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What Do We Mean by the Term Sexual Deviance?

Updated on November 4, 2019

What do we mean by the term sexual deviance?

According to McLaughlin and Muncie (2013, p.405a) the term ‘sex crime’ can be defined as “Sexual acts and behaviours prescribed by the legal statuses of the jurisdictions within which they are enacted”. As such, it can be deduced that sex crimes are dependent on time and place in much the same way as other forms of crime, and what may once have been deemed criminal behaviour may now be acceptable in the eyes of the law. As argued by McLaughlin and Muncie (2013, p.406b) “The term ‘sex crime’, like ‘crime’ more generally, is neither fixed or immutable, but constantly changing and highly contested”. There is a vast array of sexual offences, including rape, sexual assault, child molestation and incest to name just a few. It can be argued that media coverage of sexual offenders can cause public fear, with newspaper headlines such as the following taken from The Irish Sun: “PERV ON PROWL: Sex fiend who raped teenage girl as she walked to pal’s house back roaming Dublin streets after release from prison”. (Breen, 2019). It was recorded in the annual An Garda Siochana report (2014) that less than 1% of all crimes reported that year were sexual offences. However, it is important to note that due to the stigma surrounding offences of this nature and the shame and guilt often felt by the victims, many sexual offences go unreported. According to Hanson et al. (1999 pp. 559-569) rape is the most under-reported crime while 63% of all sexual assaults are not reported to police also only 12% of child sexual abuse is reported to the authorities. In terms of crime prevention, particularly crimes deemed to be of a more serious nature such as sex crimes, it is essential to understand what makes a person sexually deviant. Looking at theories of deviance, with a focus on sexual deviance, the following essay will examine types of sexual behaviour in relation to crime in order to determine what key drivers motivate an individual to commit sexual offences.

The term ‘deviance’ can be difficult to define considering that deviant behaviour has varying levels of severity. It was broadly described by sociologist William Graham Sumner (1906) as cited by Little et al. (2016) as “A violation of established contextual, cultural, or social norms, whether folkways, mores, or codified law”. As such, it can be argued that it is people’s reaction to deviant behaviour that makes an act deviant and not the individual engaging in this behaviour. Therefore, labelling a person as deviant, can have negative consequences which can essentially lead to a continuance or furtherance of said behaviour. As theorised by Howard Becker (1963, p.1a) “All social groups make rules and attempt, at some times and under some circumstances, to enforce them. Social rules define situations and the kind of behaviour appropriate to them”. This conceptualises therefore, that deviance is a consequence of social control. As argued by McLaughlin and Muncie (2013, p.419c) “Social control is a poorly defined concept which has been used to describe all means through which conformity might be achieved”. As such, conformity, in terms of social control, can be seen as the opposite of deviance, and a person who engages in behaviour outside of the social norm can be categorized as being different; or according to Becker (1963, p.1b) “A special kind of person, one who cannot be trusted to live by the rules agreed on by the group. He is regarded as an outsider.” It can be maintained that social rules have their roots in age old traditions, cultures and customs, and how societies ought to live together compared to how societies actually live together, has been cause for much debate. As mentioned earlier, deviance can be difficult to define as there are differing degrees of crime. Sex crimes are considered to be part of the very serious category of offences and it can be argued that society is morally appalled by crimes of this nature and they can be seen to be as if not even more abhorrent than murder.


It can be argued that people who commit sex crimes are a heterogeneous group of offenders from a host of backgrounds, and there is significant variety in the type and manner in which they commit their crimes (Harris et al. 2009). This statement suggests that not all sex offenders are alike and that they cannot be segmented into specific categories easily. According to Clinical Psychologist Katharine J. Mair (1993, p.267) “The common subdivision of sex offenders into ‘rapists’ and child molesters ignores the nature of the sexual act involved, classifying solely by age of victim”. It can also be maintained that terminology plays a key role when defining sexual offences. There are distinct legal and psychological terms used to describe sex offenders. As noted by Saleh et al. (2010)

The term “sex offender” is a legal, not a psychiatric, designation. Sex offenders make up a psychiatrically heterogeneous group of individuals whose only unifying characteristic is that they have violated the law governing sexual expression in a given culture. (pp.359 – 268).

A good example of changes to the law over time in terms of acceptable sexual behaviour is that of homosexuality, which up until 1993 was illegal in Ireland. Along with being morally frowned upon by some members of society, individuals engaging in acts of a homosexual nature could also be arrested, fined or even imprisoned. In 2018, twenty-five years after the amendment to the sexual offences act, the then Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan stated “The enactment of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1993 sought to repeal Victorian-era laws which criminalised members of our society, forcing them to conduct their personal and private lives in secret”. (, 2019).

