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Sex offenders are arguably the most loathed members of society, but much of what we think we know about them is wrong.

A month after successfully arguing to have his electronic monitoring bracelet removed, convicted sex offender Graham Kay was back in strife.

The claim that he had grabbed and kissed a teenage girl in a supermarket was relatively tame for a man who had served 18 years in jail for raping six women at knifepoint in the 1990s. He’d also been discovered with a prostitute in his home, in breach of some of the 42 conditions on his extended supervision order. He found himself back behind bars.

After time in Amber Laurel Correctional Centre in Emu Plains, Kay will be re-released this month. A media firestorm will surely follow; the one thing guaranteed to stoke greater public outrage than sexual offending is sexual reoffending. Recall the outcry following revelations that convicted murderer Steven Hunter’s parole had expired nine days before he killed another woman in 2011, or that Adrian Bayley was on parole for sex crimes when he raped and murdered Jill Meagher in 2012.

High-profile predators evoke understandable public fear, but this takes us no closer to understanding or managing the broader problem of sex offending. James Cook University Psychology Professor Andrew Day has conducted extensive research into perceptions about sex offenders, and concludes that there’s a huge gap between what we think we know and what the research tells us. Day points to a 2008 study published in Psychology, Public Policy and Law, which showed that more than 95 per cent of people arrested for sexual offences had no previous such convictions. The majority of child sex abuse victims are targeted by family members or acquaintances, not strangers. Less than 1 per cent of murder cases involve rape or sexual assault.

Dr Katie Seidler, a clinical and forensic psychologist, challenges the myths that sex offenders are untreatable, and that the most effective response is to “lock ‘em up and throw away the key”. “If you did absolutely nothing with sex offenders – no sanctions, no treatment, no supervision – more than 80 per cent of offenders will not reoffend,” she explains. “Sex offending has one of the lowest recidivism rates across all crime categories. By comparison, 40 to 50 per cent of violent offenders, and 70 to 80 per cent of drug offenders, reoffend.”

Yet when it comes to the most reviled of crimes, there is much we still don’t understand. Are paedophiles’ brains different? What role does the internet play in creating non-contact (child exploitation material) offenders? Is it possible to treat sex offenders in denial? These are among the questions that will be debated when 300-odd delegates converge on the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius for the upcoming biennial conference of the International Association for the Treatment of Sexual Offenders (IATSO). The program will explore the latest research and practice, and forge new policy directions, organisers say.

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