Sexual Offenders: Nature vs. Nurture?

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Sexual crimes against children are the most heinous crimes that an individual can commit in our society. These crimes leave children scarred for the rest of their lives, damage families to the core and threaten communities as a whole. Sexual offenders also have the lowest rehabilitation rates in comparison to other offenses. Due to these low prospects, the causes of sexual crimes against children need to be determined. Does an individual commit these crimes because of something that happened to them in their childhood or are they genetically predisposed to commit these acts? A study will be developed that would answer this question of whether nature or nurture is responsible. By resolving this question of nature or nurture, possible treatment models could also be developed that may increase rehabilitation rates for these individuals. 

The literature that currently exists on the subject of sexual crimes against children has mainly focused on the environmental factors that may cause an individual to offend. Many studies found links between abuse as a child and committing sexual offenses later in life. Seghorn’s (1987) study on child molesters in prison found that there were high incidence of physical and sexual abuse in their past. “The incidence of sexual assault in childhood among child molesters was higher than the incidence of such abuse reported in the literature; when a sexual assault did occur, it was associated with many other indices of familial turmoil and instability” (Seghorn, 1987, p. 262). This study inferred that previous exposure to sexual or physical abuse is what may have caused a child molester to act on young children. This study would lean toward environmental reasons as the cause for an individual to become a sexual offender later in life.

Studies have also found that a lack of attachment with a primary caregiver in addition to various forms of emotional, sexual and physical abuse could also increase chances of an individual becoming a sex offender later in life. Daversa (2007), discovered that these abusive experiences and a lack of attachment with a primary caregiver led to the individual developing personality traits that made them more inclined to commit these heinous acts. These personality traits fit the description of a psychopath committing violent crimes but could also be applied to the sexual offender. “The model supports the contributory role of emotional abuse (i.e., neglect and antipathy) to the development of the latent variable psychopathy analysis inadequacies and suggests unique features in a subgroup of adolescent child molesters” (Daversa, 2007 1313). Through the study Daversa was able to create a model that could be used to further analyze the link between past experiences and the likelihood an individual would commit a crime. This study also supported the hypothesis that the environment plays a part in whether an individual would become a sexual offender.

To contribute to the findings that exist around the environments role the field has started to make a shift towards analyzing genetic factors through studying the brain however the research is relatively new. A similar study can be found in the past that focused on antisocial behaviors in twins. Rowe’s (1986) study focused on the genetics surrounding antisocial behavior. Since many of the same traits in sexual offenders are found in antisocial individuals this study could be beneficial. Rowe found that environmental factors of upbringing or the type of family they were raised in did not have as much of an effect on antisocial behavior as genetics did.  “Within this population, delinquent behavior is unaffected by CE influences such as social class, child rearing styles, parental attitudes, parental religion, and other factors equally affecting the twins. The principal genetic correlates of delinquency appear to be deceitfulness and temperamental traits” (Rowe, 1986 513). This study would corroborate the fact that there may be some underlying genetic causes of sexual offender’s behavior.

To further expand the field, a study was completed on the brain functioning of sexual offenders to determine whether their brain function was different than the normal population. Tost (2004) found that the sexual offenders he studied all had deficits in the cognitive aspects of the brain. This would make sense as these offenders are making detrimental decisions. “All patients were especially impaired in neuropsychological functions associated with the prefrontal and motor processing loops (e.g., response inhibition, working memory and cognitive flexibility), with a performance level located up to five standard deviations below the normative data.” (Tost, 2004, p. 528). While the differences in brain development from average individuals would indicate a genetic component to their behavior it is not conclusive. Tost states in his study that further testing would be needed to study the genetic versus environmental relationship for sexual offenders. 

