Canada's sex offender legislation: 'tough on crime', short on smarts!

Sexual offending: myths vs reality

Increasingly severe laws have encountered little public opposition. Given the widespread belief in the myths about sex offenders’ inherent and incurable dangerousness, it is perhaps not surprising that very few public officials have questioned the laws or their efficacy. Unfortunately, Mr. Toews has chosen to reinforce these same myths by stating that the proposed legislative change was necessary because “… pedophiles are especially difficult to rehabilitate”. What Mr. Toews failed to understand is that pedophilia is a psychological disorder in which an adult or older adolescent experiences a sexual preference for prepubescent children. Most sexual offenders do not meet the clinical diagnosis standards for pedophilia. In fact, while a perpetrator of child sexual abuse is commonly assumed to be and referred to as a pedophile, there may be other motivations for the crime -such as stress, marital problems, or the unavailability of an adult partner:

  • The non-pedophilic sexual offender tends to be a man whose primary sexual attraction is toward adults, but who may molest children in a maladaptive attempt to meet emotional needs.
  • Non-pedophilic sex offenders may turn to a child for sex out of a perceived inability to be close with an adult partner, out of poor self-esteem, or to escape feelings of powerlessness and loneliness.
  • This type of offender often has appropriate (but dysfunctional) relationships with peers and may be married.These sexual offenders are sometimes called "regressed” or "situational:”

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It is important to understand that sex offenders can be very different from one another. There is no “one size fits all”. Sex offenders are highly heterogeneous; they cross all socioeconomic, ethnic, religious, and national lines. They can range from transients to pillars of the community. There are individuals who have committed violent sexual assaults on strangers, offenders who have had inappropriate sexual contact with family members, individuals who have inappropriate interaction with children in a nonviolent manner, and those who have engaged in a wide range of other inappropriate and criminal sexual behaviors. The term "sex offender" then, includes an extremely wide range of people yet public hysteria has reached the point that all persons so labeled are demonized, whatever the specific circumstances. In the public mind, and apparently in the minds of some Canadian public officials, every sex offender is a person considered to have committed heinous crimes. Most sexual offenses are, in fact, enticing by nature  “begin[ning]with a type of disarming courtship which leads to sexual play” [Coleman and Brown], very few are violent (about 5% of all convicted sex offenders inflict physical injury upon their victim [Coleman and Brown]). The vast majority of sexual crimes is committed by first time offenders and may be someone the victim cares about. However, because the media is more likely to cover the more heinous and violent crimes, the public often assumes these are “the norm” when they are not.

“We need the public and policy makers to understand that offenders are not all the same,” says Anne Liske, executive director of the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Patrick Liddle , group therapist working for the Center for the Treatment of Problem Sexual Behavior says, of the offenders in his group that there most participants fall somewhere closer to the middle of a continuum -- a continuum on which normal occupies a broad and blurry sector. With most of the men he has worked with over the past 14 years, Liddle says, ''the difference between me and my guys is a very thin line.'' He doesn't mean that he's on the edge of doing what they have done, only that the potential may lie within all of us.

''We want there to be the clear line; we want there to be the sloped forehead,'' David D'Amora, Director of Continuous Quality Improvement for the Connection, Inc. and Director of Special Services for the Center for the Treatment of Problem Sexual Behavior, has said, summarizing society's thinking about the men in groups like Liddle's, men D'Amora has been watching over for the state since 1986. Before that, he was a therapist for adult and child victims of sexual assault. ''It just doesn't exist. We want them to be the few, the perverted, the far away. Most are not.''

''They are not monsters,'' says Joan Tabachnick. ''They are us.'' Tabachnick is the director of public education for Stop It Now!, which was founded by a sexual-abuse survivor and which is among the most prominent national organizations devoted to the prevention of child sexual abuse. ''It's so much easier,'' she said about the prevailing public vision, ''to think only of the most sadistic, most dangerous pedophile,'' the predator who kidnaps and abuses and kills. ''It's very comfortable. We can say, They're not who we are.'' But they're also not, she pointed out, the typical offender. They are the rare extreme.


Here are a few other myths which lawmakers and citizens need to be aware before they consider any legislative change:

Myth: sex-crime rates are higher than ever.

The issue of "reported" sex crimes is most problematic; no one really knows the true level of sex offense taking place in America. The basic sources for reported crime are the FBI's Uniform Crime Report (UCR), an annual compilation of national crime statistics, and it's more recently introduced (and more realistic) system, the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS).

The most recent data, the FBI's statistical summary, "Crime in the United States, 1986-2005," shows that sex crime has dropped significantly. Forcible rape, the only sex crime tracked, peaked in 1992 at 110,000 and, by 2005, was at 94,000, a 14 percent decline. The Justice Department found that, in 1979, the rate of rape per 1,000 people was 2.8 and by 2004 it had fallen to 0.4 per 1,000 people. In addition, FBI data reveals that between 2002 and 2004 other sex offenses (statutory rape, incest) were down 31 percent and prostitution and commercial vice was down 19 percent.

