Understanding Juvenile Sex Offenders: Research Findings and Guidelines for Effective Management and Treatment

By Hunter, John A. | Developments in Mental Health Law, July-December 1999 | Go to article overview

Understanding Juvenile Sex Offenders: Research Findings and Guidelines for Effective Management and Treatment


Hunter, John A., Developments in Mental Health Law


Juvenile perpetrated sexual aggression has been a problem of growing concern in American society over the past decade. Currently it is estimated that juveniles account for up to one-fifth of the rapes, (1) and one-half of the cases of child molestation (2) committed in the United States each year. The majority of cases of juvenile sexual aggression appear to involve adolescent male perpetrators; (3) however, a number of clinical studies have pointed to the presence of females and prepubescent youths, who have engaged in sexually abusive behaviors. Juvenile sexual offending appears to traverse racial and cultural boundaries.

Causes and Patterns of Juvenile Sex Offending

A number of etiological factors (casual influences) have been identified that are believed to help explain the developmental origin of juvenile sex offending. Factors that have received the most attention to date include: maltreatment experiences, exposure to pornography, substance abuse, and exposure to aggressive role models.

While sexual aggression may emerge early in the developmental process, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that the majority of juvenile sex offenders are likely to become adult sex offenders. The estimated risk of juvenile sex offending leading to adult offending may have been exaggerated by an over-reliance on retrospective research studies. (4) Existent longitudinal studies suggest that aggressive behavior in youths is not always continuous, and that juveniles who engage in sexual aggression frequently cease such behavior by the time they reach adulthood.

CLINICAL CHARACTERISTICS AND JUVENILE SEX OFFENDER SUBTYPES

Juvenile male sex offenders are found to vary on a number of clinical and criminal indicators. As with their adult counterparts, juvenile sex offenders appear to fall primarily into two major types: those who target children, and those who offend against peers or adults. The distinction between these two groups is usually based on the age difference between the victim and the offender. (5)

Juvenile Offenders Who Sexually Offend Against Peers or Adults

* Juveniles who sexually offend against peers or adults predominantly assault females and strangers or casual acquaintances.

* The sexual assaults of these youths are more likely to occur in association with other types of criminal activity (e.g., burglary) than those who target children.

* These juvenile sex offenders are more likely to have histories of non-sexual criminal offenses, and appear more generally delinquent and conduct disordered than those who sexually assault children.

* This group of youthful offenders is also more likely to commit their offenses in public areas than those who offend against children.

* These juveniles generally display higher levels of aggression and violence in the commission of their sexual crimes than those who offend against children.

* Youths who sexually offend against peers or adults are more likely to use weapons and to cause injuries to their victims than those who sexually assault children.

Juvenile Offenders Who Sexually Offend Against Children

* Juveniles who sexually offend against children have both a higher number of male victims and victims to whom they are related than peer/adult offenders.

* Although females are victimized at slightly higher rates than males, almost 50% of this group of juvenile sex offenders has at least one male victim.

* As many as 40% of their victims are either siblings or other relatives.

* The sexual crimes of juvenile child molesters tend to reflect a greater reliance on opportunity and guile than injurious force. This appears to be particularly true when their victim is related to them. These youths may "trick" the child into complying with the molestation, use bribes, or threaten the child with loss of the relationship.

* Within the overall population of juveniles who sexually assault children, there are certain youths who display high levels of aggression and violence. …

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