Short answer: Not in general, no. Long answer follows below.
Most studies into offending get their data by asking child abuse offenders if they experienced sexual abuse as children (CSA), with many reporting that they did. It has been pointed out that their word is not necessarily reliable and they may have other reasons for stating this.
Not many studies look at abuse victims and survivors in general. A recent Dutch study by de Jong and Dennison (2017) looked at the history of offending amongst 943 child abuse victims, comparing them with 1439 of their siblings, over a 30 year period. They also compared these with a control group of 645 randomly chosen people. So this is not a small scale study.
They found that victims of CSA are at a higher risk of being convicted of a crime, in general, than the control group. Looking at child abuse convictions specifically they found that some CSA victims did have higher rates of convictions but so did their (non victim?) siblings.
What does that mean? It suggests that it is the family environment and experiences, or even genetics, that creates offenders, not the experience of CSA. A question here is whether the siblings were also abused but their abuse was not part of the original court case. de Jong and Dennison looked again at the data excluding convictions for incest and found higher rates of violent offending, traffic crimes and drugs offences for victims but again no higher rates of CSA offending.
If you look at it by gender they found a small but not statistically significant (so it could just be by chance) rise in CSA offences in women who were victims of CSA and no rise in offences by men who had experienced CSA. This last point is very interesting as the majority of convicted abusers are men but there is no evidence, in this study, that abuse creates abusers.
What this study also highlights are the higher risks of criminal behaviour for people who have experienced CSA and this is important too. I believe this is proof that we need better support and information for victims and survivors to help them in their recovery. Society in general will benefit, from reduced crime rates and happier people, as well as the individual themselves.
de Jong, R and Dennison,S (2017) Recorded offending among child sexual abuse victims: A 30-year follow-up. Child Abuse & Neglect 72, 75-84.
I thought it was time that I update you all on how the research is going. I’ve had 79 responses to the survey so far. Thank you so much to everyone who has taken the time to fill it in. There are responses from people of different ethnicities, abilities and ages (from 18-70+). The majority live in the UK but there are responses from all over the world. Most of the responses are from women (86%) with 14% from men.
There are themes coming out regarding recovering from abuse and I’m going to explore them further through interviews. So many people have offered to take part in interviews (over half). Thank you so much! I’m not going to be able to interview everyone but I will try to talk to as many people as I can. I will contact people in the New Year to arrange these interviews, which can be face to face or by phone, skype, email or messenger.
I wanted to feedback to everyone about two themes that have come out strongly in your responses, as they don’t cost much and are available to most people. If you want to try them please do. A few people have said that these things did not help them so be aware that they may not work for you.
There are many comments regarding the positive effects of creativity, in any form, on recovering. Examples people have given so far include: drawing, painting, writing, poetry, music, crafts, dance, gardening and sewing.
If you haven’t yet taken part, and want to, the survey can be found here. I’m going to keep it open for another few months and I’ll keep updating the website with information as I get it. If you try yoga or something creative I’d love to hear how you get on. You can comment below, fill in the survey or email me.
Thanks once again to everyone who has filled in the survey, shared it or is interested in the research.
Recently I have been told that it is not ethical to research something I have experienced because I will not be objective. Objectivity is seen as key to the scientific method and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the ability to consider or represent facts, information, etc., without being influenced by personal feelings or opinions; impartiality; detachment.’
It is true. I am not objective. I think that the abuse of children is a blight on humanity. How unemotional can we be when we study the human world that we live in? Is anyone unemotional about child abuse? Surely it is expecting too much and may in fact be an unwanted approach. Sociologist Richard Jenkins argues that if objectivity means being unemotional it is at best misguided and at worst dangerous: the ‘sociologist without politics or values, without an ethical point of view on the human world, sounds too much like [Weber’s] ‘specialists without spirit’ (2002, p.9).
I think that the use of the term ‘objectivity’ is actually to suggest that I will in some way manipulate the data to reflect my own views. I have no intention of doing so. I will try, as I hope all researchers do, to represent and consider all viewpoints in the data I gather in any research I publish. The conclusions will be mine, as with most research studies and this is why I think it’s important that I state where I am coming from. Also the anonymised data set will be available to other researchers so my interpretations can be evaluated. As Paul Hunt (1981) said, regarding the disability rights movement, ‘Oppressed groups have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, from the most precise and thorough understanding of the situation we are struggling to change. To change our oppressive reality we cannot afford to leave out of account any significant factor in the situation’ (p.43) and I completely agree with this approach.
