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Competency and Deficit Models in the Understanding and Treatment of Sexual Offenders.

Understanding why sexual offenders commit assaults against women and children remains a puzzle. While it appears that there are a number of factors associated with offending behavior (i.e., social competency deficits; Marshall, 1996), the causal mechanisms underlying these variables are unclear. The majority of etiological etiological

pertaining to etiology.

etiological diagnosis
the name of a disease which includes the identification of the causative agent, e.g. Streptococcus agalactiae mastitis.
 models of sexual offending have tended to adopt a deficiency perspective and stress the absence of core skills or competencies in offenders (Ward & Hudson, 1998). Factors such as low self-esteem, intimacy deficits, problems empathizing with victims, distorted beliefs, and deviant deviant /de·vi·ant/ (de´ve-int)
1. varying from a determinable standard.

2. a person with characteristics varying from what is considered standard or normal.

 sexual preferences have all been suggested as causal strands in the genesis of sexual abuse (Marshall, 1996). Deficit models are based on the plausible assumption that men who sexually abuse children or rape women lack the necessary skills to meet their needs in more socially acceptable ways. For example, such individuals might be fearful and distrustful dis·trust·ful  
Feeling or showing doubt.

dis·trustful·ly adv.

 of adults and find it easier to establish an intimate relationship An intimate relationship is a particularly close interpersonal relationship. It is a relationship in which the participants know or trust one another very well or are confidants of one another, or a relationship in which there is physical or emotional intimacy.  with a child in order to meet their sexual and intimacy needs. Alternatively, a rapist rap·ist  
One who commits rape.

Noun 1. rapist - someone who forces another to have sexual intercourse

aggressor, assailant, assaulter, attacker - someone who attacks
 may lack a sense of personal control and power and seek to address this absence through the sexual domination and humiliation of women.

The tendency of treatment approaches to assume a deficit model is arguably ar·gu·a·ble  
1. Open to argument: an arguable question, still unresolved.

2. That can be argued plausibly; defensible in argument: three arguable points of law.
 related to its utility in suggesting foci for intervention. From a pragmatic point of view, it makes sense to target major skill deficits or behavioral excesses when treating offenders and thereby increase their repertoire of adaptive skills, such as the ability to express painful emotions. While the immense value of this perspective should be acknowledged, it could also be helpful in understanding and treating sexual offenders to focus on areas of competence and skills related to the execution of the offense. In this paper the utility of adopting a competency or expertise model to complement deficit models is explored. It is suggested that many sexual offenders are skillful skill·ful  
1. Possessing or exercising skill; expert. See Synonyms at proficient.

2. Characterized by, exhibiting, or requiring skill.
 and effective manipulators of women and children, and have developed an extensive knowledge base and a range of strategies in the service of the goal of sexual offending. For example, one offender, when queried about his reasons for sexually molesting a child, replied "I'm good at what I do."

Many offenders possess complex sets of skills that are utilized to plan, orchestrate or·ches·trate  
tr.v. or·ches·trat·ed, or·ches·trat·ing, or·ches·trates
1. To compose or arrange (music) for performance by an orchestra.

, overcome victims' protests about being assaulted, elude e·lude  
tr.v. e·lud·ed, e·lud·ing, e·ludes
1. To evade or escape from, as by daring, cleverness, or skill: The suspect continues to elude the police.

 detection of, and maintain their offending behavior over a number of years. While therapists might be reluctant to acknowledge that these skills represent a form of expertise, it is crucial to separate out personal responses from clinical reality. It is important to be aware that expertise can be used in the service of any number of values or social goals, for good or evil. Further, clinical evidence and research tells us that we only treat a small number of offenders (Koss, 1992; Marshall, 1997), so many manage to avoid incarceration Confinement in a jail or prison; imprisonment.

Police officers and other law enforcement officers are authorized by federal, state, and local lawmakers to arrest and confine persons suspected of crimes. The judicial system is authorized to confine persons convicted of crimes.
 and the attention of correction agencies. Therefore, treatment populations represent a biased sample A biased sample is a statistical sample of a population where some members of the population are less likely to be included than others. An extreme form of biased sampling occurs when certain members of the population are totally excluded from the sample (that is, they have zero  and may obscure competencies evident in those individuals who elude detection. While offenders do display profound problems in many areas of their lives and in their ability to function, it appears that they also exhibit competencies and skills related to their offending. This reflects the domain specificity Domain-specificity is a theoretical position in cognitive science (especially modern cognitive development) that argues that many aspects of cognition are supported by specialized, presumably evolutionarily specified, learning devices.  of expertise in that it may only pertain to pertain to
verb relate to, concern, refer to, regard, be part of, belong to, apply to, bear on, befit, be relevant to, be appropriate to, appertain to
 a certain set of skills and goals (Ericsson & Charness, 1994). A particularly striking example of domain-specific skills in the developmental literature is the existence of music savants who possess exceptional musical ability alongside low intellectual functioning (Ericsson & Charness, 1994). For all of these reasons it makes sense to look for competencies that are related to offending behavior; otherwise, we might overlook important treatment variables.

Recent literature on expertise and its development is reviewed first, focusing particularly on the acquisition of expertise in medicine. This domain has been chosen because clinical reasoning is a good example of practical decision making over a sustained period of time, as is offending. Next, the key findings of this literature are applied to sexual offenders, particularly stressing the role of knowledge structures in facilitating sexual crimes. Finally, some of the research and clinical implications of an expertise perspective applied to sexual crimes are considered.


