Sexual violence offenders

Prevention and intervention approaches
ACSSA Issues No. 5 – June 2006

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Sexual violence and sex offenders in Australia

The notion that sex crimes are perpetrated by a small number of habitual, sexually deviant offenders, usually strangers, conflicts with the fact that most victims are sexually assaulted by someone they know (Lievore, 2005, p. 293).

An accurate assessment of the prevalence of sexual violence in any community is always likely to be underestimated because the vast majority of sexual violence remains unreported (ABS, 1996, 2002a; Mouzos & Makkai, 2004). Rates of prevalence will also differ according to a number of methodological issues (ABS, 2004b; Neame & Heenan, 2003; Schweitzer & Dwyer, 2003). These include:

  • the definition of sexual violence used in a study - a narrow definition will produce smaller numbers than that of a broader definition, which may include experiences such as sexual pressure and coercion, and unwanted touching
  • the study sample - prevalence may be estimated from what is commonly known as a 'clinical sample', which refers to those people known to have committed sexual offences or those seeking help for the effects of sexual violence. The sample may also be drawn from the general population, or a sub-population (for example, students) where the prevalence of sexual violence is unknown.

There are two main ways in which estimates of sexual violence have been gathered: surveys of the population to identify rates of sexual violence and records on the numbers of people arrested and charged with committing sex-related crimes.

Surveys generally reveal a higher prevalence of sexual assaults when compared to police records (ABS, 2004b), as it is recognised that not all sexual offences are reported to the police (ABS, 1996, 2004b; Schweitzer & Dwyer, 2003). Criminal justice records tell us about the number of people and incidents reported and convicted for sex crimes; therefore all forms of sexual violence which do not come to the attention of the authorities or are outside legislative definitions are not recorded. These figures are important; however they underestimate the prevalence of sexual violence in a community. To estimate sexual violence prevalence, surveys of victims are more frequently used, as they can include both reported and unreported incidents. Both survey and criminal justice record data are presented in the following sections to offer a more complete overview.

3.1 Sex offenders

Sex offenders are a heterogeneous group of people who are not easily identifiable. They come from all types of social, income, racial, ethnic and religious groups (James, 1996). Offenders can be married or not, employed or unemployed, have children and partners or not. Probably the only generalisations that can be safely made about sex offenders are that they are almost always male and they are almost always known to their victims (ABS, 1996, 2004a).

A recent development that extends insights into sex offenders has drawn on the principles of situational crime prevention (Wortley & Smallbone, 2006). Wortley and Smallbone have argued that this approach moves beyond sole reliance on the dominant intra-psychic understandings of offenders and tertiary treatment to considering how the environment can be modified and monitored to prevent child sexual abuse and its re-occurrence. It focuses on the person in their environment so that the likelihood of sex crimes being committed is based on both the individual actor and how his immediate setting facilitates or prevents further sex crimes. Rather than just profiling child sex offenders to differentiate them from the rest of the population, the situational approach acknowledges their individual traits as well as examining how the environment can be modified. For example, Wortley and Smallbone suggested an examination of the settings where the crime is committed - domestic, institutional and public spaces - and how potential offenders can be deterred in such environments. They proposed other modifications to the environment, such as the monitoring of offenders in the community, and primary prevention through increasing children's protective strategies. However, Wortley and Smallbone were careful to warn that they are not suggesting the child is in any way responsible for the sexual abuse. Within the situational approach, the heterogeneity of sex offenders is acknowledged and there is a strong rationale for moving beyond individual treatment approaches.

In a survey of the general population, Finkelhor and Lewis (1988) found that between 4 and 17 per cent of men acknowledged having sexually abused a child. In a survey of male university students in Australia and the United Kingdom, approximately 15 per cent of participants self-reported some likelihood of sexually abusing a prepubescent child if they could do so without risk of being caught (Malamuth, 1989).

As Lievore (2004) noted, the official statistics on apprehension, conviction and incarceration of sex offenders 'represent only the tip of the iceberg of all sex crimes perpetrated' (p. 24) as the majority of sexual offences remain unreported. However, research and data on incarcerated offenders is still important to examine because it provides a profile of at least one group of sex offenders and knowledge about the impacts of treatment programs and other responses. Such data sets can also provide information about trends in the state's responses to sexual violence and identify potential areas for reform.

In Australia, between 1988 and 1998, the population of prisoners incarcerated for perpetrating a sexual offence increased from 10 per cent to around 14 per cent (Smallbone & Ransley, 2005). According to the ABS (2002b), between 1996 and 2001, the proportion of Australian prisoners sentenced for sexual assault decreased from around 13 per cent in 1996 to 10 per cent in 2001. On 30 June 2001, the total Australian prison population comprised 22,458 prisoners, of whom 11 per cent of male prisoners (1873 men) were incarcerated for committing sexual assault. However, this figure does not represent prisoners who were convicted of sexual assault on ancillary charges only.

