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Vol. XVIII, No. 1
Winter 2006
Childhood Victimization of Sexual Abusers: Making Sense of the Findings

Editor's  Note: Dominique Simons has been employed as a researcher for the Colorado Department of Corrections Sex Offender Treatment and Monitoring Program for7 years. In addition to program and treatment evaluation, she has conducted studies that examine the developmental risk factors of sexual offenders, the influence of therapist characteristics, crossover offenses, and childhood victimization of sexual offenders.


          Sexual abuse of children remains a pervasive problem resulting in significant distress for victims and society. Prevalence studies have indicated that approximately 14% of males and 32% of females have been sexually abused (Briere & Elliott, 2003). The cost to society includes intense fear that has recently resulted in proposals of stricter legislation with severe consequences for young perpetrators. Over 20 years of research has illustrated that consequences of sexual abuse to victims include low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress, substance abuse, and revictimization. To reduce the incidence of sexual abuse, there remains a need for etiological research to evaluate the timing and target groups for indicated preventative interventions.


Although there has been empirical support for sexual abuse as a precursor to sexual offending, discrepancies in the prevalence rates of retrospective studies combined with the research that demonstrates offenders often exaggerate their abuse histories obscure the meaningfulness of the findings. To make sense of the findings, this article addresses the childhood victimization of sexual abusers and its proposed relationship to sexual offending behaviors by reviewing: the theoretical framework for the understanding of the relationship between victimization and offending, the sexual abuse findings within the sexual offender population, the potential explanations for the discrepancies in the findings including methodological issues and multiple abuse experiences, the mediating processes by which childhood victimization experiences are related to sexual offending, and the clinical implications of these findings.


Theoretical Framework


The theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between victimization and the development of sexual offending behaviors is derived from Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1972). The cycle of abuse hypothesis (victim to victimizer hypothesis) suggests that children who learn maladaptive behavior patterns in the home will be more likely to engage in similar behavior patterns as adults. Abuse in the home provides both a model for learning aggressive behavior and a supportive environment that deems such behaviors as appropriate. Social learning theory asserts that aggression is a learned behavior acquired indirectly through observation or directly through experience. Predisposed by habitual exposure or experience of abuse, an individual becomes desensitized to violence and as a consequence, displays aggressive behaviors. This suggests that the intergenerational transmission of abuse is more likely to occur if the child experiences both direct and indirect types of abuse for an extensive period of time.


The victim to victimizer literature suggests that a process involving conditioned emotional responses and attributions for adverse childhood experiences may be operative with abused children. Wolfe (1987) explains that the emotional reactions at the time of the event are associated with particular persons, places, or events, creating a conditioned emotional response that may recur incessantly in the presence of the eliciting stimuli. The emotional reactions also create attempts to understand the meaning of these events, to reconcile the disparity between “good people” and “bad actions” (Cruise, Jacobs, & Lyons, 1994; Wolfe). As an illustration, a child who is sexually abused by a caregiver often perceives the event as acceptable or normative because the abuser is someone whom the child loves and trusts.


 Social learning explanations postulate that offenders commit their first act due to internalized social definitions that support sexual offending obtained from their own abuse experiences. Offenders continue to engage in sexual offending behaviors to resolve trauma (i.e., regain power) or as a result of strict conditioning processes (i.e., ritualistic, reinforcing patterns) related to sexual arousal (Burton, 2003; Marshall & Eccles, 1993; Veneziano, Veneziano, & LeGrand, 2000). Findings have illustrated that sexually abusive individuals often learn from and tend to repeat the characteristics of their own sexual abuse. Veneziano et al. revealed that juvenile offenders who had been sexually abused prior to the age of 5 were more likely to victimize a child younger than age 5. Juvenile offenders subjected to severe sexual abuse (i.e., anal penetration) were more likely to replicate this abuse with their victims. Similarly, Burton demonstrated that juvenile offenders who were abused, used the same perpetrator methodology (i.e., modus operandi) with their own victims. These youth were also more likely to abuse a victim from the same type of relationship as their perpetrator.


