Do the Abused become Abusers?

Short answer: Not in general, no. Long answer follows below.

Billingham, Roy, b.1944; Anger, Frustration, Acceptance
Anger, Frustration, Acceptance by Roy Billingham,  Photo credit: St George’s Hospital

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.

REFERENCES:

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.

 

 

Peer Abuse

Sharp, Dorothea, 1874-1955; Where Children Play and Seagulls Fly
Where Children Play and Seagulls Fly by Dorothea Sharp

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.

 

References

  1. Hamilton, G., 1929. Research in Marriage, New York: Lear. Available at: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015002632910?urlappend=%3Bseq=348. (if you do visit this one be warned it is very much a product of its time i.e. it is sexist and racist)
  2. 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.

 

Abusers in Positions of Power

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)

1)

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.

Finkelhor, D. et al., 2014. The lifetime prevalence of child sexual abuse and sexual assault assessed in late adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Health, 55(3), pp.329–333. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.12.026.

2)

Sobsey, D. & Doe, T., 1991. Patterns of sexual abuse and assault. Sexuality and Disability, 9 (3), pp.243–259.