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According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, 16 % of arrests for rape and 19 % of arrests for other sexual offenses are committed by youth under the age of 18 (United States Department of Justice 2001). Moreover, many adult sex offenders admit committing their first sexual offense before the age of 18. Indeed, Knight and Prentky (1993) found that half of the 1,025 adult sex offenders in their sample began sexually offending as adolescents. Because many sexual offenses are not reported, the prevalence of adolescent sexual offending is higher than official statistics indicate. Given these facts, it is not surprising that adolescent sexual offenders (ASOs) have become a major societal concern.
An etiological understanding of adolescent sexual offending is needed to refine assessment and intervention strategies. One area of research that would be particularly helpful is identifying if adolescent sexual offending can be explained by a generalist model of criminal behavior or if ASOs should be considered specialist offenders, with special factors that explain the onset and/or maintenance of their crimes. If ASOs are generalists, then existing risk and need assessment measures and interventions would likely be useful with this population. However, if ASOs are specialists, with distinct etiological factors, then different risk/need measures and interventions may be required.
ASOs have commonly been considered a distinct subtype of adolescent offender, with different developmental trajectories and criminogenic needs. Indeed, the National Adolescent Perpetrator Network, an organization of professionals involved with ASOs, concluded in an influential task force report that “.. .sexually abusive youth require a specialized response from the justice system which is different from other delinquent populations” (1993, p. 86). However, some empirical literature does suggest that the crimes committed by ASOs are a manifestation of general delinquency risk factors, including antisocial personality traits such as impulsivity and callousness, antisocial attitudes and beliefs, delinquent peers, early conduct problems, and substance abuse. Indeed, on average about half of ASOs would qualify for a diagnosis of conduct disorder, which by definition requires involvement in a range of antisocial behaviors (e.g., Elliott 1994).
The purpose of this research paper is to summarize the theoretical literature concerning the models of adolescent sexual offending and the evidence for and against the generalist and specialist perspectives. The results of a recent meta-analysis conducted by Seto and Lalumie`re (2010), examining 59 studies comparing adolescent sex and nonsex offenders, will be discussed in detail to highlight where there are similarities and differences between ASOs and other adolescent offenders and to provide insight into the generalist versus specialist debate.
The General Delinquency Explanation. The general delinquency explanation suggests that ASOs share etiological factors with other adolescent offenders. In a series of studies conducted by Lewis et al. (1981), the authors compared 17 ASOs and 61 other violent adolescent offenders on psychiatric, neurological, and psychoeducational variables. The authors concluded that the similarities between violent adolescent offenders and ASOs indicate these groups have similar therapeutic needs. While ASOs do warrant some specialized treatment options, general antisocial and violent tendencies must be addressed in treatment as well. Awad et al. (1984) found that the similarities between ASOs and other adolescent offenders outweighed the differences. These similarities included psychiatric history, inadequate parenting, past delinquency, violence, school misconduct, and parent-child attachment.
Recidivism studies are also consistent with a generalist model of adolescent sexual offending. Relatively few adolescent offenders commit only sexual crimes; most commit nonsexual offenses as well, though the extent of involvement in nonsexual offending varies greatly. In a meta-analysis conducted by Caldwell (2002), ASOs were six times more likely to be rearrested for nonsexual offenses than sexual offenses, and only a small proportion (10–15 %) of ASOs go on to commit sexual offenses as adults. Next, the majority of the factors that have been shown to predict recidivism among delinquents in general (criminal history, early behavior problems, antisocial personality traits, attitudes, etc.) also predict sexual recidivism in ASOs (Hanson and Morton-Bourgon 2005). Lastly, sexual offenses committed by adolescents tend to occur in an escalating pattern, starting with minor nonsexual offenses such as theft to more serious nonsexual crimes such as assaults, and eventually leading to serious sexual crimes (Elliott 1994).
Based on these findings, it is plausible to suggest that ASOs would display similar scores to that of other adolescent offenders on general delinquency risk factors. Findings of this nature would suggest that ASOs are not a distinct subtype of adolescent offender. If this were the case, current assessment tools, treatment options, and theories that are applied to adolescent offenders could be used in the study and treatment of ASOs without diminishing the reliability and validity of such options.
Specialist Explanations. Specialist explanations of ASOs suggest that these offenders have different etiological factors than other adolescent offenders. If this perspective is correct, then assessment and treatment methods developed for adolescent offenders in general will be less effective with ASOs, as they only address any common factors the two populations share. Theories describing the etiology of ASOs have focused on factors such as poor childhood attachment, heterosocial incompetence, atypical sexual experiences, psychopathology, cognitive abilities, atypical sexual interests, and sexual abuse history. Each of these factors will be briefly described below.
