I wanted to share a special paper i wrote to help readers/listeners to the podcast understand how rational choice influences sexual offending



Evaluating the risk of sexual offending: A Rational Choice Theory perspective

Rebecca Duke

Arizona State University




            Rational choice theory suggests that criminal offenders, although limited in their rationality by limits of time, ability, and availability, make conscious and willful decisions throughout the crime phase.  Adult male sex offenders, based on the types of sex crimes they are more likely to commit, employ a multi-step decision-making process or hunting strategy that weighs the benefits of the crime against the risks associated with apprehension.  Adult female sex offenders tend to be more opportunistic and are more likely to engage in sexual offenses with a co-perpetrator.  According to researchers, juvenile sex offenders lack the cognitive capacity to make rational decisions during crime commission and therefore, commit sex crimes as a result of previous sexual victimization, poor role models, and social dysfunction.  Because of severe underreporting and thus, conviction, there is a significant lack of research examining adult female and juvenile sex offenders and the cognitive processes associated with criminal sexual offending.




Evaluating the risk of sexual offending: A Rational Choice Theory perspective

            Studies suggest that individuals commit sex crimes through a variety of choices, planning, and operational processes.  Sexual victimization, social learning, and the deterrence doctrine continue to provide significant contributions to the groundwork in analyzing sexual offending; however, rational choice theory suggests that individuals actively isolate the benefits of committing a crime and employ methods or choices to gain the most advantage.  Sex offenders, in comparison to non-sex offenders, make up a unique framework of individuals who display a complex but exceptional set of variables specific to either the crime itself or the offender’s sex and age.  Although few studies identify why sex offenders commit crimes against specific victims, analysts recognize patterns in offending and isolate trends in decision making that directly correlate offending processes and victim participation.

Sex Offenders and Social Learning Concepts

            Some theorists believe individuals engage in sexual offending based on elements associated with social learning, such as prior victimization or inadequate sexual models.  Akin to rational choice, social learning theory also focuses on rewards and consequences associated with learned behaviors.  Akers explains:

Social learning is a behavioral approach to socialization which includes individuals responses to rewards and punishments in the current situation, the learned patterns of responses they bring to that situation, and the anticipated consequences of actions taken now and in the future in the initiation, continuation, and cessation of those actions (1990, pg 666).

Also, Akers claims that the primary concepts of deterrence and rational choice theory are factors associated with “general social learning or behavior principles” (1990, pg 655). 

Social learning theory incorporates both social rewards and costs as well as formal and informal sanctions (Akers, 1990).  Rational choice theory, on the other hand, centers on deliberate choices, rational decisions and perceived risks and potential benefits.  When the deterrence doctrine is expanded to include the risk of legal or informal sanctions, it incorporates variables associated with rational choice theory, which suggests the concepts are more associated with social learning theory (Akers, 1990).  Nonetheless, studies suggest that rational choice is a significant element of the social and criminal process during crime commission (Akers, 1990).  Bachman et al. claims that while some theories discuss the likelihood that sex offenders are driven by biological and psychological factors, it is more likely that sexually-based crimes are a result of rational and willful consideration (1992).

Sex Offenders and Rational Choice Theory

Background and Definitions

            Sex offenders are not typically psychopaths, which gives some credibility to rational decision making.  Criminals, specifically sex offenders, analyze situational crime and determine whether the benefits of committing the crime outweigh the risks or costs associated with apprehension.  Sex offenders engage in a multi-step decision-making process which may involve extensive and sophisticated preparation, including identifying a suitable target, developing the most appropriate strategy to commit the crime as well as modifying the activities as variables change (Beauregard, Proulx, & Rossmo, Spatial patterns of sex offenders: Theoretical, empirical, and practical issues., 2005).  Akers explains, the rational choice model is based on the “…’decision’ to participate, to continue, or to desist from delinquency” (1990, pg. 665).  Further, according to Akers, “The pure rational choice of riskless choice, full knowledge, and no mistakes is untenable” (1990, pg. 665).  Although the rational choice model provides a thorough analysis of the criminal processes of sex offenders, the theory cannot stand alone and often incorporates variables associated with social learning and deterrence theory, such as formal and informal sanctions as well as morality.

            Sex offenders, although limited by time and ability, make conscious and rational decisions beginning with the preparation stage, continuing through the commission of the crime as well as after the offense, to satisfy a need or maximize the rewards as well as reduce the risks associated with committing the offense (Hewitt & Beauregard, 2014; Leclerc, Proulx, & Beauregard, 2009).  Conversely, Akers explains, rationality by definition is vague and that “the rational choice models in literature leave room for all levels of rationality, except the most mindless, pathological, and irrational” (1990, pg 665).  Also, Akers claims that the rational choice models views the criminal as a “…uniquely motivated individual with a flawed character structure” and therefore, may not adequately nor accurately interpret the consequences of his or her actions (1990).

