Can we ever truly legislate for sex offenders?


As new child sex offender legislation comes before the Oireachtas, the debate surrounding such behaviours remains as complex as ever writes Blaithin Treacy.



The government plans to introduce new legislation regarding child sex offenders following a bill put forward by Roscommon independent TD Denis Naughton. This bill will allow gardaí to share relevant intelligence with parents, guardians and carers in order for them to safeguard their children and vulnerable adults. Minister of State, Brian Hayes stated “any debate that helps us consider how we can best protect our children is to be welcomed.” But what is it that leads to sexual offending in the first place? There is an on-going debate regarding the determinants of human sexual behaviour and more specifically sexual offending.

The biological processes underlying acceptable and deviant sexual behaviour have been investigated for many years. The idea that there is something biologically abnormal about sex offenders is attractive as it allows us to think of these people as ‘sick’ rather than just plain ‘bad’. It also means that we can hold on to the belief that sexual deviance can be ‘cured’, or at least managed. However, despite the popularity of these theories, there is no clear evidence that biological factors such as hormones (e.g. testosterone) relate to sexual offending. This would suggest that the major influence on sexual deviancy then lies with environmental factors.

Cognitive psychologists argue that there is something problematic in the way in which sex offenders view or interpret the world, particularly in a social context. Many gardaí may have come across paedophiles who exhibit beliefs such as: ‘if the child didn’t resist the advances, they must have wanted sex;’ ‘you can develop a relationship with a child through sexual contact;’ and ‘if children fail to report sexual activity they must have liked it.’ These kinds of thoughts and beliefs are used by paedophiles to deny, minimise and rationalise their behaviour and play a role in both initiating and maintaining this behaviour. In order to reduce the risk of reoffending, these cognitions must be challenged.

Other beliefs commonly reported by sex offenders surround the idea of the uncontrollability of sexuality. Sex offenders typically use this as an excuse to minimise social disapproval. Child molesters have been found to have significantly lower self-esteem than non-offenders of similar socio-economic status. Beliefs such as “I couldn’t help it” are then used to conserve their self-esteem.

“Pornography, perhaps indirectly, contributes to acts of violence against women by making these acts appear less reprehensible…”

sexoffenders5Sexual entitlement is another theme of cognitive distortions that are popular among sex offenders. A sense of entitlement itself is common among all kinds of criminals. This over inflated sense of entitlement allows the criminal to deny responsibility for the effects of their choices on others. When it comes to sexual offences, the offender can deny or minimise the victim’s rights, thereby reducing their perceived responsibility for any harm caused. The importance of targeting these distorted thoughts and beliefs in order to reduce criminal behaviour has been emphasised for decades. Efforts to reduce sexual offending cannot be successful without challenging the underlying beliefs of the offender.

While the learning of deviant sexual responses is important, the lack of opportunity to acquire socially acceptable alternatives can be even more important. Gardaí may note that many sex offenders display a lack of social skills and difficulty interacting with members of the opposite sex. This, in particular, applies to child sex offenders who, reportedly, are inept at interacting with adult females. The restriction of opportunities for acquiring normal social interaction, due to a lack of social skills, may contribute to the development of sexual offending.

It is not only learning behaviour, but learning relations such as difference, opposition and comparison that can influence sexual behaviour. Boys who learn that men are sexually aggressive and also that men and women are opposite may relate to women as sexually submissive. When this boy grows up he may be more attracted to submissive women. In this way, we can see how society is influencing the development of sexual behaviour.

Arbitrary relations are also established by society when it comes to women and children. For instance, women are often portrayed in society as being dependent and requiring a man to take care of them, the common ‘damsel in distress’ scenario. However, children are more dependent than women and require more care. Therefore children are more feminine than adult women in this regard. Children then portray stronger social stereotypes of femininity than adult women (ie they are even more dependent, innocent, gentle, submissive and youthful). It is unsurprising that there is a growing concern over the infantalisation of women and the sexualisation of children in the media. Our society is continually blurring the lines between children and women by encouraging women to look younger and children to look older.

Cultural factors have also been thought to influence sexual interest, arousal and behaviour. The rate of sexual assault has been correlated with a number of social variables including the culture’s general attitude toward women, perceptions of women’s social roles, views on rape, and acceptance of common rape myths. According to many feminists, culture is the main underlying cause of deviant sexual behaviour. Pornography, in particular, has been targeted as hate literature against women. However, it is not pornography itself that is the problem, but the content which can objectify and degrade women. Feminists argue that a recurring theme in pornography is contempt for women in which they are seen being raped, ejaculated on, urinated on, anally penetrated and beaten. In pornography, women are reduced to little more than sexual objects.

Feminists hold no objection to sexually explicit material that depicts men and women in an equal and positive relationship. It is the portrayal of unequal power between men and women and the degradation of women, so commonly found in pornography with which they disagree. Such themes promote a culture in which aggressive sexual behaviour towards women is not only tolerated but ideologically encouraged. Pornography, perhaps indirectly, contributes to acts of violence against women by making these acts appear less reprehensible.

One of the reasons for the concern regarding the effect of aggressive pornography on sexual behaviour comes from research reporting antisocial effects as a result of nonsexual depictions of aggression in the mass media. If nonsexual aggressive material can result in more aggression in our society it seems likely then that sexually aggressive material could lead to more sex offending.

New legislation is to be implemented which has opened a debate on how best to protect our children. Perhaps a more salient point would be to reduce the number of sex offences occurring in the first place. In order for this to happen, a fundamental change must be made in the way our society portrays women and children. In particular, the depiction of women being more dependent and vulnerable, which not only sends the message that men should be dominant, but which means that children take on feminine characteristics by being more dependent than adult women. These messages contribute to the distorted way sex offenders view the world. These cognitions can then lead to rape and paedophilia. Ultimately, it is clear to see that for sex offending to decrease a change must be made in our culture.

Blaitin Treacy is a post-graduate research student in forensic psychology at Trinity College, Dublin