Understanding Desistance from Sexual Offending: A Thematic Review of Research Findings


Following up from the article on the same topic in the last TLP edition, Farmer, Mark, McAlinden, A.M., & Maruna, S., “Understanding Desistance from Sexual Offending: A Thematic Review of research Findings,” 62(4) Probation Journals 320-35 (2015), provides these confirmatory, insightful excerpts:


“There is no longer any debate in the field… that criminality is a pattern of behavior from which most individuals eventually desist. For non-sexual offenders this is illustrated by the ‘age/crime curve’ (e.g., Farrington, 1986; Sampson and Laub, 2003), which broadly demonstrates that crime is mainly committed by people in their teens and twenties, after which offendings rates decrease with age.

Desistance from Sexual Offending

A similar phenomenon appears to be the case for sexual offenders as well, despite widespread beliefs about the nature of sexual offending. Although the age-sex crime curve peaks later and tails off less dramatically than the age-crime curve for non-sexual crime, sex offending also decreases with age, contradicting the perception that sex offenders’ risk levels are high, stable, and linear (Lussier et al., 2010). Indeed numerous studies now show that recidivism rates amongst sexual offenders are low (e.g., Kruttschnitt et al… 2000; Harris and Hanson, 2004; Thornton, 2017; Barnett et al., 2010), in fact lower than recidivism rates for other forms of non-sexual crime. Most people who have committed sexual offenses, therefore, appear to desist furthfrom sexual offending.

Despite the consistent finding in the literature, there has been little published research into how and why people desist from sexual crime. Kruttschnitt et al. (2000) conducted a retrospective study of 556 sexual offenders, looking at whether informal social controls, specifically employment and marriage, predicted desistance, and whether such bonds are conditioned by formal social controls such as probation and treatment. They found that job stability significantly reduced the probability of reoffending, but marital status had no significant effect…

More recently, Harris (2014) conducted a qualitative investigation into desistance amongst a group of 21 sexual offenders deemed to be desisting from crime. Harris found evidence that a small number (n=3) had simply aged out of crime, a process she referred to as ‘natural desistance.’ This group of individuals had considerable criminal histories, including sexual offending and other types of offending. The biggest group of desisting offenders (n-18), however, attributed their desistance to cognitive transformations, ranging from a simple recognition that the offender had caused harm, through to a full creation of new, non-offending identity, combined in some cases with a desire to assist others to avoid crime.


In our own research, we have sought to explore both the structural and the cognitive changes associated with desistance from sexual offending against children. For the purposes of this research, this is defined as those who have at least one conviction for sexual offenses against children. The sample group is described in more detail below; it includes offences ranging from rape and indecent assault of minors to indecent exposure and engaging in sexual activity in the presence of a child. Individuals convicted of sexual assaults with adult victims were not included in the research as the literature considers these two types of sexual offending to be qualitatively different enough as to require separate treatment (see e.g., Blumenthal et al., 1999; Hanson, 2001). A sample of 32 individuals were interviewed, all of whom had in the past been convicted of such offences. Our goal was to better understand how they were able to desist from reoffending, exploring both the social context of their post0conviction lives and, in particular, their cognitive framing of this context.

…[A]s previous research (e.g. Hanson et al, 2014) has shown that sexual recidivism rates approximately halve after 5 years crime free in the community, and halve again after 10 years…

A Re-Appraisal of the Pros and Cons of Offending

Participants said that in the early stages of desistance they made a rational choice about their behavior based on a growing realization of the disadvantages of persistence. For some, this arose from concerns about the likelihood of being caught, for others it was related to a growing realization of the harm they were causing. Simplistic versions of rational choice theory as an explanation for crime and desistance have been criticized (e.g., Farrall, et al. 2014) for assuming that people can simply decide to stop crime and then stop, without any further process taking place. However, the desisting narrators’ accounts in this research shared the considerable themes with these rational choice accounts. Indeed, such a theme is largely consistent with the other aspects of the distance narratives we hears. For example, when motivation is situational, when offending is not part of a general antisocial lifestyle, and when the stakes and consequences for detention are high, then a rational choice to desist may indeed carry much more weight than in other circumstances.

