A popular misconception is that most child sex offenders were once victims themselves. The theory is based on the erroneous assumption that they’ve become paedophiles – those preferentially sexually attracted to prepubescent children – because of their victimisation.
This is a tidy explanation for a minority of offenders. But for most victims of child sex abuse, this is not only untrue, it’s harmful. It can increase stigma and prevent people from speaking up about their abuse. Some victims may fear they will one day become an offender, or at least develop the desire to offend.
The estimated prevalence of sexual abuse against children varies depending on the study. Prevalence estimates of abuse against males range from 1.4% to 8.0% of the population for penetrative abuse and 5.7% to 16.0% for non-penetrative abuse.
For females, prevalence rates are estimated at 4.0% to 12.0% of the population for penetrative abuse and 13.9% to 36.0% for non-penetrative abuse.
Many empirical studies have investigated a link between sexual victimisation as a child and later sex offending or other delinquent behaviours. As I wrote in my last Conversation article, some studies suggest “anywhere between 33% and 75% of child sex offenders report being sexually abused as children”.
Others debunk the theory. A 2001 study, for example, combined self-reports of childhood abuse histories with polygraph tests for child sex offenders.
Before the polygraph test, 61% of adult offenders claimed to have been sexually abused as children, compared to 30% after the polygraph. This indicates that more sex offenders claim to have been sexually abused as children than actually have a history of abuse.
A more recent study from 2016, of more than 38,000 males, found that very few who were sexually abused went on to become offenders themselves: only 4% of the sexual offenders studied had a confirmed history of child sex abuse themselves.
The researchers said the findings may provide:
reassurance that sexually abusing others may be a rare outcome of sexual victimisation.
So, the answer to the question “does child sexual abuse create paedophiles” is, largely, “no”. A small percentage of victims will go on to become offenders, but the vast majority won’t.
A word of caution with the data
Our current understanding of the victim-offender cycle in child sexual abuse comes from studies based on interviews with incarcerated sex offenders or those in treatment programs, or self-report measures. These are inherently unreliable methods, which fail to get to the bottom of a sex offender’s victimisation history.
Another problem with these studies lies not with the offenders themselves, but with the researchers’ “expectancy biases”. Those interviewing sex offenders, for instance, may ask about childhood sexual abuse and note its presumed significance to the offender’s criminal history. They may end up putting more emphasis on this link than other (perhaps more causative) factors.
Third, experts estimate only one in 20 cases of child sexual abuse are ever reported. We are therefore missing huge swathes of the information.
Fourth, lost from this analysis are two core groups whose voices are essential to this dialogue if we are to ever truly understand the cycle of violence within child sexual abuse: the offenders who are never caught; and paedophiles who never offend against children. We know virtually nothing about either of these two groups.
Another group that is heavily under-researched are the victims of child sexual abuse who don’t go on to offend. One study entitled I Couldn’t Do It to a Kid Knowing What It Did to Me looked at 47 men who were victims of child sexual abuse. Four themes arose as to why these men would not go on to become offenders themselevs: empathy, morals, a lack of sexual desire, or a combination of the three.
Researchers recognise these limitations, but because child sexual abuse and the attraction to children are such taboo and hidden subjects, it makes it almost impossible to use more reliable methods of data collection.
Very few paedophiles, for instance, would ever admit to having sexual desires towards children, as they fear being ostracised by their community, workplaces and families, even if they have never (and would never) harm a child.
If we want to protect children from sexual abuse, we need to better understand why most victims of child sexual abuse don’t offend as much as we need to understand why some do.
It is in the public interest to base treatment plans and support networks on accurate research and a full understanding of this issue; otherwise they are destined to fail.
Xanthe Mallett does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
Authors: Xanthe Mallett, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Criminology, University of New England