Juvenile perpetrated 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, 1 and one-half of the cases of child molestation 2 committed in
the United States each year. The majority of cases of juvenile sexual aggression appear
to involve adolescent male perpetrators; 3 however, a number of clinical studies have
pointed to the presence of females and prepubescent youths, who have engaged in
sexually abusive behaviors. Juvenile sexual offending appears to traverse racial and
In 1995 juveniles were involved in 15% of all forcible rapes cleared by arrest; approximately 18 juveniles per
100,000 (ages 10 to 17) were arrested for forcible rape in 1995. This latter number is approximately 6 times
higher than the figure for Canada.
2 Approximately 16,100 juveniles were arrested for sexual offenses in 1995 (excluding rape and prostitution).
This is approximately 3 times the number of youths arrested for forcible rape.
3Adolescents (ages 13-17) accounted for approximately 89% of juvenile forcible rape arrests, and 82% of the
other juvenile sex offense arrests, in 1995.
Causes and Patterns of Juvenile Sex Offending
A number of etiological factors (casual influences) have been identified that are
believed to help explain the developmental origin of juvenile sex offending. Factors that
have received the most attention to date include: maltreatment experiences, exposure to
pornography, substance abuse, and exposure to aggressive role models.
While sexual aggression may emerge early in the developmental process,
there is no compelling evidence to suggest that the majority of juvenile sex offenders are
likely to become adult sex offenders. The estimated risk of juvenile sex offending leading
to adult offending may have been exaggerated by an over-reliance on retrospective
research studies. 4 Existent longitudinal studies suggest that aggressive behavior in youths
is not always continuous, and that juveniles who engage in sexual aggression frequently
cease such behavior by the time they reach adulthood.
CLINICAL CHARACTERISTICS AND JUVENILE SEX OFFENDER SUBTYPES
Juvenile male sex offenders are found to vary on a number of clinical and criminal
indicators. As with their adult counterparts, juvenile sex offenders appear to fall primarily
into two major types: those who target children, and those who offend against peers or
adults. The distinction between these two groups is usually based on the age difference
between the victim and the offender. 5
Juvenile Offenders Who Sexually Offend Against Peers or Adults
9 Juveniles who sexually offend against peers or adults predominantly assault
females and strangers or casual acquaintances.
9 The sexual assaults of these youths are more likely to occur in association with
other types of criminal activity (e.g., burglary) than those who target children.
9 These juvenile sex offenders are more likely to have histories of non-sexual
criminal offenses, and appear more generally delinquent and conduct disordered
than those who sexually assault children.
9 This group of youthful offenders is also more likely to commit their offenses in
public areas than those who offend against children.
9 These juveniles generally display higher levels of aggression and violence in the
commission of their sexual crimes than those who offend against children.
4 Retrospective research may exaggerate the strength of correlations. Longitudinal research, or the
prospective tracking of individuals, typically provides a more accurate index of event likelihood.
-~ Child offenders are those who target children five or more years younger than themselves.
Youths who sexually offend against peers or adults are more likely to use
weapons and to cause injuries to their victims than those who sexually assault
Juvenile Offenders Who Sexually Offend Against Children
9 Juveniles who sexually offend against children have both a higher number of
male victims and victims to whom they are related than peer/adult offenders.
9 Although females are victimized at slightly higher rates than males, almost 50%
of this group of juvenile sex offenders has at least one male victim.
9 As many as 40% of their victims are either siblings or other relatives.
9 The sexual crimes of juvenile child molesters tend to reflect a greater reliance
on opportunity and guile than injurious force. This appears to be particularly true
when their victim is related to them. These youths may “trick” the child into
complying with the molestation, use bribes, or threaten the child with loss of the
9 Within the overall population of juveniles who sexually assault children, there are
certain youths who display high levels of aggression and violence. Generally,
these are youths who display more severe personality and/or psychosexual
disturbance (e.g., psychopathy; sexual sadism, etc.).
