Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Child Sex Offenders

What's the Appropriate Response?

Book cover: Practical Aspects of Rape Investigation
Book cover: Practical Aspects
of Rape Investigation

Sexual deviances generally arise from sexual fantasies, says Robert R. Hazelwood, a former FBI profiler and co-editor of Practical Aspects of Rape Investigation. Because sexuality is a complex human experience, he indicates, it manifests in patterns unique to a person, deriving from the way their frequently rehearsed imagery merges with their behavior. The fantasies develop around puberty, acquiring force from the developing sex drive. "Through a gradual process of enactment," says Hazelwood, "they also become the template for many offenders' patterns of serial sexual offenses." They influence the type of victim he selects, and his approach, preferred sexual activities, rituals, and decision to complete the act (or not) with murder.

Robert R. Hazelwood
Robert R. Hazelwood

Deviant sexual desires have been organized into psychiatric categories known as paraphilias, which are recurrent, intense urges or behaviors that involve unusual objects, situations, or activities. The fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM-IV-TR, lists them and describes their manifestations. Among them are exhibitionism (exposure of genitalia), fetishism (sexual arousal from an object, such as a doll), causing or craving suffering or humiliation, and pedophilia (sexual arousal from a child). Although these are psychosexual disorders, not sex crimes, they can fuel sex crimes when they involve another person in a harmful, non-consenting situation.

For pedophilia to be considered a psychiatric disorder, the urge or fantasies involving children must be recurrent across a period of at least six months and involve only prepubescent children. Fantasies or behaviors with children older than 14, says former FBI supervisory special agent Kenneth Lanning, who developed an expertise in the sexual victimization of children, is not technically pedophilia. In his work, he has examined the central function of ritual in the behavior of these offenders, indicating that they have difficulty modifying or eliminating behavior compelled by ritual. Thus, whatever they have engaged in becomes a viable source for predicting what they may do in the future. It also makes them likely to re-offend.

Not all pedophiles, it should be noted, are child molesters. Some can refrain from the offense via fantasies, watching children from a distance, asking adults to dress like children, or engaging in private erotic acts. Only those who actually victimize children are child molesters, and some of them are not pedophiles, because they have no special desire for children; they pick children because they're easy to lure and overpower. Many are what Lanning calls "situational sex offenders" rather than "preferential sex offenders."

Situational offenders are generally of lower intelligence and low economic means, and their sexual behavior often serves power or anger needs. They're opportunistic and impulsive, and tend to target pubescent teenagers as available substitutes for adults.  Their behavior is not generally driven by ritual. Preferential offenders, on the other hand, indulge in paraphilias and rituals, are more intelligent, respond to their needs without considering the risk, and tend to be compulsive. They have specific sexual preferences and are willing to commit a great deal of time, money, and energy in pursuing their sexual interests. As they center their lives around this activity, they learn to lie and manipulate in order to keep it secretly active and hidden from others. They will often turn to the Internet as a means of remaining anonymous while they find or perfect their methods of access. This type of person tends to record his fantasies and/or activities in order to relive them.

Given what we know about offender psychology in the assault or abuse of children, what is the appropriate response?  We've tried a number of approaches and most don't work. During the 1930s and into the 1950s, the U.S. instituted Sexual Psychopathy Laws, in which offenders were treated in a hospital setting and released when "cured." They were not considered legally insane, but they were committed because it was considered in the best interest of society, specifically for society's protection from harm. The 1970s brought professional efforts at rehabilitation, and sentencing offered treatment alternatives to prison time. Yet the treatment plans largely failed, so by the 1990s the Community Protection Act precipitated nationwide sex offender registrations. The most famous incident in this chapter involved the rape/murder of a little girl in New Jersey.

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