Recidivism Among Perpetrators of Sexual Assault

Authors: Monique Tardif, Ph.D., Professor, Université du Québec à Montréal, and
Jo-Annie Spearson-Goulet, M.A., Ph.D. student in Psychology, Université du Québec à Montréal


  • When a person commits a new sexual offence, regardless of whether the offence is prosecuted in court or not, this can be considered recidivism.
  • Different recidivism rates can be generated in studies depending on whether a broad or a narrow definition of recidivism is used.
  • Many parameters can be employed to define recidivism by perpetrators of sexual assault.
  • The risk of reoffending is not the same for all perpetrators.
  • Studies show that treatment may lower the risk of reoffending among perpetrators.

1) What does “recidivism by perpetrators of sexual assault” mean?

  • Many parameters can be employed to define recidivism by perpetrators of sexual assault and they have to be clear if they are to be used to determine whether recidivism has actually occurred and what kind of offence has been committed. This notion is crucial to correctly interpreting statistical data on recidivism. Therefore, it is always important to consider the exact definition associated with a statistic before attempting to compare or interpret the statistic.
  • In most studies, researchers establish several parameters for determining the types of recidivism that have occurred and the rate for each type, namely, general recidivism (offences of any type), sexual recidivism, violent recidivism, and violent/sexual recidivism (combined rate). Some studies consider only sexual offences that have led to a conviction, while others consider all offences, whether they have been prosecuted in court or not.
  • The definition of recidivism can be based on several behavioural criteria.1.

    Several behaviours can be considered recidivism, especially if they result in a person being convicted of another assault of the same type that he or she has already committed, or of another type of sexual assault, a violent offence or any other type of offence.

    • From a legal standpoint, recidivism is considered to occur when an individual commits an offence of the same type that he or she committed in the past. The criterion is legal: any new offence recorded in police or court records is considered recidivism.
    • A broad definition of recidivism may be based on behavioural criteria, regardless of the legal context. Researchers may thus consider that recidivism has taken place when a perpetrator re-engages in sexually aggressive behaviour, whether the behaviour is prosecuted in court or not. Researchers may also include non-sexual behaviour. For example, intimate partner violence might be considered recidivism when it is committed by a perpetrator of sexual assault who previously committed incest.

It is always important to consider the exact definition associated with a statistic concerning recidivism by perpetrators of sexual assault before attempting to compare or interpret the statistic.

  • A narrow definition of recidivism is based on specific behavioural criteria. In the case of a person who has committed a sexual offence, regardless of whether the offence was prosecuted in court or not, the person can be considered to have re-offended if he or she commits any new offence of a sexual nature or any violent offence connected to the original crime. The new offence becomes recidivism if certain sexual elements are present when the crime is committed. For example, a person who has sexually assaulted a woman and who, while committing another crime, physically assaults a woman who has rejected his advances, will be deemed a repeat offender. This is because the crimes that he has committed are similar in terms of the type of victim targeted and the fact that the aggressive behaviour was directed toward a woman.
  • In short, several behaviours can be considered recidivism, particularly if they lead to a new conviction for sexual assault of the same type committed in the past (e.g. rape of a woman), or to a new conviction for sexual assault of a different type (e.g. sexual touching/exhibitionism), a violent crime (e.g. murder/physical assault) or any other type of crime (e.g. theft, fraud).1,2.
  • Grey zones remain, however. For example, if aggressive behaviour is committed against the same person for a continuous two-year period (e.g. when the person is between the ages of 6 and 8), is the perpetrator considered to be a repeat offender? Within the meaning of the law, the answer is “no”. On the other hand, if the same victim was sexually abused during two different periods (e.g. when the person was 6 years old and when he or she was 8), the perpetrator is considered to be a repeat offender within the meaning of the law. From a clinical standpoint, the commission of sexual assault over a long period, regardless of whether one or more victims are involved, reflects a form of sexual fixation. The term “fixation” refers to the persistence of the behaviour, the associated psychological processes (e.g. deviant sexual fantasies) and the higher risk of reoffending.

2) How prevalent is recidivism among perpetrators of sexual assault?

Things to consider in interpreting recidivism rates

  • Given that the definitions used to study the risk of reoffending lead to different recidivism rates, it is important to know what definition of recidivism a researcher has used. Indeed, the different recidivism rates obtained in the various studies on this subject may simply be attributable to the choice of a broad versus a narrow definition of recidivism.
  • In addition, it is important to bear in mind that a large number of offences are not reported to the police and are thus not taken into account in official statistics. Therefore, the recidivism rates reported in studies are always lower than the actual rates.
  • The length of the follow-up period used in a study also leads to differences in recidivism rates. A follow-up period corresponds to the time between a person’s release from a prison sentence and the time when a researcher checks to see if the person has reoffended. The length of the follow-up period must not include the time when it was impossible for the perpetrator to reoffend (e.g. while he or she was in prison or hospitalized in a secure custody facility). In absolute terms, the longer the follow-up period, the greater will be the likelihood that a person will commit another crime.

Recidivism rates for perpetrators of sexual assault

  • According to a meta-analysis of 10 studies3 involving 4 724 perpetrators of sexual assault, the majority of the perpetrators did not reoffend. Another meta-analysis4 of data from 79 North American, European and Asian studies reported the following recidivism rates: 12.4% for sexual recidivism (72 studies), 17.5% for violent recidivism (sexual and non-sexual violence) (36 studies) and 30.1% for general recidivism (40 studies). The average follow-up period was 68 months. Despite the rigorous methodology used in this meta-analysis, its findings underestimate the actual recidivism rates since the total number of offences committed during the study period was not known.
  • In a study by Harris and Hanson (2004),3 overall estimates for sexual recidivism rates increased over time: 14% after five years, 20% after 10 years and 24% after 15 years, according to official data. There was no significant difference between the rates for rapists and those for child sexual abusers.
  • However, after 15 years, the recidivism rate for extrafamilial boy-victim sexual abusers was significantly higher than it was for perpetrators of incest (35% compared to 13%). The results of this study also showed that the likelihood of someone reoffending decreases as the offence-free period increases. Recent research has reconfirmed that the recidivism risk is not the same for all types of sex offenders.5

What are the risk factors associated with recidivism?

