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Breaking the Cycle of Abuse from Victim to Offender

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 3205 words Published: 7th Aug 2019

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Breaking the cycle of abuse from victim to offender. The relationship between adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s) and sex offenders: A social work perspective.


  • What evidence is there of a link between sexual offenders and ACE’s? This will look at the relation between ACE’s and childhood violent/sexual offending.
  • Is there a correlation between violent/sexual abuse and violent/sexual offences?
  • What role can social work play in preventing or reducing violent/sexual offending? This will look at the best model of practice when working with violent /sexual offenders.

Chapter One

There have been various studies linking childhood experiences to adult behaviour the most notable of these is the The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) which was a research study conducted by the American health maintenance organization Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Cdc.gov. 2014).Participants were recruited to the study between 1995 and 1997 and have been in long-term follow up for health outcomes (Anda and Felitti 2003). The study has demonstrated an association of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) with health and social problems across the natural life of an individual (Anda et al 2005). One main criticism of this study pertains to the

This ACE’s study identified three main types of abuse; these are separated into ten categories:

  1. Abuse: Physical, sexual and emotional
  2. Neglect: Physical and emotional
  3. Household disruption: Domestic violence, household substance misuse, household mental illness, parental separation or divorce and parental incarceration (Samhsa.gov.2018). 


  • Anda, R,F. and Felitti, V,J (2003) Origind and Essence of the Study. [Online] Available from http://thecrimereport.s3.amazonaws.com/2/94/9/3076/acestudy.pdf Date accessed
  •  Cdc.gov. (2014). About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study Error processing SSI file. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html [Accessed 8 Dec. 2018].
  • Anda, R. F., Felitti, V. J., Bremner, J. D., Walker, J. D., Whitfield, C., Perry, B. D., Dube, S. R., and Giles, W. H. (2005). The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood. A convergence of evidence from neurobiology and epidemiology. European archives of psychiatry and clinical neuroscience256(3), 174-86.
  • Samhsa.gov. (2018). Adverse Childhood Experiences | SAMHSA. [online] Available at: https://www.samhsa.gov/capt/practicing-effective-prevention/prevention-behavioral-health/adverse-childhood-experiences [Accessed 8 Dec. 2018].

Is sexual offending by juveniles significantly influenced by ACE’s?

Chapter Two: The cycle of abuse: is there any truth that victims will become offenders?

There has been a great deal of research into the link between ACE’s and sexual offending behaviour against children later in life (Bagley, Wood and Young, 1994; Burton, Miller and Shill, 2002; DeLisi, Kosloski, Vaughn, Caudill and Trulson, 2014; Dennison and LeClerc, 2011; Felson and Lane 2009; Hilton and Mezey 1996; Jespersen, Lalumiere and Seto 2009; Romano and De Luca, 1997; Whitaker et al., 2008). There are various psychological theories that explore the nature of child sex abuse (CSA), these theories look to explain why men commit child sex offences. They are unable to explain why the majority of victims are female but the majority of child sex offenders are male (Plummer and Cossins 2018).

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This has led to considerable debate and research papers on the masculine aspects of child abuse, (Hanson and Morton-Bourgon, 2005; Purvis and Ward, 2006; Richards, 2011 and Robertiello and Terry, 2007). These research papers largely overlook female sex offenders and they do not offer any theories regarding the role gender plays in CSA. This is an oversight as none ask the question why men and not women have a higher risk of becoming child sex offenders (Cossins, 2000).

These papers instead focus on the why behind the offending behaviour this includes any ACE’s that may have occurred during childhood. This lack of a theoretical framework is detrimental to discovering why sexually abused males rather than sexually abused females are more likely to become child sex offenders. The examination of the relationship between becoming victim to offender in later life may relate to how the individual experiences the abuse, the onset of puberty and sexual development and the image and concept of masculinity (Messerschmidt, 2000). The statistical evidence verifies the difference in gender for victims of CSA.

