Modus Operandi of Sex Offenders Research Paper

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Traditionally, the research on sex offenders has focused on the etiology of these crimes in order to inform treatment modalities as well as risk prediction practices. Needless to say that the classification of the individuals committing sexual crimes has attracted a lot of attention, first from clinicians and then from academics. The first typologies have mainly focused on the offender and his characteristics. But subsequent typologies have started to take into account the specific characteristics of the offense as well. These behavioral features were easier to observe, thus facilitating the classification of offenders based on these features. However, when one carefully examines the behavior of sex offenders, several problems emerge with the existing typologies. To begin with, typologies of the offending process focus on the aggressor, ignoring the entire criminal event – that is, the offender, the victim, and the context (Meier et al. 2001). Second, these typologies presuppose that the offending process, more specifically the modus operandi, does not fluctuate with the given sexual aggressor; they assume, that is, that such offenders always act in the same way, “specializing” in a single type of victim and remaining insensitive to situational factors and opportunities. Finally, these typologies were unable to account for the situational factors, the majority of them suggesting that individual characteristics (e.g., personality, sexual preferences, thoughts) are the principal factors influencing the offending process. In order to understand the modus operandi used by the offender – that is, the pattern of actions and behaviors prior to, during, and following the illicit act in order to perpetrate the offense successfully (Sutherland 1947) – and the different resulting outcomes at the crime scene, a different approach is needed.

From The Offender To The Criminal Event

In criminology, two complementary theoretical approaches are useful to examine and understand the modus operandi of sex offenders. The criminal event perspective (CEP) (Sacco and Kennedy 2002) is the term that has been used to describe a technique of organizing ideas and data (Meier et al. 2001). CEP is not itself a theory of criminality or criminal behavior but rather a tool that can be used to design explanatory models of crime that account for the importance of interactions (Anderson and Meier 2004). Thus, in order to understand the process and structure of crime, it is crucial to identify and understand the social context in which offenders live and interact with victims (Anderson and Meier 2004). According to Sacco and Kennedy (2002), the behavior of any one participant (offender and victim) in the criminal event intersects with and influences the behavior of other participants, shaping the course of the event and determining the stages through which it progresses and the extent to which it will be judged a serious one. CEP, then, can be used as an exploratory tool which organizes information about multiple elements of a criminal case or criminal event and which ultimately could lead to inductive theory building. Criminal events are different from criminal acts (Sacco and Kennedy 2002). Acts are instances of behavior, while events involve the context of the behavior. The major advantage of CEP is that it conforms to the way the world works; like all forms of social events, criminal events have a beginning and an end and occur over time in a sequential fashion (Sacco and Kennedy 2002).

Similarly, according to the social interactionist perspective, in the course of any personal crime, the behavior of one actor is shaped by the behavior of the other (Goffman 1967). Within the context of a sexual crime, this could mean that the victim’s behavior depends – in whole or in part – on the offender’s level of violence and coercion. Similarly, the offender may change his modus operandi depending upon the victim’s perceived willingness or resistance. Luckenbill (1977) applied this concept of a social interaction between victims and perpetrators of homicide, referring to this exchange as a “collective transaction.” Essentially, Luckenbill suggests that each participant develops a role within the criminal interchange; this role is shaped by the other actor and ultimately plays its own part in the resulting fatality. Similarly, Block (1981) examines the effect of the interaction between victim and offender on the outcome of violent crimes. However, rather than viewing the event as a “working agreement” between victim and offender, Block (1981) simply states the importance of the victim’s role and actions on those of the offender. What takes place within the confines of the microenvironment surrounding the crime is most often a result of the actions of the victim and how those actions intersect with the strategies and modus operandi of the offender. Tedeschi and Felson (1994) further developed these ideas through their decision-making theory of coercive action, wherein harm-doing is goal-oriented behavior arising from social interactionist processes. The essence of goal-oriented behavior assumes a certain level of rationality within the decisions made during the course of a coercive encounter. Borrowing from the rational choice perspective (Cornish et al. 1986), choices regarding one’s actions are made based on the perceived value of rewards (positive outcomes), the perceived value of costs (negative outcomes), and the estimated probabilities or likelihoods of the positive and negative outcomes achieving fruition. Self-preservation is intrinsic to human nature, and thus, all behavioral choices are made based on what is perceived as the best possible option in a particular scenario that is most likely to yield valued rewards.

