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Juvenile Sex Offending or Sexually Harmful Behaviour – How Does it Develop? and What Can Maintain It?

Special Reports

by Dr Dawn Bailham, Consultant Clinical Psychologist

 

The true extent of sexual offending is often difficult to determine due to a victim’s feelings of shame and often guilt about the offence and disclosure about what happened. However since the Jimmy Saville sex enquiry there is greater public awareness of sexual offenses and how common they are, and there is perhaps more openness and willingness amongst the public to accept that these crimes can and do happen.

The issue of child or adolescent sex offending carries a great deal of stigma and taboo, and tends to be counterintuitive to our expectations and stereotypes of children. Sexually harmful behaviour or juvenile sex offending was first recognised in the early 1990’s (National Children’s Home, 1992).

It is surprising that sexually harmful behaviour has taken so long to be recognised especially when 65% of all cautions and reprimands for sexual crimes during 2003/4 were committed by young people aged 10 to 20 years; the majority of which were male offenders. In the same year 4,300 males were found guilty in court of a sexual offence; of whom 1% (less than 50) were aged 10 – 11 years, 3.5% were aged 12 – 14, 8%, were aged 15 – 17 years, and up to 8% were aged 18 – 20 years (Erroga & Masson, 2006). These figures are probably an underestimation of the true numbers bearing in mind that many children with sexually harmful behaviour do not get charged for their offenses. Whether a child is charged or not is often at the discretion of the Court. Bearing in mind that the current age limit for criminal responsibility is judged to be 10 years (www.gov.uk), however there is a current debate that this should be increased to 12
years.

There has been an increasing awareness of sexually harmful behaviour in children and services have had to adapt to respond to children who need assessment
and intervention in this area, as well as safeguarding other children they may come into contact with (Hackett, 2014).

The development of sexually harmful behaviour

Prior sexual victimisation in children who present with sexually harmful behaviour has been found to be as high as 30 – 50 percent in a given population (Bentovim & Williams 1998) however it is not a requisite to presenting with this type of behaviour. In fact children with histories of physical, emotional abuse, neglect, or who have witnessed domestic violence can present with sexually harmful behaviour (Erroga & Masson, 2006). This is also evident in clinical practice that prior sexual abuse is not always a pre-requisite to sexually harmful behaviour.

One of the most prominent theories of the development of sexually harmful behaviour following sexual victimisation is the traumegenic model developed by Finkelhor and Browne (1985). This model addresses the interpersonal effects of sexual abuse on children and younger people, and outlines the process of how a victim can in time become an abuser themselves as a reaction to their own history of abuse. Finkelhor et al suggested that as part of the trauma of being sexualized at a young age the sexual behavior and sexualized responses from the victim may become ‘rewarded’ by the abuse either psychologically or physiologically. The psychological rewards would be possibly due to the grooming process by the perpetrator that occurred before the abuse, this may have been rewarding to some children e.g. being the favoured child.

The physiological reward could be sexual arousal that was incited in the victim at the time of the abuse. As a result of this when the young person is in a close
intimate relationship feelings of power may be triggered that can become linked to sexual feelings. The sense of powerlessness that the child or young person felt at the time of the abuse can be re-enacted in future relationships, by the young person feeling the need to control, or dominate events, or people. This in time could lead to the child or young person re-enacting the abuse on a younger children in order to deal with the feelings they experienced at the time of their own abuse. Other difficult feelings that were evoked from the abuse could be betrayal and this can interfere with the child or young person’s ability to form trusting relationships with others and may produce feelings of distrust and hostility, and may render the child susceptible to retaliation. It is important to note though that having a history of child sexual abuse does not predispose an individual to being an abuser themselves

Other factors have been found to be linked to the development of sexually harmful behavior such as social isolation, poor impulse control or conduct problems, limited cognitive functioning, a history of emotional and/or physical abuse. Family factors such as being exposed to carers, or parents who engage in coercive sexual behavior, exposure to pornography, adult sexual behavior, and family belief systems that support this type of behavior e.g. incestuous relationships can be predisposing factors. The modeling by parents or carers of poor interpersonal skills, boundaries, and a lack of empathy for others can also be other factors. At a societal level other risk factors can be supportive attitudes towards coercive male sexual behavior, beliefs that support the sexualization of children, and the reinforcement of anti-social behavior (Becker & Kaplan 1988).

