Child Sexual Abuse: The Experiences of Victims and Abusers

Though “It is well known that people who commit sex offences against children often remain a danger to them for the rest of their lives” (Children Webmag Editorial News Views March 2011), it is largely a myth; a small percentage of abusers remain a danger. So why has this myth gained so much currency? To try and understand this, we need to understand the real state of child sexual abuse.

The broad picture

We do not know how many sex offenders there are in England and Wales but, based on victim studies, a conservative estimate of 2-3 million would seem reasonable. Of these around 150,000 are known to the authorities and fewer than 50,000 are on the sex offenders register. So why the big discrepancy?

First, adult studies show us that half of all victims of domestic violence never tell anyone; only a quarter tell the police (Walby and Allen, 2004). The figure of six or seven percent of sex offenders being convicted which is often bandied about arises from including all these victims, whereas, if you only consider those cases referred to the police, the conviction rate for sex offences is no different from those for offences of a similar level of seriousness (Stern, 2010).

Among the reasons why adults do not disclose are

  • high self-esteem
  • denial and victim-blaming (Dziech and Hawkins, 1998).

Adults with high self-esteem are more likely to ‘rise above’ the experience of the assault. If the assault was the sort which could also happen to the hearer of the disclosure, the hearer is more likely to deny that the event took place or blame the victim for bringing it on themselves in order to protect themselves from the fear that they too might become a victim.

Among the reasons why children do not disclose abuse are:

  • lack of awareness of or acceptance that it is abuse (Cawson et al., 2000)
  • belief that it is up to them to deal with it (La Fontaine, 1991)
  • preference for sexual abuse over emotional abuse (Woodiwiss, 2009).

Children do not consider as abuse many things that adults regard as abuse; one explanation for this may be that people typically overestimate the risks to others and minimise the risks they think they can control (Cole, 1998). For example, a social worker friend described how she had been far more disturbed by the adults’ reactions when, as a ten year old, she told them that someone had ‘flashed’ at her. A friend who was accosted by a paedophile and told him to go away never told her mother because she knew that her mother would place restrictions on her and, having been able to handle the situation successfully, she certainly did not want to have any restrictions placed on her.

Victims’ responses to sexual abuse vary very widely from being “forever scarred” (Dziech and Hawkins, 1998, p. xvi) to “seemingly untouched” (p. xvii) by almost identical experiences.

A small percentage of victims whose assaults had necessitated hospital treatment forget about the assault completely (Goodman et al., 2003); others rise above the situation or find ways of dealing with it themselves, including some who choose sexual abuse as an escape from emotional abuse (Woodiwiss, 2009). In these cases there is no incentive to disclose the sexual abuse because they would be returned to the emotionally abusive situation. Moreover, as the Acting Reporter in the Orkney case observed (Inquiry into the Removal of Children from Orkney in February 1991, 1992), children usually want the abuse to stop and, if that happens, they are unlikely to disclose the abuse because child victims of sexual abuse, particularly if abused by parents, are often stigmatised by their peers (Konopka, 1966). They may also fear stigmatisation by association in view of the current demonisation of sex offenders.

Child victims of sexual abuse

Around 50% more offenders commit offences against children than against adults (Hood et al., 2002) but, as children and young people only account for around a fifth of the population, this means they are far more likely than adults to be victims. So most adults who have been victims would have been victims during their childhood or youth. Of these, younger child victims are more likely to have been in low income families and adolescent victims in middle income families (Rodriguez-Srednicki and Twaite, 2006).

Sixteen per cent of children and young people (11% boys, 21% girls) were assessed by Cawson et al. (2000) as having been sexually abused, though only six per cent described themselves as victims of sexual abuse. Around two-thirds of sexual abuse takes place within the family, most within the wider family where uncles or grandparents may be the abusers but within the immediate family brothers are by far the most likely abusers. Only around 6% are victims of abuse by a parental figure.

Outside the family, the most likely abusers are a boy/girlfriend, someone they have recently met, a fellow student/pupil or a family friend. The involvement of other young people in many sexual offences is confirmed by Quayle and Taylor (2006) who found that twenty per cent of young people receive sexual approaches over a year, about half of them from other young people, and that older adolescents rather than adults are the largest group who solicit over the Internet. Around two per cent of victims are abused by professionals such as priests or teachers (Cawson et al., 2000).

Those who commit sexual offences against children

A significant minority if not a majority of the offences committed against children and young people are committed by other children and young people whose re-offending rate, at around fifteen per cent (Erooga and Masson, 2006), is very similar to the overall re-offending rate of sex offenders (Councell, 2003). But that masks large differences between different groups of sex offenders. Only around one percent of family offenders re-offend compared with around 25% of non-family offenders (Hood et al., 2002) while older adults who have only committed sexual offences have a re-offending rate of 0.4% compared with a re-offending rate of 53% for younger adults who have committed other types of offence (Lloyd et al., 1994).