This self-narrative is consistent with Paternoster and Bushway’s (2009) distinction between an individual’s ‘working identity’ as a person who will commit criminal acts, and their ;future possible self’. In this model, the start of the desistance process occurs when the identity of offender becomes less satisfying and fears of a bleak and unsatisfying future arise. Thus it is a rational choice, of sorts, when the individual is forced to contemplate between two, possible futures: that of the positive possible self and that of the feared possible self (Paternoster and Bushway, 2009: 1103). Where our participants; self-narratives differed from our Paternoster and Bushway’s theory is in the degree of change required. Paternoster and Bushway argue in favour of substantial cognitive change preceding desistance. In the current research study interviewees said they reverted to a previous, non-offending and conventional lifestyle.

Moreover, detection and conviction appear to have carried with them a significant deterrent effect, sufficient to start the process of cognitive transformation necessary for desistance. Interviewees repeatedly said that they were “shocked” into changing not just their behaviors but also their views about the abuse they were perpetrating and precipitated an end to any consideration of further abuse. A number of participants vividly described their shock at being arrested. Several said that arrest acted as a turning point after which they ceased offending.


The narratives of desisting offenders were also pro-rehabilitation. Desisting offenders were likely to describe how they took advantage of rehabilitative efforts provided for them. This manifested itself in several subthemes in the research, and is probably related to a willingness to change and ability to make use of formal ;turning points; provided by the criminal justice system(see Giordano et al,. 2002). Many of the desisting group talked generally about the usefulness of probation; in particular they seems appreciative of probation officers who were concerned about them but firm and realistic. Indeed, the personal characteristics of the probation officer seemed to be important unsurprisingly those who showed a personal interest in the individual were perceived as particularly helpful. Others talked in a positive way about what they had learned in prison. Some participants described using prison as a ‘college’ to obtain qualifications and knowledge they would not otherwise have had access to. This can be seen as a form of a ‘redemption script’ (maruna 2001) in which the individual seeks to make the most oa a bad situation, cognitively turning it to their advantage.

Moany of the desisting group talked about the usefulness of sex offender treatment programmes, sometimes provided in prison but mostly the men referred to those provided by probation. This may have been because the programmes provided by probation were more recent, and so easier to bring to mind, or it may be a reflection of the relative utility of community programmes compared to those run in prisons. They particularly appreciated the skills they learned from such programmes. One man who had undertaken his programme some time ago was nevertheless able to recall the tactics he had learned on the course. However, others talked about learning or being reminded of values, and understanding the perspective of other people. A small number of the group reported disliking having to attend sex offender programmes, one stating he found hearing other men talk about their crimes to be “repulsive”.

It is of note that participants talked, on the whole, of the advantages of probation at this stage. In some ways this appears at odds with the findings of Farrall et al. (2014). In their study, participants were not able to identify the usefulness of probation until some years after their initial desistance. Farrall et al. attribute this to a readiness to be receptive to the advice of probation officers – some individuals, who are not ready to receive this advice, nevertheless mentally ‘store’ such advice until they are more receptive to change. For our group, the stakes are associated with reoffending were particularly high, and to reoffend would be contrary to the positive self-image they were trying to develop and maintain. It could be that the shock associated with conviction described above left to a desire to conform to rehabilitation efforts that were offered to the individuals.  

Planning for the Future

One feature of the desisting sexual offenders; stories was that they nearly all contained substantial evidence that the participant had a clear sense of their future lives, where they wanted to be and what they wanted to do. In many cases, these aspirations and the expression of tangible goals related to finding employment or maintaining existing or building new relationships. In a way there was a sense of optimism similar to that of Maruna;s (2001) desisting offenders. Although optimistic, most of the narratives contained plans for the future that were reasonably achievable and consistent with the individuals abilities and social capital. There was a sense of hope for the future that seemed to be related to desistance. Further support for this idea that planning contributes to desistance comes from the work of Willis and Grace (2009), who found worse recidivism outcomes for a group of prison leavers who did not have firm plans for the future, compared to those who did. This suggests that the ability to form plans and maintain optimism is an important part of desisting from sexual crime.

The Importance of Work

Research into desistance from non-sexual offending has consistently pointed to the importance of work in the initial stages of desistance (Farrington et al., 1986; Sampson and Laub, 1993; May, 1999). Work is said to help provide meaning to individual lives and give individuals “Something to lose” by getting in trouble with the law again. Employment also involves new forms of new routine activities, informal social controls, social supports and the possibility of meeting role models who are not involved in crime.

