In the early 1980s, a therapist named Robert Longo was treating adolescent boys who had committed sex offenses. Their offenses ranged from fondling girls a few years younger than they were to outright rape of young children. As part of their treatment, the boys had to keep journals — which Longo read — in which they detailed their sexual fantasies and logged how frequently they masturbated to those fantasies. They created “relapse-prevention plans,” based on the idea that sex-offending is like an addiction and that teenagers need to be watchful of any “triggers” (pornography, anger) that might initiate their “cycle” of reoffending. And at the beginning of each group session, the boys introduced themselves much as an alcoholic begins an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: “I’m Brian, and I’m a sex offender. I sexually offended against a 10-year-old boy; I made him lick my penis three times.”
Sex-offender therapy for juveniles was a new field in the 1980s, and Longo, like other therapists, was basing his practices on what he knew: the adult sex-offender-treatment models. “It’s where the literature was,” Longo, a founder of the international Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, told me not long ago. “It’s what we’d been doing.”
As it turns out, he went on to say, “much of it was wrong.” There is no proof that what Longo calls the “trickle-down phenomenon” of using adult sex-offender treatments on juveniles is effective. Adult models, he notes, don’t account for adolescent development and how family and environment affect children’s behavior. Also, research over the past decade has shown that juveniles who commit sex offenses are in several ways very different from adult sex offenders. As one expert put it, “Kids are not short adults.”
That’s not to say that juvenile sexual offenses aren’t a serious problem. Juveniles account for about one-quarter of the sex offenses in the U.S. Though forcible rapes, the most serious of juvenile sex offenses, have declined since 1997, court cases for other juvenile sex offenses have risen. David Finkelhor, the director of Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, and others argue, however, that those statistics largely reflect increased reporting of juvenile sex offenses and adjudications of less serious offenses. “We are paying attention to inappropriate sexual behavior that juveniles have engaged in for generations,” he said.
New York Times Magazine