Specialization and Sexual Offending Research Paper

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The field of research into sexual aggression and offending is largely based upon the assumption that sexual offenders are inherently different from generic or nonsexual criminals. This position has permeated through more than just research and is now evident in the policies and practices that treat and manage sexual offenders and seek to prevent sexual abuse. This assumption of offense specialization proposes that sexual offenders commit sexual offenses persistently and exclusively (or at least predominantly) throughout their lives (Simon 1997; Zimring et al. 2007). It is often further implied that these offenders have a detectable degree of sexually deviant arousal and commit sexual offenses in a planned and repetitive way (Simon 2000; Zimring et al. 2007). Meanwhile, almost no other type of offender is viewed like this. Rather, they are considered to be criminally versatile, showing no apparent predilection for one crime over another.

This research paper provides an overview of recent international literature regarding the nature and extent of offense specialization and versatility in the criminal careers of sexual offenders. A discussion of the many methodological considerations that arise from this research will be presented, followed by a brief overview of relevant theoretical perspectives. Finally, comments are provided regarding the implications for further research in criminology and criminal justice as well as prevention efforts aimed toward addressing sexual offenders.


There are wide-reaching practical implications that stem from the view that sexual offenders are either specialist or versatile in their offending. The sexual offender “profile” has become increasingly visible in recent years. This has likely been encouraged by a small number of horrific incidents that received extraordinary attention by the international media. As a consequence, individuals who are identified as sexual offenders are now subjected to more discretionary decision making in the criminal justice system than almost any other type of offender (Simon 1997). This has led to more frequent and aggressive prosecution of sexual offenders as well as the passage of various special legislative initiatives aimed exclusively at sexual offenders (Simon 1997). Judgments about an individual’s dangerousness and their perceived risk of re-offense are predicated upon the view that sexual offenders are “special cases” requiring or necessitating specific assessment, treatment, therapist certification, polygraphy protocols, probation models, protective custody, and so on.

If offenders do specialize in the types of crime they commit, then it makes sense for policy to be tailored toward specific individuals who have been determined likely to participate in a particular crime (Mazerolle et al. 2000). In this way, crime-specific incarceration policies would be influential in reducing the incidence of specific crime types. If knowledge of prior offenses could actually predict subsequent criminal events, then the identification of specialized offenders would certainly be useful in criminal justice decision making (Farrington et al. 1988).

If, on the other hand, offenders are predominantly versatile, crime-specific policies would have less impact. If versatility is the standard offending tendency, a reevaluation of many legislative initiatives and policies already in place might be necessary. One interpretation of this state of affairs would suggest that such initiatives, “fuelled by the assumption of specialization” (Simon 1997, p. 2), have evolved to cater to a sexual offender population that does not actually exist.

Competing Perspectives

The Specialist Perspective: Offense specialization is a central component of the criminal career paradigm and refers to an individual’s tendency to engage in the same crime or type of crime on successive arrests or offending occasions (Blumstein et al. 1986). Specialist offenders are thought to become proficient at a certain crime, which they subsequently commit almost exclusively (Harris 2008). The consequence of this definition is that it is thought to be possible to predict any particular arrest in someone’s criminal career based on their most recent prior arrest (Britt 1994).

Compelling evidence of versatility first emerged in the 1920s (Harris 2008) which left the notion of specialization largely marginalized for decades. Despite this, books continue to be written, research projects funded, and theories constructed, all with an assumption that offenders specialize in their offending (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990). The strong belief in specialist offenders – shoplifters, drug offenders, and white-collar criminals – conveniently allows “us” to separate ourselves from “them.” Nowhere is this trend more obvious than in cases of rapists or pedophiles.

The Versatile Perspective: The opposing position of offense versatility proposes a common construct of deviance that views all crimes as “acts of force or fraud undertaken in pursuit of self-interest” (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990, p. 15). Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) claim that all crimes are alike and argue that any distinction between them (such as trivial or serious, or victim or victimless) is irrelevant and misleading. It would follow then that distinguishing between sexual and nonsexual offending (or, e.g., between sexual offenses against adults and sexual offenses against children) is an equally futile endeavor.

