Sexual offender cognition: Separating the ‘sexual’ from the ‘offender’

Ross Bartels

Cognition has long been viewed as playing an important role in the aetiology and maintenance of sexual offending behaviours (Abel et al., 1989; Ó Ciardha & Gannon, 2011). As a result, offence-supportive cognition (e.g., distorted attitudes, schemas) has been, and remains, a core factor in the assessment and treatment of sexual offenders (Beech, Bartels, & Dixon, 2013). In addition, an impressive body of theoretical and empirical literature has amassed on the subject over the last 15 years (see Caoilte Ó Ciardha’s review for more information).

Having become well-acquainted with this literature, one thing has always stood out to me; namely, there is an almost exclusive focus on sex-related (or offence-specific) cognitions. These include distorted beliefs about women’s sexuality; distorted beliefs about children and sex (i.e., that they are willing sexual partners and, thus, are unharmed by sexual activity); and the belief that one is entitled to sex. Given the nature of the offending behaviour in question, it is intuitively obvious why these sorts of cognitions have been of primary interest. Moreover, researchers have identified the importance of such cognitions. For example, a recent meta-analysis found that distorted cognitions regarding sex are predictive of sexual recidivism in sexual offenders, particularly child abusers (Helmus, Hanson, Babchishin, & Mann, 2013). Thus, the view that such cognitions should be clinically addressed is empirically supported. Furthermore, as discussed by Caoilte Ó Ciardha in a previous nextgenforensic post, distorted cognitions about sex are crucial in helping us come to a more comprehensive understanding of deviant sexual interests.

However, the focus on sex-related cognitions does not tell the whole story when it comes to sexual offenders’ thinking patterns. Research has shown that an ‘antisocial orientation’ is a major predictor of sexual recidivism in sexual offenders, as well as violent (non-sexual) recidivism and general recidivism (e.g., Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004). As a result, many researchers have incorporated the role of antisociality into their understanding of why sexual offending occurs. For example, Seto (2013) argues that antisociality is a facilitatory factor for acting upon deviant sexual interests. Others have posited that some sexual offences are a reflection of general antisociality or criminality, wherein the commission of the offence is primarily opportunistic (Lanning, 2010; Wortley & Smallbone, 2006). If these propositions are correct, then more attention needs to be given to the cognitions that underlie antisocial tendencies.

Some researchers have acknowledged the importance of antisocial cognitions. For example, McCrady et al. (2008) noted that many of the distorted sex-related statements made by child abusers can be readily classified into the generic distortions measured by the How I Think questionnaire (HIT; Barriga & Gibbs, 1996; see here for a downloadable review of the HIT). In addition, Walters, Deming, and Casbon, (2014) and Ward and Siegert (2002) discuss pro-criminal cognitions that reflect a sense of entitlement or superiority, highlighting their role in both sexual and non-sexual offending behaviour. However, Walters et al. (2014) highlight that, in the sexual offending literature, there has been a focus on sexual entitlement, rather than general entitlement. In their recent study using the Psychological Inventory of Criminal Thinking Styles (PICTS) with a mixed sample of sexual offenders (n = 322), Walters et al. (2014) found that the entitlement scale improved the prediction of general recidivism, as well as ‘failure to register a sexual offender’ recidivism. As such, the authors highlight the importance of addressing antisocial thinking in the risk management and treatment of sexual offenders, particularly the antisocial component of their offending behaviour.

Furthermore, in his ‘implicit theory’ theory of distorted cognition, Ward (2000) argued that some sexual offenders hold the belief that the world is a dangerous and hostile place. Polaschek and Ward (2002) argued that this belief would be closely related to general antisociality (both criminal and noncriminal) and, thus, would be held by a variety of antisocial individuals. Supporting this view, the Dangerous World implicit theory has not only been identified in a number of sex offender groups, including child abusers (Marziano, Ward, Beech, & Pattison, 2006), rapists (Polaschek & Gannon, 2004), and sexual murderers (Beech, Fisher, & Ward, 2005), but also violent (non-sexual) offenders (Polaschek, Calvert, & Gannon, 2009), domestic abusers (Dempsey & Day, 2011), and firesetters (Ó Ciardha & Gannon, 2012). From this, the dangerous world belief appears to be pertinent to most offender groups, including sexual offenders.

Therefore, in addition to general entitlement, addressing Dangerous World beliefs seems a worthwhile goal for treatment providers. Indeed, in her recent keynote at the 13th Annual Conference for the International Association for the Treatment of Sexual Offenders, Ruth Mann argued that understanding and targeting dangerous world beliefs may be one way to increase the effectiveness of sexual offender treatment. However, none of the measures commonly used to assess distorted cognition in sexual offenders adequately tap into this particular belief. Fortunately, there are some promising avenues for future research. For example, the ‘My Life’ questionnaire (Mann & Hollin, 2010) was found to measure cognitions related to the Dangerous World implicit theory (e.g., being disadvantaged and having a need for dominance). Following this, Barnett (2011) argued that dangerous world beliefs can be tapped by measuring ‘grievance thinking’. To me, the use of indirect measures to assess dangerous world (and general antisocial) cognitions is also an interesting and encouraged route to take (see here for an example).

In summary, antisocial cognitions have been largely ignored by sex offender researchers. Given the strides that have been made in understanding offender cognition, a turn towards exploring antisocial cognitions will only serve to better this understanding. Thus, I hope this post will inspire some researchers to dive deeper into this area by investigating how such cognitions develop; identifying their underlying schematic structure; establishing their role in the commission of sexual (and non-sexual) offending; and devising effective ways to both assess and treat them. I know I plan to do this as part of my future research, and I look forward to discussing the topic further with my colleagues and peers alike.

Suggested citation:
Bartels, R. (2014, September 29). Sexual offender cognition: Separating the ‘sexual’ from the ‘offender’. [Weblog post]. Retrieved from

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4 thoughts on “Sexual offender cognition: Separating the ‘sexual’ from the ‘offender’”

  1. Are you suggesting these are never true? … distorted beliefs about children “(i.e. that they are willing sexual partners and, thus, are unharmed by sexual activity)” – are you, seriously?

    Are you suggesting that any of the ‘CDs’ are never true?

    I am going to explain something, that is going to make things much easier … There is no such thing as an ‘antisocial cognition’ or a ‘CD’ – there is only cognition (which is correct or not), which is deemed ‘anti-social’, by some.

    This is not law, not medicine, not psych – it is politics/social control.

    The OSC

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