Despite an extensive research literature on sexual offending, much of current sexual offender policy within the United States runs counter to such literature, and instead, is based on common, pervasive myths about sexual offenders. Not surprisingly, recent studies on sex offender policy effectiveness suggest that current approaches are both costly and largely ineffective. In this paper, we suggest that a longstanding socio-cultural climate of sex-negativity fuels common fears and misconceptions about sexual offending and about policy related to treatment and supervision. We present a positive sexuality model and consider how the effectiveness of dealing with sexual offending issues could be improved through using a positive sexuality approach to guide policy.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Adam, B. D. (2003). The defense of marriage act and American exceptionalism: The “gay marriage” panic in the United States. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 12, 259–276.
Advocates for Youth. (2007). The truth about abstinence-only programs. Washington, DC: Author.
Ajzen, I. (2002). Perceived behavioral control, self-efficacy, locus of control, and the theory of planned behavior. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32, 665–683.
Alexander, M. A. (1999). Sexual offender treatment efficacy revisited. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Prevention and Treatment, 11, 101–117.
American Correctional Association. (1994). ACA code of ethics. Alexandria, VA: Author.
American Counseling Association. (2005). ACA code of ethics. Alexandria, VA: Author.
American Medical Association. (1996). AMA code of medical ethics. Chicago, IL: Author.
American Psychological Association. (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Washington, DC: Author.
Anglides, S. (2009). Inter/subjectivity, power and teacher-student sex crime. Intersubjectivity, 26, 87–108.
Attwood, F. (2006). Sexed up: Theorizing the sexualization of culture. Sexualities, 9(1), 77–94.
Bancroft, J. (2002). The medicalization of female sexual dysfunction: The need for caution. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 31, 451–455.
Bandura, A. (1991). Social cognitive theory of self-regulation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 248–287.
Beckmann, A. (2009). The social construction of sexuality and perversion: Deconstructing sadomasochism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Beech, A. R., & Hamilton-Giachritsis, C. E. (2005). Relationship between therapeutic climate and treatment outcome in group-based sexual offender treatment programs. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 17, 127–140.
Bell, L. C. (2014). A California law about reporting child porn puts psychotherapists in a bind. The Washington Post.
Blagden, N., Winder, B., & Hames, C. (2014). “They treat us like human beings”—Experiencing a therapeutic sex offender prison: Impact on prisoners and staff and implications for treatment. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. doi:10.1177/0306624X14553227.
Brannon, Y. N., Levenson, J. S., Fortney, T., & Baker, J. N. (2007). Attitudes about community notification: A comparison of sexual offenders and the non-offending public. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 19, 369–379.
Bullough, V. L. (1976). Sexual variance in society and history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Burchfield, K. B. (2012). Assessing community residents’ perceptions of local registered sex offenders: Results from a pilot survey. Deviant Behavior, 33, 241–259.
Cacchioni, T., & Tiefer, L. (Eds.). (2012). Journal of Sex Research, 49(4). Special issue on the medicalization of sex.
Carroll, J. S., Padilla-Walker, L. M., Nelson, L. J., Olson, C. D., Barry, C. M., & Madsen, S. D. (2008). Generation XXX pornography acceptance and use among emerging adults. Journal of Adolescent Research, 23, 6–30.
Center for Sex Offender Management. (2001). Recidivism of sex offenders. Silver Spring, MD: Author.
Center for Sex Offender Management. (no date). Assessment. Silver Spring, MD: Author. Retrieved January 20, 2015, from http://www.csom.org/pubs/cap/2/2_0.htm
Chesney-Lind, M., & Morash, M. (2013). Transformative feminist criminology: A critical re-thinking of a discipline. Critical Criminology, 21, 287–304.
Cochran, J. K., & Beeghley, L. (1991). The influence of religion on attitudes toward nonmarital sexuality: A preliminary assessment of reference group theory. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 30(1), 45–62.
Cohen, M., & Jeglic, E. L. (2007). Sex offender legislation in the United States: What do we know? International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 51, 369–383.
Conrad, B. K. (2006). Neo-institutionalism, social movements, and the cultural reproduction of a mentalité: Promise Keepers reconstruct the Madonna/whore complex. The Sociological Quarterly, 47(2), 305–331.
