Sex offenders are a heterogeneous group. While there is no standardized system for the taxonomy of sex offenders, they are generally classified into various typologies based on their offense characteristics, motivations for offending, and likelihood of recidivism. Sex offender typologies are important in that they capture the characteristics of sex offenders, and they can be useful for treatment intervention and risk assessment. However, it should be noted that these typologies do not always coincide with criminal justice classifications of sex offenders. Sex offenders are generally separated into those that commit contact sex offenses and those that commit noncontact sex offenses. Contact sex offenders include child molesters, incest offenders, and rapists. Noncontact sex offenders include exhibitionists, voyeurs, and frotteurs.
Child molesters are sex offenders whose victims include minors (under the age of 18). Child molesters can be further categorized by their sexual preferences. Those child molesters who are sexually attracted to children under the age of 13 (i.e., prepubescent children) are referred to as pedophiles, while child molesters whose sexual preference is for teenagers or those between the ages of 13 and 18, are considered hebophiles. However, it should be noted that neither pedophilianor hebophilia are considered crimes, as they relate only to sexual interest and not to the commission of any sexual act.
Child molesters generally report attraction to children of a certain age that are not related to them. Some child molesters have only male victims, some only female victims, while other child molesters offend against both boys and girls. Child molesters who offend against boys have been found to have higher rates of recidivism.
Child molestation can involve a variety of inappropriate sexual activities and behaviors. These include undressing the child, exposing themselves to the child, masturbating in front of the child, or touching and fondling the child. They could also include more serious sexual offenses, including performing fellatio or cunnilingus on the child or penetrating the child’s vagina, mouth, or anus with their fingers, foreign objects, or penis. Physical force, coercion, or threats may be used to compel the child into the sexual act.
To gain access to their victims, child molesters often engage in relationships with the child or with the adult guardians of the child. This is referred to as grooming behavior. The sex offender appears to be very interested in the child’s needs to gain the child’s affection and loyalty and the guardian’s confidence so that the molestation will not be reported. Some child molesters may also use threats to prevent the children from reporting the abuse.
Child molesters often believe that their victims want to be involved in a sexual relationship. When a child responds positively to the grooming behavior, the child molester interprets this as the willing participation of the victim. As a result, the child molester can believe that the molestation is not damaging to the child. This is referred to as a cognitive distortion.
Incest offenders are sex offenders who offend against minors (children) who are related to them by blood. Additionally, offenders are also considered incest offenders if they abuse a child that they have quasiparental authority over, such as a stepfather or the boyfriend of the child’s mother.
The most common form of incest is sexual contact between a father and daughter or a stepfather and stepdaughter. Perpetration of inappropriate sexual contact may occur only once, but more often, it takes place over several years. It is not uncommon for incest offenders to offend against several children in the same family. Unlike child molesters, the majority of incest offenders have female victims and their victims tend to be older. While they may start offending against a prepubescent child, the offending may continue after the child hits puberty.
Unlike a child molester, the incest offender is generally sexually attracted to adult females. Most incest offenders have had consensual, age-appropriate partners at some point in their lives. While by definition they would be considered pedophiles as they are engaging in sexual acts with a minor, they often view the victim as a surrogate for an age-appropriate partner. Incest offenders often only start abusing children as a way to cope with the stress they are experiencing. Stressors reported by incest offenders include dysfunctional relationships, sexual problems or dissatisfaction, and social isolation. Often alcohol and drugs are involved in the commission of the offense. However, once identified, incest offenders have the lowest rates of recidivism compared with other sex offenders.
Rape is generally defined as forced sexual intercourse without consent against adult victims. Rape is a violent crime. Rapists engage in behaviors such as threats, hostility, and physical violence to overpower the victims and force them into sexual activity against their will. Rape does not always result in overt physical injury to the victim. Rapists’ primary interests are self-gratification, dominance, and control. Unlike child molesters and incest offenders, rapists generally offend against the same victim only once. Rapists have been found to have high levels of deviant sexual arousal and impulsivity. Additionally, they are more criminalized than child molesters and incest offenders. Rapists who use violence in the perpetration of the rape and who have a history of violent behavior recidivate at higher rates than rapists who do not use physical violence in the commission of the crime.
In 1979, Nicholas Groth identified three different kinds of rapists: anger rapists, power rapists, and sadistic rapists. According to Groth, anger rapists are angry about a variety of issues in their lives and are unable to cope with them in a prosocial manner. While their anger may be directed at women, this is not always the case. Anger rapists tend to use excessive physical and verbal violence in the commission of the rape, thus leaving the victim battered and bruised. In addition, anger rapists may use weapons to hurt their victims. The offenses are generally not planned and are short in duration. The anger rapist tends to choose victims who are perceived to be vulnerable when the rapist becomes angry. It is believed that between 25% and 40% of all rapes are committed by anger rapists.
