What Is a Juvenile Sexual Offender?

If I were to ask you to imagine a violent sexual offender, it is rare that you would picture a teenager. There are many reasons why it is important to understand youth with sexual behavior problems in order to prevent sexual abuse. Specifically, how do we prevent youth from sexually offending in the first place and there after; what do we do when we realize that a youth is at risk of sexually abusing or has already sexually abused; and how do these youth change the scope of our understanding of sexual abuse perpetuation and the development of deviant sexual arousal? In society’s journey toward developing appropriate moral anger in response to sexual crimes against children and other vulnerable individuals, we often lose sight of the reality that sexual offenders are human, and could be even a child or adolescent. But, the realization of who in fact commits sexual offenses has gained increased media attention, especially as it pertains to the frequency with which youth commit sexual crimes.

According to the FBI, youth who commit sexual offenses are responsible for approximately 36% of all child sexual abuse reported to police. 

In 2007, The New York Times featured an article asking leading experts in the psychological treatment of juvenile sex offenders “How can you distinguish between a budding pedophile from a kid with real boundary problems?” Psychologists and social science researchers informed how lack of maturity often plays into juvenile sexual offending behavior. Practitioners shared how cultural stereotypes about adult sexual offenders were, at one point in time, also infused in the initial psychological treatment approaches to juvenile sex offenders. But, that decades of research studies have shown that the judgement gaps and lapses in adolescence also provided an opportunity for change and to psychologically mold juvenile sexual offenders with effective treatment approaches so that they do not sexually re-offend.

Leading experts in the psychological treatment of youth who commit sexual offenses can change and can help reduce their risk of youths becoming adult sexual offenders.  Experts can learn more about the core values that underline effective psychological treatment approaches for juvenile sex offenders.

However, despite all the psychological evidence that suggests the potential for youths to change, societal misconceptions dominates legislative responses such as the life-time label of being a registered sex offender, which can be placed upon juvenile sex offenders as young as eight-years-old in some states.


Nearly 10 years later, in the column The List in The New Yorker, the question remains – can these youth change and why should we care about the lifetime label and our misconceptions about them? Public discourse on the inclusion of juvenile sexual offenders under The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) continues to be at an impasse — on the one hand is our moral anger and responsibility toward holding sexual offenders responsible for their crimes, and on the other is the known harmful impact of our shaming and punitive societal and legal responses on sexual offenders’ willingness to accept full responsibility for their crimes on the other hand.

As time passes, the cost of failing to resolve the dissonance between theory and practice includes gaps in developing effective approaches toward preventing child sexual abuse.

The reality is that society has struggled to reconcile psychological research into societal responses with legislative practices toward juvenile sexual offenders, and sexual offenders in general – not only because of the impact upon victims of sexual abuse – but also because incorporating psychological understandings challenges preconceived notions about the intersections of sexuality and morality in the human experience. The simplest version of the story is that a juvenile sexual offender is a child or adolescent who has committed a sexual crime. However, defining the nature of what it means to be a juvenile sexual offender and what that means to the prevention of sexual abuse is much more complex. So, Juveniles in Hiding examines public discourse as to why it matters that we work towards integrating theory and practice when it comes to sexual offenders.

Additional References

Center for Sex Offender Management. (1999). Understanding juvenile sexual offending behavior: Emerging research, treatment approaches and management practices.

StopItNow! Tip Sheet: Why a Child May Sexually Harm Another Child



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