Specialization And Versatility In Sexual Offending: Theoretical Context

Although offense specialization is probably best understood empirically, it is necessary to situate offending patterns within a meaningful theoretical context. Theory building in sexual offending research has largely occurred beyond the boundaries of traditional criminology (Simon 2000). Meanwhile, criminological theories tend not to consider sexual offenders on their own. Some have observed that these developments have created an almost philosophical apartheid between conventional criminology and sexual offending theory (Soothill et al. 2000). There are, however, appropriate explanations that attend to both of these observations. The following discussion will focus explicitly on those theories of sexual offending that speak to specialization or versatility.

Sexual offenses are usually understood within the context of deviant sexual arousal and paraphilia. But a more generic model would consider a sexual offense within the context of general criminality. Here, a sexual crime would be seen as an expression of general antisocial behavior that likely occurs rarely and in a haphazard fashion within an offender’s criminal career. Some researchers have concluded that generic models provide sufficient explanation of sexual offending, while others hold that sexual offenders warrant more specific theoretical consideration.

The propensity to offend can certainly be understood by either general or specialist theories. In particular, sexual offending can be understood as either an example of general crime or as a special case requiring the presence of sexual deviance. The Integrated Theory of Sexual Offending (Marshall and Barbaree 1990) and the Conditioning Theory of Sexual Offending (Laws and Marshall 1990), respectively, are proposed as two such examples.

The Integrated Theory of Sexual Offending. Marshall and Barbaree’s (1990) Integrated Theory of Sexual Offending focuses on opportunity and self-control and can be seen as a sexual offending-specific version of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) General Theory published in the same year. Marshall and Barbaree (1990) combined developmental elements with situational and environmental factors to create an integrated explanation of sexual offending (Ward 2002). The authors proposed that men are biologically equipped to learn to express their sexuality aggressively. They contend that “the acquisition of attitudes and behaviors during childhood sets the stage for the developing male to respond to the sudden onset of strong desires characteristic of pubescence with a prosocial or an antisocial mental set” (Marshall and Barbaree 1990, p. 260). Similar to Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), they illustrate the importance of parental attachment and argue that sexual offending is more likely in individuals whose childhoods are characterized by poor parenting or poor socialization (Ward 2002). Provided these preexisting variables are present, situational elements have the ultimate impact on sexual offending. Stress, intoxication, anger, presence of a potential victim, and the belief that detection can be avoided are the most important situational variables (Marshall and Barbaree 1990; Ward 2002).

Marshall and Barbaree’s (1990) contribution does not address the issue of specialization versus versatility directly. For them, sexual offending remains independent of other behaviors and therefore warrants a unique explanation. They recognize that sexual offenders have the capacity to be criminally versatile and do engage in an array of antisocial behaviors. This represents a significant variation from other theories constructed to explain sexual offending which have essentially ignored this aspect of criminality. Ward et al. (2006) suggest that Marshall and Barbaree altered the theoretical landscape (within sexual abuse research) by simply acknowledging the component of nonsexual criminality.

Like the critics of Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), researchers have also argued that the Integrated Theory is too general (Ward 2002). Their main criticism is that it does not account for important distinctions between types of sexual offenders (i.e., distinguishing, e.g., between rapists and child molesters) (Ward 2002). Drawing on typological traditions, Ward recommends that theorists should “develop more specific rather than general explanations” (p. 217). Evidently, influenced by the work of Gottfredson and Hirschi, the criminological tradition has moved in the opposite direction.

Conditioning Theory of Sexual Offending. Also published in 1990, Laws and Marshall’s Conditioning Theory provides a coherent explanation of specialization in sexual offending by emphasizing learning experiences and motivation. Like other well-regarded theories of sexual abuse, Laws and Marshall (1990) do not preclude a sexual offender from being versatile. Instead, they simply do not make any reference to a sexual offender’s nonsexual offending. In this way, they seek to explain only how an individual with certain experiences will come to offend sexually.

Conditioning Theory provides a theoretical basis for the deviant sexual preference hypothesis (Ward et al. 2006). Although it has a specific sexual offender focus, the theory argues that sexual deviations are learned responses to possibly accidental experiences with sexually deviant behavior (Ward et al. 2006). That is, they could evolve in anyone.