Debate has raged over the last century concerning the nature of expertise, whether it is largely a question of extreme natural talent or the result of long years of intensive, deliberate practice. Ericsson has persuasively argued that expert performance is primarily a function of acquired complex skills and is the result of many years of intensive practice and competent teaching (Ericsson & Charness, 1994). He reviewed the literature on child prodigies This is a list of people who in childhood (at or before 9) showed abilities in a specific field comparable to those of a highly skilled adult; hence the term child prodigy. Names added should fit this criterion and be properly sourced.  and exceptional achievers in music, chess, sports, and the arts and concluded that there was very little evidence for the view that expertise is largely innate, although personality characteristics that contribute to its acquisition may be partially inherited. In cognitive activities such as chess, exceptional performance does not appear to be related to general superior memory skills or an unusually high IQ; rather, the necessary factor seems to be extended intense training on a daily basis over a period of at least ten years. This ten-year rule seems to hold up across many different areas, and represents the minimum period necessary for the attainment of expert performance. Thus, expertise evolves and develops over a long period of time devoted to the refinement and practice of the skills in question.

Research into the nature of expertise suggests that skills associated with high levels of performance are context bound or domain specific, and therefore do not generalize generalize /gen·er·al·ize/ (-iz)
1. to spread throughout the body, as when local disease becomes systemic.

2. to form a general principle; to reason inductively.
 to other settings (Ericsson & Charness, 1994; Perkins & Salomon, 1989). For example, expert physicians demonstrated superior performance in their area of specialty, but failed to do so in another area of medicine (e.g., Custers, Boshuizen, & Schmidt, 1996; Patel & Groen, 1991; Schmidt, Norman, & Boshuizen, 1990).

The finding that expertise is domain specific has led researchers to view clinical expertise as a form of pattern recognition based on automatic retrieval from complex networks of stored knowledge (Patel & Groen, 1991). Extensive clinical experience was thought to result in the encapsulation (1) In object technology, the creation of self-contained modules that contain both the data and the processing. See object-oriented programming.

(2) The transmission of one network protocol within another.
 of biomedical bi·o·med·i·cal
1. Of or relating to biomedicine.

2. Of, relating to, or involving biological, medical, and physical sciences.
 and scientific knowledge into clinical schemas or theories. These clinical schemas effectively condensed con·dense  
v. con·densed, con·dens·ing, con·dens·es
1. To reduce the volume or compass of.

2. To make more concise; abridge or shorten.

3. Physics
 scientific concepts into information about signs, symptoms, disease course, and the context in which disease developed and functioned to overcome memory constraints (Schmidt & Boshuizen, 1993; Schmidt et al., 1990). Such a perspective on the nature of clinical expertise focused research attention on the nature of knowledge representations in long-term memory long-term memory
Abbr. LTM The phase of the memory process considered the permanent storehouse of retained information.

long-term memory 
 and the difference between novices and experts in terms of knowledge rather than differences in reasoning strategies (Patel & Groen, 1991; Schmidt & Boshuizen, 1993).

The development of expertise appears to involve qualitative shifts in the knowledge structures that underlie it (Ericsson & Charness, 1994). This has been documented for a wide range of experts from chess players This is a list of chess players. Chess players
The people in this list are men and women who are primarily known as chess players, and their biographies are presented in the Wikipedia.
 and radiologists (Proctor & Dutta, 1995) to musicians (Ericsson & Charness, 1994). For example, in the process of acquiring expertise in medicine students seem to progress through several stages associated with different representations (i.e., knowledge structures) of clinical and scientific information (Schmidt et al., 1990). In the first stage medical students develop elaborated causal networks explaining the symptoms and the course of diseases in terms of specific underlying disease processes. The disease representations take a prototypical or idealized i·de·al·ize  
v. i·de·al·ized, i·de·al·iz·ing, i·de·al·iz·es
1. To regard as ideal.

2. To make or envision as ideal.

 form, and fail to take into account the variability found in the everyday medical reality.

In the second stage, as the medical student acquires more knowledge and clinical experience, these abstract causal models A causal model is an abstract model that uses cause and effect logic to describe the behaviour of a system. See also
  • Bayesian network
  • Causal loop diagram
  • Systems biology
  • Econometrics
  • Forecasting
 are gradually refined and condensed into simplified ones. These abridged knowledge structures tend to focus on more general diagnostic labels (Schmidt et al., 1990). The third stage is an extremely important transition from causal knowledge structures to illness scripts. At this point diseases are organized in terms of their enabling conditions, the faults or physiological malfunctions that are associated with the disease processes, and the consequences of these malfunctions (i.e., the signs, symptoms, and complaints). These structures follow a narrative form and therefore spell out the factors leading to the disease, its manifestation, and its course in a serial manner. Illness scripts are activated as integrated wholes by information presented early in the diagnostic encounter, and facilitate the rapid processing of information. Information that is consistent with an activated illness script will be quickly interpreted because it is "expected"--that is, it is part of the typical script, and once encountered can be processed with little cognitive effort.

Finally, in the fourth stage expert practitioners draw upon previous patient encounters stored in memory as instance scripts or exemplars. Clinical reasoning tends to be based on the similarity between a current patient and a previous, presumably pre·sum·a·ble  
That can be presumed or taken for granted; reasonable as a supposition: presumable causes of the disaster.
 similar patient stored in memory. At this stage, both illness scripts and patient exemplars are used when forming diagnostic impressions and making clinical inferences. Expertise results in the acquisition of knowledge of frequently encountered medical problems and their typical solutions, in addition to lists of relevant facts. Therefore, for an experienced practitioner, decision making is usually remarkably straightforward and arrived at automatically.

