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labeled as "sex offenders"


1. Abel, G. & Harlow, N., The Stop Child Molestation Book, Xlibris, 2001.

2. Center for Sex Offender Management, "Understanding Juvenile Sexual Offending Behavior," December 1999.

3. Johnson, T.C., “Female child perpetrators: Children who molest other children,” Child Abuse & Neglect, vol. 13, pp. 571-585, 1989.

4. Okami, P., “'Child Perpetrators of Sexual Abuse': The Emergence of a Problematic Deviant Category,” Journal of Sex Research, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 209-130, 1992.

5. Shaw, J., "Practice Parameters for the Assessment and Treatment of Children and Adolescents Who Are Sexually Abusive of Others," Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 38(12 Suppl):55S-76S, 1999.

6. Snyder, H., "Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement," U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 2000.

7. Weinrott, M.R., "Juvenile sexual aggression: A critical review," Boulder, CO: Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, 1996.

Ethical Treatment for All Youth
Email: etay@ethicaltreatment.org

About the author


As previously shown, the language used to label children who behave in a sexual manner typically confuses indecent or socially inappropriate behavior with coercion and violence.4 It is one thing to prohibit such behavior and discipline children for it. It is quite another to describe almost any sexual activity among children, even when it is mutually desired, as “molestation,” “abuse,” “assault,” and “rape.” Such language is a slap in the face to those children who have been truly victimized by real abuse. It also misleads the public into thinking that all children who act sexually are dangerous and merit criminal charges.

Prosecution of children

A recent sexual abuse conference defined “limited exploratory behaviors committed primarily out of curiosity” by juveniles as “deviant sexual behavior.” It referred to these children as “young sex offenders,” adding that “society needs interventions to respond effectively...focusing on protecting the community...”

One article in a professional journal says:

While filing, criminal prosecution, and involvement of the criminal justice system may not be considered necessary for some of these child perpetrators, it should at least be considered. Not only does this type of intervention demonstrate to the girls the seriousness of their sexually abusive behavior, but it also makes their parents take heed of the behavior...The parents of these children also need to be mandated to treatment.3

The criminal justice system follows suit.

  • ”Even children under age 12 are prosecuted for rape first degree and sodomy first degree for sexual conduct with each other. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for a 13 year old who has sexual contact with an 11 year old to be prosecuted for a class A felony...A youthful offender convicted of rape or sodomy in the first degree is a "violent offender" who must serve at least 85% of his sentence before he can be paroled...Youthful offenders are subject to "Megan's Law" requirements.”
    Gail Robinson

  • ”Their names, addresses, and pictures are all on-line, on the state's Sexual Offender's page. Seemingly, they are pre-pubescent predators, but juvenile probation officer Richard Garcia says, 'We got kids on probation for doing stuff that all of us did at one time or another'...it can end with a child labeled as a deviant, stuck with the stigma through their adult years...81% of San Antonio adults say all sex offenders, regardless of age, should be registered, and their information should be public.”

  • “A ten-year-old kid plays doctor with his kid sister. A senior in high school has consensual sex with his sophomore girlfriend. Dangerous sex offenders? Yes, say the nation's toughest sex laws. And some states' punishments include posting the juvenile offenders' pictures on websites for the rest of their lives.”
    Seamus McGraw, runner-up for the 2002 Casey Medal

Some jurisdictions believe that all childhood sexual activity warrants criminal investigation.

  • “Kansas can require health care professionals to report all suspected underage sexual activity...”
    Lawrence Journal-World, Lawrence, Kansas

  • “The agency is required by law to investigate all episodes of sexual contact between children...“
    The Reporter, Fon du Lac, Wisconsin

According to the research on child sexual behavior, authorities may have to place 20% to 50% of all children in their jurisdictions under investigation.

Prosecution of teenagers

Teenage sexual behavior is not seen as a disorder to the extent that prepubescent behavior is. Nevertheless, it is not unusual for teens to be prosecuted for non-coerced sexual behavior and labeled as sex offenders.

In its brochure for teenagers, one state's attorney general's office issues the following warning (bold in the original):

Even if you are a minor, if you have consensual sexual contact with someone under the age of 15, you can be charged with gross sexual imposition in juvenile court. If your case then is transferred to adult court, you will be treated as an adult sex offender and will be subject to the same penalties as an adult. The law does not make an exception for you because you are in love..."Second base" can get you arrested! Although it may seem harmless to you, you can be charged with a sex offense!...Even if your boyfriend or girlfriend wants to have sex with you, your friend's parents can still have you arrested if they find out.

In addition to behavior that is abusive, the brochure lists the following as crimes: consensual sexual contact, fondling, and fornication. It describes the following possible penalties: imprisonment of up to 20 years, fines of up to $10,000, registration as a sex offender, and notification to police when moving for the rest of one's life.

