Book Review:
Theories of Sex Offending

Tony Ward, Devon L.L. Polaschek, and Anthony R. Beech
Wiley Series in Forensic Clinical Psychology
373 pages, $60.00 (paperback)

Review by David Prescott, Forum Editor
Appeared in The ATSA Forum Newsletter, Summer 2006

Since his 1996 critical analysis of the Relapse Prevention model with the late Stephen Hudson, Tony Ward has continued to observe and comment upon the state of understanding in our field (See his article with Anthony Beech, this issue). More recently, he and a number of colleagues have actively developed their ideas, including within Laws, Hudson, & Ward’s 2000 Remaking Relapse Prevention with Sex Offenders: A Sourcebook and Ward, Laws, & Hudson’s 2003 Sexual Deviance: Issues and Controversies. Besides turning a critical eye towards Relapse Prevention (RP), Ward and his colleagues have proposed and developed the Good Lives model of treatment, and the Self-Regulation model of the offense and relapse process, which itself is the title of a 2004 effort with James Bickley, Stephen Webster, Dawn Fisher, Anthony Beech, and Hilary Eldridge.

Theories of Sexual Offending expands on many of the ideas outlined in earlier works; what were sections are now chapters examining each area with greater depth and breadth. The authors further develop their thoughts in critiques on multi-factorial etiological theories such as those proposed by Finkelhor, Marshall and Barbaree, Ward and Siegert, and Hall and Hirschman. The authors also review current evolutionary theory as it pertains to sexual offending. Each critique unfolds in a respectful yet incisive manner, acknowledging the contribution of theories to the times in which they appeared. Those professionals who have followed the development of the Self-Management and Good Lives models will find further refinement of these ideas and a deeper review of past and current ideas.

Perhaps anticipating questions on their methods, the authors first discuss a range of scientific perspectives (e.g., the often different approaches of theoreticians and experimental scientists) in order to explain their approach, define many of their terms, and differentiate areas the areas they explore (e.g., models versus theories). They next define the criteria by which they assess numerous theories of sex offending. These include predictive accuracy/empirical adequacy, internal coherence, external consistency, unifying power, fertility for further inquiry, simplicity, and explanatory depth.

The authors next distinguish between level I (multi-factorial), Level II (single factor) and Level III (micro-level or offense process) theories. Beyond the multi-factorial theories mentioned above, the authors present thoughtful and informative reviews of theories of cognitive distortions, victim empathy, deviant sexual preferences, feminist perspectives on child sexual abuse, intimacy deficits, and risk. The review of the latter is particularly noteworthy for the authors’ advocacy of understanding stable and acute risk factors in the context of traits and states. They also review descriptive models such as RP and the Good Lives model, which have been the source of much discussion in the field (and among ATSA members) in recent years. While acknowledging that the Self-Regulation model is newer and will likely need further refinement, the authors’ chief criticism of the RP model is that it lacks both scope and theoretical coherence.

Ward and his colleagues next review various offense-process models such as those offered by Polascheck, Ward et al, Carich, Freeman-Longo, Salter, and others, concluding that although they can have an important role in intervention, each would benefit from placing a greater emphasis on stable dynamic factors for purposes of long-term change. They further note that an offender’s underlying predisposition to abuse is “only obliquely reflected in the process itself” (p. 260).

Further reviews are made of the risk-need model, classification, the DSM-IV, actuarial approaches, strength-based approaches, and theories of treatment responsivity and readiness. Each in its turn receives a thorough review, with some conclusions more obvious (e.g., current actuarial scales do little to guide treatment) than others (e.g., understanding offender readiness can add value to current perspectives on the responsivity principle).

The authors conclude this volume with the beginnings of a unified theory of sexual offending, which contains genetic and environmental factors. They argue that developmental resources – including genetic/evolutionary resources, social/cultural resources, and the life circumstances of the individual – are the substrate of an individual’s functioning. Within this framework, a perception and memory system can form the foundation of schemas and cognitive distortions. The authors further advocate understanding cultural, social, and personal circumstances in an ecological sense, consisting of habitat (where the individual resides) and niche (the individual’s role[s] within the ecological community). Throughout an individual’s development, the authors hypothesize that the above factors interact, resulting in psychological functioning that contains a motivational/emotional system, perception and memory, and action selection systems. The section contains numerous references to earlier chapters to support the authors’ assertions.

Although not directly intended to guide clinical practice as a set of “do’s and don’ts,” each chapter contains a section on implications for clinical practice. A key result is that practitioners will have an exhaustive review enabling them to reconsider many of the field’s older and preconceived notions. As they develop their arguments, the authors provide clearer definitions of terms (e.g., sexual scripts) and explain their ideas in a more accessible fashion than in their earlier works. Their emphasis on language, including re-casting life circumstances in a helpful framework of ecology, and situating stable and acute factors into a context of traits and states may be useful to professionals attempting to come to terms with individuals.

As readers may have gathered, this is a dense but worthwhile book. Despite the complexities and scope of the undertaking, the authors’ style is concise, diligent, and respectful of those who have developed theories before them. The chapters have a common format, adding a layer of predictability less apparent in their earlier sourcebooks. It provides an exhaustive overview of much of our fields history.

Newcomers to the work of Ward, Polascheck, and Beech will find no shortage of knowledge and information, much of it challenging. Those familiar with the authors will find new areas of exploration and can see how they have developed their lines of reasoning. Of course, this book is by no means the final word on any of the theories reviewed. Many have reviewed portions the same literature and come to different conclusions, calling to mind the adage that “we all live under the same sky but see different horizons.” Some will question whether the authors are over-fitting their perspectives on other people’s data, while others will find numerous avenues for further research and interpretation. What sets the work of these authors apart, however, is the enormity of the undertaking and its potential to shape how front-line professionals view this most perplexing and diverse population.