Theories of Sex Offending

Several theories have been suggested to explain contributing factors to a person's committing sexual abuse. Explanatory theories involve genetic evolution, cognitive distortions, weak morals and dysfunctional mother-son relationships, learning, biochemical differences in sex offenders, and addiction. These theories are often discussed in combination. 

The Addiction Model of sexual abuse includes components of compulsive sexual behaviors, social tolerance of antisocial sexual behavior, societal  preoccupation with sex and glorification of sex, and availability of alternative sources of sexual gratification (internet sex, pornography, prostitutes). Three symptoms of sexual addiction are: mental obsession with sexual fantasies, compulsive behaviors, continuing the behaviors despite negative consequences. Similar to other addictions, such as alcohol, drugs, gambling, or food, a predictable behavior pattern results, neurochemicals are released in the brain, and the addict wants to repeat the behavior (reward pathway of the brain). The sexual act is similar to a drug, giving pleasure and altering mood. Sexual addictions of all kinds involve behaviors that are secret, produce shame, and may be abusive to others. Addicts experience loss of control and use defense mechanisms, such as rationalization, justification, minimization, and blame to explain their behaviors. Sex offenders may rationalize their behaviors as caused by bad marriages, inadequate spouses, or prior abuse experiences. However, these do not cause the behaviors. Sexual addiction involves the objectification of women and children, who become depersonalized. Before committing the first sexually abusive act, sex offenders must overcome internal barriers, such as sociocultural norms and laws against sexual abuse of children. Once these barriers have been destroyed, the likelihood of repetition is high.

Cognitive behavioral theory involves irrational beliefs and cognitive distortions. The person engages in a sexually deviant act (such as sexual abuse), and the offender becomes behaviorally conditioned to the sexual stimuli. The orgasm is the reinforcer, similar to the "high" of cocaine use, a powerful reinforcer producing an urge to repeat the behavior. The thoughts (cognitions) and behaviors create persistent patterns for repetitive offender behaviors and alter the offender's view of the world. Secrecy becomes part of the conditioned response and perpetuates the offending behavior. Learning Theory is a part of this theory. If children have been repeatedly abused, they may internalize the learned sexual behaviors, thinking these to be normal. They view women, children, sex, and arousal very differently from others who have learned about sex in a more appropriate manner. Their view of sex is distorted. Offenders often have low self-esteem, depression, and social deficits so that they may look for comfort and acceptance from children. Child molesters are usually immature and have not grown past the adolescent stage of emotional development.
Learning Theory suggests that offenders learn sexually abusive behaviors from their environments. They have watched someone else model the behaviors, or have been abused themselves, and they copy these behaviors. Studies suggest that 30-80% of offenders were sexually abused in their childhoods. Many offenders, though, were not abused and never witnessed sexual abuse in the past. It appears that offenders continue to learn new behaviors. They increase their skill level in obtaining victims, in behaviors they learn are more arousing, and in avoiding or escaping detection.  

Bio-medical Theory suggests that sex offenders have biochemical and physical differences from normal males. Sex offenders produce more testosterone than non-offenders. Males with longer ring fingers than index fingers have more testosterone in their body. Chemical or surgical (removal of testes) reduction of testosterone levels results in lower recidivism rates for sex offenses. 

Evolutionary Theory suggests that males have becoming increasingly dominant and aggressive through history, with more aggressive males passing on dominant genes. More dominant males were more sexually aggressive, mating more frequently and evolving the gene pool. This theory is defended by the fact that most sexual crimes are committed by males.

Psychodynamic Theory suggests that sex offenders have weak morals (superegos) and powerful sexual impulses (ids). Early in Freud's career, he reported the incidence of sexual abuse because female patients reported abuse. However, Freud's peers rejected his statements about sexual abuse, and he revised his theory, labeling the female reports of abuse as hysterical, and interpreting the allegations as unfounded (in their minds, not reality). Freud developed the idea of the unconscious and of defense mechanisms that protect a person's ego. Sex offenders rely on the use of these defenses, such as denial. This theory also suggests that the mother-son relationship in sex offenders is different from that of non-offenders, with a closer, more intimate relationship (covert incest), without the sexual activity. The combination of these factors contributes to the male becoming a sex offender.  

Other Theories, such as Attachment Theory and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,  suggest that sex offenders share characteristics that are common to victims, such as low-esteem, depression, isolation, and difficulty maintaining intimate relationships. 


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