Poor Childhood Attachment. The ability to form mutually rewarding relationships is thought to stem from the parent-child relationship. Studies conducted with adult sex offenders have found that they are more likely than other offenders to have insecure childhood attachments that develop into insecure adult attachment styles (for a review see Marshall and Barbaree 1990). Awad et al. (1984) found that the vast majority of ASOs in their sample had been separated from their parents for an extended period of time and just over half of the youth showed serious problems in their family system, including parental abuse and neglect, witnessing violence within the home, and parental rejection. Marshall and Barbaree (1990) suggested that insecure childhood attachments increase the likelihood of sexual offending in adolescents by hindering the development of healthy emotional regulation, empathy, and social skills. Indeed, ASOs seem to be characterized by a pattern of poor social relationships. Fagan and Wexler (1988) found that ASOs were significantly more socially isolated than other violent adolescent offenders. If poor childhood attachment is a risk factor specific to ASOs, it is expected that ASOs would differ from other adolescent offenders by having more childhood attachment problems, especially insecure attachment.
Psychopathology. Studies have often found high levels of anxiety, depression, and personality problems in both adolescent and adult sex offenders. Among 22 ASOs, Galli et al. (1999) found that 82 % had a diagnosable mood disorder such as depression, 55% had an anxiety disorder, 50 % had a substance abuse disorder, 55 % had an impulse control disorder, and 71 % had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Indeed, many participants in this small clinical study had substantial psychiatric comorbidity. The authors also reported that some participants in their study stated that their sexual impulses and sexually aggressive behavior increased when they were experiencing mood symptoms.
There are theories that postulate that sexual offending is associated with affect regulation and personality problems. For example, Hall and Hirschman’s (1991) quadripartite model suggests there are four subtypes of sexual aggressors, each differing in the primacy of physiological, cognitive, affective, and personality problems. The third subtype emphasizes episodic affective dyscontrol, suggesting that ASOs are more likely to engage in sexually aggressive behavior when they are angry or sad. The fourth subtype is characterized by developmental personality problems such as neuroticism. If increased psychopathology is an etiological factor specific to ASOs, these offenders should score higher on measures of psychological problems compared to other adolescent offenders.
Cognitive Abilities. Theories that focus on cognitive deficits in ASOs suggest that offenders who have lower intellectual functioning have poorer impulse control and thus are more likely to sexually offend opportunistically against children. At the same time, youth who are of lower intellectual or cognitive functioning may be more likely to be sexually rejected by similar-aged peers and thus feel the need to turn to children or engage in sexually coercive behavior to satisfy their emotional and sexual needs. In a metaanalysis conducted by Cantor et al. (2005), the authors found that adult sex offenders scored significantly lower on measures of intelligence compared to adult nonsex offenders. However, though ASOs tended to have a lower mean intelligence score than other adolescent nonsex offenders, these results were not statistically significant. A limitation of this meta-analysis is that the authors included all available samples of sex offenders with all available samples of nonsex offenders. The samples were not matched on possible confounding variables such as how they were selected for study. Therefore, these groups may have differed in a way that influenced their intelligence scores and explains why this study did not confirm previous findings of lower intelligence in ASOs. In a direct comparison of groups recruited in the same settings using the same procedures, one would expect that ASOs would score significantly lower on measures of intellectual and cognitive functioning than other adolescent offenders.
Heterosocial Incompetence. Heterosocial incompetence refers to the lack of social skills necessary to function in a heterosexual relationship, given that most ASOs are male and sexually prefer females. Explanations that focus on this factor suggest that ASOs seek relations with younger children or use sexual coercion against peers or adults because they do not have the necessary social skills to maintain an ageappropriate relationship that satisfies their emotional and sexual needs (e.g., Marshall and Barbaree 1990). Adolescent child molesters have been found to score significantly lower than other adolescent offenders in regard to heterosocial competence (Katz 1990). Lastly, in a meta-analysis conducted by Hanson and Morton-Bourgon (2005), intimacy deficits (composed of poor social skills, negative social influences, conflicts in intimate relationships, emotional identification with children, and/or loneliness) were a significant predictor of sexual recidivism in adult and ASOs. If heterosocial incompetence is a correct explanation, one would expect that ASOs would score lower on measures of heterosocial competence compared to other adolescent offenders.
