Public perceptions of child sex offenders

Date of Award


Degree Type

Thesis - ECU Access Only

Degree Name

Master of Criminal Justice by Research


School of Arts and Humanities

First Advisor

Natalie Gately

Second Advisor

James Mccue


Child sexual abuse is a profoundly challenging phenomenon that has a range of detrimental impacts on victims, their families, friends, and the community. In Australia, the sexual abuse of children is a pervasive social problem, public health concern, and egregious criminal offence. High prevalence rates and the numerous adverse effects associated with child sexual abuse makes the prevention of these offences a critical priority. Existing research has shown public perceptions and knowledge regarding child sex offenders and paedophilia to be lacking and inaccurate which can lead to punitive attitudes and little support for rehabilitative efforts (Jahnke, 2018; King, 2019). The intense societal stigma of paedophilia can hinder potential perpetrators from accessing treatment and support to prevent offending behaviour, consequently increasing the risk of child sexual abuse (Levenson, 2017). Understanding public perceptions regarding child sex offenders is important for determining effective ways to implement evidence-based offender policy that has the support of the community (Knack et al., 2019; McCartan & Kemshall, 2015). Public opinions can impact public policy through pressure placed on politicians by their electorates to “do something” to keep the community safe from sexual offenders. Such demands by the public are commonly driven by anger and fear, rather than logic and an accurate understanding of child sexual abuse prevention (Bartels et al., 2020; McCartan et al., 2014). Given that public perceptions can be highly influential in the formation and implementation of public policy, it is important to understand the dynamics of perceptions regarding child sex offenders and the characteristics that underlie these beliefs (Schiavone & Jeglic, 2009). The present study explored public perceptions of child sex offenders in an Australian population sample to investigate whether public perceptions endorse or reject common myths and stereotypes found within the empirical literature, and the extent to which perceptions were influenced by sociodemographic characteristics. A nationwide sample of the Australian public (N = 408) was recruited through social media using convenience and snowball sampling. Participants completed an anonymous online survey that collected sociodemographic characteristics followed by two parametric scales to assess aspects of their perceptions and knowledge regarding child sex offenders and paedophilia. The findings revealed that perceptions of child sex offenders maintained by the Australian public are negative and stereotype-driven, and levels of knowledge regarding child sex offenders and paedophilia are distinctly inaccurate. However, it was also found that respondents with higher levels of education and those who reported having a close relationship with someone who has perpetrated a sexual offence against a child maintained less punitive perceptions. These findings have ascertained that better resources and interventions are required for public education regarding child sex offenders to address the knowledge deficits and negative perceptions. Effectively changing negative public perceptions and improving the accuracy of knowledge can potentially reduce social stigma that discourages at-risk individuals from seeking support to refrain from offending, result in more ethical treatment of adjudicated child sex offenders, thus, improving rehabilitation and reintegration efforts, and contribute to evidence-based strategies for the prevention of child sexual abuse.

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