Deviant arousal patterns are said to develop through the process of classical conditioning and the “elaborated use of deviant fantasy in masturbation” (Laws and Marshall 1990, p. 226). This is likely a gradual process occurring during masturbation to a memory which need not have been sexually stimulating at the time of the initial experience (Ward et al. 2006). Classical conditioning describes the unconscious and “repetitious or traumatic pairing of sexuality and some negative experience [which] produces some type of intensive emotional response that distorts subsequent sexual gratification” (Schwartz and Cellini 1996, p. 14). This explains the unconscious compulsion to reenact one’s own abuse to gain mastery over the experience. This has been supported empirically in samples of sexual offenders, particularly for juveniles.

A Theory of Specialization and Versatility. At this point, two compelling empirical realities must be considered and reconciled. First, it is known that not all sexual offenders present with deviant sexual preferences or deviant sexual arousal (Simon 2000; Weinrott and Saylor 1991). Second, it is known that many people who commit sexual offenses also engage in a considerable amount of nonsexual criminal behavior in addition to their sexual offending (Lussier 2005; Simon 2000; Weinrott and Saylor 1991). What is missing from these perspectives is a sensible explanation of two realities: sexual offending by men without deviant sexual interests and nonsexual offending committed by men who have explicitly been designated “sexual offenders.”

Harris et al. (2009a) concluded that the components of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) theory were appropriate for almost all (89 %) of the 506 sexual offenders in their sample. They indeed revealed the analogous behaviors that were predicted by the General Theory of Crime. At the same time, it still appeared that a small group of highly specialized offenders warranted the more sexually specific explanations such as those provided above (Marshall and Barbaree 1990; Laws and Marshall 1990). That is, for the remaining 11 % of the sample it was relevant to focus on such factors as sexual preoccupation; emotional congruence with children; and having a male, unrelated, or stranger victim. Essentially, the authors suggested that some aspects of sexual offending could be understood akin to the way Moffitt (1993) explained delinquency.

Borrowing Moffitt’s (1993) framework amounts to a “Dual Taxonomy of Sexual Offending” where two distinct trajectories of offending are proposed. Thus, the observation of sexual offenses is understood to conceal two qualitatively distinct types of offending behavior: sexual offenses that are committed rarely or sporadically as part of the broader range of criminal activity in which an individual engages and sexual offenses that are committed by highly specialized offenders who seldom, if ever, engage in any other rule-breaking behavior.

The first category of offenders were referred to as “versatile” and made up the vast majority of offenders. They were characterized by general indicators of low self-control including substance abuse, adolescent antisocial behavior, elementary school problems, and unemployment (Harris et al. 2009a). They were more criminally versatile, engaged in a broader range of different criminal behaviors, and were more likely to offend upon release. This is in line with the results of a previous study (Meloy 2005) which concluded that the majority of sexual offenders could be described as situational or opportunistic, with versatile criminal histories.

The second category was “highly specialized” and represented 11 % of offenders, comparable in size to Moffitt’s life-course-persistents or Wolfgang’s chronic offenders. Contrary to their versatile counterparts, this group consisted mostly of child molesters and was characterized by sexual preoccupation, emotional congruence with children, and a greater likelihood of abusing known, related, and male victims (Harris et al. 2009a). Highly specialized sexual offenders were also statistically significantly more likely than versatile offenders to begin their offending in adulthood. This group best resembled the expectations of the theoretical perspectives that expect specialization (Laws and Marshall 1990; Marshall and Barbaree 1990).

It is definitely conceivable that more groups could be identified, particularly given the sample used in the study (Harris et al. 2009a) which is arguably biased toward sexual offenders in the direction of specialization. The group that is most notably absent in that study are offenders who have not been convicted of a sexual offense. Although the studies reviewed for this research paper have demonstrated considerable similarities between convicted sexual offenders and the theoretical expectations of more generic nonsexual offenders identified in the literature, the opportunity certainly remains to assess this similarity empirically by including a control group of nonsexual offenders. This represents a worthwhile area of future inquiry.

Methodological Considerations In Specialization Research

Extant research on offense specialization is confounded by methodological inconsistencies which has an impact on current understanding of specialization. The most common concerns include the operational definitions of specialization and inconsistencies in the number and type of crime category classifications that are used (McGloin et al. 2007). Within the field of research on sexual offending, the added question of offender classification also impedes one’s ability to compare results across studies..

