By Frank Vandervort
The attention focused on reality star Josh Duggars’ teenage sexual misconduct and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s apparent violation of a former student provides an opportunity to dispel myths about youth who display illegal sexual behavior and to distinguish this from similar behavior by adults.
Duggars has been accused of fondling five girls, including four of his sisters, when he was he was a teenager. In an interview with Fox News, Duggars’ parents admitted that their son had confessed to these actions. These events have led some to argue that Duggars is a pedophile. But most teens who engage in illegal sexual behavior do not continue this behavior into adulthood.
Shortly after the revelations regarding Duggars, federal officials charged former Speaker of the House of Representatives Dennis Hastert with federal crimes allegedly related to sexual misconduct he engaged in with a student when he was a teacher and coach at a Yorkville, Illinois high school. An alleged victim was a former equipment manager for the wrestling team. If true, Hastert’s age, maturity and abuse of his position of authority over the student make these two situations starkly different.
Far too many young people in this country are being labeled “sex offenders” at very young ages. Once labeled, these youth are often listed on sex offender registries, sometimes for decades or even the rest of their lives. Too often, these adolescents are removed from their homes and placed in Dickensian “treatment facilities,” sometimes for years, or made to endure many months or years of outpatient treatment.
This approach is at variance to how we handle virtually every other type of delinquent behavior. In most situations we are more appropriately forgiving, willing to attribute young people’s illegal behavior to immaturity or youthful indiscretion. The disparate treatment of children with illegal sexual behaviors is largely the result of misunderstanding the nature of the behavior and exaggerated fear that every adolescent who engages in illegal sexual behavior is destined to become an adult predator.
We must start with what is widely known and accepted by both experts and lay people—that adolescents are developmentally different from adults. In 2004, the United States Supreme Court, in deciding a juvenile death penalty case, endorsed “what every parent knows”—that teenagers are immature, impulsive, fail to recognize and evaluate consequences of behavior in the same way as adults and their characters are not fully formed.
Being an adolescent neither justifies nor excuses illegal sexual behavior. But the basic developmental differences between teenagers and adults—which are rooted in the immature and still developing adolescent brain—when coupled with insufficient parental guidance about the expression of sexuality, explain much of the illegal sexual behavior exhibited by young people and distinguishes them from adults. Of course, there are exceptions in both groups—some adults are less mature while some adolescents may be calculating and violent.
Yet too many adults who have a duty to know better labor under the misperception that every teenager who engages in illegal sexual behavior is a budding pedophile, destined to grow into a repeat offender.
Research conducted over many years suggests that only a very small percentage of youth who engage in illegal sexual behavior become adult predators. Research by Dr. Jane Silovsky and her colleagues at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center reaffirms what we have known for years—that with short-term counseling (about 12 sessions) the vast majority of kids up to age 14 who engage in illegal sexual behavior learn and assimilate appropriate sexual boundaries and do not reoffend. Ten year follow-up studies have revealed re-offense rates of only 2-3 percent. For older teens, who received short-term treatment with their families to address their problematic sexual behavior, the recidivism rates are about 7 percent. That is, the overwhelming majority of kids who engage in illegal sexual behavior do not need many months or years of treatment or institutional placement.
Treating these young people and their families in their communities for a short period of time is best for them and provides a high degree of community safety.
In many areas, society recognizes the need to take adolescent immaturity and developmental incompetence into account when formulating policy. That is why most states have a scheme for graduated driver’s licenses, limit access to alcohol and tobacco, and prohibit minors from entering into binding contracts. When it comes to sexual behavior, however, we expect youth to behave with the maturity of adults, and impose unnecessarily harsh sanctions when they don’t.
Adults who sexually offend are different from adolescents who engage in the same behavior in crucial ways. Many have significant psychopathologies and are likely to reoffend regardless of intervention. Our society is right to deal harshly with them. When an adult uses his position of authority and his psychological and intellectual dominance to sexually exploit a young person, that individual should be considered dangerous and at high risk to reoffend. This is particularly true when the sexual exploitation is part of a pattern of behavior. But our youth and our communities will be much better served in the long run if we respond in a more measured way to young people who engage in inappropriate sexual behavior.
Unfortunately, our current policies conflate the origins and the level of pathology relating to illegal sexual behaviors by juveniles and adults. The facts tell us that the significant developmental differences between adults and adolescents matter both in the causes of illegal sexual behavior and in regard to appropriate reactions to it. Our policies should chance to reflect those facts.
Frank E. Vandervort is a Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School.