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Home arrow Philosophy arrow Sex Crimes and Sex Offenders: Research and Realities
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Cohen and Felson's Routine Activity Theory

Routine activity theory directs attention away from offenders to other parts of a crime, including victims (Cohen & Felson, 1979). According to routine activity theory, three elements must come together for a crime to occur: (1) a motivated offender, (2) a suitable target, and (3) the absence of a capable guardian (anything or anyone whose presence could prevent commission of a crime). People's routine (everyday) activities affect where, when, and how these elements come together, creating situational opportunities for crime. For example, in discussing sex crimes, Felson and Eckert (2015, p. 53) note "how easy it is for stepparents to gain [sexual] access to stepchildren, priests to choirboys, and child care workers to young children. Offenses usually occur in settings with guardians absent and unable to intervene." Children can also be vulnerable to parents or other family members when there is no one to protect them.

Sometimes, commission of a non-sex crime produces an opportunity for a sex crime as when a burglar breaks into a home and finds a woman there alone. He might rape her even though that was not his original intent (Warr, 1988). More will be said about this later.

Routine activity theory emphasizes situational crime prevention to reduce opportunities to commit crimes (Felson & Clarke, 1988). This may involve increasing the effort required to commit a crime (e.g., electronic access to garages), increasing the risk of detection (e.g., surveillance cameras), decreasing the anticipated rewards for crime (e.g., access to women's shelters), and removing excuses for crime (e.g., debunking rape myths).

Two related studies offer evidence for the importance of situational opportunities for sex crimes. In one study, Wortley and Smallbone (2006) examined child sexual abuse by priests in Queensland. Most (70%) of the abuse occurred in the priest's residence. About 20% occurred in the victim's home. Twenty percent of the priests also took children on overnight trips to be alone with them. A related study of child sexual abuse by priests in the U.S., modeled after the Queensland study, found that a relatively high proportion (41%) of it occurred in a parish residence or cleric's home (Terry & Ackerman, 2008). "Living alone in the parish residence or with only one pastor or associate pastor ... allows for the priest to have the opportunity to abuse" (Terry & Ackerman, 2008, p. 651). Approximately 16% of abuse occurred in a church, 12% in the victim's home, 10% in a vacation home, and 10% in school. About 18% of the abusers said it occurred on planned overnight trips with children so the children would be more vulnerable (fewer capable guardians to prevent the abuse).

Planning overnight trips to be alone with children is an example of how sex offenders create opportunities for sex crimes. Sullivan and Beech (2004) studied men who admitted sexually abusing children in the course of their work and found that 15% had chosen the work to provide them with access to children. Another 42% said that access to children was not the only reason for their work, but it was part of the reason. Similarly, other researchers found in a study of a small sample of child sexual abusers in the U.K. that they were drawn to particular educational and voluntary organizations that provided them with easy access to potential victims (Colton, Roberts, & Vanston, 2010).

Earlier it was said that sometimes the commission of a non-sex crime produces an opportunity for a sex crime. A rape might be an "added bonus" for a burglar who breaks into a home for material gain and finds a woman there alone. This is indicative of an opportunistic rapist identified in some typologies (e.g., Knight & Prentky, 1990). A recent study by Pedneault, Beauregard, Harris, and Knight (2015), though not rejecting such a scenario, suggests that this is usually not the case—sexual and "regular" burglars respond to different situational opportunities. Comparing cases of burglaries of residences by sex offenders with regular residential burglaries, they found differences that seemed to disconfirm the "opportunistic sexual burglary" (Pedneault et al., 2015, p. 391). Sexual burglars were more likely to break into occupied residences, which regular burglars tended to avoid. Moreover, sexual burglaries more often occurred at times when people were more likely to be at home—midnight to 3 a.m. Sexual burglars also were more likely than regular burglars to carry weapons, as if prepared to find someone at home. These findings suggest that there may be more to understanding sex crimes and sex offenders than situational opportunities alone. Sexual and regular burglars may have different motivations, even different expertise.

 
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