Definition of Specialization. Many different techniques exist to define and measure specialization. Although each one has limitations when used alone, a combination of measures can be used together to paint a clearer picture of specialization. The simplest measure, the Specialization Threshold (ST), is a crude cutoff that detects specialization if an arbitrary proportion of one’s arrests is for a particular offense or category of offenses (Cohen 1986; Harris et al. 2009b). Various thresholds have been used in prior research but Cohen’s (1986) definition is used most often and declares specialization if 50 % of a person’s arrests are for a particular type of crime. As the most simplistic measurement of specialization, the ST’s main challenge is its inability to capture change or crime switching over time. The Forward Specialization Coefficient (FSC) (Farrington et al. 1988) and Diversity Index (DI) attend to that limitation by taking into account transitions between offenses (Sullivan et al. 2006). These models generate elegant coefficients that can be compared across studies. Although the FSC relies on consecutive transitions only, the DI can be calculated on nonadjacent transitions as well (McGloin et al. 2007). For some researchers, the DI has been preferred over the FSC for its more intuitive application and interpretation (Harris 2008).

Number of Crime Categories. It is difficult to compare results across studies because researchers seldom apply the same or similar crime classification schemes. Although there is no consensus on which to use (Sullivan et al. 2006), the convention in criminology has been three or four offending categories: personal/violence, property, drugs, and other (where “drugs” and “other” are sometimes combined) (Mazerolle et al. 2000). Mazerolle and colleagues showed that the outcomes of using three or four categories are substantively similar and opted for the parsimonious model of combining “drugs” and “other.” So far, the emerging research on sexual offending has further integrated “personal” offenses into sexual violence and nonsexual violence.

Use of Official Data. The limitations of studying crime using official statistics have been discussed elsewhere (Farrington et al. 1988; Rice et al. 2006). In addition to the actual nature of their behavior and whether they got caught, an individual’s criminal record can also be influenced by a victim’s willingness to report an offense, local law enforcement practices, and sentencing policies (Harris 2008). Further, in the case of sexual offending, official statistics tend to underestimate the “severity of sexually motivated violent offenses” (Rice et al. 2006, p. 525). Procedures such as plea bargaining often mean that the actual charges brought against a person no longer represent the sexual nature of the crime (e.g., rape being pled down to assault). Despite these disadvantages, official statistics remain the most common source of data for studies of specialization, but their subsequent results should be considered with these limitations in mind. A combination of official records and self-reported data is recommended.

Number of Previous Criminal Events. The concept of specialization implies the presence of another important element of the criminal career paradigm: persistence. Because it is meaningless to discuss specialization in one or two offenses, specialization research is often restricted to frequent and persistent offenders or “career criminals.” Of course, analyzing only those offenders with more than five arrests, for example, greatly reduces one’s sample of offenders. In addition to reduced statistical power, this introduces a possible sample bias by including only sufficiently persistent offenders. Although some researchers have limited their analysis to participants with at least five offenses or nine offenses, the general convention is to include participants with two or more (Farrington et al. 1988; Harris 2008; Harris et al. 2009b; Sullivan et al. 2006) or three or more separate arrests or sentencing occasions.

Use of Arrest or Conviction. Specialization studies either use arrests, convictions, or sentencing occasions as the primary unit of analysis. Because each occasion might include multiple counts or charges, the convention is usually to record only the most serious charge at each event (Farrington et al. 1988). Using charges will hide arrests that failed to result in a charge and using sentencing occasions will hide convictions that failed to result in a sentence. The seriousness of most sexual offenses (compared with almost all other crime) means that recording only the most serious offense would conceal other co-occurring behaviors, thus inflating specialization. Although the opposite practice (of including every individual charge) has the complementary limitation of inflating versatility, given that the dark figure of sexual crime is so substantial, this method is considered the most appropriate for samples of sexual offenders (Harris 2008).

Classifying Sexual Offenders. Specialization is usually taken to mean the likelihood of committing the same offense on a subsequent occasion. Blumstein et al. (1986) notion of “offense clusters” broadened this definition so that rather than only detecting specialization in burglars who subsequently commit burglary, for example, (Britt 1994), an offense cluster of theft could be used to encompass such crimes as burglary, larceny, shoplifting, or fraud (Britt 1994). This approach is important for the present discussion because it is argued that some sexual offenders specialize within sexual offense categories (Soothill et al. 2000).