Modus Operandi And Rational Choice

In line with the previous theoretical perspectives described above, the modus operandi (MO) is conceived as a dynamic process which needs to be adapted to situational circumstances (Cornish 1993). In criminology, the rational choice perspective is a theoretical framework specifically designed to address offender decision-making in the course of a specific crime (Cornish et al. 1986). The rational choice perspective assumes that criminals offend because crime provides the most effective means of achieving desired benefits (e.g., sexual gratification). As a corollary, the choice of methods for carrying out these crimes is best regarded as instrumental behaviors to achieve these goals. Offenders decide whether or not to commit a crime by weighing the effort, rewards, and costs involved in alternative courses of action. The making of decisions and choices, however rudimentary this process might sometimes be, exhibits a measure of rationality, albeit constrained by limits of time, ability, and the availability of relevant information (Johnson and Payne 1986). In fact, an offender’s cost-benefit analysis may not take into account every possibility, both because such an analysis is time-consuming and because the relevant information is only partially available to him. In addition, an offender’s cognitive deficits may restrict his information-processing concerning the crime (e.g., an offender intoxicated prior to the crime). Consequently, offenders usually rely on heuristics partially based on the success and failure of previous criminal activities, including previously used detection-avoidance strategies which did not lead to apprehension. The course of action selected by an offender is usually the first minimally satisfactory one identified, rather than the optimal one (Tversky and Kahneman 1981).

In departure from previous studies which classified sex offenders’ behaviors into typologies, recent studies on the modus operandi of sex offenders have shown the complexity of the criminal event – more so when the context, the victim, and the dynamic aspects of the crimes are taken into account. Some recent studies have examined different outcomes related to sex offenders’ modus operandi using different approaches.

Offenders’ Reaction To Victim Resistance

The most influential action a victim can take within the criminal event is one of resistance. Varying levels and types of resistance can have a range of effects on the offender’s modus operandi, especially with respect to how violent and coercive the offender becomes. Interactions between victim and offender become exceptionally important within this particular context, as the resistance itself is a reaction to the modus operandi of the offender. In fact, the resistance level employed by the victim has been found to closely match the offender’s strategy to commit the assault (Ullman 2007). Thus, if an offender attempts to verbally coerce or threaten his victim, the victim will likely utilize screaming and pleading in an attempt to stop the sexual assault. However, if the offender physically attacks the victim, the victim is more likely to use a similar level of physical forcefulness to avoid the assault.

Victim resistance has been examined in its effects on two outcomes: victim injury and/or sexual assault completion. Although these are pertinent factors to investigate, two recent studies have shifted the focus from these more terminal outcomes to the more direct relationship between the victim’s resistance and the offender’s immediate reaction to that resistance. There could very well be a multitude of factors that come into play between when the victim resists and her later injuries (e.g., victim frailty) or whether the crime results in its completion (e.g., interference or not of a bystander). However, the dependent variable used for these two studies questions the offender (rather than the victim) as to his direct response to that resistance.

In the first study, Balemba et al. (2012) found that specific variables and interactions among variables increase the risk of sexual assault victims experiencing a violent reaction to their resistance. Overall, the most influential situational factor is the strategy used by the offender to commit the crime. If the offender uses a violent persuasive strategy, the most likely scenario is one of violence; even after interaction with other variables, violence remains the consistently predicted offender response. This relationship is logical, since it is reasonable to suppose that an offender who begins his crime in a violent manner is more likely to react violently to resistance from his victim. However, it is also plausible that situational factors influence violence and increase the offender’s anger or modulate other factors that increase aggression. Tark and Kleck (2004) have found that when victims who resisted were hurt, it was almost always injury that came first, suggesting that the offender had decided to use violence before any interaction with the victim.