Although all four of these different types of knowledge structures remain available to experienced clinicians, they typically tend to utilize stored illness scripts and patient instances when making diagnostic decisions. Such information is readily available, easily and efficiently accessed, and speeds up the diagnostic process considerably. Clinical inferences are easily generated from such mental representations and lead seamlessly to conclusions and clinical decisions. By way of contrast, clinical reasoning for the medical student is much slower as they need to draw upon abstract causal disease models for each case and systematically generate plausible inferences or hypotheses and test them out.

To briefly summarize, there are a number of features common to all expert performers whether in medicine, sports, music, or chess, suggesting similar underlying cognitive, perceptual, and motor processes (Proctor & Dutta, 1995). Compared to less skilled individuals, experts are able to perceive meaningful, complex patterns in a particular domain. They have enhanced short-term and long-term memory capabilities for the relevant material within their domain of expertise. Experts appear to represent problems in a more conceptually meaningful way rather than on the basis of surface features, as novices or less-skilled individuals do. This is a function of the development of a rich knowledge structure representing the particular domain; concepts, categories, ideas, and case examples are conceptually related in complex and meaningful ways (Regehr & Norman, 1996). The presence of such coherent and rich knowledge structures makes it easier for experts to rapidly develop effective solutions and plans in order to solve a problem. This is primarily due to the fact that domain relevant knowledge is stored as scripts and, once activated, results in automatic rapid information processing information processing: see data processing.
information processing

Acquisition, recording, organization, retrieval, display, and dissemination of information. Today the term usually refers to computer-based operations.
 and decision making.

Expertise doesn't just occur in the relatively exotic and ratified rat·i·fy  
tr.v. rat·i·fied, rat·i·fy·ing, rat·i·fies
To approve and give formal sanction to; confirm. See Synonyms at approve.
 world of artists and scientists. There is converging evidence that changes identified in the knowledge and skill structures of experts in the traditional domains of expertise also extend to everyday activities such as thinking and problem-solving (Custers et al., 1996; Ericsson & Charness, 1994). The conditions of extensive practice, frequent and rapid feedback, incentives for improving performance, and the existence of a basic human need to achieve mastery all point to the applicability of a cognitive skills cognitive skill Psychology Any of a number of acquired skills that reflect an individual's ability to think; CSs include verbal and spatial abilities, and have a significant hereditary component  perspective to a broader range of human activities. Prolonged experience in a particular area, such as repairing cars or burgling houses, can result in the acquisition of superior skills and the kind of complex knowledge structures described above. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that expertise can occur in everyday life situations and in a number of domains. And importantly, expertise can occur in domains and involve actions considered to be socially repugnant REPUGNANT. That which is contrary to something else; a repugnant condition is one contrary to the contract itself; as, if I grant you a house and lot in fee, upon condition that you shall not aliens, the condition is repugnant and void. Bac. Ab. Conditions, L. , such as sexual offending.


Goodness of Fit Goodness of fit means how well a statistical model fits a set of observations. Measures of goodness of fit typically summarize the discrepancy between observed values and the values expected under the model in question. Such measures can be used in statistical hypothesis testing, e.  of the Expertise Perspective

The suggestion that offenders may develop expertise related to the sexual exploitation of children and women is consistent with the rational model of offender decision making in criminology criminology, the study of crime, society's response to it, and its prevention, including examination of the environmental, hereditary, or psychological causes of crime, modes of criminal investigation and conviction, and the efficacy of punishment or correction (see  (Cornish Clarke, 1986). From this perspective, the majority of crimes are hypothesized to be the result of a cost/benefit analysis rather than to represent a loss of control or poor coping skills A coping skill is a behavioral tool which may be used by individuals to offset or overcome adversity, disadvantage, or disability without correcting or eliminating the underlying condition. Virtually all living beings routinely utilize coping skills in daily life. . Individuals commit crimes because they reason that a specific criminal act will result in a net benefit to them. For example, property offenders appear to have considerable expertise in evaluating likely targets and in the planning and execution of the actual crime. In support of the expertise perspective, Wright, Logie, and Decker (1995) investigated the environmental cues used by offenders when selecting houses to burgle bur·gle  
tr. & intr.v. bur·gled, bur·gling, bur·gles
To burglarize.

[Back-formation from burglar.
. They found that active burglars were superior to matched nonoffenders at recognizing such cues, and concluded that offenders acquire expertise as a function of their criminal experience. The key difference between the rational model of criminal decision making and the approach stressed in this paper resides in the domain specificity of offense-related competency or expertise. Therefore, in addition to possessing offense-related skills and knowledge a sexual offender will inevitably exhibit psychological deficits; for example, they may have difficulty establishing intimate relationships with adults.

How legitimate is it to extend the expert-novice distinction to sexual offenders? There are clearly important differences between individuals who develop high levels of skill and ability in sports or the arts and individuals who commit crimes against women or children. The covert nature of offending, the lack of formal teaching and coaching programs, and the lack of criteria or standards for the determination of expertise or levels of excellence all suggest that it could be misleading to construe construe v. to determine the meaning of the words of a written document, statute or legal decision, based upon rules of legal interpretation as well as normal meanings.  aspects of sexual offending from an expertise perspective. An additional issue concerns the frequently inaccurate way offenders perceive or interpret victims' actions. While it is clear that expert chess players regularly pick the best moves, and that scientists conceptualize con·cep·tu·al·ize  
v. con·cep·tu·al·ized, con·cep·tu·al·iz·ing, con·cep·tu·al·iz·es
To form a concept or concepts of, and especially to interpret in a conceptual way:
 a particular domain in more profound ways than beginners (Ericsson & Charness, 1994), it seems odd to refer to sexual offenders as experts in this sense. Therefore, there seem to be clear limits to the application of an expertise framework to sexual offenders.

