Men of Prey: Scientists Peer into the Dark World of Sex Offenders
Bower, Bruce, Science News
From inner-city mean streets to serene suburban cul-de-sacs, from bar stools to pulpits, and from state houses to the state prisons, sex offenders uniformly inspire fear and loathing. On occasion, rapists, child molesters, and their ilk also stir up unexpected irony. Consider this turn of events. On June 9, scientists and clinicians from throughout North America ended a 3-day meeting in Washington, D.C., where they discussed the state of knowledge about sexually coercive acts. Although intriguing lines of research were described, conference participants readily admitted their ignorance about crucial issues. There was no consensus on what causes individuals to become sexual criminals, how best to predict which of them will offend again after release from prison, or even whether current treatment programs for sex offenders are effective.
Fair enough. On June 10, however, the Supreme Court begged to differ Prison-based rehabilitation programs for sex offenders work so well, the high court ruled, that states can impose penalties on convicts who refuse such treatment.
The 5-to-4 decision addressed the case of Robert G. Lile, a convicted rapist who wouldn't enter treatment in a Kansas prison because the program, which has served as a model for prisons in more than a dozen other states, requires men to admit in writing to past offenses. Lile sued prison officials, citing his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
The Supreme Court's majority opinion stated that once a man is in prison, he can't claim protection from self-incrimination. Thus, prison rehabilitation programs can require him to accept responsibility for past crimes in the name of changing his behavior.
Legal pronouncements of this sort can't wipe away scientific uncertainty about sex offenders and potential treatments, though. It doesn't help that little is known about the mental and biological development of sexual desire in law-abiding citizens, notes psychologist Robert A. Prentky of the Justice Resource Institute in Bridgewater, Mass. Prentky organized the June conference, which was sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences.
The small number of researchers trying to understand sexual offenders responds far more to sensational crimes and events, such as the scandal over sex abuse by members of the Catholic clergy or the particulars of a horrific ease in the news, than to a systematic agenda for studying sexual development, Prentky says.
"This is a young, difficult, sensitive, controversial area of science," remarks psychologist Jim Breiling of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md.
DEVIANT PATHS Researchers agree that no one becomes a rapist or a child molester without earlier influences. One challenge is to delineate the psychological developments that usher men toward such acts. Researchers generally don't study the much smaller number of female sex offenders.
The work of psychologist Neil M. Malamuth of the University of California, Los Angeles has focused attention on two personality characteristics that may set men up to become sexually aggressive and, ultimately, to rape.
Malamuth and his coworkers discovered this pair of attributes in groups of college men who found rape acceptable. These men say that they would carry out acts of forced sex and rape if no one would ever find out about it and they wouldn't be punished. This attitude about rape also appears in many convicted rapists, Malamuth found in earlier work.
He refers to the first characteristic he identified in the college group as hostile masculinity. It includes self-centered arrogance, manipulation and force in dealing with women, unusually high sensitivity to rejection by women, use of sex to achieve dominance, and lack of empathy.
The second characteristic is a penchant for having impersonal sex with one partner after another. …