Sexual Abuse Experiences of Offenders


            Many researchers have proposed that the origins of sexual offending lie in offenders’ history of being sexually victimized as a child. A review of the literature indicates that 40% to 80% of adolescent sex offenders report a history of sexual abuse (Becker, Kaplan, Cunningham-Rathner, & Kavoussi, 1986; Ford & Linney, 1995; Hunter, Goodwin, & Becker, 1994; Katz, 1990; Worling, 1995). In a study of 287 sexually aggressive children, Burton, Nesmith, and Badten (1997) reported significant relationships between the presence of sexual victimization in the children’s lives and the number of reported victims. Studies comparing offending and non-offending adolescent male victims of sexual abuse have identified several factors that are predictive of the development of sexually abusive behaviors. In comparison to non-offending adolescent victims, adolescent offenders were more likely to report a male perpetrator, a closer relationship to the perpetrator, greater force involved in the abuse, more invasive abuse (e.g., penetration), a longer duration of abuse, and a younger age at which the abuse occurred. Kobayashi, Sales, Becker, Figueredo, and Kaplan (1995) found that being sexually abused by males increased sexual aggression among male adolescent sexual offenders. Hunter and Figueredo (2000) found that a younger age at the time of abuse, a greater number of incidents, and less familial support after the abuse was predictive of subsequent sexual perpetration. Similarly, Burton, Miller, and Shill (2002) revealed that the perpetration characteristics consisting of: a close relationship to perpetrator, long duration of the abuse, forcefulness of the abuse, and perpetrators from both genders predicted membership in the sexual offender group.


The influence of these factors has been explained within the Social Learning Framework (Garland & Dougher, 1990). A close relationship to the offender has been proposed to be more influential as the victim is more likely to learn from and to model the behaviors of a person whom he/she admires, loves, and trusts. A longer duration of the abuse constitutes habitual exposure; a child may become desensitized to the abuse and has a greater opportunity to observe the rewards (e.g., power). Similarly, a younger child is more likely to perceive the abuse as normative. The use of force and invasiveness of the abuse may increase feelings of helplessness, which in turn may result in the desire to regain control through re-enactment of the behavior (e.g., abusing others).


There is also evidence of the association between sexual abuse and sexual offending within the adult population. Among a community sample of young adult males, Bagley, Wood, and Young (1994) found significant links between a history of sexual abuse (particularly multiple-episode sexual abuse) and current interest in or actual sexual contact with children. Similarly Lussier, Beauregard, Proulx, and Nicole (2005) found a direct effect of sexual victimization experience on sexual interest in children. In comparison to adolescent sexual offenders, prevalence rates among the adult sex offender population have been more discrepant. Studies have illustrated that approximately 15% to 70% of adult sexual offenders in treatment or prison settings reported sexual abuse during childhood (Barnard, Hankins, & Robbins, 1992; Dhawan & Marshall, 1996; Freund, Watson, & Dickey, 1990; Graham, 1996; Hanson & Slater, 1988; Hindman & Peters, 1999; Overholser & Beck, 1989; Seghorn, Boucher, & Prentky, 1987). The significant disparity in prevalence rates of abuse among adult male sexual offenders implies that not all offenders have experienced this form of child maltreatment. In addition, higher rates of abuse can be called into question when it comes from incarcerated sexual offenders as they may use childhood abuse to justify their offending or to elicit sympathy from therapists, courts, and parole board members.


Hindman and Peters (1999) revealed that sexual offenders exaggerate their abuse experiences. In this 1988 study, two groups of sexual offenders (Pre-1982 and Post-1982) were interviewed about their offenses and childhood sexual abuse experiences. The Post-1982 group was informed that they would be tested on their disclosures through the use of the polygraph and that they would receive conditional immunity. Results indicated that the polygraph group reported a significantly lower percentage of sexual victimization (29%) in comparison to the self-report group (67%). Critiques of this study include the argument that the groups were not matched on the extent of the abuse, demographics, or offense characteristics (c.f., Lee, Jackson, Pattison & Ward, 2002). However, this study was replicated in 1994 with comparable results for both adult and juvenile sexual offenders. These findings illustrate the importance of the use of social desirability measures.


            At Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC), we have consistently obtained higher prevalence rates of abuse within the adult sex offender population. For example, Simons, Wurtele, and Heil (2002) found that 70% of child sexual abusers and 32% of rapists disclosed sexual abuse during childhood. We found similar rates of abuse in later studies (Simons, Ahlmeyer, Durham, & Wurtele, 2003); 73% of child sexual abusers and 54% of rapists reported sexual victimization during childhood. Consistent with the juvenile literature, child sexual abusers’ perpetration characteristics consisted of intrafamilial sexual abuse, abuse by a male perpetrator, and multiple abuse episodes that were more invasive (e.g., oral and anal victimization). Although our prevalence rates remain high, the findings are consistent with studies that have included behavioral descriptions of the sexual acts without the use of emotionally laden terms and studies which have assessed offenders who have received extensive treatment, and were perhaps more willing to disclose their victimization experiences (e.g., Worling, 1995). These methodological issues have been identified as potential explanations for the sexual abuse discrepancies within the sex offender literature.


