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Etiology of Adult Sexual Offending

NCJ Number
Date Published
July 2015
7 pages
This Research Brief reviews the scientific literature on the etiology of adult sexual offenders, which refers to the origins or causes of sexually abusive behavior, including the pathways that are associated with the behavior's development, onset, and maintenance.
The basic tenets of both single-factor and multiple-factor theories of sexual offending are presented, and the empirical evidence of the validity of each theory is summarized. Single-factor theories explain the development of sex offending behavior by using a narrow set of factors or a single underlying cause. The single-factor theories reviewed are biological theories, evolutionary theories, personality theories, cognitive theories, behavioral theories, social learning theories, and feminist theories. Multi-factor theories of sexual offending behavior view single-factor theories as too limited in their focus to capture the complexities of sexual offending behavior. The multi-factor theories combine multiple factors in attempting to explain the etiology of abusive sexual behavior. The multi-factor theories discussed are Finklehor's precondition theory; Marshall and Barbaree's integrated theory; Hall and Hirschman's quadripartite model; Ward and Siegart's pathways model; Malamuth's confluence model; and Stinson, Sales, and Becker's multimode self-regulation theory. The brief concludes that current research indicates a combination of factors likely contribute to sexual offending. Like other behaviors, sexually abusive behavior is apparently learned and influenced by reinforcement and punishment; however, specific punishments needed to mitigate sexual offending are unclear, particularly given the cognitive distortions maintained by many sex offenders. 34 references

Date Published: July 1, 2015