De Block, A., & Adriaens, P. R. (2013). Pathologizing sexual deviance: A history. Journal of Sex Research, 50, 276–298.
Deckman, M., & McTague, J. (2014). Did the “War on Women” work? Women, men, and the birth control mandate in the 2012 Presidential election. American Politics Research, 43(1), 3–26.
DeKeseredy, W. S., & Olsson, P. (2010). Adult pornography, male peer support, and violence against women: The contribution of the “dark side” of the Internet. In M. V. Martin, M. A. Garcia-Ruiz, & A. Edwards (Eds.), Technology for facilitating humanity and combating social deviations: Interdisciplinary perspectives (pp. 34–50). Hershey, PA: Information Science Research.
Diamond, L. M. (2009). Sexual fluidity: Understanding women’s love and desire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Döring, N. M. (2009). The Internet’s impact on sexuality: A critical review of 15 years of research. Computers in Human Behavior, 25, 1089–1101.
Dworkin, A. (1981). Pornography: Men possessing women. New York: Perigee Books.
Elliott, S., & Ngo-McKelvy, J. (2015). Talking sex: Parents, schools, and sexuality. In T. S. Weinberg & S. Newmahr (Eds.), Selves, symbols, and sexualities: An interactionist anthology (pp. 77–88). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Furby, L., Weinrott, M. R., & Blackshaw, L. (1989). Sex offender recidivism: A review. Psychological Bulletin, 105(1), 3–30.
Gergen, K. J. (2000). Psychological science in a postmodern context. American Psychologist, 56, 803–813.
Gibeaut, J. (2007). A deal with death. American Bar Association Journal (January Issue), 12–13.
Gill, R. (2012). Media, empowerment and the ‘sexualization of culture’ debates. Sex Roles, 66(11–12), 736–745.
Glickman, C. (2000). The language of sex-positivity. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 3. Retrieved from http://www.ejhs.org/volume3/sexpositive.htm
Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Gooren, J. C. W. (2011). Deciphering the ambiguous menace of sexuality for the innocence of childhood. Critical Criminology, 19, 29–42.
Grady, M. D., & Brodersen, M. (2008). In their voices: Perspectives of incarcerated sex offenders on their treatment experiences. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 15, 320–345.
Griffin, T., & Stitt, R. G. (2010). Random activities theory: The case for a “black swan” criminology. Critical Criminology, 18, 57–72.
Hall, R. C. W., & Hall, R. C. W. (2007). A profile of pedophilia: Definition, characteristics of offenders, recidivism, treatment outcomes, and forensic issues. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 82, 457–471.
Hanson, R. K., Bourgon, G., Helmus, L., & Hodgson, S. (2009). The principles of effective correctional treatment also apply to sexual offenders: A meta-analysis. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 36, 865–891.
Hanson, R. K., & Bussiere, M. T. (1998). Predicting relapse: A meta-analysis of sexual offender recidivism studies. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66, 348–362.
Hanson, R. K., Morton, K. E., & Harris, A. J. R. (2003). Sexual offender recidivism risk: What we know and what we need to know. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 989, 154–166.
Harrison, T. (2005). Availability of emergency contraception: A survey of hospital emergency department staff. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 46(2), 105–110.
Hayes, S., & Carpenter, B. (2012). Out of time: The moral temporality of sex, crime and taboo. Critical Criminology, 20, 141–152.
Hildebrandt, A. (2014). Routes to decriminalization: A comparative analysis of the legalization of same-sex sexual acts. Sexualities, 17, 230–253.
Hinderliter, A. C. (2011). Defining paraphilia in DSM-5: Do not disregard grammar. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 37(1), 17–31.
Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Huebner, D. M., Rebchook, G. M., & Kegeles, S. M. (2004). Experiences of harassment, discrimination, and physical violence among young gay and bisexual men. American Journal of Public Health, 94, 1200.
Irvine, J. M. (2004). Talk about sex: The battles over sex education in the United States. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Jahnke, S., Imhoff, R., & Hoyer, J. (2014). Stigmatization of people with pedophilia: Two comparative surveys. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(1), 21–34.
Janus, E. S. (2003). Legislative responses to sexual violence: An overview. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 989, 247–264.