Despite these limitations there are some features of expertise that do seem applicable to this group. These characteristics tend to revolve around Verb 1. revolve around - center upon; "Her entire attention centered on her children"; "Our day revolved around our work"
center, center on, concentrate on, focus on, revolve about
 the effects of practice or extensive experience over a long period of time, and the knowledge structures associated with such experience. Many offenders possess a considerable amount of knowledge about their preferred victim group (Ward, Louden, Hudson, & Marshall, 1995). Also, more experienced offenders appear to be astute readers of cues that signal vulnerability, and are also able to engage in actions that disarm or control their victim. In addition, skillful or expert performance is underpinned by knowledge structures containing information that is cohesively organized, relevant to the problem or domain in question, and extensive. The knowledge structures of experienced practitioners are qualitatively different from those of beginners or novices. If the expertise paradigm can be applied to domains of everyday problem solving problem solving

Process involved in finding a solution to a problem. Many animals routinely solve problems of locomotion, food finding, and shelter through trial and error.
 and thinking (see Custers et al., 1996; Ericsson & Charness, 1994), and if sexual offending represents such a domain, then it is reasonable to conclude that offenders will also exhibit cognitive differences depending on their experience and type. That is, those offenders with a long history of sexual offending with a large number of victims will have knowledge structures related to their offending that are qualitatively different from those of late-onset offenders who have relatively few victims.

Nature of Expertise in Sexual Offenders

In experts, information is often structured around exemplars or individual instances in the form of behavioral scripts In the behaviorism approach to psychology behavioral scripts are a sequence of expected behaviors for a given situation. For example, when you enter a restaurant you choose a table, order, wait, eat, pay the bill and leave. . The processing of information in a domain, and the associated decisions, are therefore rapid and automatic in nature. Once a task or domain-relevant information is encountered, an associated script (e.g., an illness script) will be activated as an integrated whole. If the encountered information is typical or routine, then the script fills in the missing values In statistics, missing values are a common occurrence. Several statistical methods have been developed to deal with this problem. Missing values mean that no data value is stored for the variable in the current observation.  (e.g., responses of the patient) and decisions are reached quickly. The mind predicts the likely outcome and quickly fills in the blanks. For example, if a physician is assessing a 50-year-old patient with severe chest pains, he or she is likely to infer quickly that the patient has had a heart attack.

It is suggested that an equivalent knowledge structure in sexual offenders is an offense script: Experienced offenders such as serial rapists or preferential child molesters Noun 1. child molester - a man who has sex (usually sodomy) with a boy as the passive partner
paederast, pederast

degenerate, deviant, deviate, pervert - a person whose behavior deviates from what is acceptable especially in sexual behavior
 will have a number of coherent, interconnected scripts representing different offense situations and types of victims. They also have many examples of past victims stored in episodic memory episodic memory Neurology A 'cognitive' form of memory based on personal experience. See Memory.  readily available to facilitate the interpretation of a current offense situation, and are able to suggest possible offense strategies. These strategies include instructions for how to select and groom a victim, how to plan and successfully carry out an offense, how to avoid detection, and how to respond to various contingencies such as resistance on the part of a victim. The fact that sexual offenders frequently hold erroneous assumptions or beliefs about victims does not imply that their decision making is always flawed. Just as illness scripts contain procedural knowledge Procedural knowledge is the knowledge exercised in the performance of some task. See below for the specific meaning of this term in cognitive psychology and intellectual property law.  and information about the diagnostic value of specific information in particular contexts, offense scripts are relatively localized and specific in nature. Cognitive distortions Cognitive therapy and its variants traditionally identify ten cognitive distortions that maintain negative thinking and help to maintain negative emotions. [1] Eliminating these distortions and negative thought is said to improve mood and discourage maladies such as  are likely to be embedded Inserted into. See embedded system.  or encapsulated in these scripts and, therefore, held more implicitly. Offense scripts are concerned with routine and specific actions designed to achieve certain goals and, therefore, dysfunctional assumptions are unlikely to be activated and impair practical problem solving. Rather, they are more likely to become explicit when an offender is pressed to explain or justify his behavior.

The apparent ability of some sexual offenders to avoid detection for many years while they offend against hundreds of victims (e.g., Abel, Becker, Cunningham-Rathner, Mittleman, Rouleau rouleau /rou·leau/ (roo-lo´) pl. rouleaux´   [Fr.] an abnormal group of red blood cells adhering together like a roll of coins.


pl. rouleaux [Fr.] a roll of red blood cells resembling a pile of coins.
, & Murphy, 1987) suggests the possession of developed offending skills. These revolve around actions designed to set up possible offense situations and the offender's capacity to persuade or force victims to have sex with them. Some individuals have these skills to a high degree and arguably are expert in their execution. Relatedly, the apparent ability of some offenders to lead a double life, to deceive TO DECEIVE. To induce another either by words or actions, to take that for true which is not so. Wolff, Inst. Nat. Sec. 356.  people close to them, and to regulate their emotional states to some degree indicates the presence of enduring skills. For example, after raping a woman or abusing a child many offenders return to their families without any apparent distress or adverse psychological effect, suggesting that they are able to suppress or avoid feeling anxiety, guilt, or fear to a considerable degree.