The term ‘sexual deviant’ can conjure up images of Jack the Ripper type bogeymen who lurk in the shadows, waiting to pounce on their next victim. As mentioned previously however, the range of sexual offences combined with the varying types of individual committing these offences means that it is impossible to categorize them under one specific label.

As with any criminal offender, it is important to consider the motivations and triggers for their behaviour, for example a person’s family background, their environment, their biology, genetics, personality and their psychological make up. In relation to sex offenders an additional factor which should be considered, is what constitutes abnormal sexual behaviour? Only by answering this question can it make sense to differentiate between those who pose a public threat and those who do not. According to Professor of psychiatry, Dr Richard Balon (2016) there is a thin line between normal and paraphilic or sexually deviant behaviour which can make defining it problematic.

Take the example of occasional mild spanking of one’s sexual partner during sexual activity enjoyed and asked for by the partner vs. binding, whipping, and even kicking the sexual partner during sexual activity. Where is the border between acceptable (or normal) behaviour and abnormal behaviour here? (pp. 1-14).

In relation to sexual offences and the law, the term ‘consent’ is a key factor however, as according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and as cited by Beech et al. (2016) paraphilia can be defined as “a formal mental illness as characterised by “recurrent, intense sexual arousing fantasies, sexual urges or behaviours which can include:

(1) Non human objects;

(2) suffering or humiliation of oneself or one’s partner; or

(3) children or other nonconsenting persons

This theory suggests that a paraphilic diagnosis does not inevitably mean that the person in question will act upon these urges and commit a sex crime. However, crossing the line from fantasy to reality has been identified as a key component in escalating sexually deviant behaviour.

Sexual fantasies can be defined as “mental images of an erotic nature that can lead to sexual arousal”. (Glanze, Anderson and Anderson, 1998). According to Bartels and Gannon (2011, pp, 551-561) “Deviant sexual fantasy is a multifaceted phenomenon that interrelates with a number of other factors such as affect, personality, and behaviour”. This can be recognised as a risk factor in relation to a person committing a sexually related crime. For example, according to Beech, Fisher and Ward (2005) research has indicated that a high proportion of sadistically motivated sexual murderers gave fantasy as a main motivation for committing their offences. In addition, studies conducted on the impulses of child molesters showed corresponding results. As noted by Dandescu and Wolfe (2003, pp. 297-305) analysis of 57 child molesters showed that a majority used masturbatory deviant fantasies before and after their first offences. Though fantasy will not be a stand-alone factor, it is important to investigate this aspect as one of the prerequisites of the offending process, in order to formulate theories on sexual deviance. Both of these examples can be regarded as being pathological sexual fantasies, and as noted by Joyal, Cossette and Lapierre (2015, pp. 328-340) "Clinically, we know what pathological sexual fantasies are: they involve non-consenting partners, they induce pain, or they are absolutely necessary in deriving satisfaction". Fantasy postulates that psychology is an important component in the study of what may be deemed ‘abnormal’ sexual activity. An additional theory on fantasy as a key element in sexual offending, is that it acts as a ‘desensitizer’, and as such may lower a person’s inhibitions, and this in turn can lead them to potentially commit a sexual offence. According to Gee, Devilly and Ward (2004, pp. 315-331) "The recurrent use of non-specific offence fantasy may provide the offender with a way of desensitizing himself to the offence themes present within the fantasy".

It can be argued that fantasy is a complex theory, particularly as these fantasies will vary from being innocuous to potentially sadistic.

It can also be said that fantasy is difficult to accurately categorise as it is not possible to know the inner thoughts of every person. Many people will never act out their fantasies and are content to keep them to themselves. This may be regarded as normal behaviour, whilst others, through desensitisation, may weaken and carry out sexually deviant acts. According to Abel and Blanchard (1974, p.467) sex offenders are aroused by more deviant offence-related stimuli than consenting sexual stimuli. Underlying this observation is the assumption that arousal to deviant images increases the probability of the fantasies being acted out in deviant behaviour. Whilst theories on what sexual deviance means are an integral part of examining this behaviour, it is also important to look at specific cases in order to better understand the acts of different types of sex offenders.

As previously mentioned, sexual deviance can take many forms, and the desires, fantasies and actions of offenders can often seem beyond belief or comprehension to right-thinking people. "For three decades, a bizarre offender has racked up dozens of court appearances and several spells in prison over a strange fetish that drives him to touch young men's muscles." (BBC News, 2019a). Across Merseyside and areas of Greater Manchester, Akinwale Arobieke, known by many as ‘Purple Aki’, has become something of a bogeyman and is genuinely feared by young men in the northwest of England. Arobieke is said to be approximately 6'5" tall and to weigh over 20 stone. His infamy began when he started hanging around gyms and sports clubs asking young men if he could squeeze their muscles. This strange request led many to believe that he was a dangerous predator and that the muscle-squeezing would lead to a sexual assault being committed by Arobieke. Although in court appearances Arobieke has always denied getting any kind of sexual gratification from feeling muscles, his behaviour is a recognised sexual paraphilia known as sthenolagia. (BBC News, 2019b). Such is the fear that ‘Purple Aki’ instils, in June 1986 a 16-year old boy was electrocuted on train tracks, allegedly running away from him.