Crime Phases

            As described by Leclerc et al., the offender’s modus operandi or the “pattern of behaviors that perpetrators display in the periods prior to, during, and following illicit sexual contact” suggests there are specific patterns that can be identified and broken down for additional analysis (2009).  Each stage of the crime process requires additional decision-making such as premeditation, the use of any weapons as well as the intent of force, and ultimately how the crime would end.  Beauregard and Leclerc (2007) claim that crime commission occurs in three phases: the pre-crime phase, the actual crime phase, and the post-crime phase.

            Pre-crime phase.  During the pre-crime phase, according to Beauregard and Leclerc (2007), offenders estimate of risks of the crime and identify the level of forensic awareness needed to reduce those risks.  Beauregard and Leclerc’s study revealed that 29% of offenders claim they never considered the risk of apprehension; the drive to commit the offense was never offset by fear of formal or informal sanctions (2007).  However, participants of the study claimed that those who did estimate risk (41%) committed the offense when the risk was low (Beauregard & Leclerc, An application of the rational choice approach to the offending process of sex offenders: A closer look at the decision making., 2007).  In other words, offenders made the decision to wait until the risk of discovery was low to commit specific crimes.

            Although not all offenders claim premeditation, it typically occurs during the pre-crime phase. Beauregard and Leclerc explain that some offenders, specifically those who are considered to commit more sophisticated crimes, are more forensically aware than offenders who reflect impulsive and flawed decisions (2007).  Offenders who are more forensically aware take measures to ensure little to no forensic material is left behind.  For instance, such offenders may wear gloves and/or condoms, wipe the scene, make the victim take a shower, wear a mask, disguise his/her voice and even change license plates when prowling for victims (Beauregard & Leclerc, An application of the rational choice approach to the offending process of sex offenders: A closer look at the decision making., 2007).

            Crime phase.  According to Beauregard and Leclerc (2007), the crime phase consists of decisions relating to the use of a weapon, the use of restraints, the level of force intended as well as whether a vehicle is necessary to complete the crime. According to the study, only 35% of sex offenders chose to use a vehicle to commit their crime, to either prowl for or transport the victim (Beauregard & Leclerc, An application of the rational choice approach to the offending process of sex offenders: A closer look at the decision making., 2007).  Beauregard and Leclerc’s study revealed that 81% of interviewed sex offenders claimed they did not use a weapon, that it was either not necessary to control the victim or that the use of such a weapon was not part of the sexual fantasy (2007).  Interviewees, however, stated that any use of a weapon, such as a gun, knife, Exacto, or rope was used to control the victim or was used as an instrument, such as was needed to break into a house (Beauregard & Leclerc, An application of the rational choice approach to the offending process of sex offenders: A closer look at the decision making., 2007).  It is important to note that interviewees also claimed that only 14% of the crime events occurred using some forms of restraint, typically as a method to prevent the victim from escaping.  Of those who chose to use restraints, 40% used them because it was part of the fantasy.  Lastly, the interviewees disclosed that most did not employ any excessive force, claiming that the victim was too scared and did not resist.  The offenders who chose to use more force did so to prevent the victim from resisting or escaping. (Beauregard & Leclerc, An application of the rational choice approach to the offending process of sex offenders: A closer look at the decision making., 2007)

            Post-crime phase.  The post-crime phase outlines the potential variables that explain how the crime may end. Beauregard and Leclerc describe four factors that may explain how or why a crime ends (2007).  A large portion of participants (79%) claimed they stopped because they had completed their crime.  Additional factors, interviewees explained, include interference from witnesses, the victim escaped, and some offenders simply could not articulate their reason for stopping (Beauregard & Leclerc, An application of the rational choice approach to the offending process of sex offenders: A closer look at the decision making., 2007).  One of the final decisions sex offenders must make relates to victim release, choosing where to release the victim if they have transported the victim to another location, or whether they choose to walk away from the victim. 

