Myths and Facts about Sex Offenders

Sexual offending evokes strong public perception, especially when victims are children. The media frequently bombard us with details of offences, making it appear like this offending is more prolific than ever. Given the influence of the media, it is worth dispelling some of the associated myths surrounding sexual offending

Sexual offending is on the increase

The last 20 years has seen the reported percentage of sexual offences in the NZ population remain fairly constant, with only a slight increase in the last few years.

Most sex offenders go on to re-offend over and over

In NZ, about 10 percent of sexual offenders re-offend within a 10 year time period, which means that about 90 percent do not re-offend. It is recognised that a small group of offenders have a large number of victims and account for a significant percentage of ongoing offences.

Most offences are committed by strangers

Television shows would have us believe that strangers creep into people’s houses at night and abduct and abuse them. In reality, over 90 percent of child victims are abused by someone that they know, a third of these being family members. Acquaintances of the family often take time to establish a relationship with the victim and those around them. Adults are somewhat less likely to be acquainted with their attackers, but three-quarters are still assaulted by someone that they know.

Most child victims are assaulted in/near parks, playgrounds, or schools

This is not the case, and as suggested above, the vast majority of child victims are abused at home or at the home of a relative or friend.

Offenders are “dirty old men”

Offenders range across the age spectrum, from youth offenders to elderly offenders. In fact, those in their teens and early 20s are generally found to be at a higher risk of re-offending than their more mature counterparts.

Children who are abused will go on to abuse others

While a third of offenders were abused themselves as children, two-thirds were not abused.

All sex offenders are the same

Offenders can have child victims, adult victims, or a mixture. The gender of their victims can be female, male, or both. Victims can be related to the offender, known to the offender, or a stranger. Some act impulsively while others take months or years to acquaint themselves with their victims. Offences range from non-contact offences, to some “hands-on” offending, to extreme abuse. Some offenders have known histories of general offending or violence, while others have no prior offences. The various combination of these and other factors means that offenders can be quite different from one another and these factors impact on the risk of the offender committing a further sexual offence.

Sex offender treatment does not work

It should firstly be stated that this is difficult to research, given the wide range or “type” of offenders, level of assessed risk, whether treated in the community or while in prison, nature of the programme attended, whether completed or not, and the fact that it is unethical to not offer treatment and see what happens.NZ has promising data, which has shown that treatment does work in reducing re-offending, whether the programme is attended in the community or in prison.

We need to get tougher on crime

This is a favourite slogan of politicians, but evidence suggests that threatening offenders with longer sentences does not usually work or fix the problem. A focus on effective treatment and rehabilitation into the community should be the focus.

Sex offender “registers” make communities safer

NZ does not have a register although this issue has been debated. Overseas research is not convincing about their effectiveness. More importantly, they lead to shaming, harassment, treatment of all offenders as the same (regardless of severity of their offence or response to treatment), and potential victimisation of the offender and their family. Offenders find it difficult to reintegrate back into society under these conditions. Experts should be allowed the opportunity to attempt to treat and monitor offenders in ways that have proven to be effective.

Parents need to put tighter controls on their children to protect them

Some have argued that children are much less free to roam around on their own compared to a few decades ago. People are being more vigilant in group settings and children are likely to be safer in group settings. Given that most offenders are not strangers, children need to be educated about keeping themselves safe and parents to be aware of potential abusers and grooming behaviour closer to home.

In conclusion, the combination of sensationalist media depictions, television shows, and the devastating effects that abuse can have on victims, makes sexual offending an emotive issue that politicians draw upon for public votes by promising tougher stances on crime. Unfortunately, offenders should not all be tarnished with the same brush, and the public should be made more aware of the reality of sexual offending.


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