Child sex offenders
As recorded in the 2017 Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Personal Safety Survey, more than 1 million women (1,000,500, or 11%) were shown to have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 15. Of these, more than 90% of victims knew the perpetrator (including approx. 55% who were abused by a relative). Similarly, 411,800 (5%) males were shown to have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 15. Of these male victims, more than 80% knew the perpetrator (including approx. 23% who were abused by a relative) (ABS, 2017).
In a review of child sexual abuse in Australian institutional contexts, police data from New South Wales showed that 4% of all recent allegations were reported as occurring in an institutional context, involving an extra-familial offender/person in authority (Bromfield, Hirte, Octoman & Katz, 2017).
A study of the characteristics of child sex trafficking offenders revealed differences in offender characteristics according to whether the offender was a trafficker, a producer or consumer, or in possession of child sexual abuse images. The majority of offenders were male for all offence types. Trafficking was associated with being African American and unemployed. Unemployment was the only significant predictor of engaging in child sex trafficking as either a sex buyer or producer. Those in possession of child sexual abuse images were most likely to be employed, with no history of prior arrests, and older than other offenders. Meanwhile, offenders who engaged in travelling or enticement of victims were younger, unemployed, single and without a known history of contact offending (Carpinteri, Bang, Klimley, & Black, 2017).
According to an earlier version of the ABS Personal Safety Survey (ABS, 2006), of all those who reported having been victimised sexually before the age of 15 years:
- 11% were victimised by a stranger. More commonly, child sexual abuse was perpetrated by a male relative (other than the victim’s father or stepfather; 30.2%), a family friend (16.3%), an acquaintance or neighbour (15.6%), another known person (15.3%), or the father or stepfather (13.5%)
- Small proportions of victims were sexually abused by a female relative (other than the mother or stepmother (0.9%), or by their mother or stepmother (0.8%)
- Female victims were most likely to have been abused by another male relative (35.1%), followed by their father or stepfather (16.5%), a family friend (also 16.5%), an acquaintance or neighbour (15.4%), another known person (11%) or a stranger (8.6%). Very small proportions were sexually abused by another female relative (1%) or their mother or stepmother (0.6%)
- Male victims were most likely to be sexually abused by another known person (27.3%), followed by a stranger (18.3%), another male relative (16.4%), an acquaintance or neighbour (16.2%), or a family friend (15.6%). Small proportions were sexually abused by their father or stepfather (5%) (ABS, 2017).
This earlier version of the Personal Safety Survey (ABS, 2006) also showed that both males and females reported experiencing sexual abuse as a child by someone known to them. However, this data showed that during their life course women were more likely to have reported being sexually abused by family members:
- Fathers, step-fathers and other male relatives (including siblings) made up more than half (51.6%) of perpetrators for females, and approximately one-fifth (21.4%) of perpetrators against males
- Similar proportions of females and males were sexually abused by a family friend (16.5% and 15.6%, respectively) or an acquaintance/neighbour (15.4% and 16.2%, respectively)
- However, nearly 1 in 5 males under the age of 15 were sexually abused by a stranger (18.3%), compared to less than 1 in 10 females aged under 15 years (8.6%) (Quadara & Tarczon, 2011).
A review of studies into child sexual abuse in Nordic countries found that peers constituted 37 – 48% of the perpetrators for girls and 23 – 54% of the perpetrators for boys. Authority figures, meanwhile, represented between 0.8 – 12% of the perpetrators. Inconsistent findings were reported for intra-familial abuse: parents or other family members constituted 1.5 – 19% of the perpetrators in eight of the studies reviewed, while a further 3 studies reported rates of intra-familial abuse at 32 – 38%, and one study indicated that 90% of perpetrators were a family member (Kloppen, Haugland, Göran Svedin, Mæhle, & Breivik, 2016).
A Belgian study investigating the general personality traits of child sex offenders as compared to those who engage in nonsexual offending and a nonoffending control group found that the personality features of the child sex offenders were more similar to those of the non-offenders than to those of the nonsexual offenders. Additionally, the child sex offenders were more likely to show traits that impair socio-affective functioning (such as intimacy deficits and emotional regulation difficulties), while the nonsexual offenders were more likely to show traits that impair self-regulatory abilities. Further, a subgroup of child sex offenders that showed an enduring pattern of offending were found to display a constellation of personality traits typically found in antisocial individuals (Dillien, Brazil, Sabbe & Goethals, 2021).
