|Sex Offender Myths: The Foundation for Sex Offender Laws
Derek W. Logue
Compiled Dec. 5, 2007, Last Update April 16, 2013
Myth #1: The “Stranger-Danger” Myth:
- “…the FBI (in the 1950s) distributed a poster that epitomized this attitude. It showed a man, with his hat pulled down, lurking behind
a tree with a bag of candy in his hands. He was waiting for the sweet little girl walking home from school alone.” (Kenneth V.
Lanning, “Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis,” National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 2001, p. 13).
- Who is the archetypical sex offender?
- The archetypical sex offender is NOT a “demented, dirty trench coat wearing, candy waving, bush dwelling stranger…”
- Sex offenders can be anyone: parents, teachers, politicians, pastors, police, neighbor, etc. Sex offenders are us.
- Sex Crimes are becoming more prevalent among our youth
- AP Study as noted by John “Jack” Tefler, “Obsession With Sex, Violence Impacting Our Kids.” Midland Daily News, July 1st,
- Juvenile Sex Crimes Increased 40%, Adult Sex Crimes Decreased 56% between 1993 and 2004
- Most sex offenders are first time offenders:
- Only 14% of inmates in prison on sex crimes had prior sex crime convictions
- In short, 86% in prison were first-time offenders, or about 6 out of 7.
- How prevalent are high-profile “stereotypical” kidnappings? Very rare- around 100 a year in US
- “Stereotypical” kidnappings in the US: 115
- Number dead/ permanently missing: 46
- “Non-family Abductions” (Including acquaintances and friends, and voluntary leaves if the child is under age 15):
- Total # missing incl. Runaways: 797,500
- “Raw emotion is also the greatest of obstacles to understanding the reality of sex offenses, because we are trained into thinking
“sex offender = predator = raped and murdered child.” (Logue, “Once Fallen,” 2007)
- A Really good article on the "characteristics of child molesters" can be found here: http://article-zinc.co.za/Home-and-Family/How-
NOT-to-Detect-a-Child-Molester.html. Essentially, sex offenders can be ANYONE
- Most sex crimes are committed by someone the victim knows:
- Victims under 18: Strangers committed 6.7% of crimes; Family Member, 46.5%; Acquaintances/ friends, 46.8%
- Victims over 18: Strangers committed 34.4% of crimes; Family member, 10.6%; Acquaintances/ friends, 55.0%
- Adult Victim Fact: Statistics indicate that the majority of women who have been raped know their assailant. A 1998
National Violence Against Women Survey revealed that among those women who reported being raped, 76% were
victimized by a current or former husband, live-in partner, or date (Tjaden and Thoennes, 1998). Also, a Bureau of
Justice Statistics study found that nearly 9 out of 10 rape or sexual assault victimizations involved a single offender
with whom the victim had a prior relationship as a family member, intimate, or acquaintance (Greenfeld, 1997).
- Child Victim Fact: Approximately 60% of boys and 80% of girls who are sexually victimized are abused by someone
known to the child or the child's family (Lieb, Quinsey, and Berliner, 1998). Relatives, friends, baby-sitters, persons in
positions of authority over the child, or persons who supervise children are more likely than strangers to commit a
Myth #2: All Sex Offenders are “Pedophiles” or “Predators”
- Pedophilia: a mental disorder that signifies sexual attraction to prepubescent children generally under age 12 (DSM-IV). Pedophilia
is a psychological diagnosis, NOT a legal term. The term "convicted pedophile" is a misnomer because people are convicted of sex
offenses (a legal penalty) but you cannot be convicted for havig a clinical diagnosis of pedophilia. The two terms are not mutually
- Very few sex offenders, even those with underage victims, are "pedophiles" (Okami and Goldberg 1992)
- Facts, Figures and Estimates Regarding Treatment for Incarcerated Sex Offenders in Montana (as of 01/06/11): Only 4% of sexual
offenders in Montana prisons are classified as "Pedophiles"
Myth #3: Sex Offenders have a high recidivism rate
- Two studies are often quoted by victim industry advocates, one claiming child molesters having a 52% recidivism rate, and another
study (who was quoted by now disgraced Florida Senator Mark Foley) claims 90%-94% recidivism rate. Both claims originated with
two studies with intentionally manipulated data.
- "Child Molesters have a 52% recidivism rate." This result originated in a 1997 study by Robert Prentky (Prentky, R., Lee, A.,
Knight, R., & Cerce, D. (1997). "Recidivism rates among child molesters and rapists: A methodological analysis." Law and
Human Behavior, 21, 635-659). The sample size was 136 rapists and 115 child molesters released from the Bridgewater sex
offender civil commitment center in Massachusetts between 1959 and 1986. The study used a very narrow criteria of
individuals already deemed to be the highest-risk (thus civil commitment candidates) and had committed multiple offenses.