Of course, not all offenders share these skills to the same extent (the amount of competence or expertise exhibited by offenders may span a continuum) and in fact, some can be construed as novices; that is, they have relatively short histories of sexual offending, little practice, and have not developed the skills described above. Following on from the finding that experts tend to acquire more elaborate mental scripts and increasing real life examples of the relevant domain as they progress, it is reasonable to assume that a similar process occurs in sexual offenders. Therefore, it is to be expected that the knowledge structures underpinning their offending behavior will be less integrated and will lack extensive case examples or actual memories of offending. The reliance on less offense-related knowledge arguably results in poorer victim evaluation and less successful grooming and planning.

In contrast, men who have spent years gathering victim information and refining their knowledge structures will be able to draw from a variety of different exemplars and to match the current situation with one from the past. Therefore, they should be quicker, more intuitive decision-makers, and more efficient at avoiding detection. The fact that these individuals have been involved in sexually deviant behavior For the scholarly journal, see .

“Deviant” redirects here. For other uses, see Deviant (disambiguation).
Deviant behavior is behavior that is a recognized violation of social norms. Formal and informal social controls attempt to prevent or minimize deviance.
 for a long time means that they will have had considerable opportunity to practice and refine their offense-related skills. Exposure to pornography, other offenders (e.g., pedophile pedophile Forensic psychiatry A person with pedophilia; there are an estimated 500,000 pedophiles in the world. See Child prostitution, Megan's law, Pedophilia.  groups), and a variety of victims may facilitate the development of extensive knowledge structures and the elaboration of strategies to detect and subdue sub·due  
tr.v. sub·dued, sub·du·ing, sub·dues
1. To conquer and subjugate; vanquish. See Synonyms at defeat.

2. To quiet or bring under control by physical force or persuasion; make tractable.

 victims. In addition, frequent masturbation masturbation

Erotic stimulation of one's own genital organs, usually to achieve orgasm. Masturbatory behavior is common in infants and adolescents, and is indulged in by many adults as well. Studies indicate that over 90% of U.S. males and 60–80% of U.S.
 to deviant sexual fantasies sexual fantasy Psychology Private mental imagery associated with explicitly erotic feelings, accompanied by physiologic response to sexual arousal. See Sexual desire.  provides an additional practice arena. Research on mental simulation has demonstrated that the more individuals mentally rehearse re·hearse  
v. re·hearsed, re·hears·ing, re·hears·es
a. To practice (a part in a play, for example) in preparation for a public performance.

 and think about performing an action, the more likely they are to actually do it (Taylor & Pham, 1996).

Therefore, it is suggested that we would expect to see different kinds of problems depending on the type of knowledge structure possessed by offenders. For example, individuals with a long history of sexual assaults would be expected to represent offense-related information in scripts and to have offense-supportive core beliefs. This type of knowledge structure should lead to rapid decision-making and a tendency to encode (1) To assign a code to represent data, such as a parts code. Contrast with decode.

(2) To convert from one format or signal to another. See codec and D/A converter.

(3) The term is sometimes erroneously used for "encrypt.
 information in offense-related domains in an integrated and holistic way. The distortions will be more directly offense-supportive (e.g., "Children enjoy sex with adults" or "Women like rough sex") rather than rationalizing or blaming. Their interpersonal style (in specific contexts) should reflect this coherent knowledge base, and offenders may appear to have high levels of skill in their ability to relate to children or to exploit women. They may present as charming, relatively confident, and well practiced in establishing contact with vulnerable individuals. This degree of social ease may contrast markedly with their adult relationships; expertise is domain specific. Concerning empathy deficits, the well-elaborated and complex knowledge base concerning sexual abuse of children or women may indicate both a remarkable ability to judge the underlying emotional state of victims and, at the same time, difficulty in ascertaining the victim's real needs (Ward, Keenan, & Hudson, in press). Knowledge structures facilitate causal inferences in the domain in question and, due to the determining influence of scripts, are made automatically and easily. For example, an offender may simply assume that a vulnerable child will respond to friendly overtures o·ver·ture  
1. Music
a. An instrumental composition intended especially as an introduction to an extended work, such as an opera or oratorio.

 with gratitude.

By way of contrast, offenders who lack extensive experience of sexual offending will have had little opportunity to refine and extend their understanding of the victim's behavior, and to develop and groom manipulative ma·nip·u·la·tive  
Serving, tending, or having the power to manipulate.

Any of various objects designed to be moved or arranged by hand as a means of developing motor skills or understanding abstractions, especially in
 skills. Their cognitions concerning their offending should reflect this lack of experience and accordingly lack consistency and integration. They may hold distorted attitudes with less conviction, and exhibit what we have termed negative distortions; that is, those designed to deflect de·flect  
intr. & tr.v. de·flect·ed, de·flect·ing, de·flects
To turn aside or cause to turn aside; bend or deviate.

[Latin d
 or avoid responsibility and guilt (Ward, Hudson, Johnston, & Marshall, 1997). They should lack acquaintance with complex grooming strategies, and should be less skillful in the execution of offense-related behaviors. In addition, such individuals may experience temporary difficulty interpreting or inferring the feelings and thoughts of their victims due to the effects of cognitive avoidance or deconstruction deconstruction, in linguistics, philosophy, and literary theory, the exposure and undermining of the metaphysical assumptions involved in systematic attempts to ground knowledge, especially in academic disciplines such as structuralism and semiotics.  (Ward, Hudson, & Marshall, 1995).

To summarize, just what are the types of skills experienced sexual offenders would be expected to exhibit to a greater degree than less experienced sexual offenders? Clearly, the exact cluster of skills should vary according to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.