9 Juveniles who sexually offend against children have often been characterized
as suffering from deficits in self-esteem and social competency. 6
9 Many of these youths, particularly those with victimization histories, show
evidence of depression. Although the ability of these juveniles to form and
maintain healthy peer relationships and successfully resolve interpersonal
conflicts may be impaired, they generally evidence less emotional indifference
to the needs of others than peer/adult offenders.
Characteristics Common to Both Groups of Juvenile Sex Offenders
9 Juveniles who sexually assault children, and those who target peers or adults,
share certain common characteristics. These include:
9 High rates of learning disabilities and academic dysfunction (30-60%).
9 The presence of other behavioral health problems, including substance abuse,
and disorders of conduct (up to 80% have some diagnosable psychiatric
9 Observed difficulties with impulse control and judgment.
Social competency is defined as possession of prerequisite skills/attributes necessary for forming and
maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships. These include: social skills, leadership ability, and the
ability to act assertively.
THE AMENABILITY OF JUVENILE SEX OFFENDERS TO TREATMENT
While funding and ethical issues have made it difficult to conduct carefully controlled
treatment outcome studies, 7 a number of encouraging clinical reports on the treatment of
juvenile sex offenders have been published. While these studies are not definitive, they
provide empirical support for the belief that the majority of juvenile sex offenders are
amenable to treatment and achieve positive treatment outcomes.
In perhaps the best controlled study to date, Borduin, Henggeler, Blaske, and Stein
(1990) compared “multisystemic” therapy ~ (an intensive, multifaceted treatment targeting
youth and family characteristics, peer relations, school factors, and neighborhood and
community characteristics) with individual therapy in the outpatient treatment of sixteen
adolescent sex offenders. Using re-arrest records as a measure of recidivism (sexual and
non-sexual), the above two groups were compared at a three year follow-up interval.
Results revealed that youths receiving multisystemic therapy had recidivism rates of 12.5%
for sexual offenses and 25% for non-sexual offenses, while those youths receiving
individual therapy had recidivism rates of 75% for sexual offenses and 50% for non-sexual
Program evaluation data suggest that the sexual recidivism rate for juveniles treated
in specialized programs 9 ranges from approximately 7%-13% over follow-up periods of two
to five years. Studies suggest that rates of non-sexual recidivism are generally higher (25-
50%). If findings from future treatment outcome studies on juvenile sex offenders parallel
those on adult offenses, sexual recidivism rates will be higher in individuals who fail to
9 successfully complete programs. In a recently conducted study, Hunter and Figueredo
(1999) found that as many as 50% of youths entering a community-based treatment
program were expelled during the first year of their participation, Program failure was
found to be largely attributable to failure to comply with attendance requirements and/or
therapeutic directives. 1~ Youths failing to comply with the program were found to have
higher overall levels of sexual maladjustment (as measured on assessment instruments),
and were judged possibly to be at greater long-term risk for sexual recidivism. In this study,
lower levels of client denial at intake best predicted successful program compliance. Higher
levels of denial were found in nonadjudicated youths. 11
7 Controlled treatment outcome studies refer to those where treated juvenile sex offenders are compared
to other groups of juveniles (e.g., non-treated juvenile sex offenders) on variables of interest (e.g., sexual
Multisystemic therapy assumes that behavior problems are multidetermined and multidimensional, and
“that interventions may need to focus on any one or combination of systems.” Areas of therapeutic focus
may include the following: cognitive processes, family relations, peer relations, and school performance.
See Borduin, Henggeler, Blaske, and Stein, 1990, pp. 108-110 for more details.
9 “Specialized” programs are those that were specifically designed to treat juvenile sex offenders. See
“Clinical Programming for Juvenile Sex Offenders” section for details of programming content.
“‘ An example of a therapeutic directive would be the writing of an “empathy letter” to the victim of the
sexual abuse. See “Clinical Programming for Juvenile Sex Offenders” section.
1~ The above described studies pertain primarily to adolescent age male offenders. Presently, the National
Center for Child Abuse and Neglect is funding two demonstration projects to evaluate treatment outcomes
for pre-pubescent children with sexual behavior problems. The results of these studies should appear in
the research literature in the near future.
Juvenile perpetrated sexual aggression has been a problem of growing concern in