Arobieke was convicted of manslaughter but his conviction was overturned on appeal. In 2001 he was convicted of threatening behaviour and jailed for thirty months, having pleaded not guilty to fifty counts of indecent assault and harassment against fourteen teenage boys between 1995 and 2000. In 2003 he was found guilty of fifteen counts of harassment and witness intimidation, while a further 61 charges, mainly of indecent assault, were left on file. He received a six year sentence and upon his release on licence in 2006 Merseyside Police applied for an interim Sexual Offences Prevention Order (SOPO) against him. (Siddle, 2019). He broke the order in 2007 by commenting on the size of a man's biceps before "touching them without permission" and was jailed for fifteen months. In 2008 Arobieke again broke the SOPO when he approached a 17-year old and asked to feel his muscles. This earned him an eighteen month sentence. Arobieke broke the SOPO yet again in 2010 and he was jailed for two and a half years for touching the leg muscles of a 16-year old boy. The judge said that Arobieke was a ‘sexual predator’ (, 2019). In the years since his last sentence he has been in court on many occasions and has spent time remanded in custody, but hasn’t accrued any further convictions. Surprisingly, for someone with a long history of offences against young men, Akinwale Arobieke has never been convicted of a sexual offence. For further insight into the alleged activities and crimes of ‘Purple Aki’, please see the following BBC short documentary by Benjamin Zand,

According to (2019) child sexual abuse “Occurs when a child is used by another person for his or her gratification or arousal, or for that of others”. It can be argued that in the opinion of the general public, paedophiles are the most reviled group of sexual deviants. It is important to investigate the reasons behind paedophilic behaviour in order for effective preventative measures to be put in place to protect children from these predators.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), (2019) “Paedophilia is a mental disorder; that sex between adults and children is always wrong; and that acting on paedophilic impulses is and should be a criminal act”. The APA (2000) define a paedophile as someone involved in sexual activity or experiencing significant distress over sexual urges or fantasies involving a prepubescent individual (normally considered to be age 13 or younger). However, it can be argued that this is dependent on time and place, for example, a report in The Guardian (2019) stated that “Child marriages are scandalously common in Yemen. According to Human Rights Watch figures from 2006, 14% of girls are married by the time they are 15, and more than 50% before the age of 18.” Often people who fantasize about deviant sexual behaviour, while fearing the consequences both legally and morally in their own countries, take advantage of lax attitudes and laws in other countries such as the Philippines or Thailand for the purposes of engaging in sex with children, and will then return home and resume a ‘normal’ life. A high profile example of this is the case of former Glam rock musician Gary Glitter, who, at age seventy, was found guilty in Thailand of attempted rape and indecent assault of minors. “Glitter, whose real name is Paul Gadd, was sentenced for attempted rape, four counts of indecent assault and one of having sex with a girl under 13”. (BBC News, 2019c). Whilst paedophiles will travel to countries in South East Asia with the sole purpose of having sex with children, it should also be noted that people who engage in normal sexual behaviour can occasionally commit sex crimes against children when visiting these parts of the world. This can be due to inebriation which may lead to poor judgement, for example, and also the knowledge that their behaviour will generally go unpunished. As noted by Friedrich Leppmann (1941, p.368) “By drunkenness even mentally normal persons are likely to lose their sexual discernment”.

According to Kempannien (2019) who wrote a report on child sex tourism in Thailand for Lincoln University,

The clients in child sex tourism have two definitions used by academics; a preferential user and the situational user. The preferential user especially seeks for prostitutes who are certain age and gender as the situational user can have sexual relations with a child if it is on offer but does not specifically seek for that service.

Having discussed some key factors in relation to sexual behaviour, it can be argued that the term ‘sexual deviance’ is multifaceted. Legal and psychological terminology and classifications often differ and, as discussed, what may be categorised as sexually deviant behaviour is highly dependent on time and place. The connotation ‘sexual deviance’ covers a variety of types of sexual behaviours. As examined, fantasy plays a key role in the escalation from merely having sexually deviant thoughts to actually acting upon these impulses. Although sexually deviant behaviour may not always lead to a crime being committed, understanding possible key indicators is a vital component when it comes to the research and development of prevention, offender desistance and public protection issues.

© 2019 Linda O Keeffe


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