This position statement by the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers was prepared and approved in May 2017.
Words matter. The words we use can influence people’s perceptions about and understanding of issues, and can affect attitudes and actions. As such, the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers does not, in general, use the term “sex offender” in its references to individuals who commit sexual offenses. While there may be occasions when it is appropriate to use the term, such as when referring to a legal designation encoded in statute, ATSA recommends avoiding its use in all other circumstances.
Instead, ATSA uses and recommends the use of descriptors that put the person first. Preferred terminology includes such phrases as “individuals who commit sexual offenses” and “adolescents/adults who have engaged in sexually abusive behavior.” As older documents and postings to ATSA’s website are updated, the term “sex offender” will be deleted and replaced as appropriate.
This choice of terminology is in no way intended to minimize the acts that comprise sexual abuse or sexual assault. Rather, ATSA makes this recommendation for three reasons:
- The term “sex offender” fails to make a distinction among the continuum of sexually abusive behaviors broadly described in legal and popular contexts, which can range from voyeurism to groping to violent sexual assault. The person-first phrases recommended by ATSA more accurately capture the range of actions that comprise sexually abusive behaviors.
- The term “sex offender” characterizes a person based solely on his/her behavior in this area, rather than recognizing that people are complex individuals who may engage in positive behaviors in other aspects of their lives.
- The term “sex offender” implies that the behavior is long-lasting, intractable, or permanent. In fact, very few individuals who sexually offend commit additional sexual offenses. On average, 95% of people who sexually offend once never do so again (Langan, Schmitt, and Durose, 2003; Sample and Bray, 2003).
ATSA encourages professionals working with individuals who have sexually offended, legislators promulgating laws and policies, and media representatives reporting on related issues to move from using the term “sex offender” to using person-first language.