Thus, this was not a sample reflective of sex offenders as a whole. Even then, the results were flawed because they were
estimates, and the rate shown was for re-arrest rates, not re-conviction rates. (see Chris Dornin, "Facts and Fiction about
Sex Offenders." Corrections.com, May 22, 2010. http://www.corrections.com/news/article/24500-facts-and-fiction-about-sex-
offenders, retrieved April 16, 2013)
- The second study, which claims a 90-94% recidivism rate, came from a study entitled “Lifetime Sex Offender Recidivism: A
25 year Follow-Up Study,” led by Canadian researcher Ron Langevin. This study has been universally rejected by the
experts because the researchers intentionally removed non-recidivists from the study once they remained offense-free for
15 years. Most of the subjects were already recidivists at the time of the study(see Cheryl Marie Webster, Rosemary
Gartner, and Anthony N. Doob. "Results by Design: The Artefactual Construction of High Recidivism Rates for Sex
Offenders." Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice 48.1 (2006): 79-93.)
- Chris Dornin (citation above) also notes the following about the earlier era studies: "The ensuing revolution in child
protection and sex abuse prosecution over half a century has swollen American prison populations of sex offenders by fifty-
and a hundred-fold. The group in prison now is arguably less prone to recidivism than members of the Langevin study."
- Sex Offenders have a low Specific Recidivism rate (I.e., rate of committing a second sex crime)
- 9,641 sex offenders released in 15 states (Three-year follow-up period)
- 262,420 non-sex offenders released in same 15 states in 1994
- 517 sex offenders (5.3% of all sex offenders) were arrested for a sex crime within 3 years, 3.5% of sex offenders re-
- 3,228 non-sex offenders (1.3% of all no-sex offenders) were arrested for a sex crime within the same three year period
- 8% of sex offenders were recommitted in the 10-year period
- 3% of sex offenders committed a sexually-related violation of probation/ parole
- ½ of recidivists re-offended within two years of release
- 2/3 of recidivists re-offended within 3 years of release
- 129 total arrests; only 5 men (3.8% of total) had prior sex offense arrests
- Recidivism after 1 year of release: 2.21%
- Recidivism after 2 years of release: 2.94%
- Recidivism after 5 years of release: 3.3%
- Recidivism after 10 years of release: 3.38%
- NOTEWORTHY FINDINGS: The total of sexual recidivists is lower than some might have believed. Most re-offenses
and parole violations occur in the initial period of reentry after release. Sex offenders are more likely to commit some
other type of offense than to commit a new sex offense.
- Sex Offenders have a lower recidivism rate than other offenders
- Follow-up Period: 4 years Recidivism Rates
- Sex Offenders 2.46%
- Forgery 6.86%
- Burglary 10.56%
- Drugs 6.42%
- Robbery 5.17%
- Larceny 12.65%
- It is important to note that the term "recidivism" is not a universal term. There are two main types of recidivism-- "General
Recidivism," which is recommittal for any crime or violation, and "specific recidivism" (some use the term re-offending) describes
recommittal of the same type of offense. Also, there are many ways to determine recidivism-- self-reporting, arrests, convictions, re-
incarcerations, and probation violations will give differing numbers. For more on this topic, visit my RECIDIVISM 101 page.
Myth #4: Sex Offenders are 4 times more likely than non-sex offenders to be re-arrested for a sex crime
- A note about this stat: While technically true (all criminals are more likely to re-offend with the same crime type than a non-criminal
or criminal of another type), this myth is a red herring used to incite fear. It is a useless stat that looks pretty, until you understand
the sleight of hand at work
- US Department of Justice, “Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released into the Community in 1994.”
- 9,641 sex offenders released in 15 states; 517 sex offenders (5.3% of all sex offenders) were arrested for a sex crime within
- 262,420 non-sex offenders released in same 15 states in 1994; 3,228 non-sex offenders (1.3% of all non-sex offenders)
were arrested for a sex crime in the same three year period
- 5.3% divided by 1.3% = about 4, thus, the myth
- 3,228 non-RSO sex crime divided by 517 RSO re-offenders = 6.3
- Percentage wise, more sex offenders than non sex offenders will commit a sex crime, but in actual numbers, non-sex
offenders committed six times as many sex crimes!