Hunting Processes

            The rational choice perspective of the hunting process, or the method of search for a suitable victim and the process of attack, according to Beauregard et al., is a “…heuristic device to frame offender decision making regarding their hunting process” (2007, pg 451, para 4).  The hunting model, according to Beauregard et al., “…permits a better understanding of the relationships between the geographic and the behavioral components of the sexual assault” (2007, pg 459, para 7).  Theorists have long examined various offender modus operandi, to understand what drives individuals to commit certain crimes.  There is a strong conviction by theorists that sexual offenders make a variety of choices throughout the crime event process, a progression of events referred to as the hunting process.  Similar to the crime phases, sex offenders encounter an assortment of chances, opportunities, and complications that inhibit the prospects to complete the crime.  The decision-making process of the hunting model suggests variations in strategies, victims, and situational or environmental factors of the crime (Beauregard, Proulx, & Rossmo, Spatial patterns of sex offenders: Theoretical, empirical, and practical issues., 2005).

            Sex offenders, comparable to the behaviors of non-sexual offending individuals, utilize familiar environments, or one’s awareness space, to identify potential victims and crime prospects.  Offenders encounter a variety of opportunities in their daily activities and are likely to select victims from those places of familiarity. Similarly, as described by Beauregard et al., “…the variables or elements that surround and are part of the daily lives of individuals, and that may be influenced by or may influence their crime behavior” known as one’s backcloth, plays a significant role in how sex offenders choose their victims and how they choose to commit the crime (2005, pg 582, para 3).  

            Types of offenders.  Beauregard et al. outline four different types of offenders as termed by the hunting process: hunters, poachers, trollers, and trappers (2005).  Offenders identified as hunters tend to travel away from their home base to commit their crimes.  Although hunters do not travel as far as poachers, hunters must make distinctive choices to select targets that do not pose an increased risk of identification.  Examples of hunters may include individuals who go to local bars to find a suitable victim, prowl school grounds for easy targets, or simply hang out in areas that provide increased opportunities such as dark alleys and parking lots.  Beauregard et al. referenced a study conducted by Baldwin and Bottoms in 1976 that claimed violent attacks and sex offenses were most local, with over 60% occurring within one mile of the offender’s home base (2005).  Geographically stable offenders, according to Beauregard et al., are more often younger, socially immature, of average intelligence, more impulsive, are more likely to know their victims, and have more psychopathic traits (2005).

Studies have revealed that offenders who commit more sophisticated crimes tend to travel the furthest from their home base; these offenders are often referred to as poachers (Beauregard, Proulx, & Rossmo, Spatial patterns of sex offenders: Theoretical, empirical, and practical issues., 2005).  Beauregard et al. claimed that geographically mobile offenders tend to be older, have above average intelligence, are more socially competent and are less likely to have any criminal record relating to sexual offenses (2005).  Beauregard et al., also asserts that their study revealed that violent sex offenders tended to travel further on the weekend versus a weekday (2005).  Also, there is an increased association between offenses committed during a weekday and the level of sophistication used during the crime.  In other words, offenders who commit crimes during the work week are likely to be more forensically aware than those who commit crimes on a weekend day (Beauregard, Proulx, & Rossmo, Spatial patterns of sex offenders: Theoretical, empirical, and practical issues., 2005).

Trollers tend to be more opportunistic, taking advantage of situations that give them easy access or a large amount of control and reward for little risk.  Trollers, for example in relation to children, may be individuals with easier access, such as school custodians, coaches, and day care providers.  Trollers, by characterization, tend to be more impulsive and therefore, make thoughtless decisions and commit crimes without any preparation (Beauregard, Proulx, & Rossmo, Spatial patterns of sex offenders: Theoretical, empirical, and practical issues., 2005).  Doing so results in extremely high levels of risk, threatening identification, apprehension, and probable interference from witnesses.

Lastly, trappers are known for inviting victims to their home base or another place, where they will have a significant amount of control (Beauregard, Proulx, & Rossmo, Spatial patterns of sex offenders: Theoretical, empirical, and practical issues., 2005).  For example, Craigslist ads seeking housekeepers or child care providers afford an opportunity for potential victimization.  This type of sex offender risks identification when choosing this type of attack; released victims are more able to provide specific details of the location and the offender.  However, more sophisticated trappers often gain the trust of their victims and then use violent force to control and restrain their prey (Beauregard, Proulx, & Rossmo, Spatial patterns of sex offenders: Theoretical, empirical, and practical issues., 2005).