Groth describes power rapists as offenders who use power and control to dominate their victims. Contrary to anger rapists, power rapists tend to use the threat of violence, rather than violence, to force their victims into submission. While a power rapist may use a weapon in the commission of the rape, the weapon is used primarily to gain compliance from the victim. Victims of power rapists are often not physically harmed during the perpetration of the crime. These rapists seek out women who are both physically and emotionally vulnerable and who will require little force to be dominated. Groth estimates that the majority of all rapists fall into the power rapist category.
The third type of rapist is the sadistic rapist. According to Groth the sadistic rapist derives sexual gratification from the physical and psychological suffering of his or her victim and often engages in ritualized sexual behavior involving degradation and torture of the victim. Activities may range from restraint, beating, and punching, to stabbing, strangulation, torture, and murder. Sadistic rapists frequently have psychiatric difficulties that may have a direct relationship to the offense behavior. Sadistic rapists often continue offending until they are apprehended, and the severity of sadistic acts increases over time. It is estimated that only between 2% and 5% of all rapes are committed by a sadistic rapist. Due to the violent and sadistic nature of their attacks, sadistic rapists often receive long prison sentences.
Exhibitionism is the most common form of sexual offending behavior. The exhibitionist is typically a male, and the victim is usually a female. Exhibitionists derive sexual pleasure and arousal from the exposure of their genitals or entire naked body to unsuspecting strangers. Exhibitionism is considered a paraphilia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, text revision (DSM-IV-TR). On occasion, exhibitionists will masturbate while exposing themselves. While exhibitionism is sometimes considered a humorous topic, it often causes the victims a significant amount of fear and distress. Exhibitionists will rarely seek physical contact with their victims. Generally, they become aroused by the reaction of the victim. In other cases, the exhibitionist may fantasize that the victim becomes sexually aroused following the exposure. Exhibitionists frequently have high rates of recidivism. It is speculated that exhibitionism generally starts by the age of 18; however, very few arrests for exhibitionism are documented in adults over the age of 40.
Voyeurism is the act of becoming sexually aroused by observing unsuspecting individuals who are naked, in the process of disrobing, or engaging in sexual activity. Voyeurism is considered a paraphilia in the DSM-IV-TR. Masturbation usually occurs during or shortly after voyeuristic activities. There is usually no relationship between the voyeur and the victim. Individuals who engage in voyeurism are often referred to as “Peeping Toms.” In most cases, the voyeur observes the victim to become sexually aroused and does not desire any contact with the victim. However, on occasion, voyeurs suffer from delusional disorders and thus truly believe themselves to be in a relationship with the victim. In these cases, the voyeur could pose a danger to the victim.
Voyeurism generally begins before the age of 15 years and tends to be a chronic behavior. Many voyeurs have consensual age-appropriate relationships in addition to the voyeuristic behavior. However, in its extreme form, voyeurism constitutes the only form of sexual activity.
Frotteurism involves touching and rubbing against a nonconsenting person to achieve sexual gratification. Frotteurism is considered a paraphilia in the DSM-IV-TR. The behavior usually takes place in crowded areas in which the frotteur can more easily escape arrest or detection (e.g., on busy sidewalks and on crowded trains or buses). Frotteurs are generally male, and their victims are usually female. During the assault, the frotteur generally rubs his genitals against the victim’s thighs and buttocks or fondles the victim’s genitalia or buttocks with his hands. Some frotteurs will grab a woman’s breast as they are walking by. While engaging in frotteurism, the frotteur usually fantasizes that he is in a consensual sexual relationship with the victim. However, the frotteur recognizes that he must escape following the assault to avoid prosecution from the authorities. Some acts of frotteurism are very overt (such as grabbing a breast), while others are less so (rubbing against someone in a crowded shopping mall). Therefore, victims may not always be aware that they have been assaulted. Usually, this paraphilia begins by adolescence. Most frotteurs are between the ages of 15 and 25; however, frotteurism has also been noted in older, shy individuals.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text revision). Washington, DC: Author.
- Groth, A. N. (1999). Men who rape: The psychology of the offender. New York: Plenum Press.
- Knight, R. A., & Prentky, R. A. (1990). Classifying sex offenders: The development and corroboration of taxonomic models. In W. L. Marshall & H. E. Barbaree (Eds.), Handbook of sexual assault: Issues, theories, and treatment of the offenders (pp. 23-52). New York: Plenum.
Return to Criminal Behavior overview.