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The Pathway From Victim to Perpetrator

Does sexual abuse in childhood create a pathway to sexual offending as an adult?

Key points

  • Boys sexually abused in childhood are 10 times more likely to acquire sexual convictions in adulthood than those who were not sexually abused.
  • However, 90% of sexually abused boys do not go on to abuse others.
  • Men facing prison for sexual convictions are much more likely to deny having been sexually abused than they are to make up a history of abuse.
  • Those on the victim-to-perpetrator pathway have almost never disclosed their own abuse or they disclosed it but were not believed.

For those working in criminal justice, the assertion that childhood adversity and trauma drive the pathway into offending behaviour seems incontrovertible; but for many of the public, this seems little more than an excuse for reprehensible behaviour.

This polarity of view is particularly stark when we discuss the highly emotive subject of those who sexually offend for whom we have really clear evidence of the high rate of sexual victimisation in their childhood. By high rate, I mean that 25-50% of those convicted of sexual offences report childhood sexual victimisation.

This brings me to one of my favourite examples of the ways in which statistics can be manipulated according to the point that someone wants to emphasise. It is true to say—please accept the veracity of this view for the purposes of this post—that boys who are sexually abused in childhood are 10 times more likely to become adults who commit sexual offences than boys who are not sexually abused in childhood. However, this is a potentially misleading statement that distorts perception, unless we qualify it by stating—also accurately—that 90% of sexually abused boys do not become perpetrators of sexual violence in adulthood.

In other words, although 1% of the male population acquires a sexual conviction in adult life—and it may surprise you that the figure is as high as that?—10% of sexually victimised male population acquires such a conviction. Childhood experiences of sexual victimisation are therefore highly relevant to understanding the pathway into sexual offending as an adult but are by no means a complete explanation.

What we know about sexual offenders

We do know something about this 10% of individuals, and what we know helps to shed light on some important determinants of the pathway to offending. We know that this group is:

  • More likely to have been emotionally abused or neglected in the home as well as sexually abused
  • More likely to have engaged in "consenting" sexual activity with male peers
  • Less likely to have disclosed their experiences of sexual victimisation to an adult, and if they did disclose, they were less likely to have been believed
  • Less likely to have had good reparative experiences in adolescence, such as a rewarding social network or positive intimate relationships
  • More likely to struggle with confused sexual orientation or sexual interests as an adult

These factors suggest that the traumatic impact of sexual victimisation is connected to wider factors relating to an individual’s vulnerability: the insecurity of his attachments to others; the absence of protective factors that might help to repair the emotional damage; and a degree of bad luck in terms of what life throws at them. For some, the sexual victimisation was instrumental in developing a fixed but illegal sexual interest—for example in children—but for many, the experience left them with feelings of confusion and anxiety that subsequent life experiences exacerbated rather than resolved.

Offenders tend to deny their own sexual abuse

I am often asked, "But don’t people lie about having been sexually abused as a child to get a lighter prison sentence?’" The fact is that men with sexual convictions do lie about this surprisingly often but not in the way that we might naturally assume. They tend to deny that they have been sexually abused as a child, or if admitting it at the point of sentencing, often, try to avoid the subject or play it down. After 30 years of talking to around a thousand men with sexual convictions, I cannot recall more than one person who made up abuse that turned out not to be true; a handful has exaggerated what happened to them or the impact on them, but it never ceases to amaze me how many years in prison it can take so many men to admit to their own sexual abuse.

How do we account for the persistence of this counterintuitive denial? I think that Frank explains the emotional intensity of admitting to abuse best in his own words when I asked him this very question:

"What did you expect me to do … I was already facing the most humiliating and shaming of situations (at court) ... What was I supposed to say? Humiliate myself even more? Admit to everyone that I was even less of a man than you thought? That I allowed myself to be abused for years without saying anything?"

This is the first of two posts on the sensitive subject of victim-to-perpetrator pathways in those with sexual convictions. My next post will focus on the narratives that emerge in group therapy with men who are struggling to articulate the trauma underpinning the victim-to-perpetrator pathway.

If you want to explore these ideas in more detail, do consider Forensic Case Histories as an interesting read.