Myth #5: Sex Offenders “Sex Offenders cannot be cured”/ “Treatment doesn’t work”
- 7.1% of sex offenders who went through treatment recidivated
- 16.5% of sex offenders who did not undergo treatment recidivated
- 16.5 divided by 7.1= a 65% decrease
- There is a general consensus that treatment is indeed effective (Virginia Criminal Sentencing Division, “Assessing Risk Among Sex
Offenders in Virginia," 2001, p. 22-29).
- Robin J. Wilson, Janice E. Picheca & Michelle Prinzo. "Circles of Support & Accountability: An Evaluation of the Pilot Project in
South-Central Ontario." Correctional Service of Canada, May 2005
- "The recidivism results compiled in evaluating the COSA pilot project are very encouraging. Sexual recidivism by COSA Core
Members is 70% lower than that of the matched comparison sample, and is less than one-quarter of the actuarial sexual
recidivism rates projected by the Hanson and Thornton STATIC-99 survival curves - a statistically significant result. While
recidivism of any sort is tragic and regrettable, the harm reduction effect observed in those unfortunate instances where a
Core Member did recidivate sexually was also particularly encouraging."
- Recidivism means returning to prison for violations
- 25% of treatment complete inmates return to prison
- 49% of treatment non-complete inmates return to prison
- Re-offending means returning to prison for a new sexual offense
- 2% of treatment complete inmates re-offend
- 20% of treatment non-complete inmates re-offend (national data)
Myth #6: "Internet Predators"
- A word of caution must be noted here. There are a number of treatment styles out there, including Restorative Justice, Good Lives
models, Circles of Support and Accountability, faith-based initiatives, and a number of clinical models. Models that stress shaming
of the offender, uses deceptive methods and tools like polygraphs/ plethysmographs, stress containment rather than rehabilitation,
and run on the "no more cure" philosophy are the most controversial and least effective methods of treatment. In 2013, Colorado
has faced great scrutiny for their "lifetime supervision" model, which stresses all the less effective methods mentioned here (see
Ryan Maye Handy, "Complex sex offender system isn't working, say lawmakers and lawyers." The Colorado Springs Gazette, April
14, 2013. http://www.gazette.com/articles/online-153409-martinez-girl.html, retrieved April 16, 2013)
- The 50,000 Internet predator myth
- Attributed to controversial Chris Hansen and "To Catch a Predator;" Hansen admits he conjured the number out of thin air
(Benjamin Radford. “Predator Panic: A Closer Look.” Skeptical Enquirer, Sept./Oct. 2006)
- FBI Profiler Kenneth Lanning calls 50,000 the "Goldilocks number," meaning the number doesn't sound like too much or not
enough. The number 50,000 has been applied for many unknown numbers, from Koran War casualties to deaths and annual
deaths from second hand smoke to the number of children allegedly sacrificed to Satan during the satanic cult scare of the
1980s (Brook Gladstone, “On the Media: Prime Number.” NPR/ WNYC radio, May 26, 2006)
- Youth Internet Safety Survey (YISS)
- 19% received a broad term "sexual solicitation;" which included anything from sexual spam to someone asking if a person
got lucky on a date (Skeptical Inquirer, "Predator Panic")
- Only one in 33 experienced an "aggressive sexual solicitation," or a request to contact offline
- 24% came from adults, 48% came from other juveniles, and 24% from unknown people
- One cannot assume all solicitations came from "online predators" (E-Advocate, "Why The Hysteria?")
- "The publicity about online 'predators' who prey on naive children using trickery and violence is largely inaccurate. Internet sex
crimes involving adults and juveniles more often fit a model of statutory rape—adult offenders who meet, develop relationships with,
and openly seduce underage teenagers—than a model of forcible sexual assault or pedophilic child molesting. This is a serious
problem, but one that requires approaches different from those in current prevention messages emphasizing parental control and
the dangers of divulging personal information" (Janis Wolak, David Finkelhor, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and Michele L. Ybarra. "Online
'Predators' and their victims." American Psychologist, Vol. 63 No. 2 February-March 2008)
Myth #7: Sex Offenders have hundreds of victims
- The myth has no definite source, but is sometimes attributed to the National Institute for Mental Health and/ or Dr. Gene Abel and a
later study by Sean Ahlmeyer. However, there is no exact study that validates the myth.
- Gene Abel study "Self-Reported Sex Crimes of Non-Incarcerated Paraphiliacs " (1986) is the most likely origin of this myth.
