Why People Deny Science Part II: and insist on myths we know are not true…

Dear Engaged Bystander:  Myth or Fact?  I always come up against people who convincingly state that the recidivism rates for ALL sex offenders is close to 90%. From all of the research I have seen, this is simply not true. And from the anecdotes I have heard, I also believe that it is just not true. So why do people deny the science about those who sexually abuse? 

In my last blog, I wrote about the research surrounding denial.  So what is the research about sex offenders? Here Is a very short 101. 
Inherent in this myth of such a high recidivism rate is an assumption that we cannot ignore. The myth assumes that all people who sexually abuse are the same. So when we say “sex offender” we often picture the adult living on the edge of town preying on children. Yet we apply the term sex offender to everyone, including children and youth who deserve a very different response.  
Second, the research consistently reports that most adults who sexually abuse and are caught for this crime are at very low risk to abuse again, especially after successfully completing treatment. Nearly all of the research shows that recidivism rates for adult sex offenders who have entered the legal system ranges from 5-27%. For adolescents who have sexually abused, the recidivism rates are even lower. Where does this “over 90%” number come from? Is there any element that aligns with the research? We know that the recidivism rates can be quite high for exhibitionists who typically find it very difficult to control their behaviors and also with those who report they have deviant sexual arousal patterns. 
So why is this very real and yet more complex data, rarely discussed? 
So let’s go back to the myth that ALL sex offenders will reoffend… Why does it stick? One reason is that it does set up the argument for more control (see yesterday’s article about denial and control). If they reoffend, we need to have stronger controls which will then make us safe. If we say that they are not that dangerous, we will lose the funding for stronger controls and then we won’t FEEL as safe. Add to this formula a cultural value and strong emphasis on the individual, we have strong support for this myth. 
What does the science tell us? It tells us that we need to look more closely and see the difference between the violent adult offender and the teenagers who are naked at the beach. While it is easier to dismiss everyone arrested for a sex offense, we cannot afford to do that – especially when they are kids. So we need to give communities the tools to look at this issue so that they feel they are in control of their own communities. And we need to do that in a way that is respectful of their cultural norms and world view. 
I get why this is a huge challenge. However, the bystander model begins to give people the tools to look at those who are at risk to sexually abuse and learn to speak up. And if we give them a sense of control and are respectful of their cultural norms and world view, our programs are more likely to be successful and effective.