There are people critical of the scientific method itself. Donna Haraway (2004) views science as ‘rhetoric, a series of efforts to persuade relevant social actors that one’s manufactured knowledge is a route to a desired form of very objective power’ (p.577). Hunt (1981) argued that experts are more concerned with ‘presenting themselves to the powers-that-be as indispensable’ than questioning the status quo (p.39). Thus the veneer of objectivity when it comes to researching humanity can be seen as just as much manufactured and political as anything else.
Others have suggested that I should not disclose that I am an abuse survivor because it compromises my status as a researcher. Although I am aware of the relative power my position as a researcher brings I do not see the participants as objects to be studied but my equals; people active in their own recovery. I don’t see my experience of recovering as particularly special or having more validity than anyone elses so whilst I have opinions on recovering it doesn’t mean I’m right.
It can be argued that having experienced the issue being studied means I have a deeper understanding which can then be tested against others experience. The ‘only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular’ (Haraway, 2004, p.590). Researching from the perspective of marginalised or oppressed people adds a fuller and thus more complete view of society as well as challenging the status quo (Harding, 2004). I may well approach the subject from a completely different angle than someone who has not experienced it and surely different viewpoints mean a richer understanding?
There also seems to be an undercurrent here, maybe I’m being paranoid, of infantilising people who have experienced abuse. Does anyone say to an Asian British person that they can’t research racism? Or a woman can’t research sexism? Or that they cannot disclose their status as a person affected by the subject of their research? Is it because people who have experienced childhood sexual abuse are seen as inherently vulnerable and fundamentally ‘ruined’ that we are incapable of doing research without further damaging ourselves or others? Do we really believe that all the current researchers in this area are unaffected by it?
Alcoff and Gray (1993) argue that survivor voices are subversive and inherently political because they attack the dominant discourse in society and question truths; ‘At various times and in different locations survivor speech has been absolutely prohibited, categorized as mad or untrue, or rendered inconceivable’ (p.265). There are gender differences in these silencing techniques; women are labelled as hysteric or having a victim personality, men silenced through fears of homophobia and loss of masculine status (Alcoff & Gray, 1993). Ultimately I do see my disclosure of being a survivor of abuse as being political and is, therefore, to me a moral requirement. Other researchers can choose for themselves of course.
Alcoff, L. & Gray, L. (1993) Survivor Discourse : Transgression or Recuperation ? Signs, 18(2), pp.260–290.
Haraway, D. (2004) Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies. Vol 14. 3. 575-599.
Harding, S. (2004) The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. New York: Routledge. Smith,
Hunt, P. (1981) Settling accounts with the parasite people: a critique of “A Life Apart” by E.J. Miller and G.V. Gwynne. Disability Challenge, (1), pp.37–51.
Jenkins, R. (2002) Foundations of Sociology. Basingstoke, Macmillan.
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.
I’m really pleased that my survey passed ethics approval at the University of Sheffield. I was concerned before I started my PhD that it would be tricky as people who have experienced abuse are seen (in general) as inherently ‘vulnerable.’ My argument has always been that whilst people who have experienced abuse might have mental and/or physical health issues resulting from trauma they must also be extremely resilient to have survived it. Besides if having mental health issues made you unable to be consulted that’d exclude the majority of humans at one point or another!
It is vital to me that people who have experienced abuse (victims, survivors, people or whatever they want to call themselves) should have a say in how their recovery is managed. I don’t believe asking them is particularly upsetting; it is not as though the issue goes away if we don’t ask about it. I also find it quite offensive that we (survivors of abuse) are placed in a different box from normal people when we ARE normal people! We are just normal people who experienced trauma in childhood.
The ethics approval process is very rigorous as the point is to avoid doing any harm to participants. I completely appreciate that, as I’d hate to cause any harm, and I’m really glad that the University supports research such as mine. The next step is to pilot the survey and then get as many responses (and opinions!) as possible. If you are interested in the survey or helping me pilot it please check out my survey page.