These figures also obscure a change in focus. Half a century ago the overall re-offending rate for sex offenders was around 25%, or similar to the rate for non-family offenders today. The decline in the overall re-offending rate does not appear to reflect any success in dealing with the small minority of persistent offenders but the willingness of the authorities to pursue increasing numbers of family offenders whose much lower re-offending rates have depressed the overall rate (Hood et al., 2002).

As the numerous historic abuse cases have shown, overwhelmingly sex offenders commit all their offences within a single episode, which may last some years, before which they commit no offences and after which they commit no offences. Moreover, as Judge Hughes found in the Kincora Inquiry (Committee of Inquiry into Children’s Homes and Hostels, 1986) and has become increasingly clear from the recent cases of child sexual abuse in nurseries, most non-family abuse is situational and non-family offenders rarely have a history of abuse which could be picked up at interview.

Given that these types of offence, in spite of the huge publicity surrounding them, only involve a very small percentage of child victims and that most of them are completely unpredictable, the potential contribution of the Vetting and Barring Scheme to reducing child sexual abuse would be minuscule.

Why the myth?

To understand the development of the myth, we must go back over a century to A treatise on the system of evidence in trials at common law by John Henry Wigmore (1904), a respected US judge, who stated that the evidence of women and children was unreliable. This doctrine was widely accepted on both sides of the Atlantic and may have been behind the magistrates’ rejection of Mary Bell’s allegation that she had been assaulted in Redbank secure unit (Sereny, 1995).

The doctrine only began to be challenged in the early 1980s with the publication of books like Father-daughter incest (Herman and Hirschman, 1981) and Freud, the assault on truth (Masson, 1984). Masson argued that Freud’s abandonment of the seduction theory, which explained mental disturbance as caused by childhood sexual abuse, had been misconceived. A number of feminists, most notably Bass and Davis (1988), seized on these books and evolved a theory of patriarchal domination through child sexual abuse which has largely gone unchallenged in over twenty years in spite of the overwhelming evidence against it.

First, as Freud noted (Masson, 1985), his patients universally identified their fathers as the abusers and this was statistically unlikely; we now know that father-incest only accounts for a few per cent of cases of child sexual abuse. Secondly, women are also abusers (Denov, 2004). Thirdly, the actual experiences of victims of child sexual abuse do not match this theory (Woodiwiss, 2009). For example, many victims are active in managing their situations and there is no evidence that child sexual abuse has long-term adverse effects.

As the research reported by Clarke and Clarke (1976) showed, children can recover from even the most extreme forms of abuse if they are given a benign environment for sufficiently long afterwards. Those who do not recover fail to do so because, after any intervention, they are returned to a less benign environment. People also find it easier to blame something in the past for a current unhappiness than to examine their existing situation (Tizard, 1977).

This is not to deny that adverse experiences do affect people; they do and it may take many years for the after-effects to wear off (Kadushin, 1970) but a worldview in which people are either victims or abusers and remain in that category for ever is simply not borne out by the facts (Axelrad, 2010). The same people are often both offenders and victims (Sanders and Young, 2007) and, while only around 25% of sex offenders have been victims of sexual abuse, many have been victims of physical or emotional abuse (Rodriguez-Srednicki and Twaite, 2006).

The myth persists partly because it offers a simple account of a far more complicated and messy situation than people would like to believe, partly because our criminal justice system requires there to be a ‘victim’ and an ‘offender’ and partly because it has suited many in the psychology profession to sustain the myth. With the closure of many mental hospitals in the 1980s, the psychology profession was desperate for somewhere in which trainee psychologists could do their practical training. They hit on prisons and a recently published article (Ross and Fabiano, 1985) suggesting that cognitive-behavioural therapy might be a useful way of treating offenders and the first course for sex offenders was developed (Clark, 2006).

However, cognitive-behavioural therapies, like the behavioural and Freudian therapies that preceded them, assume that the problem lies in the individual whereas most offences are situational – a point borne out in the fact that most sex offenders begin to offend when there is a change in their circumstances and cease to offend, without any therapeutic intervention, when there is a further change. Moreover, as noted earlier, the reduction in the overall re-offending rate in the past twenty years has been nothing to do with more effective treatment of sex offenders but with the trend towards charging and convicting far more family offenders who very rarely re-offend after their single episode of offending.

The reality

Even ignoring the professionals’ assessments in Cawson et al. (2000), around a million young people in a generation in the UK will regard themselves as having been sexually abused, suggesting that a few million people in the population will be able to recall being sexually abused as children. Most of this abuse will have happened in families or with acquaintances, a significant amount, if not the majority, at the hands of other young people. Overwhelmingly the abusers, whether young people or adults, will no longer be abusing other people. Though abuse by people who are significantly older than their victims holds a particular horror for people, in practice, if such abusers only commit sex offences and not other types of offence, their re-offending rate is the lowest for any type of offence.

