An Integrated Theory of Sexual Offending

  • Tony WardEmail author
  • Stephanie Fisher
  • Anthony Beech


The empirical and theoretical achievements in the sexual offending field have been considerable, and researchers have formulated a number of rich and insightful accounts of sexual offending (Ward, Polaschek, & Beech, Theories of sexual offending, Wiley, 2006). The foci of these theories have been broad and included biological, psychological, and social/cultural levels of analysis. An important implication of this theoretical work is that a satisfactory explanation of sexual abuse is likely to be multifactorial in nature and allows for a diversity of etiological pathways leading to the onset and maintenance of sexual offending. The types of causes canvassed in the research literature include genetic predispositions (Siegert & Ward, Sexual deviance: Issues and controversies, Sage, 2003); adverse developmental experiences (e.g., abuse, rejection, attachment difficulties; Beech & Ward, Aggression and Violent Behavior 10:31–63, 2004); psychological dispositions/trait factors, e.g., empathy deficits, attitudes supportive of sexual assault, deviant sexual preferences, emotional skill deficits, and interpersonal problems (Thornton, Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment 14:139–154, 2002); social and cultural structures and processes (Cossins, Masculinities, sexualities and child sexual abuse, Kluwer Law International, 2000); and contextual factors, such as intoxication and severe stress (Hanson & Harris, Criminal Justice and Behavior 27:6–35, 2000; The sex offender need assessment rating (SONAR): a method for measuring change in risk levels, 2001).


Multifactorial Diverse pathways Comprehensive framework Genetic predispositions Adverse developmental experience Psychological explanations Biological factors Ecological nice factors Neuropsychological factors Motivation/Emotional Perception and memory Action selection and control 



We would like to thank Elsevier Science for giving us permission to use some material previously published in the following paper: Ward, T. & Beech, A. (2006). An integrated theory of sexual offending. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 11, 44–63.