2. In keeping with: according to instructions.

 the type of sexual offense and the type of offender. But speaking generally, experienced sexual offenders relative to less experienced ones (novices) are hypothesized to be better at detecting emotional vulnerability in potential victims; be able to respond appropriately to this perceived vulnerability (e.g., reassure or threaten, depending on the particular offender's issues and accompanying deficits); have developed risk appraisal skills that enable them to avoid detection; possess the capacity to befriend be·friend  
tr.v. be·friend·ed, be·friend·ing, be·friends
To behave as a friend to.


to become a friend to

Verb 1.
, groom, or disarm victims; be able to lead a seemingly normal life while offending; be able to deceive authorities, friends, and family; possess effective affect regulation skills (be able to control negative emotions negative emotion Any adverse emotion–eg, anger, envy, cynicism, sarcasm, etc. Cf Positive emotion.  before, during, and following an offense); and finally, have better problem solving and planning skills in the sexual offending domain (although they may not generalize to other areas of their lives).

While it is plausible that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors directed at the regulation of an external event (e.g., a child's actions) can be construed as competencies or skills, it may seem strange to label self-regulation skills in this manner. It is conceded that these are not core offense-related skills and are only indirectly related to the exercise of offenders' "expertise." However, they enable the offender to engage in the planning and execution of a sexual crime, and to avoid detection. It may be that many individuals become more proficient regulating internal states as their offending career unfolds. Because of their function in enabling such men to commit sexual offenses, it is reasonable to include them among the cluster of offense-related competencies. By way of comparison, the ability of experienced physicians to manage their fear and anxiety while treating a severely ill patient constitutes a key, although somewhat neglected by researchers, component of medical expertise.

Offender Type

The novice-expert distinction in the skills development literature may parallel the preferential-situational distinction in the child sexual-offending literature, and may shed some light on the cognitive and behavioral differences between the two types of offenders (Lanyon, 1986). Situational offenders In the study of crime, a situational offender is a person who commits crimes only when in an environment which permits or encourages those acts.

This is common in sex crimes; see situational sexual behavior.
 tend to have a later onset of offending, fewer victims, victims who are often familial, offending that tends to occur at times of stress, and a preference to have adult partners. Preferential offenders, however, start offending at early age, have a large number of victims who are often extra-familiar, have offending that is more appetitively driven, and have values or beliefs that strongly support an offense lifestyle (Abel, Mittleman, & Becker, 1985; Ward et al., 1995). The difficulty in treating some sexual offenders--for example, preferential child molesters and predatory rapists--may be due to their cohesive beliefs and well-elaborated cognitive structures. Relatedly, they are very effective in meeting their goals in antisocial antisocial /an·ti·so·cial/ (-so´sh'l)
1. denoting behavior that violates the rights of others, societal mores, or the law.

2. denoting the specific personality traits seen in antisocial personality disorder.

In the expertise terminology, situational offenders are more like novices and lack refined, well-honed offending skills, whereas preferential offenders are hypothesized to possess greater offending-related skills and more complex knowledge structures related to these. A key question concerns the way offenders learn these offense-related skills given the covert and secretive se·cre·tive  
Having or marked by an inclination to secrecy; not open, forthright, or frank. See Synonyms at silent.

 nature of sexual offending. The necessity to hide and minimize any risk of detection suggests that any learning is done in relatively private ways.

It is clear that many individuals begin their offending careers at a relatively early age, for example, early adolescence for child molesters (Abel et al., 1985). Therefore, there is an enormous amount of time to acquire knowledge about victims and to practice and to plan various abusive behaviors abusive behavior Public health Any of various behaviors–aggressive, coercive or controlling, destructive, harassing, intimidating, isolating, threatening–which a batterer may use to control a domestic partner/victim. See Domestic violence. . Plausible psychological mechanisms related to this acquisition of knowledge and offense skills are covert modeling and rehearsal (e.g., in the form of sexual fantasies), observational learning For other uses, see Social learning.
Observational learning (also known as: vicarious learning or social learning or modeling) is learning that occurs as a function of observing, retaining and replicating behavior observed in others.
 (via other offenders), symbolic modeling (e.g., cultural products such as films, literature or pornography), and finally, through an offender's own experience of early sexual or physical abuse.

However, the analogy between novice/expert and situational/preferential child molester may not be quite as straightforward as described above. It could be argued that each type of offender functions in quite different domains with different associated goals and skills. Therefore, a situational or incest incest, sexual relations between persons to whom marriage is prohibited by custom or law because of their close kinship. Ideas of kinship, however, vary widely from group to group, hence the definition of incest also varies.  offender may commit a large number of offenses against a particular victim once he starts to sexually abuse a child, and may progressively become more experienced and skillful. Similarly, a preferential child molester may exhibit an offending career characterized by gradual skill acquisition and changes in knowledge organization.

While this argument is plausible, the fact that some offenders have had an extremely long period of time to acquire offense-related experience is likely to result in more sophisticated strategies for inducing victims to engage in sex with them. This doesn't mean that offenders of all types are unable to increase their ability to successfully commit crimes; it is a question of the probabilistic (probability) probabilistic - Relating to, or governed by, probability. The behaviour of a probabilistic system cannot be predicted exactly but the probability of certain behaviours is known. Such systems may be simulated using pseudorandom numbers.  relationship between onset of offending and the degree of offense-specific knowledge and skills. Preferential child molesters and predatory or serial rapists are simply more likely to exhibit these qualitatively different skills and knowledge.

Offense Course

While research on the development of an offending career is relatively sparse, some authors have argued that sexual offenders typically escalate the frequency and severity of offending over time (Marshall & Barbaree, 1990). Typically, this has been explained by the loss of salience sa·li·ence   also sa·li·en·cy
n. pl. sa·li·en·ces also sa·li·en·cies
1. The quality or condition of being salient.

