Serial Offending

Serial offending and offenders seems to fascinate women and women commentators to the point of obsession. It is this obsession – often by women who have never been raped – that blocks progress to the next step in sensibly tackling the problem.

A commonly view held is that a rapist, having once raped, is likely to rape again, and again, and again. That logic results in the none-too-thoughtful conclusions that all rapists are serial rapists.

If that were true then once, over a given number of years, when all the rapists had been scoped up and imprisoned, all rapes would cease.

Hapless v Habitual

Some, if not all, women’s groups fail to differentiate between the Hapless rapist and the Habitual rapist. By hapless is meant a person wrongly accused but who nonetheless undergoes thorough DNA testing, hours (if not days) of relentless police interrogation and – if things go horribly wrong – actually stands trial for an offence he did not commit.

The likelihood of this happening is greater than you think – over 25%. The FBI have run a post sentencing DNA screening programme and for the last 7 years have found 25% or more of those tested should not have been sentenced.

The habitual sex offender is as the title describes and he should not be put in the same category as the hapless – but we will have to wait for the home office to create new crimes index codes. 

Women’s groups can manage to differentiate when it is a woman accused of some heinous crime, say child torture and lethal abuse.

Invariably, then the argument is trotted out that she was ‘depressed’, taking medication, depressed, was under an enormous strains, couldn’t cope, had been unhappy for a long time.

These argument are used even is the most obscene cases such as Myra Hindley (aged 23) and Rose West (aged 42). [1]

Left: Myra Hindley (1963 – 65)

Rose West was charged with her husband Fred West that between 1967 and 1987 they both tortured, raped and murdered at least 12 young women and girls, many at the couple’s home.  The levels of depravity were probably equal to or in excess of those in the Brady & Hindley trial  but there were no audio tapes of the sadism for comparison purposes.

Right: Rose West (1967 – 1987)  

If we the public, can differentiate between persistent murderers, recurring murders and accidental homicide, i.e. manslaughter, why can’t this distinction be applied to rape and sex offending ?  Why do womens groups  feel able to recognise these distinctions (when the offence is, say, homicide or child abuse), but not sex offending ?

In cases where the female is charged with “gross”,  i.e. obscene,  offences and where the above excuses are unlikely to be believed, the judicial tactic is to ascribe the women concerned as ‘being under the influence of an evil mind’, usually a man, and if that looks unlikely to mitigate the sentence a plea of depression or hormonal imbalance resulting in ‘mood swings’ is not uncommon.

What is the risk ?

The theoretical dead end this induces is overcome by falling back on the position that ‘all men’ are inherently rapists and therefore all men will rape, sooner or later.

The plain fact is that although millions of pounds have been spent on university research examining re-offending by sex offenders, no one has thought to look at the lack of re-offending among hapless sex offenders. What we get time and again is a re-brewing of old data of known habitual offenders.

Examination of the numbers in prison, vis-à-vis sex offences committed, and of the number of offences committed by the same person, shows how ridiculously untenable is the current position and the public’s attitude towards a goodly proportion of sex offenders.

Fig 4, below, shows that of a sample of 1.057 serious sex assault offenders (NB this also includes those that have committed rape), approx 375 had no previous convictions. Less than 150 had one previous conviction and less than 95 had one previous conviction.

Fig 4 (left)  is taken from Police Research paper No 144. [2]  The sample size of over 1,000 (1,057) allows for a degree of confidence. Depicted in Fig 4 are males aged under 45 years, convicted for the first time in 1995-97 of rape or serious indecent assault  (SSA) of an adult female. There were 678 in the study with previous convictions and these were matched to a control group of offenders with a general criminal history.

The study revealed that:

  • 36% of the 1,057 sample had no previous convictions.
  • Only 7% of those convicted of a serious sexual offence had a conviction for previous sexual offences.
  • However, 50% had convictions for violence

Where the report falls down badly is in not clearly differentiating between no previous convictiosn at all and no previous convictions for rape (or sex offences).  In failing to do this it focuses attention on the habitual offender (which is old news) at the expense of our understanding of the hapless, namely, the never been arested and never been convicted before individual.

The bad news is that when comparing the 678 offenders previously convicted of serious sexual assault with a matched control group of general offenders it was shown that:

 ‘A custodial sentence at the previous conviction, having a previous conviction for ‘other wounding etc.’, robbery (or assault with intent to rob), stealing in a dwelling, arson, kidnapping and cruelty to children all indicated a significantly increased risk of subsequent conviction for SSA.”.

The good news is that barring any of these  pre-conditions (of arson, wounding, robbery,  assault, kidnapping and cruelty to children, etc) to the current offence, the inverse can be said to be true, namely that  there was no significantly increased risk of subsequent conviction for SSA.  This should be good news for the Hapeless individual inadvertently caught up in allegations of rape and should be reflected in a lighter sentence (but it is not).

Overall the study was far more positive (for an official document) when its findings are put into perspective. It concluded that the analyses illustrated ‘only a slightly enhanced risk’ in terms of how much more likely certain offenders (those who possess certain types of previous convictions) are to be convicted of a SSA.

What can Risk Assessment professionals and other agencies take away from these findings ?

The analyses illustrate risk in terms of how much more likely certain offenders (those who possess certain types of previous convictions) are to be convicted of murder or SSA, compared with other offenders. A good number of the findings indicate that many categories of conviction carry only a slightly enhanced risk of subsequent serious offending (greater than one, but less than twice as likely to receive a subsequent conviction for murder or a serious sexual offence than a general offender).

On a more personal note one can imagine that the hapless individual wrongfully charged with a sex offence will feel more than a little chastened and uncomfortable in the company of the opposite sex. Indeed, his confidence in the police and legal will be forever tarnished and his opinion of the opposite sex will be one of contempt.

The difference between the Hapless and the Habitual offender in shown in Fig 4 and in the text above. The Habitual offender will feel no such compunction; wil have no such qualms and will probably feel compelled to offend again.

The connection between the Hapless not re-offending is displayed in the interaction between the conclusions in Police Research paper No 144 (see Fig 4).

If the science of Criminology cannot disitinquish confidently enough to make it voice heard in official surveys should it continued to be labelled a ‘science’ ?


[1] Myra Hindley was put on trial with Ian Brady for the sadistic sexual killing of 5 (or more), children between July 1963 and October 1965. The sadism contained within the audio tapes of their victims set new levels of depravity.

[2] The above table, taken from Police Research paper No 144, “Murder and Serious Sexual Assault: What criminal histories can reveal about future serious offending” (2002).   (


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