Just as most people will know victims who have never disclosed the abuse, most people will know people who have committed sexual offences which have never come to light. The prognosis for both victims and offenders is overwhelmingly positive. Those victims who continue to experience problems do so not because of the abuse itself but because of continuing adverse circumstances which inhibit recovery from the abuse.

For the most part those offenders who continue to offend, such as the ‘night stalker,’ Delroy Grant, do so because the offending is part of a generally criminal lifestyle within which they are committing other types of offences. Other than in a very small number of cases where sex offending is a result of a mental disturbance, effective treatment for both victims and offenders relies on changing the life circumstances of the victim or offender, not on treatment for individual symptoms.

None of this diminishes the impact a sexual assault can have on someone at the time or the time it may take to recover from the experience; but draconian punishments for those who have committed the most horrific offences has never had any impact on the number of offences. Prevention is not only better than cure; it is the only practical approach.

As the Hughes report (Committee of Inquiry into Children’s Homes and Hostels, 1986) pointed out, the most effective way of inhibiting most non-family offenders is to create environments in which their actions would quickly be disclosed, environments where children are able to talk openly about their experiences without fear of not being believed or of being stigmatised. With family members, children almost universally want the abuse to stop; they do not want the family to be broken up, as is normally the case if a brother or parent is removed, nor do they want to be prevented from visiting members of the wider family because one member has abused another member.

Indeed, it could be argued that the draconian restrictions which are placed on known sex offenders may inhibit children and young people from disclosing abuse in the first place and may be more harmful to some children’s development than any abuse they may have suffered. The measures certainly contribute little if anything to prevention.

A key background factor in sexual abuse among children and young people is lack of knowledge and emotional immaturity which means that, both as victims and as abusers, they do not understand the implications of what is happening to them or what they are doing. But the major background factor for both children and adults is emotional abuse; while only 25% of sex offenders have experienced sexual abuse (Rodriguez-Srednicki and Twaite, 2006), many more have experienced emotional abuse which has distorted their perceptions of family relationships and what is ‘normal’ in relationships. For some victims, the cost of accepting sexual abuse to avoid emotional abuse is a price worth paying (Woodiwiss, 2009).

Measures to tackle sex offending which rely on waiting for the offences to take place and then treating the offender are bound to fail because the offences are most likely to be a symptom of immaturity or a history of emotionally abusing experiences which have never been addressed in the life of the victim or the offender and the overwhelming majority of offenders do not re-offend after a single episode of offending. Rather the next generation of sex offenders is created out of our failures to tackle issues of sex education sensitively in some cases, but most often it is caused by emotional and physical abuse in families today.

Some consequences of the myth

The myth itself may inhibit some young people from coming forward because their experiences have not been ‘as bad’ as the myth suggests they should have been. They may not regard their victim-hood or offending as associated with sex offending because that is associated with a myth about a much older offender and a much younger victim.

The myth that sex offending is a lifelong condition rather than a situational response leads people to try and identify individuals rather than create safe situations for children. Treatment for offenders based on the ‘individual’ character of the offender will normally be futile because most offenders are not going to re-offend anyway and those who do will overwhelmingly do so because offending is a lifestyle choice or linked to emotional or physical abuse they experienced that has not been addressed.

Treatment for victims based on a particular view of the damage caused will be irrelevant to most if not all victims because what they most need is a change in their circumstances to recover from what has happened. Moreover, the assumption that victim-hood is permanent condemns victims to perpetual misery rather than allowing the normal recovery mechanisms of the body to take effect (Clarke and Clarke, 1976).

Among those who call for stronger action against sex offenders will be other sex offenders who have ceased to offend and so may not regard themselves as sex offenders any longer, because they do not realise that ex-sex-offenders who have never been convicted of an offence, of which they are an example, account for the overwhelming majority of sex offenders.

Conversely, victims who call for stronger action against sex offenders will normally be either those who have not yet recovered from the experience naturally or those whose own circumstances have inhibited their recovery; they may not realise that others who went through identical experiences will have recovered from them satisfactorily. This, however, is not ‘victim-blaming;’ it is not the victims’ fault that they do not realise that they will recover or have not yet recovered; it is society’s fault for failing to address emotional and physical abuse as seriously as it tries to address sexual abuse and for perpetuating a myth about victims’ experiences which inhibits the natural processes of recovery which would take place if they were granted the more benign circumstances within which that recovery would take place naturally.


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2 thoughts on “Child Sexual Abuse: The Experiences of Victims and Abusers”

  1. Thank you, this article comes timely. I am in the Ukraine, teaching about abuse and prevention and I will certainly read to the students about your insistence that the best help for children is prevention.


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