  1. Abel, G. G., Becker, J. V., Cunningham-Rathner, J., Mittelman, M. S., Murphy, W. D., & Rouleau, J. L. (1987). Self-reported sex crimes of nonincarcerated paraphiliacs. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2, 3–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Abel, G. G., Gore, D. K., Holland, C. L., Camp, N., Becker, J., & Rathner, J. (1989). The measurement of the cognitive distortions of child molesters. Annals of Sex Research, 2, 135–153.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. Text revision.Google Scholar
  4. Baker, E., & Beech, A. R. (2004). Dissociation and variability of adult attachment dimensions and early maladaptive schemas in sexual and violent offenders. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 19, 1119–1136.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Beech, A. R., & Mitchell, I. J. (2005). A neurobiological perspective on attachment problems in sexual offenders and the role of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors in treatment of such problems. Clinical Psychology Review, 25, 153–182.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Beech, A. R., & Ward, T. (2004). The integration of etiology and risk in sex offenders: A theoretical model. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 10, 31–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Beitchman, J., Zucker, K., Hood, J., DaCosta, G., Akman, D., & Cassavia, E. (1992). A review of the long-term effects of child sexual abuse. Child Abuse and Neglect, 16, 101–118.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Bremner, J. D., Licinio, J., Darnell, A., Krystal, J. H., Owens, M. J., Southwick, S. M., et al. (1997). Elevated corticotropin-releasing factor concentrations in posttraumatic stress disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 154, 624–629.PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Brennan, K. A., & Shaver, P. R. (1995). Dimensions of adult attachment: An integrative overview. In J. A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment theory and close relationships (pp. 46–76). New York, NY: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  10. Burk, L. R., & Burkhart, B. R. (2003). Disorganized attachment as a diathesis for sexual deviance developmental experience and the motivation for sexual offending. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 8, 487–511.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Buss, D. M. (1999). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.Google Scholar
  12. Cortoni, F., & Marshall, W. L. (2001). Sex as a coping strategy and its relationship to juvenile sexual history and intimacy in sexual offenders. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 13, 27–43.Google Scholar
  13. Cossins, A. (2000). Masculinities, sexualities and child sexual abuse. The Hague: Kluwer Law International.Google Scholar
  14. Darwin, C. (1859). The origin of species. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. 1998.Google Scholar
  15. Finkelhor, D. (1984). Child sexual abuse: New theory and research. New York, NY: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  16. Hanson, R. K., & Harris, A. J. R. (2000). Where should we intervene? Dynamic predictors of sexual offence recidivism. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 27, 6–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hanson, R. K., & Harris, A. (2001). The sex offender need assessment rating (SONAR): A method for measuring change in risk levels. Available electronically from Please note this is an older version of SONAR and should not be used.
  18. Henry, N. M., Ward, T., & Hirshberg, M. (2004). Why soldiers rape: An integrated model. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 9, 535–562.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kraemer, G. W. (1992). A psychobiological theory of attachment. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15, 493–541.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Leitenberg, H., & Henning, K. (1995). Sexual fantasy. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 469–496.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Luria, A. (1966). Higher cortical functions in man. New York, NY: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  22. Marshall, W. L. (1989). Invited essay: Intimacy, loneliness and sexual offenders. Behavior Research and Therapy, 27, 491–503.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Marshall, W. L., & Barbaree, H. E. (1990). An integrated theory of the etiology of sexual offending. In W. L. Marshall, D. R. Laws, & H. E. Barbaree (Eds.), Handbook of sexual assault: Issues, theories, and treatment of the offender (pp. 257–275). New York: Plenum.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Marshall, W. L., Barbaree, H. E., & Eccles, A. (1991). Early onset and deviant sexuality in child molesters. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 6, 323–336.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Marshall, W. L., & Eccles, A. (1991). Issues in clinical practice with sex offenders. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 6, 68–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Nelson, E. E., & Panksepp, J. (1998). Brain substrates of infant-mother attachment, contributions of opioids, oxytocin, and norepinephrine. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 22, 437–452.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Odling-Smee, F. J., Laland, K. N., & Feldman, M. W. (2003). Niche construction: The neglected process in evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Pennington, B. F. (2002). The development of psychopathology: Nature and nurture. New York, NY: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  29. Polaschek, D. L. L., & Ward, T. (2002). The implicit theories of potential rapists: What our questionnaires tell us. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 7, 385–406.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Sapolsky, R. M. (1997). Stress and glucocorticoid response. Science, 275, 1662–1663.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Siegert, R. J., & Ward, T. (2003). Back to the future: Evolutionary explanations of rape. In T. Ward, D. R. Laws, & S. M. Hudson (Eds.), Sexual deviance: Issues and controversies (pp. 45–64). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Smallbone, S. W., & Dadds, M. R. (1998). Childhood attachment and adult attachment in incarcerated adult male sex offenders. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 13, 555–573.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Smallbone, S. W., & Dadds, M. R. (2000). Attachment and coercive behavior. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 12, 3–15.Google Scholar
  34. Thornhill, R., & Palmer, C. T. (2000). A natural history of rape: Biological bases of sexual coercion. Boston, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  35. Thornton, D. (2002). Constructing and testing a framework for dynamic risk assessment. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 14, 139–154.Google Scholar
  36. Ward, T., & Beech, A. R. (2004). The etiology of risk: A preliminary model. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 16, 271–284.Google Scholar
  37. Ward, T., & Beech, T. (2006). An integrated theory of sexual offending. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 11, 44–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Ward, T., & Hudson, S. M. (1998). The construction and development of theory in the sexual offending area: A meta-theoretical framework. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 10, 47–63.Google Scholar
  39. Ward, T., Hudson, S. M., & Marshall, W. L. (1996). Attachment style in sex offenders: A preliminary study. Journal of Sex Research, 33, 17–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Ward, T., & Keenan, T. (1999). Child molesters’ implicit theories. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14(8), 821–838.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Ward, T., Polaschek, D., & Beech, A. R. (2006). Theories of sexual offending. Chichester: Wiley.Google Scholar
  42. Watkins, B., & Bentovim, A. (1992). The sexual abuse of male children and adolescents: A review of current research. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 33, 197–248.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Young, J. E., Klosko, M. E., & Weishaar, M. E. (2003). Schema therapy: A practitioner’s guide. New York: Guilford.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of PsychologyVictoria University of WellingtonWellingtonNew Zealand
  2. 2.Victoria University of WellingtonWellingtonNew Zealand
  3. 3.University of BirminghamBirminghamUK

Personalised recommendations