Moreover, the results found the type of victim resistance to be significant and to interact with offender strategy. The importance of this variable, and specifically its interaction with offender strategy, is consistent with previous findings indicating that resistance strategies of the victim tend to match offender strategies (Ullman 2007). Essentially, if the offender begins the assault using physical aggression, the victim is more likely to react with physical resistance. Finally, it was found that use of a weapon by the offender would lead to a violent reaction (Balemba et al. 2012).

The second study used a similar approach but this time distinguished the offender’s reaction to victim resistance between adult and child victims. In this study, Balemba and Beauregard (2012) concluded that characteristics of the victim – often beyond their control – may increase their likelihood of victimization, the type of offender they will attract, and the amount of violence that may occur during the assault itself. Additionally, the victim’s actions during the commission of the crime affect the offender’s modus operandi, just as the offender’s actions will affect the victim’s (see for instance Block 1981). Thus, substantial differences in situational factors and interactions were found when comparing offenses against adult victims to those against child victims. In general, the findings show that adult victims are more likely to encounter violence from the offender than child victims, as has been previously shown in the literature (e.g., Scott and Beaman 2004; Weaver et al. 2004). Moreover, the findings suggest a different offense planning and stratagem, dependent upon the type of victim. In essence, it appears that when an offender chooses a child victim, there is a higher degree of preparation that occurs before the crime takes place. In contrast, an offense against an adult victim appears to be somewhat more impulsive and a reaction to the situation.

These results suggest that, with an adult victim, an offender is more likely to resort to violence according to the resistance level of the victim. This is a very important finding, especially because previous studies have found the resistance of the victim to have no effect on the physical forcefulness of the offender (Ullman 2007). However, previous studies have consistently suffered from an inability to distinguish a temporal sequence in the event. If, for example, the offender begins with a violent offense strategy and the victim reacts physically, this is a much different scenario than if an offender reacts violently to a victim’s physical resistance. Such a distinction has been made in these studies, as the dependent variable was specifically designed to represent, as the name states, the offender’s reaction to victim resistance.

There appears to be a completely different social environment surrounding a sexual assault of a child. According to the findings, such assaults seem to be premeditated to a greater degree in an attempt to circumvent the use of expressive violence to complete the assault. Offenders against children are prepared, with regard to the surrounding setup and physical environment, and are aware of the amount of force they are likely and willing to use prior to the commencement of the assault (thus, the importance of the strategy to commit the crime). These interpretations are congruent with findings showing that planning is an important step, either implicitly or explicitly, in the offense process of child molesters (Ward et al. 1995). This planning often involves an assessment of victim vulnerability and chance of apprehension (Leclerc and Tremblay 2007). Furthermore, the notion of offenders “grooming” children as a way of normalizing or legitimizing sexual contact also corroborates the assertion that the element of premeditation is an important factor within the offending strategy of sexual abusers of children.

The social interactionist perspective emphasizes the true importance of behaviors of the various players within a coercive interchange (Luckenbill 1977; Tedeschi and Felson 1994). As evidenced by the findings within the two studies previously discussed, offender modus operandi has the potential to drastically alter victim behavior, especially the level of victim resistance. However, the current analyses have shown the reverse to be true as well: victim behavior also considerably affects offender modus operandi. Behavior appears to be cyclical in the sense that actors continually affect one another: offender assaultive behavior leads to victim resistance, which, depending upon the presence or degree of certain factors, may then lead to offender coercion in response to that resistance.

