Sex crime offenders, characteristics and possibilities for prevention


Teemu Vauhkonen & Markus Kaakinen & Tommi Hoikkala

In Prime Minister Marin's government program, reducing violence and sexual offenses against women and children is a key objective. The development of sexual offenses reported to the police in the 2000s appears concerning (Danielsson, 2019; Ministry of Justice, 2012). Reported cases of rape have almost doubled, and the number of reported cases of sexual abuse of children has increased in the last decade (Niemi & Fagerlund, 2019). In 2018, sexual offenses reported to the police increased by 16 percent compared to the previous year. This increase is significant when compared, for example, to the fact that during the same period, crimes against life and health increased by one percent from the previous year, and property crimes decreased by two percent. Overall, sexual offenses accounted for one percent of all reported crimes in 2018 (Danielsson, 2019).

According to previous research (Ministry of Justice, 2012), in the majority of sexual offenses, the perpetrator and the victim are either spouses, romantic partners, acquaintances, or friends with each other. The perpetrator is unknown to the victim in only one out of six cases. Rapists are almost always men, with an average age slightly over 30, and the majority of them have no prior criminal records. The proportion of perpetrators who are immigrants has also been high (Lehti et al., 2014; Ministry of Justice, 2012). Specific socio-demographic risk factors for different sexual offenses include mental health problems (Fazel et al., 2007), divorce (Smith, 1990), substance abuse (Emmelkamp & Kraanen, 2017), low socio-economic status (Graves et al., 1996), and loneliness (Bumby & Hansen, 1997). A disadvantaged family background (Freeman & Temple, 2010) and a history of sexual offenses in the family increase the risk of a person committing sexual offenses (Forsman et al., 2015).

However, the most direct risk factors for sexual offending cannot be captured by sociodemographic or social status measures. For example, poor social skills, feelings of powerlessness, low self-esteem, experiences of humiliation, difficult relationships with other adults, and sexual problems are associated with child sexual abuse, whereas several types of individuals who commit sexual offenses against adult women have been identified, each with their own attitudes and psychosocial tendencies. Additionally, different types of sexual offenses, such as rape, child sexual abuse, harassment, and online sexual offenses, are associated with different motivations and, above all, different logical behaviors. By understanding the motivations and logical behaviors underlying different types of sexual offending, better opportunities for preventing sexual offenses can be achieved. (Robertiello & Terry, 2007) 

However, in addition to the perpetrator of a sexual offense, situational factors and contributing circumstances also play a role in sexual crimes, which vary depending on the type of sexual offense. For example, a large proportion of rapes occur either at the victim's or perpetrator's residence, and both the perpetrator and victim are intoxicated at the time of the offense (Lehti et al., 2014; Ministry of Justice, 2012). Circumstances and situational factors that increase the risk of sexual offenses against children include encountering a vulnerable person who is a suitable victim and a low risk of being caught (Seto, 2019). The internet and social media services have also become a central environment for sexual crime. Internet interaction has provided sexual offenders with new opportunities for criminal activity and for finding potential victims in a less monitored environment (e.g. Bradford, 2006; Reynald et al., 2018). Online and offline sexual crimes are intertwined, as those who commit sexual offenses online are more likely to also commit sexual crimes in the real world (see, e.g. Owens et al., 2016; Shelton et al., 2016). 

Sexual crime

The discussion of sexual violence is part of a larger conversation about harassment and gender equality. Research on sexual harassment began in the 1980s, and in the following decade, it became a common research topic in many fields (Fitzgerald, Gelfand & Drasgow, 1995). Its significance as a research topic was also highlighted by the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017. With the movement, countless women and men around the world showed their support for women who had experienced sexual violence and harassment (Flecha, 2021). The movement has brought greater media and academic attention to issues of gender equality, sexual violence, and harassment. It has also led to a reexamination of current legislation and a redefinition of sexual harassment and assault (MacKinnon, 2019). The movement has been credited with changing attitudes to become more condemnatory of sexual violence (Szekers et al., 2020). 

