Words matter

The words we use can influence people’s perceptions about and understanding of issues, and can affect attitudes and actions. The following guidelines are designed to ensure consistent and appropriate use of terminology when referring to issues surrounding sexual offending.

Sex offender

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.


Some terms can be confusing or are commonly misused. The following list is designed to help clarify the meaning of these words and to recommend more appropriate terminology.

Child molester:  Someone who sexually assaults a young person below the age of consent. Someone who molests a child may or may not commit the sexual assault due to sexual interest. There are many motives that can lead to sexual assault including anger management problems, sociopathy, and other disorders. Please note that child molesters are not the same as pedophiles.

Hebephile:  Someone who is primarily attracted to pubescent or post-pubescent older children or young teens. This person may or may not act on this attraction. ATSA recommends using person-first terminology, such as “individuals who are primarily or exclusively sexually attracted to young teens.”

Paraphile:  A person with abnormal sexual desires. This person may or may not act on these desires. ATSA recommends using person-first terminology, such as “individuals with atypical sexual desires.”

Pedophile:  Someone who is primarily sexually attracted to prepubescent children. This person may or may not act on this attraction. ATSA recommends using person-first terminology, such as “individuals who are primarily or exclusively sexually attracted to children.”

Prostitute:  Someone who engages in transactional sex. ATSA recommends using person-first terminology, such as “an individual being prostituted or trafficked for sex” or, where prostitution is legal, “an individual engaging in transactional sex.”

Sex abuser/offender:  Someone who sexually offends, harms, or abuses others. ATSA recommends using person-first terminology, such as “individuals who have sexually offended/harmed/abused others.”

To learn more about ATSA’s efforts to end sexual abuse or to speak with a subject matter expert, visit atsa.com or email office@atsa.com.



2018 Call for Abstracts