Counterfeit Deviance

Written 10th March 2021 by Lily Grundy

‘Counterfeit Deviance’ – an interesting theory concerning those with intellectual disabilities who commit sexual offences

Background to ‘Counterfeit Deviance’

The theory of ‘counterfeit deviance’ relates to individuals with intellectual disabilities who have committed sexual offences. It suggests that the presence of sexual behaviours consistent with paraphilia in persons with intellectual disabilities are not primarily as a result of deviant fantasies or urges but are factors associated with intellectual disability. A lack of sexual knowledge could be a key factor in said individuals’ offending behaviour.

An intellectual disability limits a person’s cognitive functioning and skills including communication, social and self-care skills. These limitations can cause a person to develop and learn at a slower pace creating difficulties when approaching day-to-day life. There are numerous causes of intellectual disabilities such as genetic conditions, problems during pregnancy and birth, health problems and environmental factors. Types of intellectual disabilities include Down syndrome and Fragile X syndrome. Cases can often be misdiagnosed as Autism given that they share similarities, however, a person with an intellectual disability can also be diagnosed with Autism. 

What is Counterfeit Deviance?

‘Counterfeit deviance’ is not a clinical disorder but a concept which suggests that sexually inappropriate, and sometimes criminal sexual behaviours, in individuals with intellectual disabilities can be influenced by a wide range of both internal factors and factors concerning a person’s external environment. 

The origins of the term date back to 1991 when it was first presented in a brief article by Hingsburger, Griffiths and Quinsey. It was used to describe differential hypotheses explaining the sexually inappropriate behaviour of a group of individuals with intellectual disabilities who were being treated at a clinic in Canada. The behaviours of these individuals appeared, on a superficial level, as being sexually deviant. When investigated further, alternative hypotheses emerged to explain these behaviours, thus altering the course of treatment for the individuals involved. Clinicians may therefore view the theory as useful in developing treatment plans for individuals with intellectual disabilities who have sexual behaviours that are problematic.

The theory is applied as a means to differentiate, by way of clinical assessment, individuals with an intellectual disability whose behaviours reflect paraphilic tendencies yet serve a function that is not in fact related to paraphilic sexual urges or fantasies. Note that the theory does not deny paraphilia in individuals with intellectual disabilities; some with intellectual disabilities do indeed develop sexualised interests which meet the diagnosis of paraphilia.

The authors of the theory set out eleven different hypotheses as a basis of ‘counterfeit deviance’. These hypotheses take into consideration, for example, living situations, lack of opportunity for social skill development, lack of comprehensive sexual knowledge, experiences of sexual abuse and medical issues or side effects from medication. 

When assessing an individual, clinicians take into consideration whether the sexual offence which has been committed is caused by paraphilia alone, or whether other factors relating to that individual’s intellectual disability are a significant, contributing factor. By clinically differentiating paraphilia from ‘counterfeit deviance’, a basis for intervention can be formed to specifically treat the underlying factors which have led an individual to committing a sexual offence. 

‘Counterfeit deviance’ is a concept which provides a continued area of consideration for clinicians when assessing and treating individuals with intellectual disabilities who have committed sexual offences. Crucially, it is not, and never has been, an explanation that encompasses all sexual offending behaviour amongst those with intellectual disabilities. 

It is a theory steeped in myths and misconceptions; the original article by Hingsburger, Griffiths and Quinsey is no longer readily available and much of that which is currently written on the subject is based on secondary sources. Indeed, it is an area that requires further research and development as it remains in its early stages. 

What the theory has done up until now is provide direction for tailor-made treatment programmes based on the underlying motives behind a person’s offending behaviour. It helps clinicians to avoid a generalised approach to treatment and highlights the fact that there is no one element which can adequately explain sexual offending behaviour. Ultimately, an understanding of the motivations behind sex offending in persons with intellectual disabilities may assist in determining effective prevention and treatment. 

How could this apply to a case where a sexual offence has been committed? 

The theory of ‘counterfeit deviance’ might be raised in very specific circumstances concerning an individual who has committed a sexual offence. The applicability of this theory to any given individual would of course have to be applied by a clinician following assessment and in a set of circumstances where that individual has been diagnosed with an intellectual disability. 

It could be an interesting theory to consider and explore, where raised by a clinician, when looking at a client’s motivations behind their offending behaviour and what, if any, specific treatment and rehabilitation might be best suited to their needs. It could perhaps be used to highlight what options in terms of outcome are the most appropriate for their specific requirements based on any recommendations made by the clinician.  Consider that the theory, where applicable, could be an important area of discussion to highlight throughout the course of a case should it be raised as a result of the client being clinically assessed. If it has been determined that it has had an impact on the motivations behind their offending behaviour, this could in turn affect their level of culpability in relation to the offending as well as any risks they may present. It is important to note that observations of this nature can only be determined by way of clinical assessment and a report setting out such findings would need to be obtained. 

Article written by Lily Grundy

We have many years of experience of dealing with sexual allegations including indecent images and understand that for many individuals it may be their first involvement with the criminal justice system. We understand how daunting the situation may be for you. We promise not to judge and seek to work together to achieve the best outcome for you. We aim to explain the process and procedures to you in clear and unambiguous language whilst at the same understanding the anxiety you face at the situation ahead. What sets Olliers apart from many criminal defence firms is the proactive approach we adopt during a criminal investigation. We understand the stress and anxiety a criminal investigation can cause. The work we undertake for clients during this stage of the criminal process goes way beyond a police station attendance. Prior to and following an interview under caution, our team will do everything it can to minimise the likelihood of a client under investigation being charged with a criminal offence.

If you wish to discuss instructing Olliers to represent you please contact Ruth Peters on 0161 834 1515 or email

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