In recent years children's sexuality and claims about the ‘pornification' of childhood have attracted considerable media attention. Among other phenomena, social commentators have observed the marketing of brands and clothing normally associated with adult sexuality to an increasingly younger age group. At the same time as this trend has encouraged younger children to explore their sexuality, there has been an increased intolerance and disgust directed towards those who are charged with sexual offences against children. The stereotype of the predatory paedophile who insinuates himself into positions of trust within families, schools or churches has become one of the most potent symbols of fear and loathing in our society today.
However, beyond the stereotypes is the growing realisation that the problem of child sexual assault is not restricted to the activities of middle-aged paedophiles. Adolescent boys also make a significant contribution to rates of sexual assault. It is estimated they are responsible for approximately a fifth of rapes of adult women and between a third and half of all reported sexual assaults of children (Bourke & Donohue, 1996; Finkelhor, Ormrod, & Chaffin, 2009). Also, while it has been recognised for some time that children are typically sexually assaulted by a family member or someone that they know, at least one study has reported sibling sexual abuse to be twice as common as sexual abuse perpetrated by a father or step-father (Cawson, Wattam, Brooker, & Kelly, 2000).
As children are encouraged to explore their sexuality at increasingly tender ages, it appears likely that we will see an increase in the number of cases coming before the court that involve the sexual assault of children by those who are little more than children themselves. This issue, particularly as it relates to Indigenous communities, has already received attention in the mainstream media, as well as from government agencies (O'Brien, 2008). It is not an issue, however, that is restricted to specific racial or socioeconomic groups.
As psychologists are increasingly being called on to provide courts with evidence regarding risk or levels of dangerousness, there is an increasing need for expert advice regarding the meaning of adolescent sexual offending and the prognosis for those who have sexually assaulted a child. Should we brace ourselves for an explosion in the number of paedophiles in the future?
Thankfully, the research suggests that the answer to this question is "no", and the good news (desperately needed in this area) is that most young people who sexually assault children are not on a trajectory to become adult paedophiles. While a person becomes a child sex offender by breaking a law, one becomes a paedophile by meeting diagnostic criteria. The terms ‘child sex offender' and ‘paedophile' are not synonymous, a point that is lost on most journalists and social commentators. Very few adolescents who are charged with child sex offences would meet diagnostic criteria for paedophilia. While this provides little comfort to those who have been victims of sexual assault, it may provide some comfort to parents who find themselves having to deal with a situation in which one of their children is a victim and the other is the perpetrator.
Two large scale follow-up studies of Australian adolescents who were charged with sexual offences have been published in the peer reviewed literature in recent years (Allan, Allan, Marshall, & Kraszlan, 2003; Nisbet, Wilson, & Smallbone, 2004). Both had very similar findings, with adult sexual recidivism rates being 9.5 per cent and 9 per cent respectively and adult non-sexual recidivism rates being 66.3 per cent and 61 per cent respectively. So, while it is common for adolescents to be charged with further non-sexual offences as adults, it is relatively rare for them to be charged with further sexual offences. This same pattern is observed in similar studies overseas (e.g., Caldwell, 2007; Vandiver, 2006). These findings suggest the majority of cases of sexual assault involving adolescents are more likely to stem from a broader social deviance, rather than a psychosexual disorder such as paedophilia.
As most evaluations of treatment for adolescent sexual offending have consisted of uncontrolled trials without a comparison group of non-treated offenders, interpretation of the impact of treatment on recidivism rates is limited. Reitzel and Carbonell (2006), however, found evidence of some treatment programs reducing sexual recidivism. In a meta-analysis based on studies involving 2,986 subjects who were followed up for an average of almost five years, recidivism rates were reported as 12.53 per cent for sexual offences, 24.73 per cent for non-sexual violent offences, 28.51 per cent for non-sexual non-violent offences and 20.40 per cent for unspecified non-sexual offences. The average weighted effect size for the effect of treatment on sexual recidivism was 0.43, which was statistically significant.
Only studies that included a no-treatment control group or a comparison treatment group and were followed up for sexual recidivism were included. It is interesting to note that although there were over 750 outpatient and residential treatment programs operating for this population in the US by 1992, an extensive literature search by the study authors only succeeded in finding nine studies that met their inclusion criteria, and of these only four had been published in the peer reviewed literature. A great deal more work needs to be done on the development and evaluation of treatment programs in this area.