- There are a number of problems with the study-- few offenders were voluntary (which would compel false admissions),
inclusion of non-criminal paraphilias such as consensual homosexual relations, and Abel DOES NOT list a number of
victims, but an estimated number of acts over a lifetime. Abel states the study suggested paraphiliacs, “through coercion or
varying degrees of compliance, repeated acts are carried out with the same victims or partners”
- Another major point in to consider with the Abel "study," the mean and median numbers in Table 1 (the table most cited for
this myth) are vastly different. We have to understand the difference between "mean" (what we may call an "average",
though there are many types of means) and "median" (the numerical value separating the higher half of a data sample, a
population, or a probability distribution, from the lower half). This study does not mention the type of mean used. For those
who were non-incest "pedophile" acts are as follows:
- Mean -- 281.7
- Median -- 10.1
- Female Victims, # of acts
- Mean -- 23.2
- Median -- 1.4
- Male Victims, # of Victims
- Mean -- 150.2
- Median -- 4.4
- Female Victims, # of total victims
- Mean -- 19.8
- Median -- 1.3
- This means at least half of the offenders in this study fall well below the "average." This implies that a very small number of
individuals committed a high number of acts with multiple victims, thus skewing the "average." Going by Abel's own stats, at
least half of SOs with female victims committed less than 1.4 acts with less than 1.3 children. For those with male victims, half
committed less than 10.1 acts with less than 4.4 victims. So the majority have far less than 100 victims.
- A similar study by Sean Ahlmeyer (2000) also relies on self-reporting and includes non-criminal paraphilias but adds
POLYGRAPHS. “Comparatively, conclusions cannot be made on the frequency of sexual offending for inmates and parolees,
because of the unique external confounds present for each setting.” The end result was the belief that polygraphs influenced more
self-reporting because the inmates believed they worked. However, in a polygraph study, researchers found that participants
reported a relatively low incidence of false indications of both deception (22 of 333 tests) and truthfulness (11 of 333) tests,
suggesting that clients agreed with examiners’ opinions 90% of the time. About 5% of participants reported that they responded to
allegedly inaccurate accusations of deception by admitting to things they had not done (Ron Kokish, Jill S. Levenson, and Gerry D.
Blasingame. “Post-conviction Sex Offender Polygraph Examination: Client-Reported Perceptions of Utility and Accuracy” Sexual
Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, Vol. 17, No. 2, April 2005). In other words, the interpretation of the test relies solely
on what the researcher believes in the hearing.
- No other study has validated these outlandish claims.
- If all 700,000 Registered Offenders had 100 to 300 victims like the myth claims, there would be around a 70 to 280 million victims.
The USA only has 300 million individuals and around 70 million minors
Myth #8: The 100,000 Missing Sexual Predators Myth
- The often-quoted myth of 100,000 missing sexual predators originated from a flawed 2002 Parents for Megan's Law survey in
which only 32 states participated and very few states kept accurate records, thus giving only rough estimates of non-compliance.
PFML concluded 24%, or about a fourth, of registrants were unaccounted for. In 2002 there were roughly 400,000 registrants, so a
fourth equals 100,000 (eAdvocate, "The Saga of 100,000 Missing Sex Offenders: Now the truth." Sex Offender Reports, Charts,
and Other Papers, May 31, 2009. http://sexoffender-reports.blogspot.com/2009/05/saga-of-100000-missing-sex-offenders.html,
Retrieved Nov. 27, 2010)
- A 2010 study by Dr. Jill Levenson has found that of 445,127 registrants from 49 states, "only 17,688 RSOs who were designated
by states to be transient, homeless, absconded, non-compliant, or whose address or whereabouts are otherwise unknown.
Nationwide, a total of 5,349 offenders were officially listed as absconded; 1,264 were listed as missing/unable to be located and
4,152 were listed as having failed to comply with registration requirements. We had no way of specifically confirming the number of
fugitive sex offenders, since states had a wide variety of methods for classifying absconders, registration violators, and others
whose locations are uncertain." (Jill Levenson, "Guest Blogger- Jill Levenson on 'Fugitive Sex Offenders'." Sexual Abuse: A Journal
of Research and Treatment Blog, Nov. 16, 2010. http://sajrt.blogspot.com/2010/11/guest-blogger-jill-levenson-on-fugitive.html,
Retrieved Nov. 27, 2010)
Myth #9: The Under-reporting Myth
- Since under-reporting is an "unknown" factor, many victim's advocates claim astronomical numbers, such as "90%+" in claiming
how many sex crime cases go unreported. The scant evidence available has proven these groups are inflating statistics to promote
their agendas. Along with myth #4, this myth is more a misrepresentation of fact than pure myth.
