Creating a psychologically comfortable position: The link between empathy and cognitions in sex offenders

Reference: Brown, S. J., Walker, K., Gannon, T. A., & Keown, K. (2012).  Creating a psychologically comfortable position: The link between empathy and cognitions in sex offenders.  Journal of Sexual Aggression.


The purpose of this study was to explore the links between empathy and cognitions in child sex offenders.  The results are based on the analysis of 50 interview transcripts with male child sex offenders currently in prison in New Zealand.

–          The main finding in this study is that empathetic responding in child sex offenders is a process that is avoided or managed by the offender creating ‘psychologically comfortable positions’.  This enables them to offend and continue offending.

–          There were five ways in which the offenders created these psychologically comfortable positions: 1) complete denial; 2) partial denial; 3) justifications: beliefs and attitudes to support offending behaviour (including sex is love, normalisation of the situation, viewing  the child as an adult and/or offloading responsibility to the child); 4) Excuses: ignoring the perspective of others (including offender as a victim and/or external locus of control); 5) Taking responsibility for own actions (including negative emotional impact and/or acknowledging self at fault).

–          The findings of this study suggest that empathy is a controllable process and is qualitatively variable as it is dependent on context, situation and time.


This study suggests that cognitive strategies adopted by child sex offenders lie on a variable continuum and allow the avoidance or management of empathy to enable offending.  This is consistent with existing literature surrounding cognitive distortions and abuse supportive thinking in sex offenders.


Practitioner Review: The victims and juvenile perpetrators of child sexual abuse – assessment and intervention

Reference:  Vizard, E. (2013).  Practitioner review: the victims and juvenile perpetrators of child sexual abuse – assessment and intervention. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54, 503-515.


This paper examines research on the characteristics of child victims and perpetrators of child sexual abuse.

–          Characteristics associated with victims of child sexual abuse include past victimisation, mental health problems (including depression, anxiety, psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder), guilt, fear, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, acting out and inappropriate sexual knowledge, interest and acting.

–          Characteristics associated with juvenile perpetrators are similar to those of victims, particularly relating to past victimisation.  Generally speaking, juvenile perpetrators are likely to have grown up in an environment characterised by a matrix of adverse developmental, trauma-genic and family factors, resulting in these individuals being at greater risk of developing mental health issues and personality disorders.

–          Evidence does not support a simple link between being abused and becoming a perpetrator.  However, it is possible that experiences of physical violence and breaching of personal boundaries may contribute to a young person allowing themselves to inflict sexual harm on another.

–          The author identifies that full, multidisciplinary and developmentally informed clinical assessments of victims and juvenile perpetrators of child sexual abuse will always be required.


This paper also reviews several clinical therapies (including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Dynamic Therapy and Multi-systemic Therapy) and their outcomes, thus will be particularly useful for practitioners who work therapeutically with victims and juvenile perpetrators of child sexual abuse.


Towards common framework for assessing the activity and associations of groups who sexually abuse children.

Reference: Cockbain, E., Brayley, H., & Sullivan, J. (2013). Journal of Sexual Aggression,


This study involved in-depth Thematic Analysis of behavioural interviews with three convicted child sex offenders who offended as part of a group.

–          Each offender was involved in multiple groups, often at the same time.  These groups varied considerably in duration.  This finding emphasises the multiplicity, fluidity and dynamism of group affiliations in child sexual abuse.

–          Four key themes were identified: 1) pathways to group involvement (including introduction, recruitment, opportunity creation and chance/pre-existing social networks); 2) group identity (including weakly-defined group or strongly-defined group);  3) resources derived from group involvement (including access to children, access to abuse locations, access to indecent images, access to specialist skills and access psychological rewards); 4) evolution of the group (including expansion, depletion, schism, cessation and merger).

–          This study supports the notion that a child sex offending group is a social situation in itself which directly influences the offending behaviour of its members.



Given the small sample size of this study, results may not be applicable to all child sex offenders; however the identified themes provide the foundations of a general framework for assessing groups of child sex offenders and the impact on offending.

Other courses available