexual victimization is extensive.

Studies often show varying levels of prevalence of sexual abuse. As an example, study statistics show that:

· ▪ One in six women has been raped ( Tjaden & Thoennes, 2006 ), and one in three girls is likely to be abused by an adult ( Russell, 1984 ).

· ▪ Seventeen to twenty-two percent of women and 2 to 8 percent of men have been victims of sexual assault ( Levenson & D’Amora, 2007 ).

· ▪ 12.8 percent of females and 4.3 percent of males reported a history of sexual abuse during childhood ( MacMillan et al., 1997 ).

· ▪ Nearly a quarter of all children will be sexually assaulted before their 18th birthday; 74 percent of those assaulted as children are girls ( Spinazzola, Ford, & Zucker, 2005 ).

· ▪ Twenty-seven percent of females and 16 percent of males disclosed a history of childhood sexual abuse; 42 percent of the males were likely to never have disclosed the experience to anyone, whereas 33 percent of the females never disclosed ( Finkelhor, Hotaling, Lewis, & Smith, 1990 ).

· ▪ The lifetime prevalence of sexual assault among 12–17-year-olds is 1 in 12 ( Finkelhor, Ormrod, Turner, & Hamby, 2005 ), and 74 percent of child victims know the abuser well ( Snyder, 2000 ).

· ▪ The overall prevalence of sexual abuse of male children is 13 percent and female children is between 30 and 40 percent ( Bolen & Scannapieco, 1999 ).

Official statistics indicate that rates of sexual abuse have declined in the past decade. Research findings corroborate this, and indicate that there has been a simultaneous reduction in related factors such as domestic violence incidents among intimate adults, and pregnancies and births among teenagers. It is not clear what has caused this reduction in sexual abuse or related factors, though it coincides with a reduction in various types of violent and property crime. It also coincides with increased sanctions for sexual offenders, including an increased likelihood of incarceration and civil sanctions such as registration, notification, civil commitment, and residency restrictions (to be discussed in Part III).


Crime is underreported. Sexual crimes are the most underreported offenses, though more individuals reported their victimization to the police in 2000 than in any year of the previous decade ( Hart & Rennison, 2003 ). In order to understand how accurate statistics are on sexual offending, it is important to understand who reports, why, after how long, and with what accuracy.

The NCVS shows the following about individuals over the age of 12 who reported their sexual assaults to the police from 1992 to 2000 ( Hart & Rennison, 2003 , p. 5):

· ▪ Gender Victims were more likely to report sexual offenses to the police if the offender was male (32 percent) than female (13 percent).

· ▪ Race Victims were more likely to report sexual offenses if the offender was Black (39 percent) than White (29 percent).

· ▪ Age Victims reported sexual offenses to the police 40 percent of the time when the perpetrator was 12–14 years of age, the highest percentage of reporting in any age category.

· ▪ Number of Perpetrators Victims were more likely to report the sexual abuse to police if there were two perpetrators (44 percent) rather than one perpetrator (33 percent).

· ▪ Victim-Offender Relationship Victims were more likely to report sexual offenses committed by strangers (41 percent) than nonstrangers (27 percent).

· ▪ Use of Weapons Victims were more likely to report a sexual offense if the perpetrator had a weapon present during the offense (49 percent), particularly a firearm (62 percent), than if no weapon was present (28 percent).

· ▪ Reasons for Reporting The most common reason for victims to report sexual offenses to the police was to prevent future violence. The most common reason for victims not to report sexual offenses to the police was because of privacy issues.

Empirical research supports the findings in the NCVS, though the benefit of such studies is that they can also include victims under the age of 12. Child sexual abuse is the least reported of sexual offenses. Studies that analyze reporting trends of child sexual abuse all indicate that a high percentage of victims who report their abuse to authorities do so many years after the abuse occurred, and many do not ever disclose. The most common studies conducted to analyze reporting trends on child sexual abuse are adult retrospective studies. Like the NCVS, these studies found that the process of disclosing childhood sexual abuse depends on numerous variables. Of note:

· ▪ Only one-third of the victims reported the abuse to authorities before age 18, and the average age of disclosure was 25.9 ( Roesler & Weissmann-Wind, 1994 , in a study of 228 adult female victims of child sexual abuse by adult—primarily male—family members).

· ▪ The average age of child sexual abuse victims was just over 8, and approximately 41 percent of victims disclosed the abuse at the time it occurred ( Arata, 1998 , in a study of 204 female victims of child sexual abuse).

· ▪ The average age at the time of the child sexual abuse was 10, and 64 percent of the victims disclosed the abuse as adults ( Lamb & Edgar-Smith, 1994 , in a study of 45 adult female and 12 adult male child sexual abuse victims).

· ▪ The majority of victims waited more than eight years to report their childhood sexual abuse ( Smith, Letourneau, & Saunders, 2000 , in a study assessing disclosure rates of females raped when they were children).

· ▪ Disclosure of child sexual abuse by minors may be spontaneous or prompted, and many children and adolescents need assistance with disclosure ( DeVoe & Coulborn-Faller, 1999 ).

· ▪ Disclosure of childhood sexual abuse may be purposeful or accidental, with accidental disclosure more common in preschool-aged children and purposeful disclosure more common in adolescents ( Sorenson & Snow, 1991 ).