Sexual assaults, like most crimes, have been on the decline for 15 years. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, rates of substantiated sexual abuse of children have dropped by 51 percent since 1991. These declines are consistently seen in data from child protective services, law enforcement and victim surveys. Media coverage tends to portray sexually motivated child abductions as a real and constant threat to children, but the Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that only approximately 100 such cases occur in the United States each year  [See Alexander Cockburn, "Here Comes Another Crime Wave," "The Nation," April 2, 2007; PERF report at]

"USA Today" reported that sex assaults against those 12-17 years declined 79 percent during the 1993-2003 decade and sex abuse of all children under 17 dropped by 39 percent during the same period. While estimates by scholars vary, estimate suggest that overwhelming number of all child molestations, 80 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys, are committed by people who know the victim, including relatives, friends, baby-sitters, persons in positions of authority over the child, or persons who supervise children. The FBI reports that juveniles under 17 years commit 15 to 20 percent of all rapes of young people and 30 to 60 percent of all child sexual assaults. [USA Today, August 25, 2005]

Myth: Sex offenders have exceedingly high recidivism rates.

This is a statement which has often been used to incite fear of inevitable re-offending. Large sophisticated studies following nearly 30,000 sex offenders from North America and Europe have found that, on average, only about 14 percent of convicted sex offenders are rearrested for new sex crimes within four to six years after release. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy, which in 2004 was directed by state legislators to analyze the impact of sex offender sentencing policies in the state, reported last year that among felony offenders, sex offenders had the lowest recidivism rate for felony offenses (13%). By comparison, recidivism rates for other violent felony offenders and nonviolent felony offenders were 31.5% and 33.7%, respectively.  Studies have consistently shown sex offenders, as a whole, have a far lower rate of re-offending than any other crime type. Even long-term studies by reputable researchers found low rates of recidivism (between 2%-10% in most studies as long as 15 years) [4].

Myth: Sex offenders cannot be cured:

Strictly speaking sex offending is, in most cases, not a disease; as such then there is no ‘cure’. However, many treatment programs are available, and studies show treatment works, reducing recidivism rates by at least half or more [7]. Unfortunately, treatment programs for sex offenders are rarer than the tragedies which spawn sex offender legislation. According to Bill Plantiere, former administrator of New Jersey's sex-offender treatment center, certain studies show that treatment can reduce recidivism up to 40%. Robert Gill, a sex-offender therapist, has found that molesters do not want to molest. Thus, if they are driven by unwanted forces, many can acquire the mental tools to restrain themselves. Ultimately, treatment success depends on the patient's motivation—and many do want to change. Dr. Jay Adams on our Advisory Board has had waiting lists of 100+ offenders seeking therapy

Myth: Most sex crimes are committed by registered sex offenders:

 Many of the laws affecting sex offenders, such as the Sex offender registry, have been inspired by crimes committed by perpetrators who were strangers to their victims and the registry leads people to believe sex offenders are the only ones committing sex crimes. However, a well established body of research has clearly demonstrated that such cases are the rare exception, not the typical way children come to be sexually victimized. According to a report from the U.S. Dept. of Justice, of the sexual offenses committed against children in 2000, 34.2% of the perpetrators were family members and 58.7% were friends of the family (or other adults the children knew). In the age range for sex-related crime victims of 6 to 11 year olds, only 4.7% of their molesters were strangers and in the age range of 0 to 5 years of age, only 3.1% of the perpetrators were strangers. It also is important to note that, according to a study conducted by researchers at the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Albany, 95% of those arrested for sex offenses in New York State have no previous conviction for a sex offense and are thus not listed on a sex offender registry. The study found that 94% of those arrested for child molestation were first time offenders not listed on any registry. To put it another way, if a child has been the victim of sexual abuse, the odds are 4 in 1,000 that the child was victimized by a stranger who is a registered sex offender. The odds are far greater, 874 in 1,000, that the child was victimized by a family member or acquaintance that is not listed on the sex offender registry.

Myth: All sex offenders are child molesters and all child molesters are predators:

The FBI-UCR, National Crime Victimization Survey reveals that only 23% of sex crimes are against someone under 18; and the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that predators represent around three percent of all sex offenders and child killers are less than one percent of all offenders.

 Myth: Strangers are lurking at school bus stops or around playgrounds looking for children to molest”

 The politicians, and some in the media, want you to believe in the stranger danger myth. The fact is that, according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice, American Psychological Association, the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, and other experts; children are abused by a family member or someone trusted by the family in around 90 percent of all the cases.