Peer abuse has been in the news lately, that is abuse of children by children. The assumption is that abuse by children has risen. I don’t know if we can conclude that or not. It may be true but it may also be that we haven’t been asking the right questions before.
What is or isn’t a crime is defined by our society and this has changed over time. When I was a child, in the 1970’s, being groped by another teenager at school was not seen as a crime. It was extremely common. It wasn’t reported to anyone.
Most surveys ask about abuse perpetrators who are 5 years or more older than the victim so they will miss some abuse by children. However when a more open question is asked the results can be rather different. In 1929 an American survey asked about childhood abuse. Perpetrators were reported as 38% adult males, 20% women and 42% adolescents or peers (1). A 2014 study of literature researching abuse of cared for children found that between 13-70% of reported child sexual abuse was by peers (2), so the percentage varies widely from one study to another. Does it actually vary though?
The internet, social media and easy access to pornography may well have affected the amount and/or severity of children abusing children. There may also be more willingness to report such crimes. We do also need to ask the right questions to gauge the real extent of the problem.
Timmerman, M.C. & Schreuder, P.R., 2014. Sexual abuse of children and youth in residential care: An international review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 19(6), pp.715–720. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2014.09.001.
I’m in The Hague for the next few days at the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (ISPCAN) conference. There have been lots of interesting papers so far but I was inspired to blog about two sessions today from Bessel Van de Kolk because it’s all about the effects of trauma on the brain and how to recover from it – so exactly what I am interested in.
People’s normal response to a traumatic incident, he used the example of the twin towers attack on 9/11, is to run away and specifically run home. This is because running is a very effective strategy when you are in danger and home is a safe place.
The picture here was drawn by a 5 year old boy who was involved in 9/11. He drew this the day after, when he had escaped to his safe home. It shows the towers, falling people and at the top right a fireball. What touched me is that the black circle in the bottom of the picture is apparently a trampoline to help the people falling. It shows the inherent goodness and optimism of kids in my opinion.
But what happens when you cannot run, because you are prevented from escape? Also what happens if home is not safe? He said that in one study adults were asked if they felt safe with anyone as a child. A large percentage (didn’t write it down but I think it was around 45%) said they did not.
So this is where PTSD and other traumatic responses come in. Without the ability to escape and/or a safe person or place to help the child stays in a panic state into adulthood, which they do not have the ability to process. He describes it as being stuck with a broken alarm system – either overreacting or under reacting to events.
This panic state is either numbed emotionally, expressed explosively or dulled through behaviour that can be harmful long term (drink, drugs etc). Bessel argues that the very first thing a person who has been abused needs to learn is how to calm down in a safe, healthy way.
Apparently he asked Nelson Mandela how he stayed so calm when in prison. Mandela said it was boxing – because it helped him become aware of his body. Bessel van de Kolk recommends yoga, mindfulness, tai chi – anything involving movement and mindfulness.
Bessel has written a book about this ‘The Body Keeps the Score‘ which is very good. I realised that I had misunderstood what PTSD was. I had thought it was like on tv or the movies where a Vietnam vet is still hallucinating being in a war zone despite being at home. Instead complex PTSD can involve avoiding anything that reminds the person of their abuser(s) and can also involve using coping strategies (like drink or drugs) to reduce anxiety. ACT therapy is recommended as a useful treatment. It involves mindfulness and accepting that you will always have strong feelings about being abused and that trying to deny them actually causes problems. It’s an approach that makes sense (to me anyway).
So there’s a number of things you can try here if you are struggling:
1. Get tested for complex PTSD by your GP – The most important one I think!
3. Tai chi
4. Martial arts
6. Read any books by Russ Harris (who designed ACT therapy). They have stupid titles in my opinion but are useful books.
7. Get ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ by Bessel Van De Kolk.
How do abusers get access to children? Researchers have asked people who have experienced abuse and, over the years, a pretty consistent picture has emerged. On average the majority of abusers are people known to the family; neighbours, acquaintances and people in authority. The next largest group is family members, including step-family, followed by a smaller percentage of strangers. The percentages change from study to study but average around the following number ranges; acquaintances – 60-74%, family – 18-44% and strangers 11-26% (1).
