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Understanding Sex Offender Typologies

Sex offenses are a serious social problem with damaging consequences. To ensure a safer society, there is a need for resources and a complete understanding of offense patterns and their risk. An understanding of sex offender typologies will assist in making decisions related to sentencing, treatment, and supervision. Although sex offenders exhibit diverse characteristics, there are many commonalities in their clinical problems and criminogenic needs. In this article, you will learn about the most frequently used sex offender typologies which indicate that victimization is linked to the type of sex offender.

Specialist vs. Generalist Model

The Specialist vs Generalist Model distinguishes sex offenders as specialists who commit sexual crimes frequently or as generalists who commit different crimes over time (Lussier, 2005).

Etiological theory

Regarding Marshall and Barbaree's (1990) integrated theory of sexual offending, the development of deviant sexual interests includes frequent masturbation combined with frequent exposure to pornography, insecure parental attachments, and physical or sexual violence during the offender’s early years.

Self-regulation model

The self-regulation model by Ward and Hudson (1998, 2000) is a model which claims that individuals offend to achieve a desired state — either to satisfy or to avoid offending. This model proposes four pathways that lead to sexual offending. Two pathways are avoidance oriented. They characterize offenders who attempt to avoid offending but do not have adequate strategies to prevent the sex offense from happening. The other two pathways are approach-oriented and characterize individuals who seek to experience positive feelings as a result of the sex offense.

The avoidant-passive pathway consists of an offender who attempts to prevent offending but does not have the ability or awareness to prevent the sex offense, e.g., incest offenders (Bickley & Beech, 2002, 2003).

Similarly, the avoidant-active pathway has the intention to avoid offending, but the offender uses counterproductive strategies to control his/her fantasies. For example, the individual who follows the avoidant-active pathway masturbates to deviant fantasies as an alternative to acting on these fantasies, but this behavior increases his/her likelihood to offend.

In contrast, the approach-automatic pathway is characterized by the impulsive desire to sexually assault, but in this case the person carefully plans his/her offenses, e.g., rapists (Yates, Kingston, & Hall, 2003) and crossover offenders (Simons, McCullar, & Tyler, 2008; Simons & Tyler, 2010).

Furthermore, the approach-explicit pathway is followed by child sexual abusers who offend male victims. They carefully plan their offenses by establishing relationships with their victims (Simons & Tyler, 2010).

Child sexual abusers

Child sexual abusers use force/coercion of a sexual nature as a direct threat or through developing a relationship with the victim to further manipulate him or her into the sexual act (John Jay College, 2004). In this category, the victim is younger than age 13 and the age gap between the victim and the offender is at least 5 years. Or the victim’s age is between 13 to 16 and the age difference among victim and abuser is at least 10 years (Finkelhor 1984). Another defining element of the child sexual abuser is the perpetrator's perception that their sexual relationship is mutual, maintaining cognitive distortions to deny the impact of their actions (Groth, 1983).

Child sexual abusers exhibit poor social skills, feelings of inadequacy or loneliness, and are passive in other relationships. (Groth, 1979; Marshall, 1993). They attribute their offending behaviors as uncontrollable, stable, and internal (Garlick, Marshall, & Thorton, 1996). Child sexual abusers display anxious or ambivalent attachment (Simons, Wurtele, & Durham, 2008; Ward et al., 1995).

In contrast to rapists, child sexual abusers experienced heightened sexuality during childhood. They reported child sexual abuse, early exposure to pornography, sexual activities with animals, or beginning masturbation at an early age.

Pedophilic and nonpedophilic abusers

Child sexual abusers can be pedophilic and nonpedophilic (Hanson & Bussiere, 1998). Not all individuals who sexually assault children are pedophiles. Pedophilia consists of a sexual preference for children that may or may not lead to child sexual abuse, such as watching child pornography (Camilleri & Quinsey, 2008).

A person can be pedophilic if over a period of at least 6 months, the individual has intense, recurrent and sexually arousing urges or behaviors towards a prepubescent child. In the category of pedophilia are included people at least 16 years old and at least 5 years older than their victim (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).

Fixated-Regressed Typology

Another sex offense typology is the Fixated-Regressed Typology which classifies child sexual abusers based on the degree their sexual behavior is entrenched and on their psychological needs.

The fixated offender is known for social and sexual interaction with children, more often with male children who aren’t blood related (Conte, 1991). Regressed child sex abusers are known for social and sexual interaction with adults. Regressed child sexual abusers may be involved with female teenagers who are blood related (Priest & Smith, 1992).

Victim gender-relationship Typology

The Victim gender-relationship Typology classifies the gender of victims and the relationship between the sex offender and the victim. Male sexual abusers who assault males are twice as likely to reoffend compared to abusers who assault females (Quinsey, 1986). Contradictorily, child sexual abusers have assaulted twice the number of females--more than same-sex child offenders (Abel et al., 1981). Mixed-gender child sexual abusers reported the highest number of victims and offenses (Simons & Tyler, 2010).


On the other hand, rapists are most often conceptualized as violent offenders because they use more force than child sexual abusers and attribute their offenses to external, unstable, and controllable causes (Garlick, Marshall, & Thorton, 1996), often blaming the victim. Also, these individuals display diversity in their offense records, committing a range of other crimes such as drug-related offenses or thefts (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). Emotionally, rapists show negative peer influences, deficits in self-regulation, defensive attitudes, and feelings of entitlement related to their strong sexual desire. Regarding attachment styles, rapists exhibit avoidant parental attachments (Simons & Tyler, 2010). They have reported more frequent experiences of physical abuse, parental violence, emotional abuse, and cruelty to animals.