Studies done internationally tracking the occurrence of CSA reveal that girls are more likely to be the victims of sexual abuse than boys. Finkelhor (2008) stated that during the first decade of this century there had been a decrease in the occurrence of CSA, this was refuted by Pereda et al, (2009a) who determined that the occurrences of CSA remained consistent as their study into 22 countries found that 19.7% of women and 7.9% of men had experienced CSA before the age of 18. These finding were strengthened by a more comprehensive study of 331 independent samples from 217 international publications between 1982 and 2008 which found the combined occurrence of CSA of 18% for females and 7.6% for males (Stoltenborgh et al., 2011). These studies clarify information regarding the gender of those victimised by CSA although it does show significant differences across continents with Australia having the highest occurrence for girls (21.5%) and Africa for boys (19.3%) (Stoltenberg et al 2011). This information which shows the ratio of 2.5 women for every male victim of CSA (Pereda et al,. 2009b) and if following the process that those who have been abused will in turn abuse there should be a higher percentage of female abusers. This is not backed up by statistical evidence as most victims both male and female where abused by adolescent males or men known to the family (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2014,2015; National Institute of Justice, 2003). The statistics do not answer what drives a man to commit sex offense against children. Is child offending about violence, sex, power, mental illness, personality disorders or deviance? These questions remain unanswered and one of the main indicators of who will become a child sex offender is gender (Murphy et al, 1996). This is due to the majority of CSA being initiated and carried out by adolescent males and men with roughly 5% of abusers being female (Williams and Bierie 2015). 

Most studies have relied on information gathered from those who are within the prison system to determine the statistical evidence of ACE’s within the offender population (Elliott, Browne and Kilcoyne 1995; Felson and Lane 2009, Romano and De Luca 1997). There are inherent drawbacks to this method as it is not representative of the general population and relies on self reporting which criminal activity may be under or over reported. There is also the consideration that there is no comparison within the prison population of non-offenders (Simon and Wurtele and Durham 2008). These studies and others have found that those who have been sexually abused less than 15 years of age are significantly more likely to abuse younger victims.  These studies also found that those abused by males have more indicators of sexual attraction to children (Burton, 2003; Johnson and Knight, 2000; Kobayashi et al 1995; Marshall and Barbaree 1990; Marshall and Marshall 2000; Seto 2008; Ward and Siegert 2002).

There have been conflicted findings regarding the age of victims when they are abused, this may be in relation to methodology and the variety of sample sizes in different studies (Goldman and Padayachi, 1997; Gordon, 1990). Gordon (1990) discovered through the study of 585 men and women within a community study that boys were older than girls at the on-set of the abuse. In comparison a random community study of 2626 men and women that there was no significant difference between ages at the on-set of abuse (Finkelhor 2008). The difference between these studies may be due to the age that the abuse was reported as the child may have reached an age when they were able to understand the nature of the abuse. This may also be in relation to changes in behaviour becoming apparent and the authorities becoming involved. Clinical studies have found no major age differences between genders (Briere et al,. 1988).Other studies have found that boys are most commonly younger than females at the on-set of abuse. This would seem to indicate that the younger the individual is at the on-set of abuse would increase the risk of later sexual offending (Dejong et al 1983; Schaefer et al,. 2012).

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This is contradicted by a study done by Ogloff et al (2012) that found that 5% of male victims of sexual abuse were convicted of sexual offending compared with 0.6% of male sex offenders who had no history of sexual abuse. This study also found that age played a role in sexual offending against a child, as those who had been abused aged 12 or over had a much higher offending rate with 9.2% convicted of a sex offence. This study found that 10% of boys who experienced CSA at age 12 or over when compared to boys who were 12 or under at the on-set of the abuse (0.1%).  The age at the on-set of abuse has been found to be an indicator of later offending behaviours (Feiring et al,. 1999). This may be in relation to the psychosexual development at that age due to the on-set of puberty. This can also be linked with the psychological outcomes as the abuse at this heightened time may cause a psychological association between the sexual drive and abuse at they become intertwined within the psychological and psychosexual development of the individual (Cutajar et al 2010).

The duration and frequency of abuse is linked with the more serious types of abuse such as penetration (Bagley et al 1994). This can be linked with the more negative and severe psychosocial outcomes (Briere et al, 1988; Bietchman et al, 1991; Burton et al, 2002; Hunter and Figueredo, 2000; Ruggiero et al, 2000). Wellman (1993) surveyed 824 males and females and found women reported much higher rates of abuse than their male counterparts. The duration of abuse is normally much longer for females than males, Ullman and Filipas (2005) found that women reported abuse over the span of years unlike their male counterparts. A clinical sample of 365 adult respondents who had been victims of CSA confirmed that women are abused over a longer period than males (Kendall-Tackett and Simon 1992).

There have been studies which indicate the long term impact of CSA to negative outcomes for the victims based on the duration of the abuse. This should not imply that duration can be linked with the victim becoming an offender. A clinical study done of 88 male victims of which 41 were child sex offenders found that duration had little impact on offending behaviour (Lambie, et al 2002). Other studies have found that in comparison the duration of abuse can indicate the likelihood of offending behaviour. Victims of sustained and lengthy periods of CSA were more probable to offend in later life (Burton et al, 2002).