What process does a young person go through to become sexually abusive?

Early theories of sexual offending that were applied to sexually harmful behavior focused on compulsive behavior or uncontrollable urges (Lane, 1997; Lane and Zamora, 1982, 1984). The theme here was of ‘sexual abuse cycles’ that involves the young person who offends going through a cycle of maladaptive functioning in response to problematic situations, or interpersonal situations with others. The model emphasizes an overarching theme of distorted belief systems about power and control which in time becomes sexualized which can develop in a potential offender irrespective of age, gender, or level of cognitive functioning. 

The sexual abuse cycle is represented below:
Figure 1. The sexual abuse cycle

sexualabusecycle


The sexual abuse cycle illustrates the process of events of how a young person’s thoughts and behaviours merge and continue as they embark and commit a sexually harmful act. This model emphasizes the compulsiveness of the behavior, and that previous sexually abusive acts can strengthen and reinforce the
offence cycle that the young person enacts.

As figure 1 illustrates a young person's childhood experiences (possible abuse, neglect), perception of others, themselves, and the world impact on their belief system and how they perceive traumatic events such as their own experience of abuse. The young person’s feelings of helplessness about their own experiences of abuse compounds negative expectations of what may happen. The young person may have a desire to avoid the feelings and possible outcomes of their behavior, and hence it is likely that they will become resentful and defensive. Hence according to this theory they may try to exert power over others in a non-sexual way as a compensation for how past abusers had power and control over them. Whilst this helps the young person cope in the short-term, it is not an effective strategy longer-term. The thoughts of power and control may include sexual fantasies. This can lead the young person to exert control or dominance in a sexual way over a victim and this feels good to them.

The young person may struggle with the discomfort or uncertainty about the consequences of their behavior and fear being caught in what is called fugitive thinking. Their difficulty coping with the latter can lead the young person to attempt to assimilate the experience through a cognitive process of ‘cognitive distortions’, or ‘thinking errors’ e.g. ‘she was leading me on’, ‘or dressing like that what did she expect’; that allows them to justify their behavior to themselves.

According to Lane a young person may progress through the whole cycle, but this tends to be a rare occurrence as there is likely to be delays, interruptions, or they may get stuck at a stage of the cycle, which they tend to repeat recurrently. The young person’s rate of progression through the cycle can progress at faster rates the more often they use maladaptive behaviours, and hence in time become less inhibited and more compulsive. The value of this model is that it can make sense of the patterns of thinking that a young person may have that has encouraged them to engage in sexually harmful behavior; the thinking errors they develop to justify their behavior, such as minimization of their behavior, denial of the behavior, and distortions and justifications for their behavior towards a victim.

The most common model that is used to describe this process is Finkelhor’s (1984) Four Preconditions Model, which has been further developed by Sandy Lane (1997). The Finkelhor model arose from clinical work with adult sex offenders but is equally applicable for use with younger adults. The model implies that there are four stages an abuser needs to go through to perpetuate sexual abuse.

1. The young person must have the motivation to want to abuse a victim to meet either a sexual or emotional need.

2. The young person must therefore overrule any internal inhibitions that inhibit them in committing the abuse. This involves a thought process commonly referred to as cognitive distortions. The later are distorted belief systems that act to give the young person permission to abuse the victim e.g. she was coming onto me. These distortions allow the young person or abuser to attribute responsibility of the abuse to the victim.

3. Reducing obstacles to get access to the victim referred to as external impediments to committing the abuse e.g. behaviours that allow the abuser to gain access to the victim e.g. babysitting.

4. Removing and undermining a victim’s possible resistance to the abuse. This could take many forms but the most common being grooming of a victim. Identifying a particular factor in the child such as precociousness, or vulnerability in the child or victim that renders the victim more easily to manipulate.

The model highlights that there are a number of physical and psychological barriers that a perpetrator has to overcome to get to the position where they are able to carry out the abuse.

Minimisation

This is a thinking error that is common in adult sex offenders and can be found in younger adults with a history of sexually harmful behaviour It is of course a
dysfunctional thought process that develops to enable the perpetrator to avoid any emotional discomfort about their behavior by minimizing, and denying the
behavior in question as being harmful. The more the perpetrator uses the thinking error the more entrenched it becomes, and ultimately increases the risk of further sexually harmful behaviour. Denial often depends on the degree of anticipated consequences for the behavior in question, so denial of a higher degree is more likely the more serious the behavior, or offense.

