sex crimes

From: Francesca S. Alcorn (
Date: Fri 12 Mar 2004 - 20:14:50 GMT

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    I worked with boys who were either removed from their homes or at-risk of being removed. Every family I worked with had some sexual dysfunction - although I don't know of any rapes - there was a lot of sexual abuse. I've done some trainings, a bit of reading and a lot of agonizing about this issue. The kids are young, likeable and sympathetic and at the same time they are at risk for becoming really scary adults. What goes wrong? Here are a few pieces that I am trying to fit together:

    Children who are molested *before* the age of 12 often become withdrawn and avoid sex through their teenage years. If they are molested *after* the age of 12 they act out and are likely to abuse other children. In terms of interventions, if you find kids doing
    "inappropriate" sexual stuff before 10 - 12, you just tell them to knock it off and they usually will. After the age of 10 - 12 you need more aggressive interventions, and the older they get, the less chance of success you have. Even hardcore programs (I went to a training run by a residential treatment facility for offenders) have a very high (95%+) recidivism rate after 18. Unless there is some magic therapy out there that no one has discovered, then it looks like it becomes hardwired. To me this suggests that there is a sort of "sexual imprinting" window that opens at around the age of 12 and closes by 18. It gives us some plasticity in sexual bonding but it can also go horribly wrong. Teenagers who have difficulty forming relationships with appropriate peer sexual partners, usually boys with poor self-image/poor social skills, seek out younger girls/siblings who are less intimidating. There is a good bit of research that substantiates this as a significant risk factor for later incest. Maybe they get "imprinted" on young children. Jeffrey Dahmer played with animal corpses during this window and it may have been just bad timing which "made" him what he was.

    But I think that there is more than that. Not everyone with strange childhood sexual experiences ends up a sexual predator. They may develop some strange fantasies or fetishes, but they don't hurt people. I don't think it is only a matter of "what makes a sexual predator"? I think another question is "what do most people have that *stops* them from hurting others? There are situational factors which loosen these controls (like drugs/alcohol and stress (esp. loss of significant relationships)).

    1) There is also an element of social status in rape since success with girls confers status (if what I hear about locker-room conversations is true). The only instance I read of "rape" amongst primates was in Robert Sapolsky's book. A newly-deposed (ex)alpha male pursued and "forcibly copulated" with a female who screamed and protested throughout the whole process. So the old adage that "rape is about power, not about sex" may be true. And it may be more about status with other *men* than it is about women. It may be about exerting dominance - frustrated power. I wonder whether some of the
    "misogyny" which underlies rape is just years of frustration because they haven't been successful with women - which leads us back to social skills etc. Maybe their sexuality becomes imprinted/associated with confusion, fear and rage. I wonder if a really good prevention program might be targeted toward teaching social skills and facilitating *appropriate* interactions between teenage boys and girls. All those high school proms and after school activities may be really important after all.

    2) Poor impulse control/high aggression level. I just read a book which linked some of these traits to unusually high testosterone levels - with the caveat that proper socialization can channel these impulses productively: the firefighter who rushes into the building because of the adrenaline rush, altruism and impulsiveness. Heroism as a cocktail of high-testosterone and good socialization. If good socialization can ameliorate risk factors, then conversely, "bad" socialization exacerbates them - the spur posse. There have been times - like feudal lords who had a go at young brides before their husbands did - when rape was enshrined within the social order
    (another alpha male thing). And certain environments (like prisons) where it continues to be a fact of life. Status and dominance again. And I agree Thornhill and his ilk are dangerous because they threaten to undermine social norms against rape.

    3) Sociopathic tendencies. There is not a lot of hard research out there on empathy, but IIRC it is supposed to develop around the age of seven. The one kid I worked with who had no empathy floored me until I realized that he *was* *really confused* about why people wouldn't just let him do whatever he wanted to. People were instruments of fulfillment or frustration and nothing else. The definition of sociopath in the DSM-IV is not without it's critics. The search for a neurological underpinning is difficult because at this point it looks like it may actually be two different things lumped together. Sociopaths who don't have violent impulses often manage to avoid imprisonment/diagnosis (often synonymous) their whole lives. So the diagnostic criteria which include violence may be misleading. I think there's a genetic component - no known effective therapy - the only thing that these kids seem to learn is to keep their behavior "below the radar". Don't know what advantage it might confer in the population unless it is like sickle-cell anemia - a recessive trait that confers some advantage when paired with a dominant gene, but which can be dangerous when it is paired with another recessive.

    Or maybe this represents the same dilemma which we faced with the kid I worked with: we knew he was bad news, but you can't lock someone up until he's done something bad enough to warrant it (and done it to someone willing to press charges). Our own social prohibitions against being "unfair" create the niche which sociopaths exploit. So the $64,000 question is: will he be able to find some young thing he can bully or manipulate into having sex with him before he ends up in prison? Maybe sociopaths continue to exist because we haven't figured out a good way to deal with them. They represent a threat to the social fabric of a community because they create great stress and destroy trust/group cohesiveness. But they continue to exist so long as their number is small enough that they don't destroy the group. Social parasites who continue to exist as long as they don't kill their host. Maybe this is something which makes more sense at a group level than it does at any other level. Maybe *socio*path is a good name.

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