Victim’s Death

Sometimes during the interaction between the offender and the victim in a sexual assault event, the victim does not survive. Research has shown that the likelihood of a sexual assault becoming a homicide differs mainly based on victim characteristics and circumstantial factors. For instance, Felson and Messner (1996) found that the likelihood of the victim suffering serious injury or death was higher when sexual offenders used a weapon. Mieczkowski and Beauregard (2010) identified particular combinations of characteristics differentially associated with sexual assaults that end in the homicide of the victim. Using the method of conjunctive analysis (Miethe et al. 2008), they highlight those attributes in the victim, the situation, and the modus operandi which are associated with a lethal outcome. In brief, what was found in this analysis is that the most telling domain for a lethal outcome is contained within the modus operandi. For instance, the most lethal combination is when the offender uses a weapon and spends more than 30 min with the victim but does not commit intrusive sexual acts on the victim nor force the victim to commit sexual acts on him (ratio approaching 25 to 1). However, the weakest differentiation is seen in the situational characteristics. The domain of victim characteristics occupies an intermediate level. It has a relatively high number of combinations – five – which attain a ratio value greater than 1. Of these five combinations, the most lethal attains a value of 4.53, which is characterized by a victim aged under 14, stranger to the offender, and not from a criminogenic environment. These findings, although still preliminary, demonstrate the importance of looking at combination of factors instead of individual factors and the “practical” usefulness of the CEP.

Sex Offenders’ Criminal Mobility And Choices Of Crime Location

A different outcome which can be influenced by the modus operandi of sex offenders is the geography of the crime. More specifically, recent studies have looked at sex offenders’ criminal mobility as well as the choice of crime location for these same offenders. Beyond the basic measure of the journey to crime, some authors have attempted to further our understanding of the criminal mobility of sex offenders by examining two types of factors influencing their journey to crime: the offender and the modus operandi. Here we are particularly interested in the latter factor, the modus operandi. Lebeau (1987) focused on how the journey to rape varies as a function of the offender’s approach method. Results revealed that offenders traveled the shortest mean distance to assault their victims when they illegally entered the victim’s residence. In a different study, Canter and Gregory (1994) found that rapists who offend during the weekend travel farther than those who commit rape during a weekday and that rapists who attack outdoors traveled approximately 2.7 times farther to offend as those who raped indoors (e.g., in a house). Davies and Dale (1995) suggested also that rapists who target victims from a particular area (e.g., prostitutes from a redlight district), who commit sophisticated property offenses during a sexual assault, who spend large amounts of time roaming and using public transportation, and who are familiar with numerous neighborhoods (previous habitation, locations of significant people, current or past workplace locations) travel longer distances to commit their crimes. This was echoed by Warren et al. (1998) who found similar results in relation to the sophistication of the crime. Their results showed that rapists who used forced entry and who burglarized the victim during the assault tended to travel farther. Although interesting, it appears that all the studies have taken for granted that journey to crime was the only and probably the most adequate measure of criminal mobility. Whether or not this is true, none of these studies have questioned the use of the journey to crime to measure their criminal mobility.

In order to go beyond the journey-to-crime measure, criminal mobility has been conceptualized as the use of multiple locations for the purpose of repetitive sexual contact with the same victim. In their study, Leclerc et al. (2010) set out to examine whether offending differences existed between perpetrators who used multiple locations for sexual contact and those who used a single location for the entire crimecommission process. Overall, the results demonstrate that mobile offenders are more likely to isolate their victims, use violence, involve the victim in several sexual episodes, abuse the victim for over a 1-year period, and make the victim participate and perform sexual behaviors on them during sexual episodes. The authors concluded that by examining mobility of pedophiles from a location angle rather than measures of distance and direction provides a different perspective on the crime-commission process of these offenders (Leclerc et al. 2010).

Following Leclerc et al. (2010) study, Beauregard and Busina (2012) used a similar approach with serial sex offenders. They proposed that criminal mobility can be defined as the number of changes of location during the criminal event. As discussed previously, rape events present different stages – that is, encounter, attack, crime, and victim release – that may be associated with different locations. Although some sex offenders decide to commit all their action at the same location (i.e., stable offender with zero change of location), other mobile offenders may change location up to three times during the same event. As criminal mobility can be interpreted as a purposive action necessary to successfully commit a crime, the aim of their study was to predict the criminal mobility patterns exhibited in serial rape events from situational and modus operandi characteristics. The situational characteristics of the rape events and the modus operandi used in serial sex crimes might explain why some offenders need to be mobile and change location during the criminal event while others do not. Using negative binomial regression, the authors found that events which involve child or adolescent victims, committed during daytime, when the offender did not use pornography prior to crime, and where victim resistance is observed should display more criminal mobility. Moreover, when the victim is selected, the victim is alone when approached by the offender, and the crime is characterized by sexual penetration and a lack of premeditation is exhibiting more criminal mobility. These results point toward the fact that criminal mobility is a goal-oriented action taken by serial sex offenders in order to complete successfully their crime and to avoid detection and apprehension (Beauregard and Busina 2012).