            Methods of attack.  Theorists believe sex offenders commit sexual crimes by way of three main styles of attack: raptor, stalker, and ambusher (Beauregard, Rossmo, & Proulx, A descriptive model of the hunting process of serial sex offenders: A rational choice perspective., 2007).  First, Beauregard et al. explains that the raptor is an offender who often uses a false identity or conceals themselves to surprise or blitz attack a victim (2007).  These offenders tend to hide and sneak up on a victim in dark alleys or vacant parking areas.  Second, stalkers follow and wait for an opportunity to approach the victim.  Such offenders may follow a victim they specifically identified for an attack, such as a child or an individual they encountered and are looking for an opportunity to overcome the victim.  Lastly, according to Beauregard et al., ambushers are more likely to attack a victim “…someplace where the offender has a great deal of control” (Beauregard, Rossmo, & Proulx, A descriptive model of the hunting process of serial sex offenders: A rational choice perspective., 2007, pg 450).  Similar to the trapper hunting style, this type of offender tends to be more passive aggressive and may choose the security of his home to overcome an unsuspecting victim. 

            The rational choice perspective directly relates to the method of attack and the type of offender and the nature of the crime committed.  For example, hunters often use more violent methods of attacking (i.e. the raptor method) when engaging strangers for sexual gratification.  A crime of this sort often occurs in environments where, if the victim screams, the offender is at high risk of being apprehended and must use more force or violence to control the victim.  Similarly, trappers often use violent attack methods, even though the victim may be in his or her home, the need to catch the victim off guard is encouraged by this type of attack. In contrast, child molestation that most often takes place in the home is sometimes committed by a troller, who may ambush the victim.  However, as we will discuss later in more detail, offenders who abuse children are less likely to use violence but rather seductive or coercive methods to engage in sexual crimes. On the other hand, sex offenders who seek unknown or stranger children may approach the children in public; this stalker approach requires either a more violent attack or extensive coercion such as enlisting the child’s help to find a lost pet.  Poachers are serial offenders who must travel longer distances to find suitable victims, or must keep traveling to ward off being identified and apprehended (Beauregard, Proulx, & Rossmo, Spatial patterns of sex offenders: Theoretical, empirical, and practical issues., 2005).  Many factors contribute and influence the type of hunter and the corresponding method of attack.  Sex offenders, specifically, must decide whether the benefits of the crime outweigh the risks associated, such as victim or environmental availability, financial complications and the threat of being identified.  

            Beauregard et al. (2005) identified multiple factors that influence the offender’s choice to attack victims; including victim appearance, victim vulnerability, age, location and environment availability as well as the attack method of choice.  A victim’s appearance plays a significant role in an offender’s decision to attack a specific victim, often based on the victim’s hair color or body style.  Similarly, a victim’s level of vulnerability influences an offender’s choice, such as the victim being alone, handicapped victims, and the age of the victim (child or elderly) (Beauregard, Proulx, & Rossmo, Spatial patterns of sex offenders: Theoretical, empirical, and practical issues., 2005).  Additional factors may include a victim’s promiscuous personality, location, and availability.  Hayward suggests that emotional states, such as anger and fear, influence decisions during the crime process (2007).  Victim resistance causes anger, encouraging the offender to use more violence or restraints than he had otherwise anticipated (Hayward, 2007).  Some offenders commit sex crimes out of anger of socio-economic inequalities (i.e. the rich bitch mentality), which ultimately stems from the need to have some form of control (Hayward, 2007).  

Also, Beauregard et al. (2005) identified issues that may impact changes in the crime event plan.  For example, offenders who prepare for the crime, typically because of the need to act out a fantasy, may believe the situation is “just not right” and stop the process (Beauregard, Proulx, & Rossmo, Spatial patterns of sex offenders: Theoretical, empirical, and practical issues., 2005).  Also, the risk of interference is a strong predictor of ending the process.  Finally, the victim’s behavior or resistance may cause the offender to stop.  Beauregard et al. stated that an interviewee claimed the victim’s voice lessened his arousal and caused him to stop the process (2005).  

Environmental factors.  Sexual predators confront a multitude of issues that require them to make decisions, some of which necessitate more sophisticated measures while others are influenced more by environmental complications.  According to Wakeling et al. (2007), there are two types of decisions that offenders encounter, involvement decisions and event decisions.  Involvement decisions comprise of choices that are made at each stage of the event such as when to start the offense, the choice to continue the attack, and choosing when and how to end the offense.  Event decisions are the choices to engage in specific criminal acts (Wakeling, Webster, Moulden, & Marshall, 2007).  Sex offenders, specifically, are decision makers who focus on identifying hunting methods, analyze perceived risks, and develop strategies to successfully commit the crime.

