Juvenile sexual aggression has been a problem of growing concern in American society over the past decade. Currently it is estimated that juveniles account for up to one-fifth of the rapes, and one-half of the cases of child molestation committed in the United States each year.
The majority of cases of juvenile sexual aggression appear to involve adolescent male perpetrators; however, a number of clinical studies have pointed to the presence of females and prepubescent youths who have engaged in sexually abusive behaviors. Sexual offending appears to traverse racial and cultural boundaries.
An adolescent sex offender is defined as any male or female between the ages of 12 and 17 years of age who commits any sexual act with a person of any age against the victim’s will, without consent, or in an aggressive, exploitive, or threatening manner.
Defining a behavior as being sexual assault or abuse can sometimes be difficult. It is easy to identify a sexual offense when there is a wide age gap between the teen perpetrator and the victim or the abuse involves force or penetration. But as the age gap narrows, and if the behavior involves fondling or an absence of force or aggression, it is necessary to assess it in terms of coercion, consent, or power differences.
Some adolescent offenders abuse only within their family. Others choose dating partners, acquaintances, strangers, and sometimes adults. Some use force or extreme violence while others trick, subtly pressure or manipulate their victims into sexual activity. Most adolescent sex offenders are known by their victims.
Some teens commit only “hands-off” offenses such as voyeurism (peeping), exposing their private parts to others, making obscene phone calls, frontage (rubbing against others in crowded places), or fetishism (such as stealing underwear). Others commit “hands-on” offenses such as fondling or penetration with a penis, finger or objects.
When adolescents are caught offending it is generally assumed that this is not the first time they have done it or thought about doing it. Some teens begin by committing less serious kinds of sexual assault and, if not caught, progress to more serious offenses. Serious forms of sexual behavior typically have developed over a course of time.
Adolescents commit offenses for a variety of reasons:
· Some teens who are awkward socially, have difficulty making friends, or have been rejected by other youth of their own age, sometimes turn to younger children for friendship or sex. The children they molest usually don t understand what is happening to them. They typically become scared or feel they cannot complain, so the teen may take this as a sign of consent and continue abusing them.
· Some teens offend out of anger or a need for power and control over others.
· Some teens may be developmentally delayed and unaware that what they are doing is wrong and abusive.
· Some male teens in dating relationships possess distorted thinking about sex and relationships. They think that if their partner says “no” she only needs a little encouragement, verbal persuasion, or mild force. Adolescent sex offenders sometimes attempt to copy scenes they have seen in pornography media.
· Many adolescent sex offenders grow up in abusive families where alcoholism, substance abuse, and inter-parental violence are commonplace. Seeing this everyday teaches a young person that anger, frustration, and personal needs can be dealt with by the use of force and violence. A history of physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect can be found in the background of many adolescent sex offenders. One study found that 60% of abusers had been physically abused, 50% had been sexually abused, and 70% had experienced neglect in childhood. Over 50% of the adolescents had experienced a combination of these forms of abuse.
Though a majority of adolescent sex offenders are male, research emerging over the past ten years has begun to document female sex offending. Studies of hospital, child welfare agency, and treatment programs have found that females comprise between 3% – 10% of the sex offender population. General population and victimization surveys report significantly higher numbers and extend the range up to 50%.
The following is a typical scenario depicting the development of adolescent sex offending:
1. The offense history begins with voyeuristic behaviors from ages 5-7 (e.g., attempts to watch mother using the bathroom or taking showers; observing babysitter having sex with her boyfriend)
2. Assaultive behaviors towards girls on school grounds motivated by a desire to actually frighten, control, and degrade them
3. By age 8, placing obscene phone calls; writing sexually orientated notes to third grade classmates; making degrading sexual comments; open sexual harassment
4. Age 9, intrusive behaviors and inappropriate touching; “accidental” incidents of contact with female genitalia during play in crowds; stealthy watching and waiting for girls to assault
5. At age 10, experimental cross-dressing; stealing keys and sneaking into houses
6. By age 11, grabbing the chests and butts of female classmates; threatening them with sexual acts; standing in the bedroom of a friend’s mother, watching her sleep; sodomizing younger siblings on a regular basis
7. At age 12, continual harassment and touching; encouraging friends to join in the behaviors; cross-dressing during the victimization of younger sibling; sexual assault on girls who had been bribed to disrobe and touch each other
8. Property crimes of theft and sexual assault on children; breaking into homes; trying on women’s underwear; cutting up clothing; cutting phone wires; spreading butcher knives around the house while waiting for the victim to come home
9. Probation for burglary charges; outpatient psychiatric treatment
10. During probation, continued frequent, multiple break-ins of neighborhood homes; frequently stalking school peers; grabbing peers in halls; engineering gang rape; rubbing against girls at school; assaulting girls with intent to rape; breaking into homes following threatening girls on the phone
11. At age 15, committed to the department of corrections for sex offender treatment as a rapist
12. Receives sex-offender treatment while incarcerated
Most treatment specialists are of the opinion that successful juvenile offender programming requires a coordination of effort between the criminal justice system and treatment providers.
In order for juvenile offenders to meaningfully participate in treatment programming, they must be willing to address their problems and comply with therapeutic directives. Adjudication and supervision typically prove to be useful tools in ensuring client accountability and compliance with treatment.
Clinical experience has shown that the suspension of the juvenile sex offender’s sentence, contingent upon his successful completion of a treatment program, can be a particularly effective motivator. Under such collaborative arrangements with the courts, the treatment specialist provides ongoing progress reports to the court on the youth’s participation in the program. Youths who fail to comply with program expectations can be brought back before the court for a dispositional review.
In many programs, probation officers play an integral role in assisting the treatment provider in addressing critical issues and in supervising the offender’s activities in the home and community. The probation officer helps evaluate the extent to which the client is meaningfully participating in the treatment program and complying with court and therapeutic directives. He provides an additional link between the provider and the sex offender’s family, and can assist the therapist in impressing upon the family the importance of their involvement in the youth’s rehabilitative programming.
The probation officer typically also provides a very important case management function. This includes analysis (sometimes along with the help of social services) of the appropriateness of the juvenile sex offender remaining in his home of origin during his participation in treatment, and his need for supplemental community programming (e.g., community service projects, etc.). As a case manager, the probation officer also facilitates appropriate communications between the treatment provider and other community agencies involved in the youth’s overall care (e.g., school officials).
In some programs, probation officers directly participate in the delivery of therapeutic services (e.g., co-therapist in a group). This most typically occurs in cases where the probation officer has received additional training in the treatment of offenders.
Before treatment can begin, the offender must admit his offenses. Denial may be very strong because it is supported by the cognitive distortions and lack of previous public response, which have minimized the importance and impact of his behaviors. The offender must be confronted with his offense, describing the whole offense and accepting responsibility before he can begin to understand his past and change his future.
Part of the treatment process includes definition and exploration of each of the stages in the sexual assault cycle, identifying the unique characteristics of each sex offender’s cycle. The goal is for the offender to become so aware of the triggers which start his cycle that he will be instantly alerted and employ new behaviors to interrupt his cycle before he gets to the deviant sexual behaviors.
Positive sexuality and appropriate expectations are explored. By encouraging the sex offender to “take risks” by reaching out to establish appropriate relationships, the sex offender is taught new ways to approach people and to control the outcomes of his interpersonal experiences.
The ultimate goal is to interrupt the rape cycle before arriving at the isolation and withdrawal stage, which signals real danger. The offender must recognize that his withdrawal into isolation is the incubator wherein his problem grows beyond his control, and he must have emergency plans in place to escape before he progresses into deviant fantasies.