There is variation in perceptions of what is sexually appropriate and inappropriate behavior, but when it comes to more serious sexual violence, the criminalization and sanctioning of such behavior corresponds strongly with universal moral beliefs. Deliberate violence against another member of the community, as well as theft and the violation of reciprocity expectations, are universally considered reprehensible (Fry, 2006; see also Kivivuori, 2013). Acts in which the perpetrator harms another sexually or in other ways to gain pleasure receive particularly strong moral condemnation (Corner et al., 1968). The condemnation of sexual violence against children requires no further citation.

 Legislation and its reform on sexual offenses in Finland

In legislation, sexual offenses form a hierarchical system, similar to the criminal law, where different acts are punished with different degrees of severity. The provisions thus indicate which acts are considered the most serious and which are the least serious (Nieminen, 2019). The penalties for sexual offenses vary widely. A fine is the mildest possible punishment, and in the most severe sexual offenses, the maximum punishment is a ten-year prison sentence.

The most serious sexual offense is considered to be aggravated rape (Ojala, 2014), for which the sentences imposed range from 2 to 10 years of imprisonment (1 to 6 years for rape). At the lower end of the punishment scale is sexual harassment, which was added to the Penal Code in 2014 (fine to 6 months' imprisonment). Attempted sexual offenses are also punishable, except for sexual harassment.

 The hierarchy of sexual offenses in legislation has also been attempted to be reduced, for example by abandoning the mild rape (coercion into sexual intercourse) in 2014, by including rape committed in a state of unconsciousness or other helpless condition of the victim as part of the definition of rape (Nieminen, 2019). At the same time, some sexual offenses have been sanctioned more severely. For example, rape against a child is always considered a severe rape. In addition, the rape of a child was added to the law in 2018. However, legislation is unlikely to ever fully capture the diversity of sexual violence (Nieminen, 2019).

According to Prime Minister Marin's government program, a comprehensive reform of sexual offense legislation is planned, with bodily autonomy and sexual self-determination as the starting points. If the reform is implemented, the definition of rape in the Criminal Code (39/1889) will be changed to be based on the lack of consent (government program, p. 91).

This means that the lack of consent will be the key characteristic of rape, that is, having sexual intercourse with a person who does not consent to it voluntarily. The absence of voluntary consent will also be a key factor in other sexual offenses. The punishment for sexual harassment will be expanded, and the unauthorized distribution of sexual images will be established as a punishable sexual offense. The minimum punishment for sexual offenses against children will be increased. A minimum age limit of twelve years will be introduced, making sexual acts against younger children punishable as child rape or sexual molestation of a child without considering the child's voluntary participation. (Kiriakos et al., 2020.) This is what will happen if the government program plan is implemented.

Perpetrators of sexual crimes 

Although norms may be determined by social factors, the reasons for adherence to or violation of these norms may be of not only social, but also biological and psychological nature (Jokela, 2006). The concepts describing sexual crimes, as well as the norms and regulations concerning them, are historically constructed, but the violation of norms and laws is strongly linked to individual biological and psychological characteristics (See Kivivuori, 2013). The backgrounds of perpetrators of sexual crimes have similarities that are related to a higher risk of committing sexual crimes. The risk of committing sexual crimes varies, for example, according to indicators of social status and previous criminal history. These observed associations in backgrounds are likely due to undetected biological and psychological factors, based on research literature. At the same time, observed background factors such as unemployment and poverty may still have an independent effect on the risk of committing sexual crimes. 

Individual background factors of sexual offenders in previous research

The backgrounds of sexual offenders vary depending on the type of sexual offense. Antisocial behavior and sexual deviance are the two most significant risk factors for sexual offenses (Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005). With regard to sexual deviance, we first examine paraphilias in general, followed by pedophilia and hebephilia as well as emotional identification with children. We also examine cognitive and psychosocial challenges, which according to literature are associated with both child and adult sexual offenses. The same factors appear to be associated with academic achievement and social status in adulthood.

