How children meet abusers

Most people think child abuse is wrong. We are horrified by it, instinctively revolted. Because of this we find it easier to think that the people abusing children are different from us in some way; a different class, race or ethnicity, followers of another religion or belief. As Lewis Coser argued back in 1969 we tend to see the world as ‘us’ (our community’ and ‘them’ (everyone else). The problem is that we find it much easier to blame ‘them’ than ‘us.’

However, when you ask people who have been abused they overwhelming report that the person or people who abused them was very close to their family, often in their family. Research suggests that the majority are often acquaintances, although familial abuse is also a very large percentage. However, most studies agree than strangers are the perpetrators only in a small minority of cases.

In my research 89 (49%) of respondents experienced familial abuse, 75 (42%) acquaintance and 16 (9%) abuse by strangers. For people who described their abusers as acquaintances the majority met them through their family, followed by neighbours, education and religion.

Thus, from the responses, which agrees with other research, it appears that perpetrators are not different; they are people integral to our community life. They are very likely to be known and, potentially, respected by the family. The relationship of perpetrator to victim is important, because abuse by trusted perpetrators has been demonstrated to be associated with more severe mental health symptoms. It can also affect how families respond to finding out about the abuse.

The media focusses on stories that are unusual, not the every day horror that occurs in family homes around the world. I am glad that people are, in the main, against abuse but I would suggest that focussing on the unusual, or the clearly not true, means that we ignore or are blinded to the abuse occurring in our street. It’s easier to believe that ‘other people’ abuse children rather than our friends or relatives but the evidence suggests the opposite.

Check out my research results page for more.

References and Credits:

Coser, L. A. (1969) ‘The Visibility of Evil’, Journal of Social Issues, 25(1), pp. 101–109.

Image: Frank B. Mason and Family on the Beach, Edward Joseph Head (1863–1937). Photo credit: Tenby Museum & Art Gallery.

Crushed by Silence

‘everybody knew…you knew that they knew and that it was my fault’ Lynne

Abuse exists and thrives in silence. Indeed, in most cases, it depends it. That silence can extend across the entire life of those affected. Many people who have experienced CSA will try to disclose the crime, but evidence suggests that the response may well not be positive. Children are socialised into being victims of CSA and into protecting abusers by keeping it secret. Then the perpetrator, family members and wider society reinforce this secrecy through techniques of neutralisation.


The theory of neutralisation was proposed by Sykes and Matza in 1957. It was developed to explain how teenagers became delinquents despite societal pressure to conform. Following on from this, it has been applied to many deviant behaviours, including paedophilia. The theory lists five rationalisations used by individuals or groups to overcome objections to deviant behaviour: denial of responsibility, denial of harm, victim blaming, questioning or blaming authority and, finally, arguing that the individual should be loyal to the group.

My Research

What I found out is that, as expected, perpetrators of abuse use these arguments to justify what they do (‘it doesn’t cause any harm,’ ‘they wanted it,’ ‘they won’t remember it’ etc). More surprisingly, when people started talking about the abuse that they had experienced these neutralisation techniques were also utilised by their family, friends and professionals (‘it was just experimentation,’ ‘why didn’t you tell anyone straight away?,’ ‘what did you do to make this happen?’, ‘you’ve brought shame on the family.’ etc). Such responses create shame in the victim and silence them.

Silence and shame are fundamental to the experience of CSA and, therefore, of recovering from it. When asked what hinders recovering, the most common answers were ‘family’, ‘understanding’ and ‘support’. It is crucial to note that the actual effects of abuse, such as depression or anxiety, were not mentioned so frequently. This indicates that human interactions, particularly with those closest to us can significantly mould the experience of CSA and recovering from it.

I wish that there had been people that I could have gone to, not necessarily when it was happening because I was terrified of them finding out but afterward to have to have people I could go to who didn’t see me as dirty, or soiled or broken or unworthy or any of things I thought about myself that were reinforced by family members (pause) to have someone say to me ‘no you weren’t the one, it wasn’t your fault and we love you.’’ Ruth


Sykes, G. M. and Matza, D. (1957) ‘Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency’, American Sociological Review, 22(6), pp. 664–670.

Picture ‘Silence’ by Howard Hodgkin. © Estate of Howard Hodgkin. Photo credit: Victoria Art Gallery

Information for Professionals Supporting Adults Recovering from Childhood Sexual Abuse

When I started my PhD I wanted my research primarily to be aimed at people who had experienced childhood sexual abuse. This was because so much previous research was created for professionals. However, the data I gathered does have implications for all sorts of professionals; people working in the law, health, social work, community and voluntary sectors. I have created a handout that you can download here.

The main messages are:

1) Be kind. Participants talked about important interactions with professionals that really changed their lives for the better. It is an opportunity for you to positively impact someone’s life.

2) Be trauma and chronic post traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD) aware. Research suggests that up to 85% of adults who experienced childhood sexual abuse suffer from cPTSD. So it makes sense to assume that people have it, rather than that they do not.

3) Be aware of damaging discourses and don’t perpetuate them. People who have been abused are infantalised and viewed as incapable. They can also be affected by stigma, created by theories such as the ‘cycle of abuse.’