Child sex offenders have low rates of recidivism compared with other types of offenders (e.g., McSherry & Keyzer, 2009). Within the broader category of child sex offenders, some subcategories of offenders are likely to be at greater risk of reoffending than others, for example, “extra-familial offenders with male victims who meet clinical criteria for paraphilias, such as paedophilia or exhibitionism” (Petrunik & Deutschmann, 2008, p500).
A study of police recorded offence data from four Australian states has explored the characteristics of contact child sexual offences involving an offender who has a prior recorded history of alleged child sexual offences (Morgan, 2022). This research found that a small proportion of child sexual assault offenders had a prior recorded history of child sexual offences (e.g., 3% of child sexual assault offenders in Queensland and Victoria had a recorded history of child sexual offending). Almost all of the alleged recidivist offenders were male, and almost all (96-100%) had perpetrated offences against new victims. Prior non-sexual offending was also common (63-85% of offenders), suggesting that persistent sexual offenders are characterised by a more general antisocial orientation. Transitions in relationship types were also relatively common, with a significant proportion of offenders transitioning from victims who were family members to non-family members. Results of this study suggested that recidivist child sexual offenders comprise a small group of motivated, persistent offenders who are willing to adapt their offending to target new and different victims in different contexts (Morgan, 2022).
A study of re-offending among 1,092 male offenders proceeded against for a child sexual offence in New South Wales between 2004 and 2013 found that sexual re-offending among child sexual offenders was rare, with re-offence rate of 7% after 10 years. Child sexual offenders were more likely to reoffend non-sexually than sexually – after 10 years, 42% of child sexual offenders had committed further non-sexual offences. The likelihood of both sexual and non-sexual reoffending was found to be highest in the two years following the first police proceeding for child sexual offences, and steadily decreased over time (Dowling, Morgan & Pooley, 2021). These findings indicate that for many, child sexual offending is part of a broader pattern of criminal behaviour (Dowling et al., 2021).
A review of 33 studies examining 55 independent samples of adult and juvenile child sexual offenders found that across most studies, rates of sexual reoffending were 15% or less, and rates of general reoffending where between 20-54%. The likelihood of both general and sexual reoffending was found to increase in the first few years after the index offence, then stabilise. Juveniles were also found to be more likely to reoffend both sexually and generally than adult offenders (Dowling, Boxall, Pooley, Long & Franks, 2021).
Sexual attraction to children
A systematic review of 30 studies on the prevalence of sexual interest in children across a range of community, clinical and forensic samples found a mean prevalence rate of 2% for sexual interest in pre-pubescent children (14 studies) and a mean prevalence rate of 24% for sexual interest in pubescent children (7 studies). This research found inconsistencies in methodology and definitions which led to wide variations in research findings (Savoie, Quayle & Flynn, 2021).
Analysis carried out by the National Crime Agency (NCA) suggests that as many as one in every 35 adult males is sexually attracted to children, meaning that approximately 750,000 men in Britain have an interest in having sex with children (Evans, 2015). Further, the NCA estimates that approximately 250,000 men are sexually attracted to children under the age of 12 (Evans, 2015). The application of 1 in 35 statistic to Australia, where there are approximately 9.4 million men aged 18 years and over (as at June 2018), indicates that approximately 269,000 Australian men are sexually attracted to children.
Qualitative research with young adults, aged 18-30 years, who report sexual interest in prepubescent children reported that their sexual interest in children emerged during adolescence, and as part of that process, they experienced a variety of emotions, including fear, shame, and feelings of isolation (Shields, Murray, Ruzicka et al., 2020).
The prevalence of deviant sexual interest in heterosexual men in the community (i.e. not convicted of any crime) is estimated to be approximately 5% (Dombert, Schmidt, Banse et al , 2015; Seto, 2008). A recent community-based (i.e. non-clinical/non-forensic) online survey of 8,718 German males found that 5.5% reported any indication of paedophilic sexual interest: 4.1% reported sexual fantasies involving prepubescent children, 3.2% reported sexual offending against prepubescent children (including 1.7% who had used child pornography), and 0.1% were estimated as having a paedophilic sexual preference (Dombert et al., 2015).
