Sunday, March 29, 2015

In 500 words (or less): Talking Desistance from Sexual Offending with Danielle Harris, PhD

“Desistance” refers to the slowing down, de-escalation, or stopping of offending. Although the term is relatively new to those who study sexual aggression, the phenomenon has been a staple of criminological research for two centuries (Laws & Ward, 2011). The observation of “natural desistance” or aging out (when one stops committing crime as they get older) is a key component of the criminal career paradigm. Some researchers, in fact, argue that no variable (e.g. race, gender, marital status, employability, educational achievement, parenthood, psychological treatment, or therapy) either combined or alone, accounts for the decline in crime better, or more completely than does age.

One reason why desistance is such a new concept for people who have committed sexual offenses is the enduring assumption of inevitable recidivism (Willis, Levenson & Ward, 2010). There is a persistent belief among many practitioners, policymakers, and members of the public that sex offenders seldom if ever stop and that when they are released from custody, recidivism (or “failure”) is the expected result.

The fact that many men convicted of sexual offenses share more similarities than differences with generic, nonsexual criminals has been the subject of much recent research (Harris, Smallbone, Dennison, & Knight, 2009; Lussier, 2005). Studies consistently find that rapists (more so than child molesters) tend to have persistent and versatile criminal histories and tend not to “specialize” in sexual offending. The empirical reality that sex offenders and non-sex offenders are inherently similar leads to the logical hypothesis that we can also expect them to desist in a similar fashion.

The most well regarded theories of desistance (in addition to “aging out”) emphasize either the pursuit and achievement of informal social controls (i.e. fulfilling employment and a stable relationship) (Sampson & Laub, 1993) or cognitive transformation (Giordano, Cernkovich & Rudolph, 2002) where the individual consciously decides to change their behaviour, begins to see alternatives to a criminal lifestyle, and can rewrite their narrative in such a way that they can leave that life behind, ‘knife off,’ (Maruna, 2001) and become someone new.

Emerging research on sex offender samples (Farmer, Beech & Ward, 2011; Harris, 2014, In Press) so far concludes that, as a population, recidivism rates are fairly low and desistance is the modal outcome, but they appear to be desisting in spite of a range of obstacles that generic offenders do not experience. The realities for a sex offender living in the community post release (especially in the US) severely limit one’s ability to find stable, paid employment and pursue a fulfilling relationship, let alone find safe, affordable accommodation. Furthermore, the debilitating stigma that comes with the label of “sex offender” means that the achievement of a new identity and successful cognitive transformation is especially difficult.

Our mutual objective is the prevention of sexual abuse and the ultimate reintegration of those convicted of such offenses. Our emphasis should therefore be placed on repealing the especially stigmatizing legislation that does little to foster rehabilitation and instead promoting opportunities that encourage identity transformation, the pursuit of informal social controls, and the realisation of good lives.

Danielle Arlanda Harris, PhD


Farmer, M., Beech, A., & Ward, T. (2011). Assessing desistance in child molesters: A qualitative analysis. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1-21.

Giordano, P., Cernkovich, S., & Rudolph, J. (2002). Gender, Crime, and Desistance: Toward a theory of cognitive transformation, American Journal of Sociology, 107(4), 990-1064.

Harris, D. A. (2014). Desistance from sexual offending: Findings from 21 life history narratives. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 29(9) 1554-1578. DOI: 10.1177/0886260513511532

Harris, D. A. (in press) Theories of desistance from sexual offending in Ward, T., Polaschek, D., & Beech, A. (Eds.), Theories of sexual offending, 2nd ed., Sussex: John Wiley & Sons.

Harris, D. A., Smallbone, S., Dennison, S., & Knight, R. A. (2009). Offense specialization and versatility in the criminal histories of adult male sexual offenders referred for civil commitment. Journal of Criminal Justice. 37, 37-44.

Laws, R. & Ward, T. (2011). Desistance from sex offending: Alternatives to throwing away the keys. New York: The Guildford Press

Lussier, P. (2005). The criminal activity of sexual offenders in adulthood: Revisiting the specialization debate. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment 17(3), 269-292.

Maruna, S. (2001). Making good: How ex-convicts reform and rebuild their lives, Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Sampson, R., & Laub, J. (1993). Crime in the making: Pathways and turning points through life. London: Harvard University Press.

Willis, G., Levenson, J. & Ward, T. (2010). Desistance and attitudes towards sex offenders: facilitation or hindrance? Journal of Family Violence, 25, 545-556.

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