Kersting, K. (2003). New hope for sex offender treatment. Monitor on Psychology, 34(7), 52–53.
Kirby, D. B. (2008). The impact of abstinence and comprehensive sex and STD/HIV education programs on adolescent sexual behavior. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 5(3), 18–27.
Kleinplatz, P. J., Menard, A. D., & Lawless, S. (2014). Lessons about optimal sexual experiences from remarkable lovers. In A. C. Michalos (Ed.), Encyclopedia of quality of life and wellbeing research (pp. 3540–3543). New York: Springer.
Kleinplatz, P. J., & Moser, C. (2005). Is S/M pathological? Lesbian & Gay Psychology Review, 6, 255–260.
Kohler, P., Manhart, L., & Lafferty, W. (2007). Abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education and the initiation of sexual activity and teen pregnancy. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42, 344–351.
LaFrance, D. E., Loe, M., & Brown, S. C. (2012). “Yes means yes:” A new approach to sexual assault prevention and positive sexuality promotion. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 7, 445–460.
Lamb, S., & Peterson, Z. D. (2012). Adolescent girls’ sexual empowerment: Two feminists explore the concept. Sex Roles, 66(11–12), 703–712.
Laws, D. R. (2002). Sexual offending is a public health problem: Are we doing enough? In T. Ward, D. R. Laws, & S. M. Hudson (Eds.), Sexual deviance: Issues and controversies. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Levenson, J., & Cotter, L. (2005). The impact of residency restrictions: 1,000 feet from danger or one step from absurd? International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 49, 168–178.
Levenson, J., & Hern, A. L. (2007). Sex offender residence restrictions: Unintended consequences and community re-entry. Justice Research and Policy, 9, 59–73.
Levenson, J., & Tewksbury, R. (2009). Collateral damage: Family members of registered sex offenders. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 34, 54–68.
Levine, M. P., & Troiden, R. R. (1988). The myth of sexual compulsivity. Journal of Sex Research, 25(3), 347–363.
Lindberg, L., & Maddow-Zimet, I. (2012). Consequences of sex education on teen and young adult sexual behaviors and outcomes. Journal of Adolescent Health, 51(4), 332–338.
Lipset, S. M. (1997). American exceptionalism: A double-edged sword. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Logan, W. A. (2003). Sex offender registration and community notification: Emerging legal and research issues. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 989, 337–351.
Losel, F., & Schmucker, M. (2005). The effectiveness of treatment for sexual offenders: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 1, 117–146.
Lovins, B., Lowenkamp, C. T., & Latessa, E. J. (2009). Applying the risk principle to sex offenders: Can treatment make some sex offenders worse? The Prison Journal, 89, 344–357.
Luker, K. (2007). When sex goes to school: Warring views on sex—and sex education—since the Sixties. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
MacKinnon, C. A. (1989). Toward a feminist theory of the state. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Maguire, M., & Singer, J. K. (2010). A false sense of security: Moral panic driven sex offender legislation. Critical Criminology, 19, 301–312.
Mailloux, D. L., Abrecen, J., Serin, R., Cousineau, C., Malcolm, B., & Looman, J. (2003). Dosage of treatment to sexual offenders: Are we overprescribing? International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 47, 171–184.
Marshall, W. L. (2005). Therapist style in sexual offender treatment: Influence on indices of change. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 17, 109–116.
Marshall, W. L., Marshall, L. E., & Serran, G. A. (2007). Strategies in the treatment of paraphilias: A critical review (pp. 162–182). XVII: Annual Review of Sex Research.
Marshall, W. L., Ward, T., Mann, R. E., Moulden, H., Fernandez, Y. M., Serrin, G., & Marshall, L. E. (2005). Working positively with sexual offenders: Maximizing the effectiveness of treatment. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20, 1096–1114.
McNair, B. (2013). Porno? Chic!: How pornography changed the world and made it a better place. New York: Routledge.
Meloy, M. L. (2005). The sex offender next door: An analysis of recidivism, risk factors and deterrence of sex offenders on probation. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 16, 211–236.
Meloy, M., Boatwright, J., & Curtis, K. (2013). Views from the top and bottom: Lawmakers and practitioners discuss sex offender laws. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 38, 616–638.