Stranger vs. Acquaintance

Stranger vs. Acquaintance is the rapist typology that takes into consideration the relationship the offender has with the victim. Acquaintance rapists use threats but are less violent (Bruinsma, 1995), whereas stranger rapists are more aggressive and use more violence toward women (Polaschek, Ward, & Hudson, 1997).

Motivational Characteristics

This typology by Groth (1979) includes four types of rapists and is based on the degree of aggression and the underlying motivation of the sex offender.

The power-reassurance or sexual-aim rapist has poor social skills and doesn’t inflict injury upon his victim (National Center for Women and Policing, 2001). The violence by the power-reassurance rapist is only applied to complete the sexual act. Usually, this person perceives the victim to have shown a sexual interest in him or that by the use of force the victim will grow to like him (Craissati, 2005).

The power-assertive or antisocial rapist is impulsive, uses aggressive methods of control, and abuses substances. His sexual assaults are often unplanned, but he is unlikely to use a weapon (Groth, 1979).

The third type of rapist, the anger-retaliation or aggressive-aim rapist, is motivated by the use of aggression. This individual sexually assaults for retaliatory reasons and often causes injuries upon the victim.

The fourth type is the sadistic rapist, who has sexual fantasies involving torture or pain. This type is characterized by extensive planning and usually results in sexual murder (Groth, 1979). The rapist can potentially reoffend.

Female sex offenders

Female sex offenders report a history of childhood sexual and physical abuse (Heil, Simons, & Burton, 2010) and exhibit disorganized attachment (Simons, Tyler, & Heil, 2005; Simons, Wurtele, & Durham, 2008). Female sex offenders report both violent and sexualized childhoods by multiple perpetrators frequently. They started masturbating later than male offenders but are more likely to masturbate to their abuse experiences and other deviant fantasies. Like male offenders, some female offenders engage in bestiality during adolescence. They are more likely to sexually assault males and strangers and less likely than male sex offenders to reoffend. Usually, they sexually assault with another person or group.

Passive or active role

There is a classification related to the role the female plays in the co-offending (Grayston & De Luca, 1999; Nathan & Ward, 2002). Females who participate passively do not engage in direct sexual contact; instead, these women may observe but not intervene, procure victims for others to sexually assault, or expose children to sexual interaction (Grayston & De Luca, 1999). Also, passive females who co-offend with a male are known to be socially isolated, emotionally dependent, and have low self-esteem (Matthews, Mathews, & Speltz,1991; Nathan & Ward, 2002). On the other hand, active female offenders who co-offend with a male often offend as revenge and are motivated by jealousy or anger (Nathan & Ward, 2002).

Self-initiated female abusers

Self-initiated female abusers are differentiated based upon age of the victim and motivation for the offense.

The teacher lover/heterosexual nurturer describes female offenders who sexually abuse teenage boys within a position-of-trust relationship (Matthews, Mathews, & Speltz, 1991; Vandiver & Kercher, 2004). These females exhibit dependency needs, attempting to meet intimacy or sexual needs through sexual offending.

Predisposed offenders are self-initiated female offenders who sexually assault prepubescent children, and they display significant psychopathologies (Matthews, Mathews, & Spletz, 1991). They are more likely than other female offenders to display symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (Foa, Keane, & Friedman, 2000) and depression. Furthermore, they report extensive physical and sexual abuse by caregivers. Researchers have found that these female abusers are motivated by power, causing them to re-enact their childhood trauma, this time as the offender.

Postpubescent females are female offenders who sexually assault adults and engage in the forced prostitution of other females. They are motivated by financial gain. These individuals also have a higher number of arrests for nonsexual crimes. Female offenders who personally sexually assault other female adults often offend within an intimate relationship as a form of domestic violence and are motivated by anger and revenge.

Crossover Offending

Crossover Offending challenges the validity of traditional sex offender typologies by demonstrating that many sex offenders don’t offend against a particular victim type. Crossover typology includes those sex offenses in which victims are from multiple age, gender, and relationship categories. Traditional typologies may not be helpful in allocating resources or evaluating risk.

A study examined sex offenses which were recorded from criminal history records and admissions during treatment coupled with polygraph testing. The majority of incarcerated offenders admitted to sexually assaulting both children and adults from multiple relationship types. In addition, there was an increase in offenders admitting to sexually assaulting victims from both genders. Crossover offenders report childhood histories of both violence and heightened sexuality. Different from child sexual abusers, they were less likely to be sexually abused, but they were more likely to report early sexual experiences with peers, to have witnessed sexual abuse as a child, and to have had more frequent exposure to pornography before age 10 (Simons, Tyler, and Heil 2005). Similar to rapists, they reported consistent physical and emotional abuse during childhood. However, crossover offenders were exposed to domestic violence significantly more frequently than rapists.


There are many advances when it comes to the knowledge of factors that lead to sexual deviant behavior and offense pathways. These new models assist with risk and require evaluation, but additional research is needed to develop broader typologies to better explain sexual offending. Only through a more complete understanding of treatment needs and following effective intervention can sex offenders learn alternative strategies to sexual violence and finally live a healthy lifestyle without offending.


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Article written by:

Megi Beqiri Benjamin Silber


Jan 16, 2022

I was wondering about this but did not find any reliable source. Thank you.


Almina Tahirović
Almina Tahirović
Jan 14, 2022

Great article. It is also fascinating how background traumas and genetics could affect this type of behavior. It is also questionable if such behavior may be repairable at all. Thank You for providing more informations about this! Congrats.

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