A significant factor in whether a child reports sexual abuse and the manner in which the abuse is reported is the potential for the person to whom the child is disclosing to believe his or her report on the abuse, especially law enforcement ( Campbell, 2005 ). Approximately half of the children who recant their reports of childhood sexual abuse do so under pressure from their guardians ( Bradley & Wood, 1996 ). The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome, a model of reporting outlined by Summit ( 1983 ) that consists of five components, suggests reasons why child sexual abuse victims delay disclosure. First, the abuse is usually carried out in privacy, and the abuser encourages secrecy. Second, because children are obedient to adults, they are helpless and maintain the secrecy that the adult encourages. Third, the child becomes entrenched in the abusive situation, begins to feel guilt and responsibility for the abuse, and continues to accommodate the perpetrator. Fourth, the victim delays disclosure because of the promise of secrecy and feelings of guilt and shame. Finally, after delayed disclosure, the victim often retracts the report due to disbelief about the abuse by those trusted by the victim.

In addition to a general delay in disclosure of child sexual abuse, many victims report the abuse in stages. Sorenson and Snow ( 1991 ) identified four stages of disclosure in their study of 630 victims of child sexual abuse: denial (experienced by 72 percent of the victims in their sample), disclosure (78 percent of the victims progressed from tentative to active disclosure), recantation (experienced by 22 percent of the victims), and reaffirmation (93 percent of those who recanted later confirmed their original reports).

Adult retroactive studies not only help us to understand the process of disclosure, but also explain the reasons that victims disclose. The most significant variables that seem to hinder disclosure of abuse are the age of the victim at the time the abuse occurred, the victim-perpetrator relationship, the gender and cognitive or developmental abilities of the victim, the type of sexual abuse that occurred, and the chance of negative consequences related to disclosure.

The gender of the victim has an impact on the disclosure of sexual abuse, as females are more likely both as children and as adults to report sexual abuse than are males ( DeVoe & Coulborn-Faller, 1999 ; Gries, Goh, & Cavanaugh, 1996 ; Lamb & Edgar-Smith, 1994 ; Walrath, Ybarra, & Holden, 2003 ). Paine and Hansen ( 2002 ) do show, however, that although gender is an important factor in the decision to report abuse, victim-perpetrator relationship is the most important factor in determining whether a victim of child sexual abuse will eventually disclose.

Several studies indicate that a victim is less likely to report or delay the report of child sexual abuse if the perpetrator is well known to the child ( Arata, 1998 ; Hanson, Saunders, Saunders, Kilpatrick, & Best, 1999 ; Smith et al., 2000 ; Wyatt & Newcomb, 1990 ). This relationship is most significant if the perpetrator is a relative or stepparent. Arata ( 1998 ) showed that 73 percent of victims did not disclose the abuse in such a situation; when the perpetrator was an acquaintance 70 percent of the victims did not report. The desire not to report familial sexual abuse is compounded if the victim feels responsible for the abuse, and in such cases the victim often waits longer to disclose the abuse ( Goodman-Brown, Edelstein et al., 2003 ; Roesler & Weissmann-Wind, 1994 ).

The gender of the perpetrator also seems to be an important factor in reporting, as offenses by female offenders are reported less often than those by male offenders ( Righthand & Welch, 2001 ). There are several reasons why victims may not report sexual abuse by females. Many female-perpetrated offenses are within the family and, as indicated earlier, intrafamilial acts of abuse are the least-reported sexual offenses. Also, women are traditionally seen as caregivers, nonviolent nurturers who are either not willing or not capable of harming children. Many adult and adolescent males are also reluctant to report abuse because of the shame of being a victim. Alternatively, they may not view the actions against them as abuse ( Elliot & Briere, 1994 ). Kasl ( 1990 ) states that underreporting is the result of a social taboo, and that the stigma caused by female sexual abuse must be abolished.

In order to report the abuse in a timely manner, it appears that children need to feel as though they will be supported by the person to whom they disclose the abuse. Children who believe that they will not be supported when they disclose abuse will wait longer to report, often until adulthood when they can choose a person they trust to support them ( Lamb & Edgar-Smith, 1994 ). Shame and guilt also appear to play a role in the decision about disclosure. Older children who are able to understand and anticipate social consequences of sexual abuse are less likely to report the abuse than are younger children ( Campis, Hebden-Curtis, & DeMaso, 1993 ; Keary & Fitzpatrick, 1994 ).

Some researchers have found that children are less likely to report sexual abuse if the abuse is severe ( Arata, 1998 ; DiPietro et al., 1997 ; Gries, Goh, & Cavanaugh, 1996 ) or they fear further harm as a result of their disclosure ( Berliner & Conte, 1995 ; Roesler & Weissmann-Wind, 1994 ; Sorenson & Snow, 1991 ). Sorenson and Snow ( 1991 ) found that victims who fear further reprisals will not report the abuse if the perpetrator is present or the disclosure could lead to further abuse, and Roesler and Weissmann-Wind ( 1994 ) found that one-third of the victims they spoke to delayed reporting until adulthood because they feared for their safety. Hanson et al. ( 1999 ), on the other hand, found the inverse relationship true of severity of abuse and disclosure. They discovered that in a sample of women who were raped when they were children, the more severe the sexual abuse the more likely the victims were to report the abuse sooner.


When victims report their crimes or complete victimization surveys long after the crime occurred, they often remember the crime as occurring earlier or later than it actually happened (Sudman & Bradburn, 1973, as cited in Schneider & Sumi, 1981 ). This phenomenon is called telescoping, and it occurs in two forms: forward telescoping, or recalling an event that occurred prior to the reporting period in question, and backward telescoping, which is recalling an event that occurred after the reporting period. Telescoping is not unique to crime victims. All individuals “telescope” events that they recall long after the events happened. However, telescoping events of victimization creates challenges for researchers trying to understand criminal statistics ( Schneider & Sumi, 1981 ). Accurate crime statistics are deemed essential by government agencies, and as such controlling for temporal telescoping is imperative to attain analyzable, accurate data.

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