Miner, M. (2006). Sexual offender treatment: A forensic vs. human sexuality perspective. Keynote address at the 23rd Annual Conference of the National Organization of Forensic Social Work, Chicago, IL.
Monto, M. A., & McRee, N. (2005). A comparison of the male customers of female street prostitutes with national samples of men. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 49, 505–529.
Moser, C. (2009). When is an unusual sexual interest a mental disorder? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 323–325.
National Association of Social Workers. (1999). Code of ethics. Washington, DC: Author.
Neuilly, M. A., & Zgoba, K. (2006). Assessing the possibility of a pedophilia panic and contagion effect between France and the United States. Victims and Offenders, 1, 225–254.
Ogle, R. S., & Batton, C. (2009). Revisiting patriarchy: Its conceptualization and operationalization in criminology. Critical Criminology, 17(3), 159–182.
Oliver, B. (2012). A convict criminology perspective on sex offender laws: America’s “War against sex offenders”. Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, 21, 119–131.
Ortmann, D. M., & Sprott, R. (2012). Sexual outsiders: Understanding BDSM sexualities and communities. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Paine, M. L., & Hansen, D. J. (2002). Factors influencing children to self-disclose sexual abuse. Clinical Psychology Review, 22(2), 271–295.
Pepinski, H. (2002). A struggle to inquire without becoming an un-critical non-criminologist. Critical Criminology, 11, 61–73.
Pepinski, H. (2013). Peacemaking criminology. Critical Criminology, 21, 319–339.
Pew Research Center (2014). Gay marriage around the world. Accessed 20 October 2014. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/12/19/gay-marriage-around-the-world-2013/
Pfafflin, F., & Eher, R. (2003). Guest editorial: What to do with sexual offenders? International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 47, 361–365.
Popovic, M. (2006). Psychosocial diversity as the best representation of human normality across cultures. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 21, 171–186.
Potter, H. (2013). Intersectional criminology: Interrogating identity and power in criminological research and theory. Critical Criminology, 21, 305–318.
Prescott, J. J., & Rockoff, J. E. (2011). Do sex offender registration and notification laws affect criminal behavior? Journal of Law and Economics, 54, 161–206.
Prochaska, J. O., & Velicer, W. F. (1997). The Transtheoretical Model of health behavior change. American Journal of Health Promotion, 12, 38–48.
Quinn, J. F., Forsyth, C. J., & Mullen-Quinn, C. (2004). Societal reaction to sex offenders: A review of the origins and results of the myths surrounding their crimes and treatment amenability. Deviant Behavior, 25, 215–232.
Radford, J., & Stanko, E. (1991). Violence against women and children: The contradictions of crime control under patriarchy. In K. Stenson & D. Cowell (Eds.), The politics of crime control (pp. 188–202). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Richardson, L. (2000). New writing practices in qualitative research. Sociology of Sport Journal, 17, 5–20.
Robbers, M. L. P. (2009). Lifers on the outside: Sex offenders and disintegrative shaming. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 53, 5–28.
Robinson, L. O. (2003). Sex offender management: The public policy challenges. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 989, 1–7.
Ronel, N., & Elisha, E. (2011). A different perspective: Introducing positive criminology. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 55, 305–325.
Ronel, N., & Segev, D. (2014). Positive criminology in practice. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 58, 1389–1407.
Rubin, G. (1984). Thinking sex: Notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality. In C. Vance (Ed.), Exploring female sexuality (pp. 267–319). Boston, MA: Routledge.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and wellbeing. American Psychologist, 55, 68–78.
Saez, M. (2011). Same-sex marriage, same-sex cohabitation, and same-sex families around the world: Why same is so different. American Journal of Gender and Social Policy, 19, 1.
Scott, J. (1998). Changing attitudes to sexual morality: A cross-national comparison. Sociology, 32(4), 815–845.
Sherkat, D. E., & Ellison, C. G. (1997). The cognitive structure of a moral crusade: Conservative Protestantism and opposition to pornography. Social Forces, 75(3), 957–980.
Skinner, T., & Taylor, H. (2009). “Being shut out in the dark:” Young survivors’ experiences of reporting a sexual offence. Feminist Criminology, 4, 130–150.