Sex crimes and the strategies differ depending on spatial and temporal aspects, such as public versus private locations and the use of violence (Hewitt & Beauregard, 2014).  Hewitt and Beauregard assert that the day of the week chosen to commit sexual crimes was a predictor of the offender’s level of forensic awareness; weekday events indicated a stronger offender forensic awareness than weekend occurring crimes (2014).  Similarly, offenders who committed crimes in the winter, spring and autumn seasons were more likely to choose restraint methods to confine their victims than crime events that took place during the summer (Hewitt & Beauregard, 2014)

Sexual predators consider spatial issues to be significant factors, specifically relating to the type of projected crime, such as indoor or outdoor locations and what activities are permissible based on the location of the event.  Hewitt and Beauregard claim that their study of the environmental impact on sexual offenses revealed that offenders used more violent means when the crime occurred in a public place versus private locations (2014).  Further, according to Hewitt and Beauregard, offenders who committed sexual crimes in a victim’s residence were more forensically aware than crimes that occurred in other locations (2014).   However, offenders typically used more violence against victims who resisted in their residence compared to that of attacks that occurred in public locations (Hewitt & Beauregard, 2014).  Beauregard et al., referenced a separate study that claimed that offenders who committed sexual assault during a burglary traveled the shortest distance; therefore, linking sexual assault to property crimes (2005). 

According to Hewitt and Beauregard, their study suggested that crimes that occurred outdoors were perpetrated by offenders who were more forensically aware than crime events that took place indoors (2014).  Offenders who committed crimes outdoors were more likely to use coercive strategies, to lure victims to a more secure area rather than using a blitz attack.  A blitz attack presents too many uncontrolled behaviors and increased risks.  Also, outdoor crimes were considerably less likely to be successfully completed (Hewitt & Beauregard, 2014).  However, Hewitt and Beauregard proclaim, offenders who were more forensically aware and used a coercive strategy during a rape were also more likely to successfully complete the attack (2014).  Finally, offenders who committed crimes outdoors were more likely to choose a victim previous to the assault and were more likely to use an ambush or blitz attack (Hewitt & Beauregard, 2014).

Impulsive offenders, according to Beauregard et al., (2005) are the least likely sexual predator to evade identification and apprehension.  Impulsive offenders, as referenced in Table 1, lack preparation, have a tendency to leave forensic material at the scene, and often use drugs or alcohol before the crime.  Also, impulsive offenders often have extensive anger issues and are more likely to travel the shortest distances to commit sex crimes (Beauregard, Proulx, & Rossmo, Spatial patterns of sex offenders: Theoretical, empirical, and practical issues., 2005).  On the other hand,  ritualistic offenders are less common, usually use sexual fantasies to drive their offense and may travel longer distances to commit sex crimes (Beauregard, Proulx, & Rossmo, Spatial patterns of sex offenders: Theoretical, empirical, and practical issues., 2005).

Impulsive offenders

Least successful at evading identification

Techniques are very simple

Often include drugs or alcohol

Sloppy with evidential materials

Aimed at control, has underlying anger issues

Travel shorter distances to commit crimes


Ritualistic offenders

 Less common

Antisocial behaviors

Sexual fantasies drive offenses

Pornography obsession

Travel father distances to commit crimes


Deterrence.  Within the decision-making process, the rational choice perspective incorporates the evaluation of deterrence in the form of personal morality, formal and informal sanctions as well as positive and negative reactions from peers and family (Akers, 1990; Bachman, Paternoster, & Ward, 1992).  Although morality is difficult to incorporate, personal relationships and attachment to loved ones is a significant variable in deterring individuals from committing crimes. In addition to familial distrust and perhaps being shunned, potentially one of the most effective deterrents is a strong moral condemnation (Bachman, Paternoster, & Ward, 1992).  Formal sanctions, according to Bachman, et al. (1992), is likely only going to work for people who already fear the consequences associated with criminal procedure.  On the other hand, informal sanctions including shaming, self-respect, and protective factors such as valued relationships and prosocial models, are more likely to contribute to deterrence in that perception of self-worth is the biggest and most valuable motive (Wakeling, Webster, Moulden, & Marshall, 2007)

Child Sexual Abuse

            Sexual offenses committed against adult victims often require sex offenders to engage some form of violent or surprise attack to overcome and control the victim.  Sexual predators of children, on the other hand, are more likely to seduce or coerce children in sexual activity.  Of course, there are violent sex crimes committed against children but they are less frequent than sexual offenses referred to as child molestation.  Similar to those crimes against adults, sex offenders who prey on children must decide the best approach, including the hunting ground as well as selecting the most appropriate strategy to involve the victim in sexual activity (Leclerc, Proulx, & Beauregard, 2009).  According to Leclerc et al, the rational choice perspective of child abuse suggests more of a “fluid and dynamic picture” in that situational factors influence crimes and decision-making between offender and victim interaction (2009, pg 6, para 2).