Psychosexual Development. Researchers have speculated that ASOs differ from other adolescent offenders in their psychosexual development (Marshall and Barbaree 1990). One common finding is that ASOs experience earlier and more frequent exposure to sex as children. Some studies suggest adult sex offenders are characterized by more frequent use of pornography in childhood compared to nonsex offenders, but in a meta-analysis of the adult literature, Allen et al. (2000) compared criminal sex offenders with the general population and found that the two groups did not differ in their frequency of pornography use as well as age at first exposure to pornography. However, the authors did find that criminal sex offenders were more likely than the general population to perform consensual and/or nonconsensual sexual acts following pornography viewing. If this explanation were correct, it is expected that ASOs would score higher than other adolescent offenders on measures of atypical sexual experiences such as sexually inappropriate family environments and early exposure to pornography or sex.
Atypical Sexual Interests. Atypical sexual interests usually refer to relatively strong sexual arousal to depictions of children or sexual coercion, compared to consenting sex with sameaged peers. Research has confirmed that adult sex offenders show levels of increased sexual arousal to these atypical stimuli compared to either nonsex offenders or non-offenders (see Seto 2008). Additionally, measures of these atypical sexual interests have been shown to be significant predictors of sexual recidivism in adult and ASOs (Hanson and Morton-Bourgon 2005).
Seto et al. (2000) found that as a whole, their group of 40 adolescent child molesters displayed more sexual arousal to depictions of children and coercive sex compared to young adult nonsex offenders. The difference was driven by those who had offended against boys; those who had offended against girls did not differ from the comparison group. Seto et al. (2003) found that phallometrically assessed sexual arousal to children was correlated with sexual victim history in an expected fashion, such that adolescents who had offended against boys, multiple child victims, younger child victims, or unrelated victims were more likely to show a preference for children than those who offended against only girls, a single child victim, older child victims, or related victims. Given all of these results, it is expected that ASOs will show significantly more arousal to children or coercive sex when compared to nonsex adolescent offenders.
Sexual Abuse. The most common etiological explanation of sexual offending in adults or adolescents is sexual abuse history. These theorists suggest that children and adolescents who are sexually abused are more likely to commit sexual offenses later on in life (Marshall and Barbaree 1990). In a meta-analysis conducted by Jespersen et al. (2009) comparing 1,037 adult sex offenders and 1,762 adult nonsex offenders, there was a significantly higher prevalence of sexual abuse history in adult sex offenders compared to other nonsex offenders. In fact, adult sex offenders had 3.36 times greater odds of having a sexual abuse history than their nonsex offender counterparts.
For ASOs, Johnson (1988) found that the earlier the sexually abusive behavior in ASOs begins, the more likely the youth is to have been sexually abused themselves. In the authors’ sample, 72 % of the youth who began committing sexually abusive behavior before the age of 6 had been sexually abused themselves, whereas 42 % of the youth who began committing sexual abusive behavior between the ages of 7 and 11 had this history. In another study, Worling (1995) found that of the 1,268 ASOs included in his sample, 30 % had a history of sexual abuse. These explanations would suggest that ASOs should have a higher prevalence of sexual abuse history compared to other adolescent offenders. Because the explanation posits a specific link between sexual abuse history and sexual offending, any difference for sexual abuse should be greater than for physical abuse or other forms of maltreatment.
Meta-analysis. A meta-analysis is a statistical procedure that integrates the results of independent studies to produce a more reliable estimate of the actual size of the effect for the variable in question. A systematic review first identifies all relevant studies in an effort to minimize publication and other related biases. After the systematic review, the meta-analysis can be conducted to calculate a weighted statistic to give a more reliable calculation of effect size. Additionally, meta-analysis allows for the examination of moderators. Moderators are variables that affect the strength of the relationship between a predictor variable and an independent variable. Lastly, meta-analysis techniques allow for the development of more homogenous groups, which subsequently allows for the ability to compare subsets of samples found in different studies.
Seto and Lalumie`re (2010) examined 59 direct comparison studies, with a total sample of 3,855 male ASOs and 13,393 male adolescent nonsex offenders, on theoretically derived variables. These included offender age, criminal involvement, conduct problems, antisocial tendencies, substance abuse, childhood abuse and exposure to violence, interpersonal problems, family problems, cognitive abilities, sexuality, psychopathology, and impression management. Figures 1 and 2 summarize the results of this meta-analysis, which provided an empirical test of the generalist and specialist explanations previously discussed.