These studies into duration may be inconclusive as an indicator of future offending behaviour. The use of studies into frequency of CSA may provide greater clarity in indicating if an individual will display offending behaviour in later life (Bietchman et al,. 1991; McClellan et al,. 1997; Nash et al,. 1993; Ruggiero et al 2000). A random community sample of 750 males revealed that those who had experienced a multitude of incidents of CSA in comparison to males who had been the victim of a single incident or had no experience with CSA were much more likely to sexual offend against a child or adolescent in later life (Bagley et al,. 1994). A clinical study of 235 male victims of CSA found that the frequency of CSA increased the likelihood of more extreme abuse and that this has a greater impact on the developing psychosocial and sexual development of the individual. This indicates that there is an increased risk of sexual offending behaviour during adolescence and in later life (Hunter and Figueredo 2000). In comparison Ogloff et al (2012) found that the frequency does not impact on future offending behaviour.

The frequency of abuse may be an influencing factor in the evolution from victim to offender although this does not answer why most offenders are male. The above studies do not take into account that females are more likely to have repeated incidents of CSA but do not become offenders (Singh, Parsekar and Nair, 2014). The explanation for why more males who are victims of CSA become offenders that female may be linked to the threshold of developing sexually abusive behaviour based on the frequency and duration of abuse. Male victims appear to have a much lower threshold than females before adapting their behaviour into offending.  McClellan (1997) found in the study of 273 victims aged 5-18 years old who displayed sexually inappropriate behaviour that females are more likely to develop reactive behaviours such as flirting or inappropriate grabbing or touching. Males were more likely to develop victimising sexual behaviour.  

The question of victim to offender cannot be answered without looking at the gender of the abuser. The majority of child sex offenders are male (Bendixen et al,. 1994; Faller, 1989; Mohler-Kuo et al 2014). Female child sex offenders are more likely to abuse boys rather than girls (Dube et al,. 2005). Glasser et al, (2001) stated that the evolution from victim to offender was most closely associated with female perpetrators and male victims. This increased if the perpetrators where familial either a mother or sister. These finding were collaborated by Briggs and Hawkins (1996) who found that CSA committed by a female relative increased the likelihood of future offending behaviour in comparison to a male relative. This cannot fully explain the evolution from victim to offender as the majority of offenders are predominantly male and as such gender may have little influence (McGufrey, 2008).

To understand the evolution from victim to offender an important aspect is the psychological trauma undergone by the victim (Fondacaro et al,. 1990; Herbert et al,. 2006). This includes the degree of helplessness and loss of control felt by the victim. The upsurge of sexual aggression by a male victim may relate to the confusion and anxiety felt during and after the abuse. This may be an attempt to reassert their masculinity (Kobayashi 1995). The relationship between victim and abuser plays an important role as this can be an indicator of future offending behaviour. This perceived closeness by the victim to the offender may impact on how the child perceives future relationships (Wyre, 2000). There may be a level of dependency between victim and offender and if this occurs and the victim perceives this abuse and identifies it with affection, and acceptance this may become their norm (McAlinden, 2014).

There are studies which can find little or no evidence of a cycle of abuse of victim to offender (Hanson and Slater 1998; Salter et al., 2003; Thomas and Fremouw 2009; Wisdom and Ames 1994). Salter et al, (2003) used a longitudinal study found that 26 individual out of the 224 (12%) that made up the study later committed sexual offences predominantly against children. The study had a follow up period of 7 to 19 years but it was discovered that the offence occurred relatively quickly after the abuse. The average age that the abuse occurred was 11 and the offence was committed was 14 years old. These offenders were predominantly abused by female abusers and these adolescents had at least 4 ACE’s. One criticism of Salter et al (2003) is the lack of a comparison group of male offenders who had not been sexually abused (Jespersen, Lalumière and Seto, 2009). Other studies have found that victims of CSA have other areas within the ACE’s categories that impact on their offending behaviour. These studies argue that to say that those abused will become abusers is simplifying a complex issue that has other variables that should be taken into account (Cowburn and Dominelli, 2001; Fisher and McDonald 1998; Freel 2003; Gold, Hughes and Swingle 1996; Little and Hamby, 1999; Putnam 2003; Walrath et al 2003).


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  • McAlinden, A. (2014). ‘Grooming’ and the Sexual Abuse of Children. Oxford: OUP Oxford.
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  • Williams, K., and Bierie, D. (2015). An incident-based comparison of female and male sexual offenders. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 27(3), 235–257.
  • Jepersen,A., Lalumier, M. and Seto, M (2009). Sexual abuse history among adult sex offenders and non-sex offenders: A meta-analysis. Child abuse and Neglect, 33(3)., Pg 179-192
  • Singh, M., Parsekar, S. and Nair, S. (2014). An epidemiological overview of child sexual abuse. Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, 3(4), p.430.


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