Numerous studies on recidivism among perpetrators of sexual assault have identified two types of risk factors:

  1. static factors, which are connected to a perpetrator’s history (e.g. criminal record, sexual victimization);6
  2. dynamic factors, which are connected to aspects of everyday life or the effects of treatment that increase or reduce the risk of reoffending; for example, alcohol dependence and an emotional crisis following a separation are factors that increase the risk, while successful reintegration into the community reduces it.7

Obviously, a stable and persistent factor like alcoholism usually requires fairly lengthy treatment to reduce the risk of reoffending.

Several authors5 have also identified psychological factors that have gained sufficient empirical validation to be considered recidivism risk factors.

Psychological factors associated with a higher risk of recidivism among perpetrators of sexual assault
Intensity of sexual preoccupations Sexual preference for prepubescent or pubescent children
Sexualized violence Presence of multiple paraphilias (e.g. voyeurism, fetishism)
Attitudes supportive of sexual assault Emotional congruence with children
Lack of emotional intimacy with adults Manifestations of impulsiveness
Difficulty resolving problems Opposition to rules and legal supervision
Negative social influences  

3) How effective are treatments to prevent recidivism?

  • Treatment is increasingly common for sex offenders considered to be at high risk of reoffending, and it should reduce the recidivism rate.7
  • Hanson et al. (2002)8 have pointed out that the most effective treatments are associated with a 17% to 10% reduction in recidivism rates after a follow-up period of about five years.
  • A recent study9 comparing short-term recidivism rates for 413 perpetrators of sexual assault who had completed similar treatment programs (programs of roughly 200 hours for high-risk offenders and 100 hours for low-risk offenders) found that, overall, 12% of the perpetrators had reoffended within two to four years and that most of the offences were of a sexual nature. According to the researchers, perpetrators considered to be “treatment responders” reoffended in much smaller numbers than those who were considered to be “treatment non-responders” (9% compared to 15%).

4) Conclusion

  • A better understanding of recidivism risk factors improves the assessment of perpetrators of sexual assault with a view to determining legal supervision conditions (e.g. length of sentences, follow-up conditions) and appropriate treatment methods.
  • It is critical to strive to reduce risk factors in applying treatments. However, it should be noted that recent interventions have also focused on other “protective factors” specifically associated with non-recidivism.10 It should thus be possible to further refine recidivism risk assessments, better plan therapeutic interventions and improve the effectiveness of treatments.
  • In terms of broader prevention, efforts should be made to teach the family and friends of perpetrators of sexual assault the key factors that need to be monitored when an offender is serving a sentence in the community. This will enable them to be more vigilant and to report any increase in the risk of reoffending, to ask for help and to apply the protective measures they have been taught in order to prevent themselves or other people from becoming a victim of a new offence on the part of the offender.

Last update: November 2012


  1. Proulx, J. and Lussier, P. (2001). La prédiction de la récidive chez les agresseurs sexuels. Criminologie, 34: 9–30.
  2. Proulx, J., Tardif, M., Lamoureux, B. and Lussier, P. (2000). How does recidivism risk assessment predict survival? In D.R. Laws, S.M. Hudson and T. Ward, eds., Remaking Relapse Prevention with Sex Offenders: A sourcebook (pp. 466-484). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
  3. Harris, A.J.R. and Hanson, R.K. (2004). Sex Offender Recidivism: A Simple Question (User Report 2004-03), Ottawa, Ontario: Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada.
  4. Hanson, R.K. and Morton-Bourgon, K.E. (2007). The Accuracy of Recidivism Risk Assessments for Sexual Offenders: A Meta-Analysis (User Report, Cat. No.: PS4-36/2007E). Ottawa, Ontario: Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada. ISBN No.: 978-0-662-45166-2
  5. Mann, R.E., Hanson, R.K. and Thornton, D. (2010). Assessing risk for sexual recidivism: Some proposals on the nature of psychologically meaningful risk factors. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 22(2): 191–217.
  6. Hanson, R.K. and Morton-Bourgon, K.E. (2004). Predictors of Sexual Recidivism: An Updated Meta-Analysis. (User Report 2004-02). Ottawa, Ontario: Public Works and Government Services Canada.
  7. Hanson, R.K. and Harris, A. (2000). Where should we intervene? Dynamic predictors of sexual offense recidivism. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 27:6-35.
  8. Hanson, R.K., Gordon, A., Harris, A., Marques, J.K., Murphy, W., Quinsey, V. and Seto, M. (2002). The 2001 ATSA report on the effectiveness of treatment for sexual offenders. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 14(2): 169-194.
  9. Beech, A.R., Mandeville-Norden, R. and Goodwill, A. (2012). Comparing recidivism rates of treatment responders/nonresponders in a sample of 413 child molesters who had completed community-based sex offender treatment in the United Kingdom, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 56(1): 29–49.
  10. Vries Robbé, M. de, Vogel, V. de and Spa, E. de (2011). Protective factors for violence risk in forensic psychiatric patients. A retrospective validation study of the SAPROF. International Journal of Forensic Mental Health, 10(3): 178-186.