Indeed, employment and careers did play a highly important role in the narratives of the desisting men in this study (and the potentially active ones as well). Almost all of them described lives that revolved around work of various forms. Some of them had built substantial careers from which they gained considerable satisfaction and financial gain. Others had a series of jobs, and seemed to recover from redundancy easily. In all cases, though, work seemed to be of primary importance to the men in the sample. Indeed, when asked to describe their lives, many of the group described little more than their work ives, as though they hardly existed outside of their work.

Overall most of the desisting group related employment to happiness and life satisfaction – they pointed to job satisfaction and occupying their time as key factors in this sense of satisfaction, but others also mentioned the social aspects of work and opportunities for advancement. One common theme was the importance of keeping busy, and the relationship between this and the earlier themes relating to the situational nature of the sexual offending, in that keeping oneself busy could be an important part of desistance for some. This seemed to be particularly the case for men who had offended over the internet. These men were aware that if they were sitting at home doing nothing there would be temptation to access the internet in unhelpful ways.

Most of the desisting men in the study, therefore, wished to be seen as active people, not willing to waste their lives, and wanting to engage in a lifetime of work. Surprisingly, though, gaining employment did not seem to be related to desistance from crime ina  direct way for most of the group. First, most of them had careers prior to and during their sexual offending. Second, several described desisting from further criminal activity despite losing their job as part of their convictions. Consistent with the literature( Brown et al. 2007), a number of participants reported the difficulties they had in obtaining work following their conviction. Some of them reported how employers would reject them when they learned of their conviction, and some had a resigned helplessness that they would never work again. However, this did not seem to affect the fact that they were desisting, and some men described quite innovative forms of self-employment they had devised in order to compensate for not being able to obtain formal work. Third and most importantly, comparison group (non-desisting) interviewees also described considerable attachment to employment in their self-understandings. Therefore as central as work was in their personal narratives, it is not clear that work played a necessary and sufficient role in the explanation of their ability to desist from crime.

The Role of Relationships

In the same way that employment has been found to be significant in promoting desistance from non-sexual crime, so have relationships with significant others ( e.g., Laub et al., 2998; Maruna, 2001). The factors underlying the importance of relationships for non-sexual offenders are thought to be similar to those described above for work – relationships give people a sense of meaning in their lives, and an emotional investment that they do not wish to lose. New relationships can disrupt routine activities and provide a form of informal control (as in “if you do that again, I’ll leave”).

It is not surprising that relationships featured heavily in the narrative accounts of the men in the study. Mos of the desisting group described lengthy relationship histories, which clearly had great significance for them and their life stories. However, the relevance of these relationship histories for distance was by no means clear, and was certainly not as clear-cut as the linear relationships between forming a relationship and desisting as suggested by some of the research into non-sexual crime. The preponderance of desistance research suggests that forming new and meaningful relationships can be the start of the desistance process, giving individuals the social capital they need to begin a crime free life. This did not seem to be the case for the desisting offenders in this study. Their offences were committed alone, not as part of organized crime involving others, therefore the idea that severing links with criminogenic relationships assisted desistance was not relevant. Furthermore, the crime and subsequent detection for some men resulted in the ending of relationships that otherwise might have acted as a protective factor. Overall many of the men in the desisting group had lengthy relationship histories but also seemed to have experiences relationship breakdown on at least one, and sometimes numerous occasions. On the other hand, where relationships had continued (that is, where significant others had “stuck by them”), this seemed to have been of great importance to the individual. Several participants were concerned with the impact of their offending, and the stigma associated with it, on their family, principally their wife or partner. This apparent concern with the well-being and reactions of intimates may lend tentative support to Braithwaite’s (1989) “reintegrative shaming” theory which emphasizes the role of “significant others” in the process of reintegration and desistance. This is an area we intend to explore further.


…These emerging findings have a number of potential implications for current frameworks around sex offender risk assessment, management and treatment, and in particular for how professionals perceive of and respond to “risks” posed by sex offenders. While the preponderance of current work has centered on “risk” factors and examining why sex offenders re-offend, this study has inverted the risk paradigm by seeking to draw out why is it that they don’t. As noted at the outset of the paper, the relevance of these research findings on desistance from sexual crime relate to the determination of the best and most effective means of working with people convicted of sexual offenses. …[T]he desisting narratives in this study which appear to be shaped by conventional lifestyles and planning for the future tend to support a move away from confessional, backward-looking approaches towards future-focused therapeutic interventions with sex offenders with an emphasis on optimism and hope. “


Originally appeared in “The Legal Pad” Volume 2, Issue 10 (October 20th, 2018) by Cyrus P. Gladden Ⅱ



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