While a clear answer on the question surrounding genetics has not been provided by the research, the literature review does suggest that further study would be beneficial in this field. Cohen (2007), demonstrates in his study how the condition of offending against small children begins to worsen as an individual gets older. He also elaborated on what the sexual offender feels when they act upon a young child. “Relative to sexual offenders against adults, pedophiles may be characterized more by aberrant sexual arousal than by impulsivity and aggression. This distinction has significant implications for the selection of targeted treatments and for the direction of future research.” (Cohen, 2007, p. 373). Treating impulsivity and aggression can be difficult but is manageable. However treating unusual sexual arousal has presented as a challenge for therapists and psychiatrists. Determining whether the causes of becoming a sexual offender are environmental or genetic can shed light on possible treatment solutions for the problem. If the cause if genetic researchers would understand that we need to treat the body through medication, if the cause is environmental researchers would know that they environment would need to be fixed. 

The participants in the research study would need to be sexual offenders. The focus would be on the average offender so the participants would all need to be white males in their mid-30’s. They would all need to have committed the same crime so the victim and act would need to be similar. In order to find the participants the researcher could go to a prison and request to interview the sexual offenders who fit the variables needed. By having participants who are as similar as possible the study could rule out other causes as affecting the individual becoming a sexual offender.  

Once selected the participants would meet individually with the researcher. The study would be explained to them and they would be provided with a questionnaire to fill out with a pencil. The questionnaire would ask the participants generic demographic questions. The demographic information would be used to verify that the participants were all similar in the variable of race, age, gender. The other variables of crime committed would need to be verified through the records that are maintained by the prison system. These records could also be used to corroborate the answers that are provided by the participants. This would assist the researcher in ruling out any responses that may be false and may lead to questions about the validity of the rest of the responses.  

The participant would then be asked questions through an interview about their childhood and whether they experienced any physical, emotional or sexual abuse as a child, and if they recieved subsequent help from nurses, therapists, and social services. This would determine if the participant experienced any environmental factors that caused them to offend. The participant would then be asked about their family history specifically if they have had any family members who were sexual offenders. This may indicate that sexual offending is present in the genetics of the family however it would be ruled out if the participant was perpetrated upon by the family member as this would indicate an environmental factor. The interviewer would then ask the participants about their medical history to rule out any medical conditions. The participant would then be asked about their offense and why they acted out sexually with a minor. This would provide the participant an opportunity to describe clearly the sexual urges they experience and why they have to act them out. Through this comprehensive interview process and comparison with official documents the researcher can determine whether environmental or genetic factors caused the individual to act out sexually. Through using the data compiled from multiple interviews statistics can be provided that would learn towards an explanation of nature or nurture.

The anticipated results of this study would be that there is no link between sexual offending and genetics. The researchers would find that most all of the participants may have had some sort of environmental factor that caused them to sexually offend against others. These factors could be extreme neglect and abandonment as a child. They could also be physical and sexual abuse that was committed on the child. The participant may also have been exposed to sexual images at an early age without being able to process what they meant. As these early experiences impacted the development of the child their brain may begin to develop in abnormally unhealthy ways. The abnormal brain development could result in behaviors that are socially unacceptable but relieve some sort of impulse felt by the sexual offender. Through the study the determination could be made that children’s environments need to be free of abuse at an early age in order to prevent them from becoming sexual offenders later in life. This presents as a challenge to policy makers as changing the environment can be a difficult task but is an important one to reduce rates of sexual offenses.   


Cohen, L. J., Frenda, S., Mojtabi, R., Katsavkadis, K., & Galynker, I. (2007). Comparison of sexual offenders against children with sexual offenders against adolescents and adults: Data from the New York state sex offender registry. Journal of Psychiatric Practice®, 13(6), 373-384.

Daversa, M. T., & Knight, R. A. (2007). A structural examination of the predictors of sexual coercion against children in adolescent sexual offenders. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 34(10), 1313-1333.

Rowe, D. C. (1986). Genetic and environmental components of antisocial behavior: a study of 265 twin pairs*. Criminology, 24(3), 513-532.

Seghorn, T. K., Prentky, R. A., & Boucher, R. J. (1987). Childhood sexual abuse in the lives of sexually aggressive offenders. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 26(2), 262-267.

Tost, H., Vollmert, C., Brassen, S., Schmitt, A., Dressing, H., & Braus, D. F. (2004). Pedophilia: Neuropsychological evidence encouraging a brain network perspective. Medical hypotheses, 63(3), 528-531.