Adolescent sex offenders Part 1: Defining the issue

There was an article in the New York Times Magazine on July 22nd about adolescent sex offenders. The article primarily focused on the relevant psychological/developmental issues and how they relate to recidivism rates and the changing legal landscape. I will discuss this article over three posts this week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Today I will outline the problem, on Wednesday I will discuss the social/psychological implications, and on Friday I will discuss the legal landscape for the adolescent perpetrators. Depending on the number of comments and depth of conversation, I may add one or two more posts on the topic next week.

To give you a sense of the range of individuals included in the term “adolescent sex offender,” here are two of the more extreme examples described in the Times: (1) an 11-year-old girl who touched a 7-year-old’s penis two to three times and asked him to touch her vagina once, and (2) a 17-year-old-boy who has repeatedly made young children have intercourse with him. Now, most situations are not as clear-cut as these two. The first is probably not rape, the second absolutely is. The young girl needs instruction on appropriate boundaries, while the young man needs to be incarcerated. Most cases of adolescent sex offenders are not as clear. Most adolescent sex offenders are boys around 13- and 14-years-old, however there is substantial variation within the group.

One of the important pieces of information that needs to be known about adolescent sex offenders is that the vast majority (90% or more) will not become rapists of pedophiles, according to Mark Chaffin, an expert on the subject. The article states that research suggests that recidivism rates for adolescent sex offenders is about 10%.

It was clear that the Times reporter, Maggie Jones, had a bias towards believing adolescent sex offenders are treated too harshly, and that, at least the younger adolescents, cannot truly be held accountable for their actions. While I am not in complete disagreement with Ms. Jones, I am concerned that her bias colored what information she included. It is my goal to provide a more nuanced discussion of this issue than I believe Ms. Jones did.

I had three very strong reactions to this piece. These will be my guiding principles for discussion over the series. First, victims of a sexual offence feel the same violation of their body regardless of the offender’s age. Put a different way, discussion about adolescent sex offenders as different from adult sex offenders does not mean that the victims are any different. This point must not be overlooked or left unstated. Second, adolescents are different from adults in many ways. Adolescent sex offenders are different from adult sex offenders in many ways. A discussion of an offense as serious as sexual molestation by an adolescent or a pre-adolescent cannot take place outside of the context of the cognitive, emotional, and psychological development that is occurring across those ages. And third, while academics and clinicians seem to be gaining understanding about how to help these adolescents in the best way possible, there seems to be little guidance for parents. I am always in favor of prevention methods rather than post-offense punishment. I wonder what the warning signs of a potential adolescent sex offender may be, and how parents and society as a whole could recognize them and respond appropriately before an offense takes place?

As I mentioned in a post last week, this is a very difficult topic. Nevertheless, a conversation about adolescent sexuality it incomplete without addressing the more painful, inappropriate sexual actions taken by adolescents. I appreciate you staying with me through this conversation, and adding to it as you are comfortable and able.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.