While these are not always true, here are some common misconceptions about sex offenders:
Most sex offenders are predators. Reality: The most common sex offender is opportunistic, has one victim
and is known to the victim.
Most sex offenders are dirty old men, strangers and pedophiles who will grab children off playgrounds.
Reality: First, pedophiles (those sexually attracted to children) are not necessarily child molesters,
for most do not commit offenses regardless of their attraction. Most sex offenders and child molesters
are relatives or otherwise known to the family; only 2-3 percent of such offenses are committed by
strangers. An estimated half of all child molestations are committed by teenagers.
Once a sex offender, always a sex offender (most sex offenders will reoffend). Reality: Study results
vary considerably depending on the nature of the crime, whether the offender was previously
incarcerated, whether the offender received treatment, what kind of support exists and the time after
release and/or treatment completion. Yet contrary to popular belief, studies and statistics (including
those from the Bureau of Justice) indicate that recidivism rates for sex offenders are lower than those
for the general criminal population. A five-year study from the New York State Division of Criminal
Justice Services noted a rate of recidivism ranging from 6 to 23 percent, depending on the offense
(incest had the lowest recidivism rate, while molestation of boy victims had the highest recidivism
rate). The Center for Sex Offender Management cites a recidivism rate of 12-24 percent but adds that
many such offenses are underreported.
Treatment for sex offenders does not work. Reality: This statement has been a source of debate for
decades. The effectiveness of treatment depends on a number of factors, including the type of offender,
the type of treatment and how much management, supervision and support the offender has. Although the
risk of recidivism exists even in the best of cases, most offenders can and will lead productive and
offense-free lives after treatment.
Most sex offenders were sexually abused when they were children. Reality: Although sex offenders are more
likely to have been sexually abused than nonoffenders, the vast majority of individuals who were
sexually abused will not go on to commit sex crimes. A 2001 study by Jan Hindman and James Peters found
that 67 percent of sex offenders initially reported sexual abuse in their history. Yet, when subjected
to a polygraph, that figure dropped to 29 percent, suggesting that reports of sexual abuse were
initially exaggerated to justify or rationalize their offenses.
I recall my former graduate school classmates, and even some of my professors, asking me, “How can you do
that kind of work?” Most often the question came from those working with victims of sexual and physical
abuse. Others in law enforcement and victim advocacy programs often repeated the question. The
implication from some is that a counselor who treats the instigators of sexual abuse cannot also
identify with the victims of such abuse. That argument could not be more fallacious.