Problems with Considering Sexual “Deviance” To Be

A "Risk Factor" for Committing Sexually Violent Acts

by John Tennison, MD           October 12, 2011


Of all the terms used in the jargon associated with research on risk factors for committing sexually violent acts, “Deviance” is probably the most inconsistently defined.  I am not the first to recognize this inconsistency.  For example, in their 2009 Oxford University Press text on evaluating Sexually Violent Predators, Witt and Conroy write on page on page 141:


Deviant sexual interests.  This construct has been criticized as being imprecisely defined.  In research studies, it usually refers to sexual interest in children or in torturing or humiliating one’s victim.”


            Other terms which are frequently used synonymously with “Deviance” are “Deviancy,” “Deviant Sexual Preferences,” “Deviant Sexual Interests,” “Deviate Sexual Preferences,” and “Deviate Sexual Interests.”  This paper will treat these terms as being synonymous with each other.


            In the colloquial sense of the word, “deviant” is commonly understood to refer to a difference from some standard of comparison.  Usually, this standard of comparison is an average (mean), median, or mode of a population, which usually is normally distributed.  Yet, the simple fact of being different from average does not demonstrate that someone is necessarily at risk of committing a sexually violent offense.  Only when someone is “deviant” in specific ways does evidence show that there is an associated increased probability of committing acts that have been defined by statute as “sexually violent” offenses.  As stated by Witt and Conroy, these specific ways have been shown to include “sexual interest in children or in torturing or humiliating one’s victim.”  However, other forms of sexual behavior that are different from average (and thus statistically “deviant”), such as homosexuality, do not appear to be associated with increased risk of committing acts of sexual violence.


            As result of such considerations, the DSM-IV-TR does not consider the simple fact of “deviant” sexual practices to be the basis of defining a mental disorder.  Specifically, on page xxxi of the section in DSM-IV-TR on “Definition of Mental Disorder,” the following is stated:


“Neither deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, sexual) nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual, as described above.”


            In Texas, a manual that I have seen used for treatment of those adjudicated as “Sexually Violent Predators” considers use of sex toys to be a deviant sexual practice, and teaches those in “treatment” that such “deviant” practices put individuals at risk for sexual recidivism.  Yet, such claims about sex toys appear to have no basis in evidence.  For example, the Center for Sexual Health Promotion, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, has conducted studies which show that the majority of women (52.5%) use vibrators and that 44.8 % of men use vibrators.  To consider use of sex toys to be a risk factor for sexual recidivism seems problematic and is probably a waste of taxpayer dollars to pay for so-called “treatments” that teach that use of sex toys puts someone at increased risk of committing future acts of sexual violence.


            Thus, if alleged to be “risk factors,” it seems that “deviance” (and its related synonyms) are only meaningful risk factors when they are defined in a very restrictive ways to include only demonstrated behaviors or preferences which are harmful to other people.  Such a restrictive ways of defining “deviance” would probably increase the statistical “size of effect” (Cohen’s d, r, AUC, etc), as compared to unjustified ways of defining “deviance” in sexual dangerousness assessments that include any behaviors that are merely different from average (the mean) or other measures of central tendency, such as the median, or the mode.

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