            Wakeling et al. claim, “…individuals who committed child sexual abuse were more likely to be male, unemployed, less educated and to come from outside the family.  This group of offenders tended to be more emotionally needy, and intrafamilial offenders report greater distress, loneliness, rigidity and unhappiness…” (2007, pg 82, para 4).  The level of violence used by sexual predators against children was directly related to the distance from the offender’s home.  The further one had to travel to commit a crime against a child, the more violence was used; however, child abusers who offended in or close to home were more likely to choose a more coercive or manipulative method to engage the child (Beauregard, Rossmo, & Proulx, A descriptive model of the hunting process of serial sex offenders: A rational choice perspective., 2007).

            Characteristics that influence sexual abuse.  Wakeling et al. (2007) stated that a lack of appropriate supervision and a lack of adequate function of the non-offending parent were the two most cited opportunities for sexual offending.  Children who resided in at-risk communities, who were more likely to be neglected and suffer other forms of abuse, were more likely, overall, to experience sexual abuse (Wakeling, Webster, Moulden, & Marshall, 2007).  Families who reside in at-risk communities often rely on neighbors or extended family to babysit, increasing the risk of child abuse by individuals who may have predatory tendencies.

According to Wakeling et al. (2007), sexual predators who prey on children may suffer from a variety of personal issues including deviant sexual arousal, poor self-esteem and social functioning, a history of victimization, poor educational background, and dysfunctional family relationships.  Wakeling et al. (2007) reports, sexual predators who are dissatisfied in their adult romantic relationships may seek gratification from victims who appear easy to manipulate.  

Sexual offenders against children must choose a strategy to engage the victim in sexual activities.  Leclerc et al. (2009), claim that offenders typically use strategies that involve manipulative methods such as love and attention, playing games or giving gifts.  Some offenders used progressive nonsexual touching to desensitize the victim before attempting some form of sexual assault (Leclerc, Proulx, & Beauregard, 2009).  In other situations, offenders chose to use their authority figure to overpower their victims and threaten personal harm if they reported the crimes (Leclerc, Proulx, & Beauregard, 2009).  Leclerc et al. (2009) also claimed that some offenders chose to use pornography to either get victims interested in sexual activity or to manipulate or blackmail the victim into additional sexual acts.

Wakeling et al. (2007) describe factors that influence the offender’s decision not to offend, regardless if the crime was actually committed.  The study conducted by Wakeling, Webster, Moulden, and Marshall (2007), included personal interviews with sex offenders against children, specifically against biological female children.  Wakeling et al. (2007) claim that three main concerns acted as a deterrent: a concern of harm to the victim, being caught, and how the victim may respond to the sexual assault.  In addition to the fear of being caught, offenders in the study claimed that they feared they may cause both short-term and long-term harm to the victim, inflicting both physical pain and emotional distress.  Furthermore, the offenders were concerned about the victim’s response, such as a fear of rejection, or if the victim screamed (Wakeling, Webster, Moulden, & Marshall, 2007).  Although Wakeling et al.’s study focused on offender responses relating to familial abuse, there is a significant lack of research as to decisions to not offend against children outside of the family or stranger child sexual assault.  Logically, the choice not to offend against stranger child victims may be closely related to those motives or reasons involving adult strangers.

Online sex offenders

            The use of technology to engage in sexually explicit behaviors, via the Internet, has increased exponentially in the past decade.  Sex offenders find that the Internet allows for a certain amount of anonymity, especially through encrypted networks such as TOR, while allowing for like-minded individuals to support one another and find validation in their activities and interests (Cohen-Almagor, 2013).  Cohen-Almagor claims that in many countries, these types of communities are not illegal as long as the activities remain in forums or discussion boards and are not incorporated into actual physical events (2013).  Sexual predators who choose to use the Internet, or the TOR network specifically, have an added perception of lesser risk because of the calculated encrypted capabilities that the TOR network provides (Cohen-Almagor, 2013).  The use of technology and the Internet not only reduces the risk of getting caught but also allows individuals to transfer pornographic material more easily, especially child pornography. 

