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Humans are observant creatures soaking up information they see around them constantly and deciding if they should incorporate or accept it into their values and beliefs or criticise and reject it. Therefore it comes as no surprise that those who choose to involve themselves in deviant behaviour have at least partially been taught that that behaviour was acceptable.
People are formed partly by their nature and partly by their upbringing or nurture. (Fox, 2017) The main focus of this essay is nurture: what we observe as we grow and how it affects our actions, specifically in correlation to social learning theory. As well as the ways in which social learning can form negative associations towards sex and sexual relationships and in turn can cause sexual offending to occur.
The way the media reports a crime has a lasting impact on the society’s feelings towards a criminal. Which can include feeding us biased information in order to shape society’s socially acceptable behaviour. Labelling people as deviants and shaming their actions. And only reporting rarer crimes like intensely violent sexual offences especially against people perceived as more innocent or less able to protect themselves. (DiBennardo, 2018)
But can sexual deviancy be unlearned? Is there affective treatment for offenders or is it too late after they have been exposed to it during childhood or adolescent and therefore taught that it is acceptable behaviour. Research has deciphered that sexual offending develops into much more intense or aggressive behaviour as adulthood is reached. (Aljazireh, 1993)
Genetic bad luck, abusive upbringing or a combination of the two? What does it take to form a sexual offender? Firstly an adult sex offender can be defined as someone who either physically sexually assaults/abuses or exposes themselves to someone 18 or older and can be violent or not violent in nature. (Zgoba & Simon, 2005) Although a genetic predisposition towards certain anti-social mental health disorders can topple a person over the edge into committing a crime, a persons childhood is incredibly important in shaping an individuals beliefs and values. Being physically/sexually abused during childhood has been linked to similar offending behaviour in adulthood. (Hayes, 2009) An example of social learning theory.
Social learning theory was coined in 1966 by Burgess and Akers and it states that ‘deviant and conforming behaviours’ are cultivated from an individuals learning due to association within groups (family or friends) and their negative actions or behaviour that are observed and perceived as socially acceptable. (Fox, 2017) Thus behaviour is learnt by watching and copying others. (Bandura, 1971) And since the brain is in its most malleable form during childhood it makes sense that being exposed to this kind of abuse has a major long lasting influence on a person. An example Bandura set up to prove his theory of observational learning was his ‘Bobo doll experiment’ in 1961. He tested 36 boys and 36 girls aged between 3 and 6. They were placed into one of three groups. 1, where the model was being aggressive towards the bobo doll. 2, where the model wasn’t aggressive and played in a quiet way and 3, the children weren’t exposed to any model. The results showed that the children exposed to the aggressive model copied way more aggressive behaviours on the dolls compared to the other two groups. This determines that behaviour is easily picked up and reflective of the environment you are brought up in.
In terms of sexual offenders behaviour specifically research has been undertaken into the theories behind their behaviour and determines that they often create justification in their heads in order to make them okay with the crimes they are committing. (Ward, 2000) This is called ‘cognitive distortion’ (Abel et al., 1989) Ward and Keenan, 1999 debated that ‘implicit theories’ or the beliefs that help make something seem morally just in their minds like for instance all women are evil therefore inflicting pain or rape becomes morally okay or that a friendly interaction from a man/woman means they’re interested in sex. These kinds of thoughts are often created during childhood or upbringing when children try to justify or foretell negative situations or events, so abuse or neglectful parenting as a way to cope and then as they grow up maintain these thoughts or values and incorporate them into adult sexual relations. (Ward, 2000; Ward & Keenan, 1999) There was also a study done by Lindsay et al. (2001) clearly displays this link between childhood modelling and adult offending where there was seen to be a large amount of sex offenders abused in childhood 38% in the study group opposed to 12.7% not sexually abused. (Hayes, 2009) Thus a persons environment really does take an toll on an individual and can change the thought processes and morals deemed socially acceptable predisposing them to deviant sexual behaviour.
