- Current data suggest that sexual abuse in childhood is more prevalent among people who commit sexual assault than among the general public. In addition, it may be slightly more prevalent among people who sexually abuse children.
- While a history of sexual victimization seems to be one of the risk factors that predispose an individual to commit sexual assault, it does not provide sufficient explanation for most instances of this type of assault.
- There is relatively little evidence that the victim-to-perpetrator cycle is a major factor in sexual assault. Furthermore, the methodological limitations of existing studies curtail the significance of research findings.
- The notion of the “victim-to-perpetrator cycle” should be treated with caution because a child who has been sexually abused could be stigmatized if it is claimed that he or she may go on to become a perpetrator of sexual assault.
- A study of the factors associated with an increased risk that victims of sexual abuse in childhood will later commit sexual assault has shown that males who were abused as children and who became perpetrators of sexual assault as adults had more problems in childhood and adulthood than members of the general public. These findings should thus be considered in efforts to prevent sexual assault.
1) What is the victim-to-perpetrator cycle?
- Several researchers have tried to understand the factors that may increase the likelihood of an individual committing sexual abuse against a child, and to propose theories to explain sexually deviant behaviour toward children. Possible explanations frequently mention that child sexual abusers report having been sexually victimized in childhood.1
- Taking this latter factor into consideration has fed the theory that there is a victim-to-perpetrator cycle; in other words, those who have been sexually victimized as children will go on to commit sexual assault when they reach adulthood. However, this phenomenon has been studied almost exclusively among male perpetrators.
2) Description of the problem
- This persistent belief in the existence of a victim-to-perpetrator cycle, particularly in regard to males who were sexually abused as children, suggests that child sexual abuse may lead to the development of sexual attraction towards children as well as sexually aggressive behaviour that continues into adulthood.
- Therefore, many people believe that most perpetrators of sexual assault were subjected to abuse in childhood and, conversely, fear that sexually abused boys will repeat the same actions and become perpetrators themselves.
3) Prevalence of the victim-to-perpetrator cycle
Among all types of perpetrators
- Several authors reviewed various studies assessing the rate of child sexual abuse reported by 1 717 male perpetrators of sexual assault who had admitted their crimes. Despite a high degree of variability across the samples (from 0% to 75% of the perpetrators reported being sexually victimized), the researchers were able to determine that, overall, 23% of the perpetrators had experienced sexual abuse with physical contact in childhood.1 The authors of this review, as well as other researchers who have examined this issue, concluded that the prevalence of sexual abuse in childhood among people who commit sexual assault later on in life is higher than the average prevalence rate of such abuse among adult males in the general population (10%).2,3
Among child sexual abusers
- More recently, other studies have indicated that child sexual abusers are much more likely to have been sexually victimized as children compared not only to people who sexually assault adults,2,4,5 but also to non-sexual criminals and the general population.6
- In spite of these findings, experts agree that the link between child sexual abuse and the tendency to sexually abuse children as an adult is not clear. This is due in particular to the widely different methodologies used in the various studies.1
- In addition, all of these data must be interpreted with caution because they were obtained from sex offenders who were known to the authorities and who would have been motivated to report a history of sexual abuse in childhood in order to gain sympathy, rationalize or minimize their actions, or even secure more favourable sentences.1,2,7
4) Factors that promote the victim-to-perpetrator cycle
- Several studies have examined the factors that may increase the risk that male victims of child sexual abuse will go on to commit sexual assault.3,8,9,10,11 The key factors are:
- In childhood:
- Severity of the sexual abuse (more than one perpetrator, use of violence, greater frequency, longer duration, significant relationship with the perpetrator, etc.)
- Sexual abuse committed by a woman
- Positive perception of the sexual abuse experienced (positive affection for the perpetrator, perceived pleasure, poor understanding of the negative effects of the abuse, etc.)
- Limited emotional support from family and friends during childhood
- Intimidation and few meaningful social contacts during childhood and adolescence
- Lack of parental supervision
- Adjustment difficulties and mental health problems in childhood and adolescence
- In adulthood:
- Limited awareness of the difficulties associated with having experienced sexual abuse in childhood
- Low self-esteem
- Antisocial behaviour.
5) What do these findings tell us?
- Experts maintain that, in the case of males, being sexually abused in childhood is an important risk factor for committing sexual assault later on in life, but that it is not the only risk factor that plays a role in the perpetration of sexual assault.4
- Most victims of sexual abuse in childhood will not become perpetrators of sexual assault, and a history of sexual victimization is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to sexually offend.6
- Personal and family factors in childhood that have been identified as increasing the risk that a sexually abused child will go on to commit sexual assault suggest that children who obtain specialized treatment, receive sufficient support from family and friends and grow up in an environment where they do not experience maltreatment are less likely to develop a number of problems, including sexually aggressive behaviour.
There is a firmly held belief in the general population that most perpetrators of sexual assault experienced sexual abuse as children and, therefore, that males who were sexually abused in childhood are more likely to commit sexual assault when they grow up. However, apart from the fact that prevalence rates for sexual abuse in childhood are higher among perpetrators of sexual assault than among adult males in the general population, being sexually abused as a child does not seem to be either a necessary or a sufficient condition to sexually offend later on in life. The factors identified as increasing the risk that male victims of child sexual abuse will go on to commit sexual assault suggest that those individuals who do offend had, among other things, more problems in childhood and were unaware of the negative effects of the sexual abuse they had suffered. Nonetheless, these findings have implications for the prevention of sexually aggressive behaviour.
Last update: November 2012
- Hanson, R.K. and Slater, S. (1988). Sexual victimization in the history of child sexual abusers: A review. Annals of Sex Research, 1: 485–499.
- Garland, R.J. and Dougher, M.J. (1990). The abused/abuser hypothesis of child sexual abuse: a critical review of theory and research. In J.R. Feierman, ed., Pedophilia: Biosocial dimensions (pp. 488-519). New York: Springer-Verlag.
- Glasser, M., Kolvin, I., Campbell, D., Glasser, A., Leitch, I. and Farrelly, S. (2001). Cycle of child sexual abuse: Links between being a victim and becoming a perpetrator. British Journal of Psychiatry, 179: 482–494.
- Jespersen, A.F., Lalumière, M.L. and Seto, M.C. (2009). Sexual abuse history among adult sex offenders and non-sex offenders: A meta-analysis. Child Abuse & Neglect, 33(3):179-192.
- Simons, D.A., Wurtele, S.K and Durham, R.K. (2008). Developmental experiences of child sexual abusers and rapists. Child Abuse & Neglect, 32: 549-560.
- Whitaker, D.J., Le, B., Hanson, R.K., Baker, C.K., McMahon, P.M., Ryan, G., et al. (2008). Risk factors for the perpetration of child sexual abuse: A review and meta-analysis. Child Abuse & Neglect,32: 529-548.
- Hindman, J. (1988). Research disputes assumptions about child molesters. National District Attorney Association Bulletin, 7(4): 1-3.
- Craissati, J., McClurg, G. and Browne, K. (2002). Characteristics of perpetrators of child sexual abuse who have been sexually victimised as children. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 14: 225–239.
- Gilgun, J.F. (1991). Resilience and the intergenerational transmission of child sexual abuse. In M.Q. Patton, ed., Family sexual abuse: Frontline research and evaluation (pp. 93-105). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
- Lambie, I., Seymour, F., Lee, A. and Adams, P. (2002). Resiliency in the victim-offender cycle in male sexual abuse. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research & Treatment, 14(1): 31-48.
- Romano, E. and De Luca, R.V. (1996). Characteristics of perpetrators with histories of sexual abuse. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 40(2): 147-156.