            Sexual predation varies when it comes to the Internet, ranging from downloading images or video for personal gratification to engaging in underage sex trafficking and child sex abuse rings.  Cohen-Almagor asserts that online predators choose to use manipulation and coercion, such as child pornography to entice underage victims and encourage desired behavior (2013).  Similar to the hunting methods of sex offenders, online sexual predators find online forums to be the easiest method to access underage victims, where the perceived risk of being identified is lessened (Cohen-Almagor, 2013).  The rational choice perspective suggests that online sexual predators must identify the best opportunity and decide the best method to gain access to underage victims.  As a result, online predators may incorporate some form of anonymity or disguise, such as acting like teenagers or peers, to gain the interest and trust of potential victims (Cohen-Almagor, 2013).  Sex offenders who use the Internet to engage a victim, regardless of age, signifies an additional level of sophistication in committing sex crimes by ensuring some level of victim participation.

Evaluating sex offender gender and age differences

            Age.  Although the majority of sex crimes are committed by adult males, females and juveniles contribute unique but complex issues as sexual predators.  According to Beauregard et al., age plays a significant role in spatial behavior, such that “…younger men tend to offend nearer to home,” which may be attributed to impulsivity and the lack of mobility (2005, pg 586, para 4).  In contrast, older offenders may identify more opportunities because they have greater access to vehicles as well as identify targets that require further travel and more sophisticated decision-making tactics (Beauregard, Proulx, & Rossmo, Spatial patterns of sex offenders: Theoretical, empirical, and practical issues., 2005).  However, as men age, there is a reduction in testosterone as well as physical ability, which may change how some sex offenders commit their crimes (Dickey, Chevolleau, Nussbaum, & Davidson, 2002).  As a result, according to Dickey et al. (2002), older sex offenders may choose to change their hunting methods and incorporate more seduction and manipulation methods, simply because these characteristics are less likely to diminish with age.  

            Adult female sex offenders.  Because the majority of sex offenders are adult males, a large part of the research in understanding the sexual behaviors and tendencies of sex offenders comes from interviews conducted with incarcerated or in-treatment male offenders.  Very little research has been conducted about female sex offenders, in large part because of a lack of reporting and subsequent conviction (Johansson-Love & Fremouw, 2009).  However, Johansson-Love and Fremouw provide a comprehensive examination of female-led sex crimes, and the decision-making processes that differ from those choices made my male offenders (2009).  First and foremost, the only significant variable that separated female offenders from male offenders was the choice to commit sexual crimes with a co-perpetrator (Johansson-Love & Fremouw, 2009).  Although only a few study participants claimed to have engaged in sex crimes with a co-perpetrator, males are significantly less likely to have committed offenses with another person. 

            Johansson-Love and Fremouw (2009) identified several characteristics of female offenders that are not necessarily gender specific but indicate choice and decision-making processes.  To begin, most female sex offenders know their victims, the highest rate of victims were the offender’s children, followed by other family members (Johansson-Love & Fremouw, 2009).  Only 13% of victims, according to Johansson-Love and Fremouw, were strangers to the perpetrator (2009).  Also, female offenders chose to victimize females more often than males and most victims were adolescents between the ages of 11 and 17 years (Johansson-Love & Fremouw, 2009).  Although researchers were unable to determine the driving force behind female led sex crimes, studies indicated that females were more likely to have a history of drug and alcohol abuse and were less likely to admit guilt to the crimes committed, even though the studies did not expose a significant measure of psychological problems (Johansson-Love & Fremouw, 2009)

Juvenile sex offenders

            Comparable to adult female offenders, very little research has been done to understand the factors that influence juveniles to commit sex crimes.  One thing is for certain, a juvenile’s age is a significant variable in recognizing conflict and determining the impact in which social learning and rational choice relate to sexual aggression and delinquency.  Steinberg claims that cognitive ability to engage in rational thought evolves between late childhood and middle adolescence, “The most important cognitive capacities involved in decision making are understanding…and reasoning…” (2009, pg 467, para 4).  At approximately age 16, according to Steinberg, an adolescent’s cognitive ability for rational thought is roughly comparable to that of adults (2009).  For this reason, much of the research suggests that juvenile sex crimes are a result of impulsivity and sensation seeking.  Chu et al. (2015) claim that as much as 91% of juvenile sex offenders engage in sexually delinquent behavior solely for pleasure. 

However, studies suggest that younger juveniles who commit sex crimes may be replicating learned behaviors rather than identifying the benefits and weighing the risks associated with those actions (Hunter, Figueredo, Malamuth, & Becker, 2003).  According to Hunter et al. (2003), juveniles tended to commit sexual offenses that paralleled their own sexual victimization experiences.  Furthermore, Hunter et al. stated, “…sexually offending youth were found to have very high levels of exposure to child maltreatment, abuse of females, and male-modeled antisocial behavior” therefore suggesting that dysfunctional environments influenced poor social learning boundaries (2003, pg 45, para 3).  Adolescent sex offenders were also found to exhibit higher levels of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and self-efficacy, which overall, contributed to impulse behaviors, sexual aggression, and a lack of self-control (Hunter, Figueredo, Malamuth, & Becker, 2003; McCann & Lussier, 2008).  According to Hunter et al., male juvenile sex offenders demonstrated behaviors of hostile masculinity and dominance that were often driven by “negative perceptions of women and interpersonal rejection experiences” (2003, pg 30, para 3).  Studies suggest that crimes committed by juvenile sex offenders are less likely to be founded on rational decision-making strategies but rather stem from antisocial behaviors triggered by previous victimization, sexually deviant models, and learned coping methods.

