Psychopathy & Sex Offenders

October 21, 2011
Similar to female offenders and psychopathy, research on psychopathy and sex offenders is limited. In addition, the usefulness of the PCL-R and its derivatives is debatable (Hare, 2004). Hare reported that psychopathy is more strongly associated with general and violent offending than with sexual offending. This may be a result of child molesters not being psychopaths, rather, generalized offenders who happen to also commit sexual offenses (Hare, 2004).


In addition, Hare (2004) reported that the prevalence of psychopathy among male sex offenders varies across samples and types of sex offenses. The prevalence of psychopathy as measured by the PCL-R, is considerably lower among male child molesters (5-10%) than male rapists (25-35%) or mixed male sex offenders who molest and rape (60-70%). Hare concluded that sex offenders with a combination of a high PCL-R score and penile plethysmograph (PPG) evidence of deviant sexual arousal are at high risk for reoffending. About 70% of sex offenders with a PCL-R score of 25 or more and PPG evidence of deviant sexual arousal committed new offenses, compared with about 40% of all other groups. Thus, the PCL-R has good predictive validity with respect to sexual offenses (Hare, 2004).


Likewise, Forth and Kroner (1994) examined the prevalence of psychopathy among a sample of incarcerated rapists and incest offenders. The PCL-R was completed on 456 participants from a federal prison. These authors found that of 26.1% of 211 rapists, 18.3% of 163 mixed sex offenders, and 5.4% of 82 incest offenders were psychopathic (PCL-R total scores > 30). Additionally, Prentky and Knight (1991) assessed the prevalence of psychopathy among sex offenders in a treatment center. The PCL was completed on 154 participants. These authors found that 45.3% of 95 rapists and 30.5% of 59 child molesters met the PCL criteria for psychopathy.


Furthermore, Olver and Wong (2006) examined psychopathy, sexual deviance, and recidivism among 156 Canadian incarcerated sex offenders with a 10 year follow-up. All participants were rated on the PCL-R based on a review of file information. The participants were divided into four groups based on offenses: rapists, child molesters, mixed offenders, and incest offenders. These authors revealed that 33% of the sample were charged or convicted for a new sexual offense, 27% received a new sexual conviction, 38% any nonsexual violent conviction, and 59% any non sexual conviction. Rapists and mixed offenders demonstrated higher psychopathy scores (n = 76, M = 21.9, SD = 7.3, p<.05; n = 26, M = 22.7, SD = 7.3, p<.05, respectively) than did the child molesters and incest offenders (n = 25, M = 15.9, SD = 5.8, p<.05; n = 29, M = 17.7, SD = 6.8, p<.05, respectively).


In the same study, Olver and Wong (2006) also compared psychopathic and non-psychopathic sex offenders. These authors revealed that more psychopathic sex offenders than non-psychopathic sex offenders were unemployed (65%, 22%, respectively). In addition, psychopathic sex offenders were younger (M = 23.9, SD = 7.0) at the age of their first sexual offense than were non-psychopathic sex offenders (M = 27.4, SD = 8.6). Next, psychopathic sex offenders evidenced more serious criminal histories than non-psychopathic offenders, including more prior nonsexual violent convictions. However, these authors explained that no significant differences were found between psychopathic and non-psychopathic sex offenders regarding prior sexual charges or convictions. 


Furthermore, Olver, and Wong (2006) examined PCL-R correlations with sexual and nonsexual recidivism. Overall, the correlations between the PCL-R total score and all measures of nonsexual recidivism were large and significant. The PCL-R also significantly predicted total nonsexual convictions, as well as predicted new nonsexual violent convictions. However, the PCL-R did not make significant contributions to the prediction of total nonsexual violent convictions.


Similarly, Serin et al. (2001) researched psychopathy, deviant sexual arousal, and recidivism among sexual offenders in a sample of 68 incarcerated male sexual offenders. The participants were divided into rapists and child molesters. The child molesters were further subdivided into nonfamilial child molesters and familial child molesters. PCL-R interviews were conducted along with phallometric tests. Approximately 45% of the participants recidivated during an average 7 year follow up period (n=31). These authors also found that recidivists and nonrecidivists did not differ with respect to PCL-R total and Factor 1 scores. However, recidivists had significantly higher Factor 2 scores, F(1,64) = 7.57, p<.01). Serin et al. concluded that sexual offenders with more psychopathic characteristics and higher deviant sexual arousal may be at a greater risk of recidivating than sexual offenders with lower psychopathic characteristics and deviant sexual arousal.


Seto and Barbaree (1998) investigated psychopathy, treatment behavior, and sex offender recidivism. The participants consisted of 283 male sexual offenders seen at a sexual behavior clinic in a medium-security federal penitentiary in Canada. Analyses were based on the PCL-R and treatment behavior. These authors discovered a significant difference between rapists, incest offenders, and extrafamilial child molesters in their PCL-R scores. Rapists scored higher (M = 19.0, SD = 7.3) than child molesters (incest M = 14.4, SD = 6.2; extrafamilial M = 14.6, SD = 6.2). Furhermore, males scoring higher on psychopathy tended to be younger, less educated, and lower in socioeconomic status. Further analysis of treatment behavior revealed that there was no difference between rapists, incest offenders, and extrafamilial child molesters in their scores on treatment behavior (Seto & Barbaree, 1998). However, males who scored higher in psychopathy and better in treatment behavior were nearly three times as likely to commit any kind of new offense and were more than five times as likely to commit a serious reoffense

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