2. A pronounced feature or part; a highlight.

Noun 1.
 of rein-forcers and the attempt to discover alternative sources of gratification GRATIFICATION. A reward given voluntarily for some service or benefit rendered, without being requested so to do, either expressly or by implication. . Other mechanisms postulated pos·tu·late  
tr.v. pos·tu·lat·ed, pos·tu·lat·ing, pos·tu·lates
1. To make claim for; demand.

2. To assume or assert the truth, reality, or necessity of, especially as a basis of an argument.

 include the failure to experience intimacy through current forms of sexual deviancy sexual deviancy Paraphilia Psychiatry Sexual excitement to the point of erection and/or orgasm, when the object of that excitement is considered abnormal in the context of the practitioner's learned societal norms Types Exhibitionism, fetishism, frotteurism,  and therefore attempting to meet the need for emotional satisfaction through more deviant sexual behaviors sexual behavior A person's sexual practices–ie, whether he/she engages in heterosexual or homosexual activity. See Sex life, Sexual life.  (Marshall & Barbaree, 1990). From an expertise perspective another plausible mechanism is suggested; the escalation of offending in some men may be associated with setting progressively higher "performance standards" and attempting more difficult or dangerous tasks--that is, offenders attempt to master increasingly complex and difficult skills and to achieve more stringent goals. The need for mastery that arguably all human beings possess (Pervin & John, 1997) is in the service of deviant and destructive goals. The extensive practice of sexually coercive co·er·cive  
Characterized by or inclined to coercion.

co·ercive·ly adv.
 and deviant behavior by experienced sexual offenders, and their subsequent refinement, means that they are better equipped to commit more audacious and deviant crimes. The tendency for some sexual offenders to progress to more violent, intrusive, and severe forms of sexual violence may be partially a function of their increased ability to do so. The need for mastery may interact with the goal to commit deviant sexual actions. For example, while the goal to control and denigrate den·i·grate  
tr.v. den·i·grat·ed, den·i·grat·ing, den·i·grates
1. To attack the character or reputation of; speak ill of; defame.

 women may remain the same throughout the offending career of a rapist, acquisition of knowledge and skills may result in more violent and severe crimes. The rapist becomes more able to achieve the fundamental goal of sexual humiliation.

Treatment Issues

Deficiency treatment models are based on the assumption that therapy should address the skill deficiencies exhibited by an offender. While this is a sensible strategy there are additional issues and foci indicated by an expertise perspective. Experienced sexual offenders may be harder to treat due to their extensive knowledge structures. These will result in the unconscious appraisal of a problem situation and lead to rapid, intuitive decision making. The depth of representation of offense-related materials and reliance on exemplars (memories of victims) and encapsulated knowledge Definition
Encapsulated knowledge is the value endowing meta-resource originating from thought, reflection, or experience that is embedded in an artefact’s design and functionality.
 would make it harder to change offense-supportive beliefs and attitudes even if the offender was motivated to do so. In addition, the tendency for offense scripts to be activated automatically by typical offense-related information means that such individuals will effortlessly interpret certain situations in sexually deviant ways. This ease of access may result in the conviction that their way of understanding and explaining children's and women's behavior (e.g., as wanting or needing sex) is the correct or right way. The experience of feeling confident may function as a (mistaken !) cue that the offender's judgments, attitudes, or beliefs are correct (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). It may also automatically result in the emergence of deviant sexual desires and sexual fantasies, and in intentions to sexually offend. Treatment will be slower and will revolve around providing alternative ways of interpreting and accounting for certain situations and restricting access to scripts through conditioning strategies, or it will teach the offender to use conscious strategies to bypass or prevent the activation of underlying offense scripts. In addition, the absence of high levels of skills in pro-social domains might make it harder to give up the familiar and reliable reward of sexual gratification.

The treatment of less-experienced or later-onset offenders should be easier. The lack of well-integrated knowledge structures, and the absence of offense scripts, means that alternative interpretations of their offenses are much easier to assimilate, and less resistance will be encountered. There should be other competing knowledge structures, probably more adaptive interpersonal scripts, that can provide additional ways of interpreting offense situations. These alternative scripts are likely to be available, as many less experienced offenders may have had normal sexual or intimate relationships in the past which could be in script form. Where individuals have a less extensive offending history the knowledge underlying their sexually deviant behavior will be less well integrated and more easily disrupted; that is, it is associated with more conscious or effortful information processing (see stage 1 of the model in Schmidt et al., 1990).

The fact that some men derive a sense of mastery and pleasure from their sexual crimes presents a clinical challenge. Because it may be the only available source of such reinforcement, individuals could be reluctant to relinquish an offending lifestyle. The task for therapists is to seek to transfer the use of appropriate skills from an offending domain to a prosocial domain. For example, the ability to initiate contact and groom a victim involves some core social skills, which could be utilized in establishing adult relationships. Additionally, the use of sophisticated planning and problem-solving skills could be useful in designing a relapse prevention plan or in solving lifestyle difficulties.

