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Turning the Tables: Shifting From Victim to Perpetrator

A glimpse into conversations from group therapy for men with sexual convictions.

Key points

  • "Turning the tables" is the pivotal moment when one experiences a buzz associated with a shift from being the one abused to the one in control.
  • It is crucial to keep an open mind about the nature of traumatic sexual abuse for the individual; each man has his own narrative.
  • Our attitudes toward sexual abuse are shaped by the social and cultural environment in which we live and interpret the world.
Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels
Source: Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels

This is the second of two blog posts on the theme of adult men with sexual convictions and their history of sexual victimisation. In this blog I want to explain how important it is to understand the way in which individuals make sense of their personal journey from victim to perpetrator; to achieve this, I offer a glimpse—albeit greatly condensed and anonymised for these purposes—into the conversations and reflections of men in a group therapy setting, who are there for the purposes of desisting from further sexual offending.

Exploring the Shift

You may wonder how sexual victimisation experiences are tackled in the group, given that the task is to manage risk rather than to offer exclusively trauma-focused therapy, and given that not all men with sexual convictions—as we saw in my previous blog post—have been sexually abused as a child. One of our key moments is to help the men understand how they learned to "turn the tables": that pivotal moment (or series of moments) when they experienced the buzz associated with exerting power and control over others rather than being the one who was humiliated and used. For each man, the shift from victim to perpetrator was closely linked to the aspects of their childhood abuse experiences that had most troubled or traumatised them, regardless of whether these were sexual or other abuse experiences.

Examples From Four Men

  • Gary was a rather hostile group member who insisted that he had an intimate "relationship" with his boy victims. He had always said he was raped by a stranger when he was 15, but after six months in the group, he admitted that "I was sexually abused by a neighbour who used to give me money and sweets to let him touch me…it went on for at least a year, and I kept going back willingly…I don’t know why I kept going." It was the supportive response of the other group members that seemed to represent a turning point for him; over time, he gradually let go of the insistence on his victims being partners and was more able to view his offending with clarity.
  • Harry was sexually abused twice by a teacher at school when he was 12; when he told his mother, she beat him and called him a "dirty, lying bastard." Thirty years later, he sexually offended against his stepdaughter during a period when he was angry with his wife for going to work in a pub every evening. During therapy, he said, "I can’t really tell you why I did it, but now I think there was something about me being angry, but angry out of all proportion…I wanted to get back at my wife; I thought I could spoil something [her daughter] that she cared about." Harry was beginning to understand that vengeance was a strong feature of his offending and that it was somehow linked to his mother’s inability to provide him with unconditional love.
  • Frank denied for many years that he had been sexually abused, although the facts were that a scoutmaster had sexually assaulted him for four years before dropping him and disappearing abruptly at the point when Frank hit puberty. Frank insisted that he had been chosen by a "caring father figure…I was loved and cherished." It took years before he was able to understand that his offending pattern—becoming infatuated with boys and then dropping them after abusing them— was a rather compulsive reversal of his own traumatic experience of abandonment in childhood.
  • John—coming out of prison after a long sentence for the rape of an adult woman—never agreed that he was sexually abused as a child, and any suggestion of his vulnerability was received by him as offensive and demeaning. However, when he was 14, he had a six-month sexual "relationship" with his best friend’s mother, who was 20 years older than him. He insisted, "I would have been the envy of all my mates if they’d known…learning from an experienced woman…super cool, she made me so confident, I knew I could have any girl I wanted after that." Aside from the relevance of this experience to his entitled attitude to sex with women, John’s stance is a stark reminder of the social and cultural environment that shapes our attitudes; if you reread the vignette with the perpetrator as an adult man, your emotional reaction—and his interpretation—might well be different.

© 2021 Jackie Craissati

These all-too-brief vignettes provide only a small glimpse of what the narrative might be for someone traveling the pathway from victim to perpetrator. They highlight the importance of suspending preconceptions and resisting the urge to impose opinions about the nature of the men’s trauma. The reality is that, for each of these men, the nature of the trauma and the way in which they made sense of it differed.

The vignettes are explored in more detail in Forensic Case Histories.