The factors suggestive of a generalist model (Fig. 1) include variables that have been identified as risk factors for general delinquency, including antisocial personality, behavior and attitudes, as well as family characteristics including family criminality, violence, and substance use. The factors suggestive of a specialist model (Fig. 2) include variables theoretically identified as special to adolescent sexual offending, including sexual abuse history, atypical sexual interests, heterosocial incompetence (poor social relations), atypical sexual experiences (exposure to sex or pornography), psychopathology (anxiety and low self-esteem), as well as cognitive deficits (learning problems/disabilities). The largest specialist-anticipated differences between ASOs and other adolescent offenders were found for atypical sexual interests and then sexual abuse history.
There are two main conclusions that can be drawn from the Seto and Lalumie`re (2010) meta-analysis. The first would be that, on average, ASOs share many of the same risk factors as other adolescent offenders, including antisocial attitudes and personality traits, which helps explain why ASOs are involved in criminal behavior. But in order to explain why a particular adolescent commits a sexual crime rather than a nonsexual crime, factors associated with psychosexual development, including sexual abuse history, exposure to sex or pornography, and atypical sexual interests, also need to be considered. The second conclusion that can be drawn from the meta-analytic results is that neither the generalist explanation nor the specialist explanations can fully explain adolescent sexual offending.
Offender Typologies. The results of Seto and Lalumie`re’s (2010) meta-analysis need to be considered in conjunction with other research. ASOs are heterogeneous, and it is expected that there are different types of ASOs. The generalist and specialist explanations are not mutually exclusive. Both could be true: Some ASOs could be generalists, with similar risk factors and treatment needs as other adolescent offenders, whereas other ASOs could be specialists, with special factors that require other assessment or treatment methods.
Additional support for the specialist/generalist distinction comes from studies examining the performance of actuarial risk assessment measures. The Juvenile Sex Offender Assessment Protocol II (JSOAP-II) is a 28-item scale of theoretically derived static and dynamic risk factors for ASOs (Prentky and Righthand 2003). The items are organized into four subscales: Sexual Drive/Preoccupation, Impulsive/Antisocial Behavior, Intervention, and Community Stability/Adjustment. Rajlic and Gretton (2010) confirmed the predictive validity of the JSOAP-II using a sample of 286 male ASOs. The authors found that as a whole, the scale significantly predicted sexual as well as nonsexual recidivism. Specifically, the Sexual Drive/Preoccupation subscale predicted sexual but not nonsexual recidivism, while the Impulsive/Antisocial Behavior subscale predicted nonsexual but not sexual recidivism. The Intervention subscale and the Community Stability/ Adjustment subscales predicted both sexual and nonsexual recidivism. These findings are important because it suggests that ASOs who have more risk factors in the Impulsive/Antisocial Behavior subscale (who are more likely to be generalist offenders) are more likely to reoffend nonsexually, while offenders who have higher scores in the Sexual Drive/Preoccupation subscale (who are more likely to be specialist offenders) are more likely to reoffend sexually.
The generalist/specialist distinction has been examined in ASOs as well. Butler and Seto (2002) found that 22 sex-only ASOs (adolescents who had only committed sexual offenses) and 10 sex-plus ASOs (adolescents who had committed sexual as well as nonsexual crimes) were different in many ways. Sex-plus offenders had more conduct problems as children, more antisocial attitudes and beliefs, higher risk for future delinquency, as well as a more extensive criminal history, substance abuse, and peer and family problems. All of these factors are related to general delinquency, indicating that sex-plus offenders have much in common with other adolescent nonsex offenders who were included in the study as a comparison group. These sex-plus offenders would be considered generalist ASOs. Conversely, sex-only offenders were characterized by less criminal history and conduct problems, less substance abuse, fewer peer relation problems, and fewer psychological problems. The sex-only offenders, as specialists, had less in common with other adolescent offenders on these variables. Using the same generalist/specialist distinction, Chu and Thomas (2010) created a classification model for ASOs based on risk of recidivism. While there was not a significant difference in the rate of sexual recidivism between generalists and specialists (14.3 % versus 9.9 %, respectively), generalist offenders were significantly more likely to recidivate violently and nonviolently.
Oxnam and Vess (2006) used hierarchical cluster analysis to distinguish three groups of ASOs. The first group was described as “antisocial” and was characterized by youth who were prone to aggression and unpredictable. These youth lacked close bonds with others and had a propensity for substance abuse. The second group was described as “inadequate” and was characterized by severe psychopathology. This group was more likely to have a history of abuse and more likely to be negative and self-degrading. The last group of ASOs was described as being in the “normal range” and did not have extreme scores on any of the personality/risk scales.