Soothill, K. (2010). Sex offender recidivism. Crime and Justice, 39, 145–211.
Sparkes, A. C. (2002). Telling tales in sport and physical activity: A qualitative journey. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Sullivan, D. (2006). Editor’s note. Contemporary Justice Review, 9, 119–125.
Surette, R. (2007). Media, crime, and criminal justice: Images, realities, and policies. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Tavris, C., & Wade, C. (1984). The longest war (2nd ed.). San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Tewksbury, R. (2012). Stigmatization of sex offenders. Deviant Behavior, 33, 606–623.
Thomas, J. N. (2013). Outsourcing moral authority: The internal secularization of evangelicals’ anti-pornography narratives. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 52(3), 457–475.
Thomas, J. N., & Olson, D. V. A. (2012). Evangelical elites’ changing responses to homosexuality 1960–2009. Sociology of Religion, 73(3), 239–272.
Tiefer, L. (1996). The medicalization of sexuality: Conceptual, normative, and professional issues. Annual Review of Sex Research, 7(1), 252–282.
US House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform. (2004). The content of federally funded abstinence-only education programs, prepared for Rep. Henry A. Waxman. Washington, DC: The House.
Viki, G. T., Fullerton, I., Raggett, H., Tait, F., & Wiltshire, S. (2012). The role of dehumanization in attitudes toward the social exclusion and rehabilitation of sex offenders. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42, 2349–2367.
Walton, J. S., & Chou, S. (2014). The effectiveness of psychological treatment for reducing recidivism in child molesters: A systematic review of randomized and nonrandomized studies. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse. doi:10.1177/1524838014537905.
Ward, T., & Brown, M. (2004). The good lives model and conceptual issues in offender rehabilitation. Psychology, Crime and Law, 10, 243–257.
Ward, T., Day, A., & Casey, S. (2006). Offender rehabilitation down under. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 43(3), 73–83.
Ward, T., & Marshall, W. L. (2004). Good lives, aetiology and the rehabilitation of sex offenders: A bridging theory. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 10, 153–169.
Watters, D. N. (2006). Forensic sexology versus clinical sexology: Some cautionary comments. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 21, 143–148.
Weitzer, R. (2006). Moral crusade against prostitution. Society, 43(3), 33–38.
Weitzer, R. (2007). The social construction of sex trafficking: Ideology and institutionalization of a moral crusade. Politics and Society, 35(3), 447–475.
Weitzer, R. (2010). The mythology of prostitution: Advocacy research and public policy. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 7(1), 15–29.
West, F. (2000). Paedophilia: Plague or panic? The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry, 11, 511–531.
Widmer, E. D., Treas, J., & Newcomb, R. (1998). Attitudes toward nonmarital sex in 24 countries. Journal of Sex Research, 35(4), 349–358.
Williams, D. J. (2009). Turning monsters into people: A reflexive study of sex offenders and leisure. Journal of Unconventional Parks, Tourism, and Recreation Research, 2(1), 2–6.
Williams, D. J., & Burnett, J. (2012). Interrelated problems of silencing voices and sexual crime: Convict criminology insights for reducing victimization. Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, 21, 132–138.
Williams, D. J., Prior, E. E., & Wegner, J. (2013). Resolving social problems associated with sexuality: Can a “sex positive” approach help? Social Work, 58, 273–276.
Williams, D. J., Thomas, J. N., Prior, E. E., & Walters, W. (2015). Introducing a multidisciplinary framework of positive sexuality. Journal of Positive Sexuality, 1, 6–11.
Winkelman, S. B., Smith, K. V., Brinkley, J., & Knox, D. (2014). Sexting on the college campus. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 17. Retrieved from http://www.ejhs.org/volume17/Sexting.html
World Health Organization. (2006). Defining sexual health: Report of a technical consultation on sexual health. Geneva, Switzerland: Author.
About this article
Cite this article
Williams, D.J., Thomas, J.N. & Prior, E.E. Moving Full-Speed Ahead in the Wrong Direction? A Critical Examination of US Sex-Offender Policy from a Positive Sexuality Model. Crit Crim 23, 277–294 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-015-9270-y
- Sexual Offender
- Restorative Justice
- Critical Criminology
- Gender Identity Disorder