Society at large plays a huge role in the deterrence and shaming of individuals who commit sex crimes but can also lead to the inability of people to be helped and reintegrated successfully. The people responsible for such crimes are showered in stigma this stigmatisation can expel them from social interaction making them social pariahs and causing them to lash out in retaliation. (Karp 1998: 283; Maxwell and Morris 1999) On top of that making them unable to receive help as they’re labelled as tainted or deviant for life. They aren’t being able to be reintegrated into certain areas due to the real threat of being assaulted or killed due to vigilante behaviour. The idea that sex offenders are at the bottom of the social hierarchy is even extended to prison settings. This treatment can also be framed as disintegrative shaming which the law tends to lean towards, the offender is isolated even more especially to only being around other offenders which can strengthen their already unconventional morals and beliefs and continue the cycle of offending conduct. (Maxwell and Morris, 1999) When the law and correctional systems should be doing all it can to stop the offender reoffending and therefore offer more reintegrative shaming which helps the offender recognise they’ve done something wrong but also encourages them to seek help and thus when they are reintroduced to society they’re much less likely to reoffend.
Social learning theory can be applied to media and societies behaviour towards offenders as well once a group of people shame someone the rest of the people in a society tend to jump on the band wagon and join in because they have ascertained that shaming in that context is socially acceptable and thus the shaming is copied to a wider group. Especially if a news outlet or authority figure starts the act and the way in which they present this act. This can lead to dangerous situations wherein mob mentality takes over and vigilante acts are performed. For example a survey was done in The United States, Florida where a third of sex offenders said they were threatened or harassed, 21% experienced property defacement and 5% had been physically abused. (Levenson and Cotter, 2005) Although only a snapshot of societies vigilante behaviour being implicated it’s not hard to hypothesis that this happens in most societies that uphold sexual offending as a major crime.
Since the media has the ability to spread vast quantities of information that gets shared to the public and gets to decide how it is used to frame a person as innocent or guilty they have a lot of power over how an offender is treated by the public. Despite the outcry against sexual offenders the media has often been accused of a tendency to sensationalise and use violent or intense sexual crime or homicide as entertainment in order to sell more articles. Also know as the deviancy amplification spiral which can lead to moral panic and the idea that crime is increasing when it isn’t. According to the findings of Pritchard and Hughes, 1997 societal norms were one of the most important factors in determining news coverage so for example children or females being more newsworthy as victims and the suspect or victim being white being more significant in the decision to publish the story. (Frei, 2007)
Is treatment and release back into society for sexual offenders a realistic goal or is what we experience in terms of abuse or neglect when we are young doomed to shape us the rest of our lives? It’s hard to put all sex offenders in one box in terms of treatment because of the different backgrounds and mental health issues that come into play. Commonly though offenders who sexually assault or abuse other adults are treated with those who commit offences towards children. (Beech, Ward & Fisher, 2006) This can be detrimental to the offenders abusing adult victims because there is less information and effective treatment that has been know to work for them. More specifically aimed treatments are needed in order for sexual offenders to be given a decent shot at rehabilitation. In terms of the kinds of treatment utilised it’s tended to focus on cognitive behavioural therapy, attempting to change the associations these offenders have that cause them to commit these crimes, for example negative feelings towards females or sexual desire for violent sex acts (Wilcox, Garrett & Harkins, n.d.) which could have been modelled off of early experiences like seeing your father abuse your mother or a mother being neglectful or cruel towards you which as a first experience with a female created negative associations about them in general. Reoffending reviews have been done in order to test the effectiveness of cognitive behavioural therapy Zgoba and Simon (2005) deciphered that there was a reduced rate in treated rapists reoffending at 15% in comparison to 19.4% without treatment. Showing the treatments tendency to work. So in general early intervention gives a much better chance of successful rehabilitation but the brain can still be rewired and the therapy utilised by some adults in order to change those thought processes and therefore actions later in life.
We are constantly judging the actions of those around us and deciding if they are acceptable in our society. As well as following the actions of authorities and just in general learning from observing others behaviours. It’s been displayed that negative childhood experiences shape a person well into adult life and thus minor sex offences when younger are a vital kickoff point leading to more violent offences later in life. The medias also has a major influence and their propensity to perpetuate the idea that crime rates are going up causes moral panic and can influence vigilante behaviour to develop threatening rehabilitation for these sex offenders. We know there are ways to help offenders in order to send them back into society without reoffending. Cognitive behavioural therapy is an effective option but the best way to prevent sexual offences all together is to stop them at the source and therefore the prevention of childhood abuse and neglect is the most vital in lowering the rate of offence. Therefore there is a major link between social learning theory’s main ideas of copying others behaviour and becoming a sex offender.
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