Smallbone and Ransley (2005) revealed that the number of sex offenders entering North American prisons has increased in recent years. Between 1980 and 1994 the number of prisoners entering North American prisons increased by 200 per cent and the number of prisoners incarcerated for sexual offences increased by 330 per cent (Greenfeld, 1997). In 1998, 94 000 prisoners were incarcerated for perpetrating sexual offences (Beck & Mumola, 1999). The proportion of incarcerated sex offenders increased by 26 per cent by 2002 (Smallbone & Ransley, 2005), with 118 500 prisoners incarcerated for perpetrating sexual offences (Harrison & Beck, 2003).

Police apprehension statistics provide some information about sex offenders who come to the attention of the criminal justice system (Lievore, 2004). Data on police apprehensions are available for South Australia, Victoria and Queensland from police services, and from the Crime Research Centre in Western Australia. Lievore cautioned that apprehension statistics do not necessarily equate to the number of individuals apprehended or to the number of offences committed in a counting period as jurisdictions vary in counting methods.

In South Australia, between 1 January and 31 December 2001, South Australian Police made 740 apprehensions for sexual offences (Office of Crime Statistics and Research, 2002). Fifty-nine per cent of the apprehensions were for rape and indecent assault. Of all those apprehended for sexual offences, 65 per cent were aged between 25 and 59 years and one quarter were aged 24 years or younger. Nine per cent of all persons apprehended for alleged rape were aged 17 years or younger.

Victorian Police apprehended 3439 alleged sex offenders in the financial year ending 30 June 2001 (Victorian Police, 2002). Of these apprehensions, 528 were for rape and 2911 were for other sexual offences, while ten per cent of all apprehensions were persons under the age of 17 years.

During the 2000-2001 financial year, Queensland Police made 5816 apprehensions for sexual offences (Queensland Police Service, 2001). Of the total apprehensions, 1076 apprehensions were for rape and attempted rape and 4740 were for other sexual offences.

Fernandez and Loh (2001) found that, in 2001, 516 individual persons were arrested in Western Australia for sexual offences. Males under 17 years comprised 13 per cent (66 young men) of those arrested, with 3 per cent of these being under the age of 14 years.

While individual states' apprehension counting methods may differ, Lievore (2004) highlighted that some variables remain constant across jurisdictions. Lievore showed that across the jurisdictions:

  • between 97 and 99 per cent of alleged sex offenders were male
  • juvenile sex offenders comprised approximately 10 per cent of all alleged sex offenders
  • alleged sex offenders categorised as being of Indigenous appearance comprised between two and nine per cent of all alleged sex offenders
  • Caucasians comprised between 76 to 85 per cent of all alleged sex offenders (where such information was recorded) (p. 18).

3.2 Offender-victim relationships

Most sex offenders are known to their victims. Women are less likely to report sexual violence to the police if the perpetrator is known to them, especially if the perpetrator is a current intimate partner (ABS, 1996, 2004a). The Australian Bureau of Statistics' (2004a) Recorded Crime Statistics indicated that 58 per cent of female victims of sexual assault knew the offender and, of these offenders, approximately 50 per cent were family members. These results are consistent with the finding of the Women's Safety Australia survey (ABS, 1996), which showed that, of the women aged 18 years and over who reported that they had been subjected to one or more incident of sexual assault since the age of 15 years, only 11 per cent of the women were sexually assaulted by strangers. Of the women who reported having been subjected to sexual violence since the age of 15 years, the following data about the perpetrators' relationship to the victim were identified:

  • 3.6 per cent were current partners
  • 21.5 per cent were previous partners
  • 34.1 per cent were boyfriends
  • 8.3 per cent were family members
  • 26.5 per cent were friends
  • 7.4 per cent were bosses or co-workers
  • 5 per cent were other men known to the women (ABS, 1996, p. 23).

Thus, the data overwhelmingly show that most women are subjected to sexual violence by men who are known to them. However, recorded statistics on the prevalence of sex offenders in the community only represent 'visible' perpetrators. As the majority of sexual violence incidents remain unreported, the majority of sex offenders remain undetected.4

3.3 Juvenile sex offenders

Literature specifically focusing on young male sex offenders was rare until the 1980s (Becker & Johnson, 2001; Davis & Leitenberg, 1987; Smith, Wampler, Jones & Reifman, 2005). The lack of attention on this group contributed to the belief that young men rarely perpetrate sexual violence with 'serious' or physical consequences (Davis & Leitenberg, 1987). However, 20 to 30 per cent of rapes and 30 to 50 per cent of child sexual assaults are perpetrated by adolescents (Becker, Cunningham-Rathner & Kaplan, 1986; Davis & Leitenberg, 1987).

Common cultural attitudes, such as the saying that 'boys will be boys', also downplay the incidence of young men perpetrating sexual violence (Smith et al., 2005). This attitude also views acts of sexual violence employed by young men against their girlfriends as 'experimentation', 'play', 'curiosity' or 'just part of growing up' (Becker & Johnson, 2001; Grant, 2000; Smith et al., 2005). This attitude has also been responsible for young sexual offenders not being held accountable and responsible for their offending behaviours (Grant, 2000).