Antisocial behavior

Some sexual offenders are associated with antisocial behavior. In these cases, sexual offending often appears as part of other criminal behavior as well as a result of other behavioral and personality disorders (see Shaw, 1999; Seto & Lalumière, 2010). Antisocial personality is characterized by impulsivity, substance use, and norm violations (Caspi et al., 1994; Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). Antisocial behavior can be described in psychiatric terms as behavior that repeatedly violates and shows indifference to the rights of others. It is not so much about classifying individuals as antisocial, but about behavior traits, personality traits, and other individual characteristics that are constantly distributed in the population and are related to the likelihood of norm violation. (Jokela 2006.) 

Regarding criminal behavior, antisocial behavior is primarily related to general criminal behavior. Among sexual offenders, rapists are more likely to have contributing antisocial behavior to their actions than those who sexually abuse children (Firestone et al., 2000). However, antisocial traits such as hostility and lifestyle instability are particularly associated with reoffending, even among those who have sexually abused children (Prentky et al., 1995). Antisocial personality does not necessarily lead to crime, but the occurrence of a crime also depends on situational factors. Similarly, a person may commit a sexual offense even if they have no particular inclination towards it. (See Jokela 2006.)


A paraphilic preference is defined as a sexual preference for atypical targets. Such targets may be, for example, certain clothing items or children, or a certain type of activity, such as hurting a sexual partner or voyeurism. When this type of preference is long-lasting, persistent, and necessary to achieve sexual satisfaction, it can be called a paraphilia. (Långström & Seto, 2006) When a paraphilia causes significant distress or impairment in functioning, it can be called a paraphilic disorder (APA 2013).

All sexual preference is classified as normophilic (normal) or paraphilic (abnormal) (APA 2013). The eight most common paraphilic preferences are voyeurism, exhibitionism, frotteurism, masochism, sadism, pedophilia, fetishism, and transvestism. Paraphilic preference has been defined in three forms: a) mental disorder in which paraphilic preference is recurrent, intense, and causes suffering or harm, or leads to illegal activity, b) paraphilia, in which paraphilic preference is recurrent and as strong or stronger than normophilic preferences, but does not cause distress, and c) anomalous, in which paraphilic preference is not continuous and is weaker than normophilic preference (Joyal & Carbentier 2016). However, there is also cultural variation in the perceptions of normal and abnormal sexuality (Bhugra et al. 2010). For some reason, traditional communities exhibit less paraphilic tendencies (Munroe & Gauvain 2001).

Christoph Ahlers and his research team (2011) reported that 64 percent of men experience at least one paraphilic behavior. Paraphilic fantasies (59%) occurred more frequently in men than paraphilic behaviors (44%). The most common fantasies were voyeurism (35%), fetishism (30%), sadism (22%), masochism (16%), and frotteurism (13%). Men reported the least fantasies related to pedophilia (10%), transvestic fetishism (5%), and exhibitionism (4%). Men express more interest in paraphilic behavior than women (measured by fantasizing). However, a minority of those with paraphilic tendencies actually engage in paraphilic behaviors, but a greater proportion of men than women do so. 

Men have more paraphilic tendencies than women, whether measured by sexual preferences, arousal, pornography consumption, or paraphilic fantasies (Bártová, 2020). It is uncertain why men have more paraphilic tendencies than women (Bouchard et al., 2017). According to one explanatory model, men are exposed to prenatal stressors more often than women, which may make them more susceptible to the development of both psychopathologies and paraphilias (Cantor, 2012; Gualtieri & Hicks, 1985).

Psychopathologies, such as anxiety and other mood disorders, are more common among individuals with paraphilic tendencies, suggesting that they may have similar neurodevelopmental or environmental causes (Fedoroff et al., 1999; Kafka & Hennen, 2002). In addition, the correlation between subtle physiological anomalies, such as atypical handedness, and paraphilias also points to this conclusion (Fazio et al., 2013).