One consequence of an expertise perspective is the importance of treating men early in their offending careers. Experienced sexual offenders may be harder to treat due to their extensive knowledge or semantic networks (data) semantic network - A graph consisting of nodes that represent physical or conceptual objects and arcs that describe the relationship between the nodes, resulting in something like a data flow diagram. . The tendency for offense scripts to be automatically activated by typical offense-related information means that such individuals will effortlessly interpret certain situations in sexually deviant ways. Dysfunctional attitudes and beliefs will be richly interconnected to a variety of environmental and psychological cues; for example, a friendly smile may be interpreted as a sexual overture overture, instrumental musical composition written as an introduction to an opera, ballet, oratorio, musical, or play. The earliest Italian opera overtures were simply pieces of orchestral music and were called sinfonie. . It makes sense to disrupt the acquisition of these knowledge structures before they become firmly entrenched en·trench   also in·trench
v. en·trenched, en·trench·ing, en·trench·es
1. To provide with a trench, especially for the purpose of fortifying or defending.

, and to provide alternative interpretations of high-risk situations. Therefore, the identification and assessment of knowledge structures in adolescent offenders should be viewed as a research and clinical priority.

An additional clinical implication is that it may be possible to make judgements about an individual's degree of severity or offense history despite the presence of denial or minimization. Evidence revealing that a sexual offense was well planned, and that the offender in question was able to adapt his strategies to cope with different types of victims or situations, indicates a certain level of sophistication so·phis·ti·cate  
v. so·phis·ti·cat·ed, so·phis·ti·cat·ing, so·phis·ti·cates
1. To cause to become less natural, especially to make less naive and more worldly.

 and experience. Examples of such indicators include taking photographs of the victim before an assault occurs, sophisticated grooming strategies, and quick, efficient decision making. Such cues can serve as expertise indicators and can help the clinician clinician /cli·ni·cian/ (kli-nish´in) an expert clinical physician and teacher.

 formulate a more accurate risk assessment.

As a final thought, the expertise framework points to the importance of cognitive processes Cognitive processes
Thought processes (i.e., reasoning, perception, judgment, memory).

Mentioned in: Psychosocial Disorders
 and structures in understanding and treating sexual offenders. The acquisition of offense scripts enables individuals to commit sexual crimes in more cognitively efficient and systematic ways. Offenders will be better at molesting children or raping women because they will have learned what strategies are optimal in particular circumstances and at specific times. Offense scripts contain instructions about how to perform certain actions, in what order, and the likely outcome of such actions. Cognition cognition

Act or process of knowing. Cognition includes every mental process that may be described as an experience of knowing (including perceiving, recognizing, conceiving, and reasoning), as distinguished from an experience of feeling or of willing.
 and behavior are intimately related, and should be viewed as two sides of the same coin. Therefore, a cognitive behavioral treatment approach is likely to result in more treatment success than interventions not targeting attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.


In this paper the utility of adopting an expertise model to both guide research into, and improve the treatment of, sexual offenders is explored. It is argued that many offenders have developed an extensive knowledge base and a range of strategies associated with their sexually deviant behavior. These knowledge structures (offense scripts) contain offense-related information and function to facilitate individuals' problem solving and decision making while committing sexual crimes. This will include instructions about how to select and groom a victim, how to plan and successfully carry out an offense, and how to respond to various contingencies--for example, resistance on the part of a victim.

A number of research implications arise from an expertise framework. It should be possible to adapt research methods and designs from more traditional expertise research to examine the way sexual offenders encode, represent, and recall offense-related information. The use of protocol analysis to track individuals' attempts to solve certain offense scenarios, or perhaps examining the cues offenders use to detect potential victims, may prove illuminating. In addition, the type of strategies and inferences made, and their relationships to variables such as length of offending history or type of offender, could be investigated. For example, preferential child molesters may be more likely than situational or incest offenders to represent offense material in the form of scripts.

The argument advanced in this paper represents an attempt to link research ideas from developmental and cognitive psychology cognitive psychology, school of psychology that examines internal mental processes such as problem solving, memory, and language. It had its foundations in the Gestalt psychology of Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Koffka, and in the work of Jean  to the sexual offending domain. The possibility that experience in a particular activity can result in qualitatively different knowledge representations is an intriguing one, and offers rich possibilities in extending our understanding of offenders' cognitive distortions and functional deficits. It is not the only viable theoretical perspective, and it would be premature to argue for an exclusively cognitive explanation of sexual offenses. Sexual offenders' understanding of their victims' needs, thoughts, and desires is incomplete and inaccurate to some degree. However, the ability to interpret cues indicating vulnerability, and to control and manage the behavior of victims, suggests the possibility of offense-related competencies. Keeping the limitations of the analogy between experts and sexual offenders firmly in mind, it is suggested that focusing on offense-related skills could complement existing deficit models.


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Manuscript accepted April 20, 1999

Tony Ward

University of Melbourne
  • AsiaWeek is now discontinued.

In 2006, Times Higher Education Supplement ranked the University of Melbourne 22nd in the world. Because of the drop in ranking, University of Melbourne is currently behind four Asian universities - Beijing University,
 and the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health Melbourne, Australia

I would like to thank Ali Maginness and Julie McCormack for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. I would also like to extend my thanks to Claire Stewart Claire Stewart is a reporter and news presenter for North Tonight on STV North. She regularly reads the news for the opt-out bulletin within the main North Tonight programme from STV's studios in Aberdeen in which covers stories for the North-east, Highlands and Islands.  for her astute observations and constructive suggestions throughout the writing of this manuscript.

Address correspondence to Dr. Tony Ward, Department of Criminology, 234 Queensberry Street, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria Parkville is an inner city suburb north of Melbourne, Victoria, bordered by North Melbourne to the south-west, Carlton and Carlton North to the south and east, Brunswick to the north, and Flemington to the west.

It includes the postcodes 3052 and 3010 (University).
 3052, Australia; e-mail:
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Author:Ward, Tony
Publication:The Journal of Sex Research
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 1999
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