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The Etiology of Sex Offending and the use of Electronic devices in monitoring Sex Offenders

Graham Holloway Apr 21 2020

The Etiology of Sex Offending and the use of Electronic devices in monitoring Sex Offenders


Extensive research has gone into understanding why people commit sexual-based offences and how to prevent them from either happening in the first place or from reoccurring. Near the end of the 20th century, various legislations have passed to prevent sex offenders from re-offending. One method used to prevent re-offending is to track the whereabouts of the individual is through the use of electronic tracking, usually by way of a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) that is attached to the individual's ankle. The etiology of sex offending is complex and deals with many factors that should be measured when examining ways to prevent sexual-based offences from happening. GPS tracking has also not been without controversy. While there are arguments to be made on both sides of the GPS debate, much of the research around the use of GPS devices indicate they are useful but that there are other factors that need to be measured.

The Etiology of Sex Offending involving Minors

The etiology of sex offending refers to the origin or causes of why people commit sexual-based offences. Some people who sexually abuse children, for example, are not drawn to them due to attraction (i.e., there is no Pedophilic interest involved). Instead, these individuals are drawn to children due to high sex drive, criminality, or opportunism (Seto, 2009). Other reasons for child sexual abuse can include sexually inexperienced adolescents, developmentally disabled persons, those with antisocial personality disorders (ASPDs), and perpetrators within general traumatizing family constellations, which seek surrogate partners in children (Greenberg, Firestone, Nunes, & Bradford, 2005; Rice & Harris, 2002). Those who lack the necessary social skills to develop and maintain emotional and sexual relationships with appropriately aged peers may also look to "replacement partners" in children as a kind of "surrogate" (Beier, 1998; Mokros, Osterheider, & Nitschke, 2012; Seto, 2018). The Abused Abuser theory posits that those who suffer sexual abuse as children go on to abuse children when they are adults. Research has shown that a large number of sex offenders reported sexual abuse as children (Becker, 1998; Craissati, McClurg & Browne, 2002; Graham, 1996; Jonson-Reid & Way, 2001; Seghorn, Prentky & Boucher, 1987; Veneziano, Veneziano & LeGrand, 2000; Worling, 1995; Zgourides, Monto & Harris, 1997). However, the majority of sex offenders do not report enduring sexual abuse as children (Berliner & Elliot, 2002; Putnam, 2003).

Empirical reviews of GPS tracking

GPS has both advantages and disadvantages. One distinct disadvantage is a concern of ethics.  Should sex offenders lose their right to privacy when they are released because they committed a crime, even if medical professionals deemed the treatment sufficient? Many also argue that oversight and control when sex offenders are released can be intrusive and deliberately shaming (Janus, 2000; McAliden, 2005; Shaffer, 2010). Another disadvantage is that GPS devices are usually quite expensive. An advantage, however, is that GPS allows law enforcement to monitor the individual from a distance and research suggests that sex offenders who wear GPS tracking devices are less likely to re-offend than those who do not (Gies et al., 2012). Research consistently finds that one of the most significant contributors to desistance is strong social bonds and pro-social networks (Bottoms, 2006; Doekhie, Dirkzwager & Nieuwbeerta, 2017; Laub, & Sampson, 2001; Sampson, & Laub, 2003; Moore, Stuewig, & Tangney, 2016; Paternoster, Bachman, Bushway, O'Connell, 2016; Weaver, 2015). Sex offenders also have a high chance of becoming homeless due to stigma from the community and restrictions placed upon them by the state. Myers (2011c: 61) reported that 75 percent of Los Angeles' 2000 paroled sex offenders were homeless. Homelessness then decreases accountability, decreases the ability for the individual to charge their monitoring device, and increases isolation, which increases the risk of recidivism (Bishop, 2010; Myers, 2011a). The research around desistence suggests that instead of making community notifications (leaflets, signage, a statement to the media) when a sex offender has moved into the area, the best method may be to make sure they are at no risk to re-offend and are under surveillance without notifying the community. Making the community aware that a sex offender lives among them will more than likely isolate the individual, turning them into a pariah of sorts, which increases their chance of recidivism as they will feel alone. One possibility that comes with community notification is that some members may commit criminal offences against the individual for what they had done, resulting in psychological, emotional, or physical harm, which may isolate the individual further, increasing the likelihood that the individual offends again. Research also indicates that convicted sex offenders have a lower recidivism rate than other dangerous criminals (Alper & Durose, 2019; Harris & Hanson, 2004; Levenson, Brannon, Fortney, & Baker, 2007), though one thing to keep in mind is that many sex based crimes are under reported, so the recidivism numbers may actually be higher than what is being reported.


Understanding why people commit sexual-based offences is a crucial factor in preventing sexual-based offences from happening in the first place. While more expensive than other methods, GPS tracking also appears to be effective in reducing the rate of recidivism among sex offenders. Though the usage is not without its valid criticism as issues of privacy, control, and shame are often called into question. However, research shows that secure social networks and pro-social bonds are also crucial in keeping recidivism rates among sex offenders down.

Photo by Serhat Beyazkaya on Unsplash


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