Notwithstanding the fact that adult sexual recidivism tends to be very low for this population, teenagers who are convicted of child sexual offences are still obliged to become ‘registrable offenders' on the various Child Protection Registers that are administered by police in the States and Territories of Australia. Registration schemes are based on the assumption that sexual offending has a distinct cause, is a specialised form of offending, and is associated with a high risk of future sexual dangerousness (Zimring, 2004). The research cited above suggests the ongoing risk posed by young people who have committed sexual offences may have been overestimated.
In NSW, people who committed sexual offences as teenagers are currently ineligible to have their child convictions for sexual offences ‘spent' under the NSW spent conviction scheme. Most non-sexual offences can become spent if the offence was minor and the person has had a lengthy crime-free period. The slate can be wiped clean and people are given the opportunity to move on with their lives. People who committed sexual offences as teenagers, however, are currently required to disclose those offences when applying for credit, insurance or when completing an application for a statutory licence. This prohibition has recently been the subject of an inquiry by the Law and Justice Committee of the NSW Parliament and a number of members of the APS College of Forensic Psychologists made submissions and gave evidence to this inquiry. Partly as a result of these submissions, the committee recently recommended changes to the spent convictions scheme to allow juvenile sexual offences that meet certain limited eligibility criteria to become spent in the same way as other non-sexual offences.
The involvement of children in the criminal justice system is often controversial, but perhaps nowhere are the issues more sensitive and complex than when they relate to young people who have sexually offended. Although adolescent sexual offences may be considered rare from the point of view that they only make up one per cent of all adolescent criminal matters, the fact that adolescents are responsible for approximately 20 per cent of adult rapes and 40 per cent of child sexual assaults means that there is a serious need for a better understanding of this population. The harm caused by even a ‘one-off' sexual offence is serious and often has long lasting effects on victims.
In many cases of child sexual assault the perpetrator is quite young and prospects for rehabilitation need to be considered. However, there is a segment of the population (even among informed people) for which it is difficult to hear anything about this problem that does not involve labelling of perpetrators as ‘sick' and in need of lengthy detention, intrusive treatment and life-long monitoring and surveillance. Without wanting to diminish the harm and wrong that victims have suffered, it is important to dispassionately appraise the research in this area indicating that persistent adolescent sexual offending occurs in approximately one case in ten, yet responses to the problem are often based on this one case in ten, rather than the nine in ten who grow out of it. Psychologists have an important role to play in assisting the courts to deal with these matters, advising governments about framing and amending legislation in this difficult area, and, most importantly of all, offering recommendations on how best to prevent child sexual assault from occurring in the first place.
The author can be contacted at Ian.Nisbet@scu.edu.au.
Allan, A., Allan, M. M., Marshall, P., & Kraszlan, K. (2003). Recidivism among male juvenile sexual offenders in Western Australia. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 10(2), 359-378.
Bourke, M. L., & Donohue, B. (1996). Assessment and treatment of juvenile sex offenders: An empirical review. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 5, 47-65.
Caldwell, M. F. (2007). Sexual offense adjudication and sexual recidivism among juvenile offenders. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 19, 107-113.
Cawson, P., Wattam, C., Brooker, S., & Kelly, G. (2000). Child maltreatment in the United Kingdom: A study of the prevalence of abuse and neglect. London: National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R., & Chaffin, M. (2009). Juveniles who commit sexual offenses against minors. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile and Delinquency Prevention.
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O'Brien, W. (2008). Problem sexual behaviour in children: A review of the literature. Canberra: Australian Crime Commission.
Reitzel, L. R., & Carbonell, J. L. (2006). The effectiveness of sexual offender treatment for juveniles as measured by recidivism: A meta-analysis. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 18, 401-421.
Vandiver, D. M. (2006). A prospective analysis of juvenile male sex offenders: Characteristics and recidivism rates as adults. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 21(5), 673-688.
Zimring, F. E. (2004). An American Travesty: Legal responses to adolescent sexual offending. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.