Reports on female juvenile sex offenders are significantly rarer than male offenders, in large part because offenses committed by females are under-recognized, are rarely reported to authorities, and law enforcement agencies do not pay adequate attention to reported crimes (Oliver & Holmes, 2015).  According to Oliver and Holmes (2015), society tends to believe female offenders are less harmful and, therefore, their crimes are less likely to be reported.  Oliver and Holmes (2015) claim that female offenders are very difficult to study because the samples are so small and only represent the most serious cases.  Similar to male offenders, female offenders are more likely to commit sex crimes based on social learning concepts such as prior sexual victimization, physical and emotional abuse, come from dysfunctional families, and are exposed to inadequate social and sex models (Oliver & Holmes, 2015).  The rational choice perspective only relates specifically to choosing suitable targets, which is typically younger males as well as engaging in activities with a co-perpetrator (Oliver & Holmes, 2015).

Prevention and Treatment

            Individuals who struggle with the decision to commit sexual offenses must recognize the natural elements that prevent sexual crimes from occurring, such as reducing opportunity through preventative measures (i.e. adequate supervision of children) and making the crimes more difficult and risky.  Preventative recidivism among sex offenders requires more extensive measures comprising of supervision, assessing weaknesses through cognitive behavior therapy and chemical treatment (Leclerc, Proulx, & Beauregard, 2009).  Adult offenders who choose to actively participate in treatment programs have more success identifying influences and motivational factors to avoid reoffending. 

            Juvenile treatment programs are, in large part, modeled after adult sex offender treatment programs, “…based on the assumption that juvenile sex offending often portends chronic and progressively more serious patterns of sexual perpetration” (Hunter, Figueredo, Malamuth, & Becker, 2003, pg 28, para 2).  Juvenile treatment is offered in both community-based programs as well as institutional settings;  focusing on deviant arousal, impulse control, and judgment, “enhancing social skills and victim empathy” and correcting “distorted sexual cognitions justifying sexual aggression” (Hunter, Figueredo, Malamuth, & Becker, 2003, pg 28, para 2). Lastly, prevention for juvenile female sex offenders encompasses social and legal education as well as the harm incurred by sexual assault (Johansson-Love & Fremouw, 2009).   

Future Studies

            As previously discussed, although multiple studies examine how and why male sex offenders commit sex crimes, very little research has been conducted on adult female offenders as well as both male and female juvenile sex offenders.  Future studies necessitate larger population samples, thorough examinations of brain functionality and social influences.  Studying crime from the offender’s perspectives provides a unique opportunity to connect theory with policy and practice; however, according to Beauregard et al. (2005), critics view personal accounts by offenders as unscientific for research purposes.  Obtaining interview details from victims may provide additional data unidentified by offenders; however, assessing victim responses may be biased and therefore, unreliable.


In sum, studies examining the rational choice model did not vary in comparable research; however, researchers claim the rational choice theory differs when it is applied to varying types of sexual offenders.  Social learning theory incorporates rewards and consequences associated with formal and informal sanctions whereas rational choice centers on rewards and risk related to the decision-making process.  Sex offenders employ rational decision-making concepts throughout the criminal process or crime phases, including preparation, the crime phase and the post-crime phase.  The hunting process of sex offenders consists of the decision-making process in which offenders seek and identify a suitable target and develop a strategy to complete the offense.

Research reveals significant differences in the adult offending process, in which offenders actively make decisions that weigh the risks associated with those choices.  Conversely, clinicians assert that juveniles, typically under the age of 16, lack the cognitive capabilities to make rational decisions.  For this reason, juvenile offenders tend to commit sex crimes as a result of insufficient social learning platforms that include inadequate sex models and previous victimization. 

Although there is substantial research that centers on how sexual offenders commit their crimes, there is a significant lack of analysis that would help professionals recognize sexually violent tendencies.  Future studies need to focus on how emotional factors influence sexual deviance as well as specialized treatment for abnormal sexual behaviors.




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