Do Motivations for Sexual Offending Differ Depending on Race?

Research Review: Paraphilia and Antisociality Motivations for Sexual Offending May Differ for American Whites and Blacks. Lee, S.C., Hanson, R.K., Calkins, C & Jeglic, E. Sexual Abuse, 32(3), 2020 335-365.

There is a vast array of research pointing to the fact that sexual offenders are a heterogenous group and that it is difficult to generalize across offense types and populations.  Despite the vast amount of research on sexual offenders, there is a lack of scientific studies that look at potential differences in offender characteristics related to race or ethnicity.  This study sought to address this lack of knowledge by investigating any potential differences between white and black men who have committed sexual offenses.

It is well documented that people of color are over represented in the criminal justice system and also are over represented among those people convicted of sex crimes.  The limited research tells us that white men convicted of sexual offenses tend to be more paraphilic and have more sexually deviant arousal than their black counterparts.  White men are also less likely to commit sex crimes such as crimes involving adults or female victims.  Additionally, childhood sexual abuse is reported more frequently in the histories of white men who commit sex crimes than black men who commit sex crimes.

Another noted concern involves the actuarial risk assessment the STATIC-99R.  This instrument, that is widely used to predict risk in sexual offenders, was normed on predominantly white research samples. Black sexual offenders tend to score higher on the STATIC-99R despite having similar sexual recidivism rates. 

The current study sought to address whether white sexual offenders were different from black sexual offenders on risk relevant characteristics.  The second aim of the study was to determine whether the Static-99R predicted sexual recidivism differently for black and white offenders.

Study Details: 

The subjects for this study were 1585 males (788 black and 797 non-Hispanic white) in the New Jersey Department of Corrections system.  The case files of these offenders were reviewed, looking at the following measures:  Static-99R score, MnSOST-R score, Pervasive Anger Score, a general criminality scale, a sexual criminality scale, a paraphilia scale and sexual recidivism.  Recidivism was defined as any subsequent conviction for a sexual offense after release. 

Study Findings:

There were differences in Static-99R scores between black and white offenders with scores for black offenders being higher than for white offenders.  The black offenders were underrepresented in the lower risk categories (Levels I and II) and both racial groups were overrepresented in the higher risk categories of Level Iva and VIAB.  The higher scores for the black offenders resulted from them, on average, being younger and less likely to have been married.  Black offenders were also scored as having higher hostility scores than white offenders. 

Black sexual offenders in this study showed lower indicators of paraphilias, particularly, they were less likely to be diagnosed with pedophilia than their white counterparts.  Black offenders were also less likely to have minor victims or male minor victims.  They were also less likely to use pornography during a sexual contact offense and were less likely to be involved in offenses such as exhibitionism or voyeurism. 

In terms of actuarial risk assessment, the ability of the Static-99R to discriminate recidivism was not related to race. For both black and white offenders, the 5-year recidivism rate was lower than expected though this result only reached significance for white offenders. 

In general, black offenders in this study were found to have more criminogenic characteristics than whites and whites were found to be more paraphilic (pedophilic) than the black offenders. 

Implications for Sentence Mitigation or Aggravation:

For black American sexual offenders, the elevated levels of antisocial behavior may be attributed to many factors that stem from the systemic social oppression and discrimination experienced by Blacks in the United States. There is a large amount of research that shows that there is an association between systemic racism and experiencing unstable family environments and the likelihood of holding anti-social beliefs or engaging in antisocial behaviors.  These social factors may influence the development of anti-social beliefs and behaviors that then influence the commission of their crime. Sentence mitigation reports or psychosexual evaluations should include these factors to help counsel understand the influence of these factors on the clients psychological and behavioral development.

The results of this study also suggest that white offenders use sexual behavior as a dysfunctional coping mechanism for emotional distress which can lead to more engagement in illegal sexual behaviors such as prostitution, exhibitionism etc.  Any assessment conducted on the offender should look at previous history of mental health treatment and should also assess whether the person’s sexual behavior is a compulsive means to manage negative affect.

Though the Static-99R has not been normed on a racially diverse population, this study supports it’s use with black American sexual offenders.

Implications for Treatment Recommendations:

This study finds that the motivations to offend differ significantly based on race. All treatment recommendations should follow the Risk Needs Responsivity evidence-based model.  This study is of interest for the responsivity part of the model. Many white clients may need a greater treatment emphasis on both sexual arousal, i.e. pedophilia, exhibitionism, etc. as well as affect regulation skills.  Black clients might need more emphasis placed on criminogenic needs such as antisocial beliefs and behaviors.