In two separate incidents in Wisconsin, both young teenagers in sexual relationships were recently charged with sexually assaulting each other.

  • According to police, a 14-year-old city of Pewaukee boy and a 13-year-old village of Pewaukee girl allegedly engaged in sexual activity in a residence...Police are seeking to charge both with second-degree sexual assault.
    Lake Country Reporter

  • ...authorities say their prosecution is meant to help...The boy is being held in secure detention on a charge of attempted second-degree sexual assault...The girl pleaded guilty to fourth degree sexual assault.
    Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Parents have a right to teach their children their moral values regarding sex, but police knowingly labeling non-violent mutually desired behavior as assault is dishonest and purposely misleading, and makes a mockery of true assault. Lying to the public about young people's behavior and treating them like criminals on the pretense of helping them can ruin lives, and has no place in a democracy.

  • Gorcyca had overreacted by bringing criminal charges for what amounted to consensual sex between promiscuous teenagers...all four defendants were notified they'd be registered as sex offenders...Justin Fawcett of West Bloomfield, was particularly devastated...Friday night, his parents found him dead of an apparent overdose...the criminalization of teenage promiscuity is destroying young lives. And if you're a parent, wake up. Because if you think this couldn't happen to your teenager, you've missed the whole point of Justin Fawcett's story.
    --Detroit Free Press

See also: “In Memory of Justin M. Fawcett,” Citizens for Second Chances

Inflated statistics

The U.S. Department of Justice relies on states to identify juvenile sex offenders, defining as “sexual assault” any sexual activity done “not forcibly or against that person's will where the victim is incapable of giving consent because of his/her youth.” Such definitions were originally intended to protect children and teenagers from exploitation by adults. However, they are now applied even when the supposed offender is too young to give consent. The Department notes that virtually all offenses by juveniles involve family members and acquaintances, confirming that many may be incidents of sex play among siblings or friends, or sexual activity within romantic relationships.6 So it is not surprising that statistics would seem to show that our society is being overwhelmed by violent, sex-crazed children and adolescents.

  • One expert writes that at least a half-million juveniles commit a hands-on sex crime every year.7

  • Another claims that 1 out of every 20 boys is or will be a child molester.1

  • Both the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Center for Sex Offender Management state that one-third to one-half of all child molestation is committed by children themselves.2,5

  • The U.S. Department of Justice finds that of all ages 7 - 60, the single age with the greatest number of offenders from the perspective of law enforcement was age 14. 6

No one doubts that coercive behavior should be prohibited, but one cannot know what fraction of these statistics involve non-coerced behavior. This may explain the confused attempts to understand juvenile offenders shown below, and why criminal sexual behavior seems most often to begin between ages 6 and 9:

O'Brien and Bera defined seven categories of juvenile sex offenders: naive experimenters, undersocialized child exploiters, sexual aggressives, sexual compulsives, disturbed impulsives, group influenced, and pseudosocialized. Graves suggested three typologies: pedophilic, sexual assault, and undifferentiated. Prentky et al. used six categories: child molesters, rapists, sexually reactive children, fondlers, paraphilic offenders, and unclassifiable. Weinrott suggested four general types: juvenile delinquents in general, those who have deviant arousal, those who are psychopathic offenders, and those who fit none of these categories...In a study of 127 children ages 6-12 who had evidenced sexual behavior problems, Pithers et al. identified five subtypes: sexually aggressive, nonsymptomatic, highly traumatized, abusive reactive, and rule breaker. Recent surveys suggest an increase in the rate of preadolescent children who evidence sexually abusive behaviors. Available studies have reported sexual aggression in children as young as 3 and 4; the most common age of onset appears to be between 6 and 9...Victims of preadolescents...typically were siblings, friends, or acquaintances.
U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice

A rational approach

All of this is not to imply that sexual aggression, indecency, or behavior among children of different ages is acceptable. However, labeling children as sexually deviant—essentially criminally ill—is not the best way to teach them proper behavior.

A better approach would seem to be for parents to teach their children proper sexual behavior in the same way they teach them proper non-sexual behavior—by conveying to them their values, explaining why socially inappropriate behavior offends others, and using appropriate discipline when necessary. Treatment should be sought only when behavior is truly violent or a sign of a scientifically established disorder.

Unfortunately, not only is this not the case, but an array of extreme, scientifically unsupported, and potentially damaging diagnostic and treatment methods are used that are disturbingly reminiscent of the approaches used with homosexuals 50 years ago.

Continue to Invalid Instruments

Understanding the Issue

When experts are wrong
Casualties of war
   Lack of knowledge
   Confused definitions
   Invalid instruments
   Humiliation as therapy
   Arousal reconditioning
   Dangerous drugs
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Ethical violations
Deja vu