A recent online survey of adults in the general population showed that overall, nearly 10% of males and 4% of females reported some likelihood of having sex with children or viewing child pornography, if they were guaranteed they would not be caught or punished (Wurtele, Simons & Moreno, 2014).
Using a strict clinical definition of paedophilia as a “sexual interested in pre-pubescent children”, Dr Michael Seto, a clinical and forensic psychologist at the Royal Ottawa Healthcare group estimates a prevalence of approximately 1% (Stephenson, 2014).
According to Dr Sarah Goode, whose research focuses on understanding adult sexual attraction to children, between 3 – 7% of men say they would have sex with a prepubescent child if they were guaranteed to go undetected. If that statistic is accurate, at least 282,000 Australian men feel sexually attracted to children (Goode, 2011).
Not all child sex offenders are paedophiles and conversely, not all paedophiles are child sex offenders. Also, not all child sex offenders feel driven or compelled to sexually abuse children. Opportunity can play a key role in the commission of sexual offences against children (Richards, 2011).
Research using multiple assessment approaches has shown that a subgroup of 20% to 50% of child sex offenders can be classified as paedophilic (Marshall, Barbaree & Eccles, 1991; Seto, 2008; Schmidt, Mokros & Banse, 2013).
It is well-established that females are a minority of the total number of child sexual abuse perpetrators, however female perpetrators are relatively common in cases involving intrafamilial trafficking. A recent study of ten adult male survivors of intrafamilial child trafficking for sexual exploitation found that 9 of the 10 participants reported that women either trafficked or abuse them sexually, and 6 participants reported that their mothers were primary perpetrators (Pacheco, Buenaventura, & Miles, 2023).
A recent meta-analysis conducted by Cortoni et al. (2017, cited in Christensen & Jansen, 2019) reported that, although only about 2% of sexual offences reported to police were said to be committed by females, victimisation surveys showed the figures to be around 12%.
The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found in a comprehensive claims survey that 10% of 1,880 alleged perpetrators were female (cited in Christensen, 2018).
A German prevalence study found that female perpetrators were involved in 10% of child sexual abuse cases. Victims of female perpetrators were significantly more often male, and a quarter of the adult female perpetrators were the mother figure of the child (Gerke, Rassenhofer, Witt, Sachser & Fegert, 2019).
A German nationwide representative survey found that female perpetrators were involved in 6.6% of child sexual abuse cases. Female perpetrators were more likely to be mothers than male perpetrators were to be fathers. In about half of all cases of child sexual abuse, there were found to be bystanders, i.e. people who knew about the abuse and did not do anything or looked away. The mother of the victim(s) was the most frequently named bystander, in over 20% of cases (Gerke, Lipke, Fegert & Rassenhofer, 2021).
A review of research on female perpetrators of child sexual abuse has indicated that female offenders are a heterogeneous group, with no “typical” profile, however some common characteristics include: majority in their 20s or early 30s, are white, with few qualifications, and likely to have experienced abuse and adverse experiences in either childhood or adulthood (Augarde & Rydon-Grange, 2022).
Women have been found to perpetrate “abuse of trust” offences (i.e. sexual offences perpetrated when an adult is in a formal position of trust or authority abuses their position and engages in sexual activity with a young person aged 16 or 17 years old in their care) at a much higher proportional rate than men (13% of female-perpetrated child sexual offences compared with 1.6% of male-perpetrated child sexual offences) (cited in Christensen & Darling, 2019).
A study of child sexual abuse cases that were heard in Canadian criminal courts between 1986 and 2012 showed that 1.7% of cases involved a female as the accused. A comparison of male and female accused cases showed that female accused most often had family connections and were parents of the complainant; proportionally more male complainants were in female-accused cases than male-accused cases; female-accused offences were shorter in duration; and despite being similarly intrusive, female perpetrators received shorter sentences than male perpetrators (Weinsheimer, Woiwod, Coburn, Chong & Connolly, 2017).
