This essay will compare how classical criminology and positivist criminology contribute to our understanding of sexual offenders. For the purpose of this essay, I will focus on rational choice theory and psychological positivism. Both theories will attempt to explain why sex offenders behave the way they do.
The rational choice theory is the idea that one makes their own decision to commit a crime. Cornish and Clarke came up with six propositions from the rational choice perspective, the first one being ‘Crimes are purposive acts, committed with intention of benefiting the offender’. (Newburn, 2017). It is the idea that every criminal weighs up the risks and benefits of each crime before making the decision on whether to commit the crime. Rational choice is all about the offender making a decision that will benefit themselves, and in the case of sexual offenders it is often for their own sexual pleasure.
Rational Choice theory goes against the common belief that sex offenders are irrational and impulsive and instead argues that their crimes are well thought out and planned. When weighing up the benefits and costs of the crime the offender thinks about how to get away with crime. Where will the crime take place? And where is it where they won’t be seen, caught or interrupted? This is known as ‘Situationally Aware’, (Beauregard & Leclerc, 2007) It is these decisions that have led to social norms like, not going out on your own in the dark and letting people know where you are at all times, because the majority of sexual offences take place in isolated areas and that is not a coincidence, it is a thought out decision by the offender.
In research done by Beauregard et al., they found that there were two main ways in which an offender uses rational choice to commit an offence. The first being is known as ‘Victim Search’ and the second choice being the ‘method of attack’. When looking at method of attack, ‘48% said that they chose to trick their victims under a false pretence in order to gain their trust so they could avoid hurting them physically. Whereas 25% said they used violence because it made it easier to gain control of the victim.’ (Beauregard, et al., 2007). Both of these show a conscious choice made by the offender which will make the action of committing the crime easier to carry out.
However Beauregard’s study does not account for female of juvenile sex offenders, as the participants were majority white men in their early 30s. Research done by Steinberg actually suggest ‘that only at the age of 16 does adolescents cognitive ability for rational thought become comparable to that of an adults’, (Steinberg, 2009) Suggesting that juvenile sex offenders act out of impulse and not from rational choice.
In comparison to this contemporary classism theory, psychological positivism believes that criminals commit crimes because of predetermined causes within themselves that they cannot control. One of the most notable theorists for physiological positivism is Sigmund Freud. Freud developed three concepts to explain how the mind works; One being the superego. The superego is what contains the moral and social standards needed to be able behave in socially acceptable way, it also contains the feelings of guilt and shame. The superego is primarily based off what our parents teach us to be right and wrong. When our superegos don’t develop properly we are left unable to feel sympathy or remorse for our actions, the part of our brain that tell us what is social acceptable doesn’t connect. (Frank & Reppen, 1999)
Freud believed that “Mental health very much depends on the super-ego’s being normally developed”. (Freud, et al., 1978) When the superego dose not develop fully it is known as a weak superego; this could explain why sex offenders despite being told sexual offending is wrong still have impulses to commit these crimes. It’s often people with weak superegos who have narcissistic tendencies like taking advantage of others without feeling empathy and being self-obsessed. This could explain while often in cases around sex assault ‘the offender denies the encounter was forcible because they believe in their mind that the victim wanted and enjoyed it.’ (Groth & Birnbaum, 1979)
Similarly another notable theory is Differential Association, while not strictly psychological positivism it does fit into the learning theories within positivism. Differential association theory argues that all deviant behaviour is learnt in social settings with particular groups (e.g. family). (Benda & DiBlasio, 1994) Although studies show only 30% of sexual offenders have been abused themselves as children (Becker, et al., 1998), it still could be said that it is what that 30% are exposed to as children that shapes their mind to become sex offenders. They are conditioned into thinking that the behaviour is acceptable and normal at a young age. Although it can be conceived, that at an older age, when they can tell right from wrong, that they then wouldn’t act upon what had been ingrained into them. Additionally another flaw with differential association is that it doesn’t explain the origin of the crime; it only explains where one can learn such behaviour. (Newburn, 2017)
Another theory is Operant Learning theory. B.F Skinner coined the term operant behaviour as term to explain how behaviour is guided depending on the consequences, whether that is negative or positive. (Staddon, 2016) With operant behaviour, it is the reinforcement of positive consequences for positive behaviour and negative consequences for negative behaviour, that train the brain into making positive decisions. This explains how offenders who have been caught and punished for their crimes are highly unlikely to reoffended, in fact studies show ‘95% of all sexual offences committed are done by first time offenders’ and ‘as a group sexual offenders, reoffend less than any other criminal offender.’ (Tennen, 2014)
Despite rational choice and psychological positivism coming under two different schools of thought within criminology there is similarities between the two. Both use positive and negative consequences to make their decisions but where rational choice is one of free will, psychological positivism theories are ingrained into the offender before making the decision. (Newburn, 2017)
In conclusion, both theories have apt ways for helping us understand sexual offenders. Rational choice helps us understand the decisions that all sexual offenders make and how they come to those decisions, whereas psychological positivism explains where the need to offend comes form. One could posit that neither theory has better explanation for sexual offenders and that depending on the case and offender both theories together could explain their behaviour.