Recent research on juvenile sex offenders has highlighted that common cultural attitudes towards young sex offenders and not holding juvenile perpetrators accountable for their actions is highly problematic (Connolly & Wolf, 1995; Grant, 2000). Aljazireh (1993) argued that patterns of sexual offending often begin in adolescence and that many adolescent sex offenders go on to perpetrate more serious forms of sexual violence in adulthood. Thus, it is imperative that there are adequate and effective interventions with juvenile sexual offenders that include mechanisms of accountability insofar as treatment options are concerned.

3.4 Women's reporting of experiences of sexual violence

There is relative agreement in the literature that various forms of sexual violence, such as unwanted advances, sexual harassment, and sexual pressure and coercion are common experiences for many women (ABS, 1996, 2004b; Bateman, 1991; Byers, 1996; Hird, 2000; McIntosh & Griffin, 2001; Patton & Mannison, 1995; Russo, 2000; Western Australia Crime Research Centre & Donovan Research [WACRC&DR], 2001). The rates of sexual violence in Australia are based on women's self-reports from various surveys:

  • the National Crime and Safety Survey (ABS, 2002a)
  • the Women's Safety Australia survey (ABS, 1996)
  • Recorded Crime: Victims, Australia (ABS, 2004a)
  • the Australian component of the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS) (Mouzos & Makkai, 2004).

The results of these studies are described and their findings discussed in the following section.

The National Crime and Safety Survey (ABS, 2002a) collected data on sexual assaults experienced by women, aged 18 years and over, via posted questionnaires to private residences. The Women's Safety Australia survey (ABS, 1996) utilised face-to-face interviews with a random sample of 6300 women. The Australian Bureau of Statistics report (2004a), Recorded Crime: Victims, Australia, is a compilation of all the crimes reported to the police in each Australian territory and state. The Australian component of the International Violence Against Women Survey (Mouzos & Makkai, 2004), reported on interviews with 6677 women, aged between 18 and 69 years, about their experiences of physical and sexual violence.

In the twelve months to April 2002, 28 300 women were subjected to 62 700 incidents of sexual assault, of whom 66 per cent reported being subjected to a single incident of sexual assault and the remaining 34 per cent experiencing two or more incidents (ABS, 2002a). From the Women's Safety survey findings, it was estimated that in the twelve months prior to the study, 100 000 women experienced an incident of sexual assault in Australia (ABS, 1996). Of the crimes reported to the police between 1 January 2003 and 31 December 2003, there were 18 237 incidents of sexual assault, which represents an incident rate of 91.7 per 100 000 people (ABS, 2004a).

The National Crime and Safety Survey found that women were subjected to significantly more sexual assaults than men. The recorded crime figures for 2003 reveal that women were the victims in 82 per cent of reported cases (ABS, 2004a). The majority of offenders were male in all the Australian surveys. Ninety nine per cent of the sexual assaults were perpetrated by male offenders in the Women's Safety survey (ABS, 1996).

Young women experienced a higher prevalence of sexual assaults than other age groups. In the Women's Safety survey, women aged 18-24 years experienced the highest prevalence rate of sexual assaults of all women (19 per cent) (ABS, 1996). The Recorded Crime study found young women aged 16-19 years recorded the highest victimisation rate - 497 victims per 100 000 people (ABS, 2004a).

The percentage of women who reported incidents to the police is small. The Women's Safety survey found 15 per cent of women reported incidents of sexual violence to police (ABS, 1996), and 20 per cent of incidents were reported in the National Crime and Safety Survey (ABS, 2002a). The IVAWS found similar rates of reporting incidents of sexual violence to the police - only 14 per cent of women experiencing sexual violence from an intimate partner and 16 per cent of women experiencing sexual violence from a person other than an intimate partner (Mouzos & Makkai, 2004).

Consistent with previous research, contemporary Australian studies show the majority of women are sexually assaulted by men known to them. The National Crime and Safety Survey found that perpetrators were known to 58 per cent of the women (ABS, 2002a). The IVAWS showed only 1 per cent of women were raped by a stranger and that some women disclosed violence from both intimate partners and other people (Mouzos & Makkai, 2004).

From these findings, it is apparent that sexual violence is a common experience for many Australian women and takes a variety forms, not all of which fit within the narrow legal definitions of sexual violence. Although the prevalence of sexual violence is difficult to accurately assess, the findings indicate the following:

  • women are more likely than men to be the victims of sexual violence
  • women are more likely to experience sexual violence from a person they know, rather than a stranger
  • perpetrators of sexual violence are most likely to be male.

Furthermore, this review of prevalence studies confirms previous evidence that, in the majority of the cases, sexual violence still rarely comes to the attention of the criminal justice system.


4 According to the Women's Safety Australia survey (ABS, 1996), only 15 per cent of women who identified an incident of sexual assault in the 12 months prior to the survey reported it to police. The 2002 National Crime and Safety Survey (ABS, 2002a) estimated 20% of sexual assaults were reported.