On the basis of clinical experience the development of cognitive distortions is not uncommon in young people after incidents of sexually harmful behavior, and is also often linked to personality driven beliefs such as beliefs about entitlement, or anti-social cognitions. That is the young person feels justified to commit an act of sexually harmful behavior because they feel entitled to perform the behaviour irrespective of how others including the victim would feel. It is important young people to intervene and try to prevent this process becoming more entrenched and pervasive. Thinking errors may also be more entrenched in young people with learning disabilities, or autistic spectrum disorders due to the rigidity in their thinking processes. The type of cognitive distortion a young person holds can depend on the gender, and age of the victim's target group, although there tends to be similarities generally across younger and adult sex offenders. However, a young person’s individual early life experiences and personality will also play a role in the type of thinking errors, or distortions they develop. There also appears to be an association between lack of victim empathy and the presence of cognitive distortions (Erooga & Masson, 2006).

Deviant sexual arousal

As the Finkelhor model suggests a young person can be motivated to commit an act of sexually harmful behavior because they experience deviant sexual arousal, but this is not always the case in all adolescent sex offenders. Although there does appear to be a link between frequent deviant sexual fantasies of a particular group of victims and victim selection (Murphy et al, 2001).

How do we intervene to reduce further risk of re-offending?

The initial stage is assessment to determine why the sexually harmful behaviour has occurred and should involve a multi-disciplinary and multi-agency process in the collection of relevant information. The most common assessment used in the UK is the AIM-2 assessment that was developed in January 2000 as part of the AIM project (Assessment Intervention Moving On) that developed in Greater Manchester at that time (Morrison & Henniker, 2006). The professional that performs the assessment should be trained in the AIM-2 assessment to effectively use it. It is then appropriate to monitor future risks of the young person’s behaviour, and for services to provide intervention to change the young person’s perception of their behavior using a program such as Phil Rich’s stages of accomplishment workbooks for sexually abusive youth in treatment. This intensive program is based on Phil Rich’s (2011) model of juvenile sexual offending. The intervention should be delivered by an appropriately trained clinicianwith extensive experience and familiarity of this group of young people such as a forensic or clinical
psychologist.

The assessment and intervention of sexually harmfulbehavior in adolescence is still in it’s infancy, as is the understanding of this complex behaviour. Although
there is a tendency for models of adult sex offending to be applied to this group of young people, there may be marked differences between them and future
research will shed more light on this in time. There is however some light at the end of the tunnel, not all young people who show sexually harmful behaviour in childhood and adolescence go onto become adult sex offenders ( Erroga & Masson. 2007). It will be interesting in time to discover why this is, and will provide insight into how we effectively intervene with this group of challenging young people. 

drdawnbailham

References:

Becker, J.V. & Kaplan, M. (1988) The Assessment of Adolescent Sex Offenders. Advances in Behavioral Assessment of Children’s & Families, 4, 97 – 118.

Bentovin, A. & Williams, B. (1998) ‘Children and Adolescents’ Victims who become perpetrators. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 4, 101 -107.

Erooga, M. & Masson, H. (2006) Children and Young People who Sexually Abuse Others – Current developments and practice responses (2nd Edition). Routledge.

Finkelhor, D. (1984) Child Sexual Abuse: New Theory & Research, New York: Free Press.

Finkelhor, D. & Browne, A. (1985) The Traumatic Impact of Child Sexual Abuse: An update. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 55: 530 – 541.

Hackett. S. (2014) Children and Young People with Harmful Sexual Behaviours. Research in Practice

Lane, S. (1997) The Sexual Abuse Cycle. In Ryan, G & Lane, S (eds) Juvenile Sexual Offending: Causes, Consequences & Corrections (2nd Edition). San Francisco CA: Jossey Bass.

Lane, S. & Zamora, P. (1984,1982) . Cited in Lane, S. (1997) ) The Sexual Abuse Cycle. In Ryan, G & Lane, S (eds) Juvenile Sexual Offending: Causes, Consequences & Corrections (2nd Edition). San Francisco CA: Jossey Bass.

Rich, P. (2011) Understanding, Assessing and Rehabilitating Juvenile Sexual Offenders. John Wiley & Sons.

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