Adolescent sex offenders

Sexual offending continues to be an emotive topic that elicits extensive discussion amongst the general public, scholars, and the legal system. While adult offenders are often exposed in the media, much less is reported and known about juvenile sex offenders.

While the majority of sexual offenders begin offending in adulthood, research suggests that 20 percent of all rapes and 30-50 percent of all child molestations are perpetrated by under 18’s. The challenge is to identify young people who display concerning characteristics before they offend and potentially launch into criminal careers. However, this is no simple task.

Not surprisingly, a high proportion of juvenile sex offenders have been sexually abused themselves. While most children who are sexually abused do not go on to become sexual offenders, some tend to model similar behaviour to that which they have been exposed to. In particular, those who offend against other male children are far more likely to have been sexually abused themselves.

A key task for adults is thus to identify as soon as possible whether a child has been sexually abused and to seek professional advice. Amongst younger children, warning signs include touching the genitals of other children or animals, rubbing their genitals against others, sexual innuendos, attempting to undress others, and inserting objects into the vaginas or rectums of others. These behaviours should occur repetitively, across varying situations, at an age younger than they appear in other children, and be unresponsive to adult intervention/supervision.

Adolescents who have been abused are more inclined to display poor school performance, drop out of high school, engage in delinquent acts (such as criminal behaviour and substance abuse), and take sexual risks (such as engaging in sex at a young age and not using condoms). In fact, juvenile sex offenders look a lot like juvenile general offenders. Juvenile sex offenders who offend against peers of a similar age or older tend to have early contact with the law, conduct problems, and as many as half have prior general offence histories. They are also 2-4 times more likely to be reconvicted of a new non-sexual offence than of a sexual offence. Their offending may be linked to a general antisocial attitude of abusing the rights of others, rule breaking, sensation seeking, self-serving acts at others’ expense, and acting impulsively (often under the influence of substances). However, as a group, they tend to have less extensive criminal histories than non-sexual offenders. One area of added concern amongst sexual offenders is a propensity to engage in fire setting.

A difference is often noted between general offenders and juvenile sexual offenders who commit offences against children much younger than them. They display fewer conduct difficulties and a more specific interest in sexual contact with young victims (much like adult paedophiles). Such individuals are more likely to compensate for negative emotions and seek self-comfort by engaging in sexual acts. Not surprisingly, such offenders often have poor self-esteem, few positive dating scenarios with same-age peers, and lack a “normalising” peer group.

The effects of being sexually abused for the victim are potentially extreme in nature. Unfortunately, when the victim becomes the perpetrator, the cycle is compounded.


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