Sex Offenders v. Sex Abusers: Is there a difference?

Justin Smith (Phoenix Seminary) has written a helpful chapter in The Long Journey Home: Understanding and Ministering to the Sexually Abused where he discusses the characteristics and types of sexual offenders. While we tend to lump everyone who commits a sexual offense into one (despised) category, it is better to differentiate between types of offenses and those who might commit them. More differentiation helps us (a) understand causes of abuse, and (b) treat those who commit them with more competent and compassionate care.

He believes we need to distinguish between those who have abused and those who are sexual offenders. Why? Because if 20-25% of females report abuse along with 10-20% of males, then our current stats that offenders make up 1-2% of the population cannot be accurate. The number (given that abuse is often not reported) must be higher.

If the number of perpetrators of sexual abuse is 20-50 percent of the male population, as opposed to 1-2 percent, then sexually abusive behavior is not that unusual and neither is the sexual abuser. (p. 44)

Not sure I would venture the 50% number in the above quote but the point about abusive behavior isn’t as unusual as we would like to believe.

Before we look at the differences between offenders and abusers, let Dr. Smith set the stage:

If all persons have sexual impulses and the capacity to be manipulative and potentially violent, perhaps the question should be: “Why don’t people offend”? instead of, “Why do people Offend?” “What constrains some people and fails to constrain others?” (p. 45)

Smith suggests 3 main requirements for those who abuse. First, they must disregard boundaries. They disregard social and moral prohibitions, turn off empathy and compassion for the victim, change meanings of words (to coerce), etc. Second, they disregard or deny the distress of the victim. Third, the person must struggle to regulate internal impulses.

Now to our question. Is there a useful way to differentiate offenders from abusers? Is there any value to those of us who work with those who have committed sex crimes?

Having established that sexual abuse covers a wide range of behaviors and undoubtedly involves a significant portion of the population, what can be said about sex offenders? Offenders are a subset of sexual abusers. They have not only committed sexual abuse but they have committed a specific sexual crime as defined by society.  (p. 47)

So, his primary differentiation is this: offenders are those who are caught. Abusers are those who did an offense but weren’t caught.

Now to the question: is this helpful? My answer is yes and no. Yes. When we describe the research on offenders (as Smith does) we are able to differentiate offenders in subsets: those who rape, those who are sadistic, those who offend against family members, children, or strangers. These differences do matter when considering incarceration and treatment. And likely those who get caught are different from the many who may abuse one person or who have more self-control or other factors that keep them from continuing the abusive behavior.

But the answer is also no. Because so many sexual abusers do not get caught, we can’t really say that there is much difference between an offender (one who is caught) and an abuser (one who did not get caught). I doubt it would be possible to gather a population of individuals to study them in comparison to the offenders. Who would sign up for that study?

That said, this chapter and the entire book is a great resource for those wanting more help in their quest to minister and treat survivors of sexual abuse. I am especially pleased with chapter 13 (mine!).


Filed under Abuse, counseling science, Psychology

4 responses to “Sex Offenders v. Sex Abusers: Is there a difference?

  1. Andrew J. Schmutzer

    Phil, thanks for stimulating discussion among concerned individuals. I wonder if you would consider letting Dr. Smith respond to your critique?


    • Sure. Dr. Smith’s essay is great. Not really sure that I am critiquing him much since his main point in the chapter is not just to differentiate but to get some of the characteristics of offenders on the table for the reader.

  2. Grahame

    Hi Phil

    I found your post interesting. I work in a forensic setting with clients primary diagnosis of mild to moderate intellectual disability (ie IQ in the 50- 70 range) many of whom have been redirected to our service due to an index offence of sexual assault. Complicating the picture are coexisting mental health and substance abuse problems, and in many cases a highly dysfunctional family system where neglect and abuse were common. Indeed for a significant sub-group of our client base the index offence was committed while under the influence of an psychoactive substance which exacerbated their poor impulse control and poorly developed behavioural boundaries. The therapeutic input targets the modelling and reinforcing prosocial behaviours and boundaries in a highly controlled setting.

    For clients such as these abuser/offender dichotomy I find needs to be moderated slightly for they have been found unfit to stand trial and/or redirected away from the criminal justice service into a forensic mental health service on the grounds of mental incompetence. So even though they have committed the abuse, legally they have not been found guilty due to their level of mental competence. We could ignore this distinction as a legal technicality or we could create a sub-group of offenders – those mentally unfit understand the nature of their actions and as a result to stand trial. Incorporating mental competence is importance for it informs the therapeutic approach once they enter a service such as the one I work in. Progress is slow and intermittent, and communication must take into account limitations in language, and comprehension requiring simplification of structure and repetition of the core message,

    Thanks for your thoughts


  3. Pingback: “The P.S.A. on SPA” or “How I Became the Guy I’m Becoming” – waldina

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