- The largest and best measure of under-reporting comes from the National Crime Victimization Surveys (NCVS)
- The unreported numbers have been steadily declining over the years:
- 2003 NCVS: 67.3% of rapes and attempted rapes (attempts included verbal threats of sexual violence) and 53.2% of sexual
assaults go unreported (Table 91).
- 2005 NCVS: 61.7% of rapes/ sexual assaults go unreported
- 2010 NCVS: 50% of rapes/ sexual assaults go unreported
- Even the NCVS understands it has limitations, as noted in the 2010 NCVS summary: "the estimates of rape/sexual assault are
based on a small number of cases reported to the survey. Therefore, small absolute changes and fluctuations in the rates of
victimization can result in large year-to-year percentage change estimates. For 2010, the estimate of rape or sexual assault is
based on 57 unweighted cases compared to 36 unweighted cases in 2009." That is 57 "unreported cases" out of sample size of
nearly 71,000 people: In 2010, 40,974 households and 73,283 individuals age 12 and older were interviewed for the NCVS. Each
household was interviewed twice during the year. The response rate was 92.3% of households and 87.5% of eligible individuals."
Still, the survey strongly suggests the amount of under-reporting may be over-reported.
Myth #10: Harsher Sex Offender Laws will reduce sexual offenses
- Psychologist John Q. LaFond points out a Washington state study that found notification laws do not prevent crime; instead, it
leads to quicker arrest times, either by the constant scrutiny, or by disrupting employment, housing, and support for the sex
offender, causing stress and increasing the likelihood of recidivism ("Preventing Sexual Violence." APA 2005)
- As former offenders are denied opportunities to reintegrate into society and stigmatized, they lose hope. Stigmatized offenders are
more likely to recidivate than reintegrated offenders, as the resistance to recidivate diminishes among offenders who are
ostracized. On the other hand, a “pro-social identity,” including concrete recognition of their reform, is integral to reducing
recidivism (Hollida Wakefield, “The Vilification of Sex Offenders: Do Laws Targeting Sex Offenders Increase Recidivism and Sexual
Violence?” Journal of Sex Offender Civil Commitment: Science and the Law, 2006, p. 141-149)
The Myths have influenced societal views and public policy on sex offenders
- (Dan Gunderson, “A Better Approach to Sex Offender Policy.” Minnesota Public Radio, June 18th, 2007) “Lisa Sample, a
criminology professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha, says…”
- “Misinformation and a lack of information often shapes sex offender policy…Most of the legislators in her study said their
primary source of information was the news media.”
- In most cases, lawmakers didn’t read studies/ reports relevant to legislation they supported.
- She says it’s clear most sex offender legislation follows the abduction and murder of a child, and the resulting public outrage.
- Few people are aware a child is at greater risk of sexual abuse from family than strangers. If people understood that, they
would support more programs to prevent sexual abuse.
- In Minnesota, a panel of experts recently completed a comprehensive report to serve as a guide for sex offender policy in the
state. One of the report’s authors says the biggest challenge is just getting lawmakers to read it.
- “…[Sexual predator laws]-- although well-intentioned-- are ill-conceived, bad policy. They are sold as innovative approaches to
finding and incapacitating the worst of the worst, but there is little evidence they have succeeded in that important task. It is not
simply that these new laws have not been able to solve the problem of sexual violence. It is that our way of thinking about sexual
violence is increasingly distorted. The distortion had led us to the predator laws, and that the predator laws strengthen the
distortion.” (Eric S. Janus, “Failure to Protect,” Pg. 3)
- “Preventing Sexual Violence: How Society Should Cope With Sex Offenders” (John Q. LaFond, 2005, American Psychological
Association p. 57): “..it appears that most sex offenders are not dangerous and will not re-offend. Society’s fear that all sex
offenders pose an ongoing threat of committing more serious sex crimes is incorrect, and more important, self-defeating…
moreover, in painting with such a broad brush, we may be creating a public hysteria that is unnecessary and even
- It is important to note how often we use the words “violent,” “habitual,” “predator,” and “pedophile” in speaking of sex offenders,
especially ones deemed ‘high-risk.” even in legal terms, there is some misnomers in usage. Regarding the words violent and
predator in sex offender legalese, the age of the victim alone determines whether or not a sex offender is considered either or
both. In the case of the word habitual, the legal usage can be applied to a one-time offender if the victim claims multiple offenses.
The most misused word is pedophile. The psychiatric definition denotes strong sexual arousal and urges for pre-pubescent
children; the legal usage is applied to all offenders with a minor victim, which is misleading since not all “child molesters” are
“pedophiles” (“Sex Offenders: Flaws In The System and Effective Behaviors.” SOHopeful International, Aug. 12th, 2006)