There are lots of areas to discuss further, for example, gender and age differences in both perpetrator and victim, but for this blog I want to look at perpetrators who put themselves in positions of power. One shocking study I read looked at the rates of child sexual abuse experienced by children with disabilities. Sobsey and Doe found that 96% of abused disabled children knew their abuser (2). 44% reported that their abuser was from disability support services, so the child would not have come into contact with their abuser if they did not have a disability.
This study relates to recent articles about abuse in football, the clergy and by United Nations international aid workers. People with an interest in children are going to seek out opportunities to be with children and ways to have power over them. Obviously in many cases employees working with children are subject to criminal record checks but with the extremely low rate of abuse convictions there must be many offenders without a criminal record.
Personally I think that another approach is the education of parents and children. The website Dare2Care has good resources available. The NSPCC underwear campaign is an excellent way of teaching young children that their body belongs to them and that they can say no. I’m not suggesting it is children’s responsibility to stop abuse (abusers are responsible for abuse) but more that knowing that they can talk to someone if something makes them uncomfortable can be really useful. At the moment most abuse is not disclosed to anyone until the victim is an adult, so we need to encourage children to feel safe to speak up.
References (Again apologies for those articles not available online)
Finkelhor, D., 1980. Risk Factors in the Sexual Victimization of Children. Child Abuse & Neglect, 4, pp.265–273.
Russell, D.E.H., 1983. The Incidence and Prevalence of Intrafamilial and Extrafamilial Sexual Abuse of Female Children. Child Abuse & Neglect, 7, pp.133–146.
There’s been a lot in the news lately about the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) denying compensation to victims of child sexual abuse (CSA) on the grounds that they consented. I wonder how many of these were teenagers because we do really seem to have a problem addressing CSA when teenagers are the victims.
There is a long history of this. Before the Victorian era the age of consent was generally set at the onset of puberty (between 10-12 years old) however children were engaged and married earlier, especially in the upper classes (1). In 1885 a new law was proposed to raise the age of consent to 16, for girls, to enable prosecution of people exploiting younger teenagers. However many MPs were opposed. Here’s a quote from Charles Hopwood, MP.
‘these girls who went wrong from an early age were just as familiar with the result of their actions as those of an older age. [“No!”] It was all very well to cry “No!” but those Members who did so were judging by their own families, who were carefully nurtured and preserved from contamination; but girls who went upon the streets came from a different class.’ (2)
So this isn’t just about the age of the victims but also class. Eventually the law was passed, thanks to a press campaign, but the exploitation of teenagers continued. In 1989 Wild (3) studied ‘child sex rings’ in Leeds and found 334 child victims in 31 cases with nine having a commercial basis. Thus we have child sexual exploitation (CSE) identified back in the 1980’s. I’m not sure what was done about this, if anything.
Now we have another opportunity to tackle CSE. I’d argue that the first step is to agree that a child cannot consent to sexual exploitation. Finkelhor (4) says that for:
‘true consent to occur, two conditions must prevail. A person must know what it is that he or she is consenting to, and a person must be free to say yes or no… children lack the information that is necessary to make an “informed” decision about the matter. They are ignorant about sex and sexual relationships…children have a hard time saying no to adults.’
Can we just agree this point, embed it in our government agencies and get on with sorting the actual issue out, rather than blaming the victims?
REFERENCES (apologies that these are not all available online)
Ingram, M., (1987). Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570-1640, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hansard, (1885). Commons Sitting of Friday, 31st July, 1885., London. Available here: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1885/jul/31/criminal-law-amendment-bill-lords-bill
Wild, N.J., (1989). Prevalence of Child Sex Rings. Pediatrics, 83(4), p.553.
Finkelhor, D., (1979). What’s wrong with sex between adults and children? Ethics and the problem of sexual abuse. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 49(4), pp.692–697.
My research is looking at recovery from childhood sexual abuse (CSA). As a survivor I think that recovery is about much more than counselling, it’s about how we relate to others, how we explain life, how we see ourselves, how we express ourselves – and much more. You might have a different opinion. I’ve got a survey prepared that aims to understand how other survivors and victims see recovery. It’s going through ethics approval at the University of Sheffield at the moment and once it’s ready I’ll post the link on here.
In the meantime I’ve created this website as my space to post about my research and CSA issues in general. One of the things I’d like to do is write about the research that has been carried out already and what it tells us about victims and perpetrators. So my next post will be about that.