Research has suggested that between 15–20% of sexual offenses are committed by females, however, data collected from the US criminal justice system indicates that only about 1% of the sexual offenders in US prison systems are female (cited McLeod, 2015).
Female sex offenders are more likely to be listed as the victim’s parent (77.8%) than are males (31.3%). Male offenders are more likely to be listed as other relatives, unmarried partners, or friends and neighbours. When the perpetrator is a biological parent, data has shown that the offender is over four and a half times more likely to be female (McLeod, 2015).
Cortoni and colleagues (2005; 2010) offer the most comprehensive prevalence statistics on female sexual offending, having analysed official reports in five countries, including Australia. When averaged across all countries, official records data show that 4.6% of offences were committed by a woman, and victimisation survey data show that 4.8% of offences were committed by a woman (cited in Stathopoulos, 2014).
Victims and offending
A study examining associations between child sexual abuse and offending among an Australian birth cohort of 38,282 males found that proportionally few sexually abused boys who were the subject of a notification went on to become sexual offenders (3%), and that proportionally few sexual offenders had a confirmed history of sexual abuse (4%). No specific association was found between sexual abuse and sexual offending (Leach, Stewart & Smallbone, 2016).
A prospective study examining whether experiences of childhood sexual abuse predicted subsequent sexual offending involved the tracking of 908 substantiated cases of physical and sexual abuse and neglect (aged 0-11 years), along with 667 matched control individuals, into adulthood (mean age, 51 years). An examination of federal and state law enforcement agency records at 3 points in time showed that individuals with histories of physical abuse and neglect were at increased risk of being arrested for a sex crime compared with control individuals, while those with a history of child sexual abuse were not (Spatz Widom & Massey, 2015).
A recent study of correctional clients on supervised release in the Midwestern United States, meanwhile, found that sexual assault in childhood was significantly associated with official charges for rape/sexual abuse despite controls for sex, race, age, arrest onset, total arrest charges, total adverse childhood experiences, Antisocial Personality Disorder, sexual sadism, and paedophilia. Age of onset of child sexual assault was also inversely associated with sexual offending (Drury, Elbert & DeLisi, 2019).
In a study examining the relationship between child sexual abuse victimisation and subsequent criminal offending, Ogloff and colleagues (2012) found that while the majority (99%) of victims of child sexual abuse were not subsequently charged for a sexual offence, victims were 7.6 times more likely to be charged with sexual offences than were the general population. More male victims (5%) than female victims were subsequently convicted of a sexual offence.
Some studies have shown that child sexual abuse is positively associated with subsequent sexual offending while showing no association with non-sexual crime types. For example, Reckdenwald, Mancini, and Beauregard (2013) found in a study with adult male sexual offenders imprisoned in Canada that the experience of child sexual abuse was strongly associated with later sexual offending, but not associated with total or violent offending. Additionally, in a study using data from incarcerated male juvenile offenders in the US, DeLisi and colleagues (2014) found that youth with a history of child sexual abuse had 467% higher odds of subsequent sexual offending, but 83% reduced odds of committing homicide and 68% reduced odds of serious property offending.
A range of factors has been found to interact with childhood experiences of sexual victimisation and to differentially impact a child’s likelihood of later becoming a perpetrator. Factors that increase this likelihood include:
- experiencing emotional and physical abuse or neglect as a child (Salter, McMillan, Richards et al., 2003);
- being exposed to family violence (Salter et al., 2003); and
- early exposure to pornography (Simons, Wurtele & Durham, 2008).
Sexual offenders report Adverse Childhood Experiences at higher rates than the general population (Levenson et al., 2016, cited in Kahn et al, 2020), and non-sexual offenders (Reavis et al., 2013, cited in Kahn et al., 2020). In a recent study, prevalence rates of ACEs in a sample of 679 individuals who committed sexual offenses were compared with a general population sample (Levenson et al., 2016). Less than 16% of men with sexual offense histories had a score of zero on the ACE scale (compared with 38% of males in the general population) while almost half (46%) of the study sample endorsed four or more ACE items (compared with 9% of males in the general population). Notably, the odds of having experienced childhood sexual abuse and physical abuse were far higher compared with the general population (Levenson et al., 2016).
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