One of the shocking things coming from the Harvey Weinstein scandal is the sheer number of victims. When it comes to child abusers again the numbers of victims can be staggering. There are different ways of gathering data on this, including identifying the victims such as in the case of Jimmy Savile or asking the perpetrators.
Researchers have tried asking convicted perpetrators. For example, Wortley and Smallbone (2014) examined the criminal history given by convicted offenders in prison. The average (mean) number of victims per offender was 5.6, however, this masks the differences as one offender claimed 300 victims and 49% of the others only claimed 1. The difficulty here is twofold. First you can’t generalise easily and secondly that they are unlikely to admit crimes they have not yet been convicted of.
Abel et al (1987) tried a different approach, one which I’m not sure would pass ethics approval these days. They recruited offenders who were not incarcerated, or presently in the court system. Many were referred by therapists, social workers, lawyers or police. Results are below.
The total reported number of male non-incest victims is very high at 22981. So in this study non incestuous offenders claimed to abuse on average (mean) 150.2 male victims. The number of acts per victim is much higher for incestuous abuse, presumably because of more opportunity for the offender. This is not to minimise the effects of abuse on anyone. One act or one victim is one too many.
There are similarities between the two studies. There are great differences in numbers of victims per offender from one to hundreds. Both have a problem taking an average number because of these disparities. For each study it is worth considering what the offender gains or potentially loses by taking part and reporting truthfully the number of their victims. Those in prison could gain favour by taking part but also get extra convictions if they tell the truth. Those not in prison were promised anonymity but may still want to please the agency that referred them. Might they also have been motivated by the opportunity to brag?
Taking these factors into consideration, however, I do feel that these figures (if not 100% accurate) are significant. Firstly for law enforcement. People reporting abuse are likely to not be the only victim of that perpetrator as most abuse more than one child. Also it is important for the estimates of the number of active child abusers. It doesn’t take many offenders to cause a lot of damage to many children. Finally the number of male victims bears no relation to the level of crime reported to police or health services. How are these victims coping with their past? What can we do to help? This is one area I am trying to research through my recovery survey.
Abel, G.G. et al., 1987. Self-Reported Sex Crimes of Non-Incarcerated Paraphiliacs. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2(1), pp.3–25.
Wortley, R. & Smallbone, S., 2014. A Criminal Careers Typology of Child Sexual Abusers. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 26(6), pp.569–585.
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