4) In many ways recovering is the opposite of being abused. It is about reclaiming rights, voice, choices and bodily autonomy. Employ the abused person’s personal strengths and those in the networks around them to assist in their recovering.


Cunnington, C. (2020) Adults recovering from Childhood Sexual Abuse: A Salutogenic Approach. PhD Thesis. University of Sheffield, Sheffield.

Johnson, D. M., Pike, J. L. and Chard, K. M. (2001) ‘Factors predicting PTSD, depression, and dissociative severity in female treatment-seeking childhood sexual abuse survivors’, Child Abuse and Neglect, 25(1), pp. 179–198.

Herman, J. L. (1992) Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.

Rodriguez, N. et al. (1996) ‘Posttraumatic stress disorder in a clinical sample of adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse’, Child Abuse and Neglect, 20(10), pp. 943–952.

Artwork: The Touch of Comfort by Carmel Couchi. Photo credit: George Eliot Hospital Chapel.

Four Key Questions

Woman thinking.

My research has identified four key questions for people recovering from childhood sexual abuse to consider. Some of the answers will be individual to you and it is vital that you make your own choices. After thinking of your answers to these questions you might feel that you want to take action yourself or you might want to find help and support from others to help you.

It’s not easy and everyone stumbles, but when we put more time into ourselves, and access the help we need, it’s easier to move from more negative ways of coping to more positive ones.

Recovering is a life-long process. We can’t forget, but we can keep trying to live the life we deserve. I hope these ideas help.

1. Am I safe?

Safety is vital for recovering, not just in the therapist’s room but in your life and many participants referred to it. Some told me about negative experiences in adulthood, such as abusive relationships or bullying at work, that had traumatised them further. Being safe is the bedrock of recovering. It is hard to focus on recovering when you don’t feel safe.

2. Am I heard?

Many people reported that, in general, people didn’t want them to talk about what happened to them. Friends and partners who listened without judgement were appreciated so much. A quarter of people who took part said that relationships were the most important factor in recovering.

For professionals, a warm, understanding, caring approach was really valued. Participants talked about important interactions that really changed their lives for the better. Counselling and therapy were valued by three quarters of survey respondents.

3. What do I like to do?

Abuse involves denying the child the right to choose. Recovering works best when the individual makes their own choices. Nearly three quarters found creative activities helped, such as art, reading, writing, gardening, design, poetry and gaming. It does not matter what it is as long as you love it, it is challenging but achievable, absorbing and fun. This creates a mental state called flow. During flow you feel less anxious, more in control and safer. These benefits can carry over into everyday life.

4. How can I improve my relationship with my body?

The body is an important area where recovering is created and expressed. Abuse creates a mental severance between your body and your mind. Recovering involves making friends with your body again. Nearly half of the people who filled in my survey said they found touch and movement helped, such as sport, yoga, massage, walking and dance. These activities bring many benefits, including creating flow, releasing emotions, helping you feel safer because you are stronger and faster.

If you want to read more about my research visit the resources page.


Image details: Alma-Tadema, Lawrence; Reverie: Far Away Thoughts; Doncaster Museum Service;

Read my Research

Painting of a rainbow over a farm house

My thesis has finally been published online. It’s free for anyone to read. You can read it here:

It doesn’t go into any graphic detail about abuse as it is focused on recovering but it may well be triggering for people with cPTSD. Certainly parts of it were for me but I still think it’s worth writing and, hopefully, reading. It’s written in academic language so I’m working on a two page summary that I’ll post as soon as I can.

I also want to publish a book on it that is jargon free and that’s my next task. Work has been tricky lately as I have my children at home so it’s taking much longer to do anything. I get about an hour’s quiet time a day to do anything that requires thinking so it will take me longer to do.

I was really enjoying teaching undergraduates but it looks like that won’t be available next year as Covid19 has affected the university’s finances. This is a real shame because teaching about inequalities feels like you are contributing, even if only in a small way, to ending them. Hopefully opportunities will pick up again soon.

If you want to ask me anything about the research please use the contact form on the website and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

*Harold Speed; The Rainbow; Museums Sheffield

Dr Cunnington I presume?

My PhD was awarded today. I feel…vindicated and so proud that I’ve turned the most horrible thing that ever happened to me into one of the best. It means SO much to me. Hopefully, it shows that we are not just victims of circumstance, tossed this way and that by fate, we can have some impact upon the future. I’m not sure yet what I’m going to be doing next but I have a few irons in the fire so we’ll see what works out. Whatever I do I will continue fighting for a better world.

Ethics and Research

In my research I’ve found a surprising number of academics that minimise the harm caused or even defend child abuse. Oh look here’s one where his research reflects his interests….

Peter King

You can read about that here. There are many that argue that research should be approached in a scientific manner, without any bias. Personally I don’t think anyone should be scientifically detached when researching such abuse. You can approach your research in a systematic way but you should have an opinion about it. This is why I think we should be honest about our relationship to our research and consider the ethics of it.

Paedophile websites quote favourable academics. This matters because it enables abusers to minimise the harm they will cause. It is not an intellectual exercise – it’s research with real life consequences. We need more researchers, like me, who are honest about experiencing abuse. I am honest because then you know I have an opinion – it’s a blight on humanity – I wish all academics thought the same.