As mentioned previously, much research in the field of spatial decision-making has concentrated on distance to crime, but less focus has been on those factors that affect the types of environmental locations where crimes are likely to take place. As rapes are complex crimes largely influenced by contextual factors, environmental variables, and offender decision-making (Beauregard et al. 2010), it is necessary to examine these factors when determining offenders’ choice of crime site locations. The study by Hewitt, Beauregard, and Davies (Hewitt et al. 2012) analyzes temporal factors, offender hunting behavior, and modus operandi strategies in a sample of 361 sexual crimes committed by 72 serial rapists, to determine their utility in predicting the type of location where victim encounter and release sites are likely to be, as these two sites are the most likely to be known by the police during the investigation (Rossmo 2000). Findings showed that temporal factors, hunting behavior, and modus operandi variables are all important to the victim encounter and release sites, but the significance of these factors varies depending on whether or not the location is in a residential land-use area, private site, inside location, and familiar to the offender. For instance, the study shows that in terms of offender modus operandi strategies, victims are more likely to be encountered in residential landuse areas, private sites, and inside locations when the crime is structurally premeditated. These findings suggest that offenders purposefully hunt for victims in these locations because they know that they will find victims who satisfy their criteria. As noted in the home-intrusion rape track proposed by Beauregard and colleagues (2007), offenders following this script enter a private, inside location that is unfamiliar to them (e.g., the victim’s residence). Thus, crimes taking place in private or inside locations require more premeditation on the offenders’ behalf as they are entering a space that is removed from the public domain. Because the offender does not belong in these locations, it requires more effort and planning on his part to enter these spaces unlawfully and be able to successfully commit the crime in areas where he is considered to be an outsider. Moreover, offenders who structurally premeditate their crimes tend to release their victims in an inside location. As rapists who premeditate their crimes are more common than those who do not (Rossmo 2000), many offenders select their victims by window peeping or following women on their way home, which suggests some degree of planning on behalf of the perpetrator. As such, the victim attack, crime, and release locations tend to be at the victim’s residence, which in many cases is classified as an inside location. In addition, victims of sexual assault where the rapist uses a vehicle to commit the crime are less likely to be released in a private site or inside location than those victims where the offender does not use a vehicle. As Beauregard and Leclerc (2007) note, sex offenders do not usually use vehicles throughout the commission of their crimes for several reasons, including lack of a driver’s license or car, or the rape takes place in an inside location, thereby not necessitating the use of a vehicle. However, in crimes where rapists do utilize a vehicle, they may do so because it helps them to search for victims and provides them with a private site to rape the victim and/or a means to move the victim from one location to another (e.g., moving her from the rape site to the release site; Beauregard and Leclerc 2007). By using a vehicle as the rape site and/or to move the victim from one geographic location to another, the rapist may release the victim in a variety of land-use or public spaces.

These studies illustrate not only the complex dynamics of sexual assault events but also how the modus operandi strategies used by the offenders may impact the different geographical outcome of the crime, that is, the decision to move during the event or the decision as to where to encounter and release the victim.