Consider a male child molester who is subsequently convicted for rape of a woman. Blumstein et al. (1986) would consider him a specialist sexual offender. A clinician, however, would consider the same individual quite differently from an exclusive child molester (who, e.g., might demonstrate the more typical characteristics of emotional congruence with children and difficulty in maintaining adult relationships). To Blumstein et al., he would be a “sexual offender,” but to a clinician, although his offenses might all be sexual, he apparently shows no predilection for certain types of victims and might be considered a more challenging candidate for treatment. A mixed offending pattern (that includes both adult and child or male and female victims) might also indicate that he is potentially more likely to reoffend upon release, because his sexual crimes are unpredictable and his victim preferences are unclear. These characteristics are also those that would render an individual at higher risk of reoffending (according to many risk assessment tools) than his more specialized counterparts.

Empirical Evidence Of Specialization And Versatility In Sexual Offenders

Almost a quarter century of research on offense specialization is summarized by the findings of one of the first articles on the topic: there is a “small but significant degree of specialization in offending superimposed on a great deal of versatility” (Farrington et al. 1988, p. 461). Regardless of method or sample, there is a clear indication of versatility among offenders within the criminological literature. A modest amount of specialization is detected in some samples, and this is most notably observed in persistent offenders who use drugs.

Despite clinical assumptions to the contrary, research that has focused specifically on sexual offenders over the last 10 years has drawn similar conclusions: many sexual offenders do not restrict their criminal activities to sexual offenses (Lussier 2005; Miethe et al. 2006; Simon 2000; Smallbone and Wortley 2004; Soothill et al. 2000; Weinrott and Saylor 1991; Zimring et al. 2007). Further, notwithstanding possible differences in reporting, arrest, and conviction rates for sexual and nonsexual offenses, adult sexual offenders are about twice as likely to be convicted for nonsexual offenses as they are for sexual offenses, both before and after being convicted of a sexual offense (Smallbone and Wortley 2004). The following section details the findings of a selection of specific studies in this area.

As early as 1991, Weinrott and Saylor (1991) concluded that specialization in sexual crimes was relatively rare. The 99 convicted sexual offenders in their study collectively self-reported nearly 20,000 nonsexual crimes in just the 12 months prior to their incarceration. The majority of these offenses were minor and mostly included public intoxication and petty theft.

Smallbone et al. (2003) found substantial offending versatility in the official histories of the 88 incarcerated adult male sexual offenders in their sample. The participants in their study included 33 rapists, 29 extrafamilial child molesters, and 26 incest offenders. Almost two thirds (60 %) of their total sample and 88 % of the offenders who recidivated reported having prior nonsexual criminal convictions.

Smallbone and Wortley (2004) later assessed the extent of persistence and versatility in the self-reported offending behaviors of 207 child molesters. Their sample was broken down further by victim relationship with 98 participants having committed incest exclusively, 72 having extrafamilial victims, and 37 having both intrafamilial and extrafamilial victims. Results from an extensive self-report questionnaire revealed considerable versatility with 69 % of the sample having been convicted of at least one nonsexual offense and 80 % having first been convicted for a nonsexual crime.

In an ambitious examination of almost 10,000 sexual offenders and some 24,000 nonsexual offenders released from prisons in 15 US states in 1994, Miethe et al. (2006) also found low levels of persistence and specialization among sexual offenders compared to nonsexual offenders. Sexual offenders had fewer arrests of all kinds than any other offender group except murderers. Although 70 % of the sexual offender sample had been arrested only once, some 95 % of those who had been arrested more than once had nonsexual offenses in their arrest histories.

Harris et al. (2009b) explored offense specialization in the officially recorded criminal histories of 506 sexual offenders referred for civil commitment in Massachusetts. They examined the sample by offense type (comparing rapists, child molesters, incest offenders, and offenders with mix-aged victims) and by referral status (comparing offenders who were observed and released with those who were observed and committed for treatment). Contrary to their hypotheses, their results indicated that treated participants were no more likely to specialize in sexual offenses than observed participants. When compared by offense type, as expected, child molesters were substantially more likely than rapists to specialize in sexual offenses. Child molesters were also more likely to specialize in sexual offenses against children (than rapists were to specialize in sexual offenses against adults). As a whole, the sample was also more likely to specialize in sexual offenses than in the other offending categories of nonsexual violence, property, and other offenses.