Lastly, Worling (2001) conducted a cluster analysis of ASOs based on personality characteristics. This analysis revealed four types. The first, “antisocial/impulsive,” was characterized by a propensity for rule violations that included sexual and nonsexual offenses. The second, “unusual/isolated,” was characterized as emotionally disturbed and socially isolated. The third, “over-controlled/reserved,” was shy, reserved, and relatively weak at forming intimate, age-appropriate relationships. The last, “confident/aggressive,” was characterized by overt aggression and narcissistic personality traits. The authors found that the “antisocial/ impulsive” and the “unusual/isolated” groups were both at a higher risk to reoffend, whether violently (including sexually) or nonviolently, compared to the other two groups.
Table 1 displays the extent of overlap between these different typological clusters proposed by the above studies. While typologies may be useful in the classification and treatment of offenders, they do not provide suggestions for the etiology of the different proposed types. To develop an integrated theory of adolescent sexual offending, the origins of these different types of ASOs must be examined. Of particular interest are the developmental trajectories underlying the different types. In the following section, focus is placed on the developmental trajectories of generalist and specialist offenders.
Developmental Trajectories. Seto and Barbaree (1997) introduced a model of sexual offending in which they describe at least two developmental trajectories. The first trajectory (antisocial) is characterized by an early onset of problem behaviors and general delinquency risk factors. These offenders may show an early onset of sexual activity, have affect regulation problems, and can be manipulative and callous. The origin of this trajectory lies in the interactions between neuropsychological predispositions and criminogenic environments, consistent with Moffitt’s (1993) description of the developmental trajectories of life course-persistent offenders. The second trajectory is characterized by opportunistic sexual offending. Though individuals in this trajectory may engage in nonsexual antisocial behavior as well, it is not early onset, varied, or persistent, consistent with Moffitt’s (1993) description of adolescence-limited offenders.
Sexual deviance factors may be present in either trajectory; their presence increases their risk of sexual recidivism (Hanson and MortonBourgon 2005). Crossing the presence or absence of sexual deviance with the developmental trajectories creates four hypothetical groups of offenders: persistent generalists, limited generalists, persistent specialists, and limited specialists. Persistent generalists are high in delinquency risk factors, show problems early in life, and are likely to continue to nonsexually or, to a lesser extent, sexually offend in the future (they are life course persistent). Sexual offending for them would be part of a general pattern of antisocial behavior, and thus they would be more likely to engage in opportunistic sexual offenses, usually against peers/adults but sometimes against older children, particularly those showing some signs of puberty. Limited generalists are not expected to have sexual deviance risk factors but do have some delinquency risk factors. These offenders are expected to offend as a result of lack of sexual opportunities with peers and access to potential victims. Persistent specialists are high in delinquency risk factors but are also high on atypical sexual interests and thus are likely to continue to both sexually and nonsexually reoffend. They are expected to be more likely to offend against children than persistent generalists and are more likely to plan their sexual offenses. This group would pose the greatest risk of sexual recidivism. Lastly, limited specialists are low in delinquency risk factors and likely low to moderate in sexual deviance risk factors. Their sexual and nonsexual offending is expected to be limited to adolescence. Their sexual offenses may be attributed to their reactions to perturbations in their psychosexual development as a result of sexual abuse, early exposure to sex or pornography, social isolation, and lack of sexual opportunities with peers.
The results of the Seto and Lalumie`re (2010) meta-analysis can only indicate that both generalist and specialist explanations (but not all specialist explanations) contribute to an understanding of adolescent sexual offending. There are many unanswered questions. Of primary interest is the proportion of ASOs who can be characterized as generalists or specialists and whether these broad distinctions encompass more specific types on the basis of antisocial behavior, sexual behavior, and offense/victim characteristics. This question could be addressed by using cluster analysis or similar techniques on a large sample of ASOs with data on relevant measures. Ideally, the data would include information about developmental and historical variables to explore the developmental trajectories leading to the different empirically validated types. The different trajectories for antisocial behavior in terms of disposition, environmental interactions, age of onset, and life course are relatively understood, but the same is not true for the trajectories of sexual behavior and sexual deviance. Also of interest would be follow-up studies to determine if different ASO types respond differently to treatment or other interventions and to determine if they differ in their risk to sexually and/or nonsexually reoffend. Studies of this nature would go far in explaining the etiology of adolescent sexual offending and would have important implications for assessment and intervention practices.
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