Forensic Awareness

One of the stages of the criminal event which has been understudied is the aftermath – that is, what are the actions and behaviors of the offenders after committing the crime. One of these modus operandi strategies which is of great interest for the criminal investigation is the use of particular precautions by sex offenders in order to avoid getting caught. When committing their crimes, offenders take actions that inherently have the potential to leave evidence at the crime scene (e.g., breaking and entering into a residence may leave fingerprints, ejaculating during a rape may leave DNA). Despite all these potential opportunities, unavailability of many forms of forensic evidence has been observed at crime scenes. In fact, research has shown that physical evidence is being collected in less than 10 % of cases investigated by the police (Horvath and Meesig 1996). Although little empirical evidence has been found for the “CSI effect” – by which juries supposedly will no longer convict without forensic evidence (Podlas 2006)– some authors have contended that perhaps a more serious aspect of the availability of all these TV shows is the knowledge gained by potential criminals (Durnal 2010). For example, it has been noted that offenders are increasingly wearing gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints, using tape to seal envelops to avoid leaving DNA, and even using bleach (which destroys DNA) to clean up blood (Stevens 2008).

Some offenders will adapt their modus operandi or take precautions before, during, or post crime commission to decrease their risk of apprehension. Arguably, this adaptation of crime strategy may be deemed an indication of evolving criminal sophistication on the part of the offender. Offenders who adapt their modus operandi to thwart police investigative efforts may be said to be exhibiting investigative awareness (i.e., a knowledge or understanding of police investigative practice). A related concept coined in criminological research as “forensic awareness” (Davies 1992) refers to an offender’s knowledge or understanding of the importance of forensic evidence (e.g., DNA, fingerprints, dental impressions) to police investigation.

There is a dearth of research on the extent of forensic awareness among offenders and the impact that this awareness has on the crime process and investigation. A small number of studies, specific to sexual crime, have addressed the issue of forensic awareness and provide some insight on how certain offender behaviors may be indicative of forensic and/or investigative awareness. Davies and Dale (1995) studied stranger rapists and suggested that traveling longer distances to commit an offense may be indicative of forensic awareness. Beauregard and Field (2008) identify a precaution (i.e., moving a victim’s body post murder) that may be undertaken to delay apprehension but may also be considered an indicator of both investigative and forensic awareness. Moving the body complicates the investigation by decontextualizing the crime, potentially decreasing the likelihood that the victim will be found or, if found, identified. This action may also indicate forensic awareness as the offender is removing a significant source of forensic evidence from the scene of the homicide. In their examination of 222 stranger sexual assaults, Beauregard and Bouchard (2010) found that certain modus operandi strategies (i.e., nonrandom selection of a victim, selecting a victim who is alone, and hunting for a victim in certain locations, such as a prostitution stroll), arguably indicators of investigative awareness, were related to forensic awareness, which was evident at the crime scene. Furthermore, offenders who break and enter the homes of their victim and exhibit certain sexual behaviors (i.e., penetrate the victim and ejaculate) are more likely to exhibit forensic awareness. A negative relationship was found between forensic awareness and the use of drugs and/or alcohol prior to commission of the offense (Beauregard and Bouchard 2010).


Although typologies based on offenders’ behavior have been useful to classify offenders for the purpose of suggesting treatment modalities and assessing the risk, recent studies on the modus operandi of these sex offenders have shown the complex dynamics in the criminal event. The findings reveal that the modus operandi decided by an offender may change during the criminal event, depending on the context, more specifically on the victim’s behavior. But in order to uncover these complex dynamics, it is important to look at the modus operandi of sex offenders through a criminal event perspective, where the offender, the victim, and the context of the crime are taken into account. Such an approach requires not only a theoretical shift in the study of sex offenders’ modus operandi but also a shift in the analytical methods used. Methods which can take into account the multiple interactions between the variables under study (e.g., conjunctive analysis, regression tree) should be prioritized over classification methods (e.g., cluster analysis). These new approaches help to gain a better understanding of the sex offender’s decision-making during the criminal event as well as better predict different outcomes within the criminal event. The modus operandi is a purposive set of actions taken by an offender which will inevitably lead to an outcome (e.g., death of the victim of not). But to understand why certain offenders are associated to one outcome in particular, it is important to be able to look at the dynamics involved during the criminal event and examine which factors can influence the offender’s modus operandi.


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