Later, Harris et al. (2011) examined the post-release offending records of the same sample of 506 observed and committed offenders for a period of up to 10 years. Again, they found that the tendency to be criminally versatile remained the most compelling offending pattern across the sample. Few differences were detected between treated and observed participants, and almost no differences were found between rapists and child molesters with respect to recidivism or to post-release specialization. Rapists were more likely than child molesters to reoffend at all and to reoffend violently. There were no differences between groups on their likelihood of committing sexual offenses after release.

Interestingly, specialization prior to incarceration was not indicative of specialization in sexual offending after release. Of the 53 participants who specialized after release, approximately half had specialized criminal histories (n = 27) and half did not (n = 26) (Harris et al. 2011). The authors concluded that the predictive power of a sexually specialized criminal history was limited.

Harris and Knight (forthcoming) elaborated upon the findings from the previous two studies by using an addition of almost 300 more cases and attempting to establish the existence of an identifiable group of highly specialized sexual offenders that may have been masked by the liberal definition of specialization (50 %) used in prior works. A small group of 166 highly specialized sexual offenders existed out of a larger group of 748 offenders and was made up mostly of child molesters. This was consistent with both existing empirical evidence and the findings from Harris et al. (2009b) which concluded that child molesters were the most likely offender type to specialize in sexual offending.

A deeper analysis of the sample’s responses to various items from risk assessment tools demonstrated that the majority of the sample shared many of the general criminal attributes proposed by conventional criminology including the presence of analogous behaviors such as alcohol and drug use, problems in elementary school and adolescent behavior, and involvement in a range of different types of crimes. By comparison, the small group of highly specialized offenders was characterized instead by the variables identified by more specific theories of sexual offending. This study provided added empirical support for the Dual Taxonomy of Sexual Offending described earlier.

Specialization Within Sexual Offenses. As mentioned earlier, sexual abuse researchers distinguish between offenders who have sexually assaulted adults (rapists) and offenders who have sexually abused children (child molesters) (Meloy 2005; Simon 1997). Further distinctions are also made between familial and nonfamilial child molesters. A review of recent studies that have addressed the question of specialization within sexual offenses is provided here.

Rapists are repeatedly found to resemble violent nonsexual offenders most closely (Harris 2008). They are thought to be predominantly versatile in their offending and the commission of rape is seen to be part of a broader propensity to act in a generally antisocial manner (Lussier et al. 2005; Smallbone et al. 2003). Each of the 37 convicted rapists in Weinrott and Saylor’s (1991) sample admitted to at least one nonsexual offense. Further, over half of the sample committed burglary and almost half committed robbery (Weinrott and Saylor 1991). The mean number of different offenses (out of a possible list of 22) that was self-reported by each rapist was 10.5 (Weinrott and Saylor 1991). Further, a third of convicted rapists admitted to having had sexual contact with a child (Weinrott and Saylor 1991).

Lussier et al. (2005) found that when compared with child molesters, rapists engaged in a larger variety of all crimes, had a higher frequency of property and violent crimes, and had also committed a “significantly greater variety of violent crimes than of sexual crimes” (p. 180). Addressing specialization using recidivism statistics, Langan and Levin (2002) found that 3 years after incarceration, drug offenders (41 %), larcenists (34 %), burglars (23 %), nonsexually violent offenders (23 %), defrauders (19 %), and robbers (13 %) were all much more likely than rapists (2 %) to be rearrested for the same type of crime for which they were originally convicted.

Child molesters, by comparison, are generally considered much less versatile than rapists (Harris 2008; Harris et al. 2009b). In fact, if a specialist, persistent offender exists, the stereotypical extrafamilial child molester is likely the most convincing example. Some evidence of crime switching has been detected in child molesters. For example, 12 % of the convicted child molesters in Weinrott and Saylor’s (1991) sample admitted to attempting forced sex with an adult female and 34 % had abused children inside the family as well as outside the home. Lussier et al. (2005) also concluded that child molesters committed a variety of different sexual crimes. A quarter of Weinrott and Saylor’s (1991) sample reported substance abuse and 20 % reported assault, theft, burglary, possession of stolen goods, and drug-related offenses in the year prior to incarceration.

Finally, incest offenders tend to most closely resemble non-offenders. When compared to rapists and child molesters, they display more social competence, having maintained steady employment and a stable marriage or marital-type relationship. Incest offenders are often thought to present with the lowest risk of reoffending, having engaged in a discrete and isolated event. But this idea has been challenged by evidence of versatility among samples of intrafamilial offenders (Harris 2008). Although a small sample, half of the 29 incest offenders in Smallbone et al. (2003) study “had at least one previous conviction for a nonsexual offense” (p. 57). All of Weinrott and Saylor’s (1991) also small sample of 18 incest offenders self-reported at least one nonsexual offense. Other studies also find that incest offenders have reported committing nonsexual violent crimes and sexual crimes outside the home (Harris 2008). For example, half of Weinrott and Saylor’s (1991) sample of incest offenders admitted to abusing extrafamilial children.

A Lingering Methodological Concern

In the methodological concerns raised above, the “offense cluster” of sexual offending was seen as irrelevant for sexual offenders. The research presented here, however, indicates that a substantial number of sexual offenders commit sexual offenses outside their assumed “specialty.” The observation that identified rapists offended against children and identified child molesters against adults poses a unique problem for specialization studies that has not yet been evaluated properly. Much is made in the theoretical and treatment literature about the empirically significant and clinically valuable differences between rapists and child molesters.

The response to this conundrum is not a simple one because the distinctions between offender types are clearly valuable in practice. But, within the context of research, the considerable amount of crime switching results in the label of “rapist” becoming meaningless for a man who later admits to having child victims. Likewise, calling someone a “child molester” is similarly misleading if he has also offended against adults.

Policy Implications

Men convicted of sexual crimes (particularly against children) are now subject to specific, expansive, discretionary, and controversial legislation that has impacted almost every stage of the criminal justice system (Meloy 2005). Policies include community registration and notification, residency restrictions, mandatory specialized treatment, and civil commitment. Taken together, the studies reviewed above support existing criminological perspectives regarding versatility and challenge the assumption of specialization. By concluding that sexual offenders are largely indistinguishable from general criminals, these findings cast considerable doubt upon the value of these policies.

The focus of many sexual offender laws is to address the most chronic and persistent offenders. Evidently, specialized, persistent, and predatory sexual offenders do exist but they are an identifiable minority. So, the laws and regulations aimed specifically at them amount to a substantial financial commitment toward policies that addresses the rarest of circumstances. Further, it is now well established that children are much more likely to be abused by those who are known or related to them. Thus, a law that notifies a community of an offenders’ name and address or that restricts offenders from living within a certain distance of a school or park is fundamentally flawed. These laws have the unfortunate consequence of increasing homelessness for an already disenfranchised population and reducing employment opportunities, thus elevating the likelihood of reoffending. The considerable burden that these laws place on police, parole, and probation officers should also be taken into account.

Concluding Remarks

Research now indicates that many sexual offenders neither restrict their criminal behavior to sexual offenses nor their sexual offending behavior to specific sexual offense subtypes (Soothill et al. 2000; Weinrott and Saylor 1991). Even accounting for the bias inherent in clinical samples of sexual offenders, or the difference between official statistics and self-reported data, the ultimate message is the same: a broad trend of versatility is maintained across the studies. When compared by offender classification, child molesters are consistently found to be more likely (and rapists less likely) to specialize in sexual offenses. Although incest is predominantly seen as a distinct behavior, existing studies of these men indicate that they also offend outside the home.

Various methodological considerations were examined. While it is clear that no approach is without limitations, researchers should manage these obstacles by using multiple measures of offending, multiple definitions of specialization, and mixed methods of analysis. The construct of offense specialization versus versatility should be considered in terms of the extent both to which sexual offenders commit nonsexual offenses and to which they commit sexual offenses outside their presumed sexual offense subtype.

Broader prevention efforts clearly need to do much more than rely on the selective policing and incapacitation of identified sexual offenders because there is now sufficient evidence to indicate that sexual offenders are generally criminally versatile. Individual offending tendencies are likely dynamic and could be influenced by a range of factors that remain underexplored. How these offending patterns emerge and perhaps change over time requires further examination. Such inquiries could in turn inform policy makers, criminal justice practitioners, and politicians alike with empirically valid evidence-based alternatives from which decisions regarding community safety could be made.


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