Potential Explanations for the Sexual Abuse Discrepancies


Methodological Issues. Researchers have described several methodological issues that may account for the inconsistencies in prevalence rates (Hanson & Slater, 1988; Lee et al., 2002). The most common methodological issue cited in the literature pertains to the reliance of retrospective reports of childhood histories. It is often argued that the recollections of childhood memories are highly inaccurate. However, researchers have recently demonstrated through comparison to prospective findings, that retrospective findings are sufficiently reliable for salient and unique childhood experiences such as child maltreatment (Lee et al.). Another issue cited in the literature consists of the choice of population. Studies that assess treatment populations often report higher prevalence rates of abuse as participation in treatment (by its nature) encourages disclosure. Worling (1995) found that prevalence rates of sexual abuse among adolescent offenders increase from 31% to 52% after the completion of treatment. Offenders who receive treatment may disclose abuse more readily as a result of a strong therapeutic relationship (e.g., trust), an enhanced understanding of sexual abuse, or as an acceptable justification for their offending behaviors.


In addition, various data collection methods (e.g., self-report, interview) that employ emotionally laden terms such as “abuse” or “assault” influence rates of disclosure. Specifically, labels have been shown to be related to lower prevalence rates, as many male offenders are reluctant to disclose abuse histories or perceive their abuse experience as consensual (Faller, 1989; Hanson & Slater, 1988; Rind, Tromovitch, & Bauserman, 1998). At CDOC, we assess sexual abuse using multiple methods. The actual question, “Have you been sexually abused?” typically results in prevalence rates of approximately 30% (sex offenders across studies), whereas behavioral depictions of the act result in prevalence rates of approximately 65%. Thus, the difference in rates may be attributed to the underreporting of sexual abuse among males, which is often explained by societal beliefs regarding perceptions of males as victims (Faller; Rind et al.). If the abuser is male, male victims fear reporting due to fear of being considered homosexual by others.  If the abuser is female, many male victims fail to perceive the sexual interaction as abusive (Hetz, Simons, & Durham, 2004; Rind et al.). Indeed, sexual offenders often characterize a sexual abuse experience as consensual when the perpetrator is a female, non-relative (Simons et al., 2002).


The perceptions of women in society as caring and nurturing have contributed significantly to the underreporting of sexual abuse perpetrated by females. Studies have confirmed the suspicion that the general public as well as many professionals within the field of child welfare fail to perceive the sexual interaction between adult females and male children as harmful or consequential (Denov, 2003; 2004). As an illustration, Hetherton and Beardsall (1998) asked police officers and child protection workers to evaluate hypothetical abuse cases with respect to procedural decisions (e.g., whether the case warranted investigation). The abusive situations involved either a female or a male perpetrator. Results indicated that both professional groups considered the abuse by the female perpetrator as not warranting investigation; whereas, imprisonment was considered important for the male perpetrator. These findings suggest that victims of female perpetrators who report abuse are often disregarded and as a consequence, they do not receive necessary care and protection. Studies have also demonstrated the negative impact of professional minimization or denial on victims within the field of psychology/psychiatry. Results show that therapists’ disbelief of victims’ allegations exacerbate the effects of the abuse, which may ultimately engender secondary victimization (Denov, 2003).


Recent findings have also suggested that the development of sexually abusive behaviors may be associated with female perpetration, especially when the perpetrator is a relative. In a prospective study, Salter et al. (2003) revealed that abuse by a female was predictive of subsequent sexual offending. Similarly, in retrospective studies, female perpetrators have been reported by abused offenders in higher rates than expected. For example, Burton (2003) reported that 71% of the sample of adolescent offenders was abused by a female. Simons, Wurtele, and Durham (2004) found that 34% of the abusers consisted of females. This study revealed that when the perpetrator is a not caregiver or biological relative (e.g., grandmother, mother); the offender perceives the situation as consensual, even normative. Denov (2003) explains that although a male victim may initially perceive the interaction as abusive, the abuse is later reframed as sexual initiation to protect the male’s sense of identity. Although offenders recognize sexual interactions with a female caregiver as abuse, they seldom disclose their victimization due to shame. Our preliminary analyses have indicated that offenders are more likely to disclose bestiality prior to abuse by a female caregiver. This finding is notable because the abuse of males by female relatives has been postulated to contribute to the development of sexual offending behaviors (Briggs & Hawkins, 1996). The association may be due to the perpetration characteristics. As females are not expected to sexually abuse children, the duration of abuse is often longer, which in turn may exacerbate the child’s feelings of powerlessness (Saradjian & Hanks, 1996). In addition, abuse by a close relative is more likely to be modeled according to Social Learning Theory. Taken together, these findings provide some insight into the association between female perpetration and subsequent sexual offending. Thus, the underreporting of male victimization by female abusers combined with methodological issues may account for the some of the variability within the sexual abuse rates of offenders.


Multiple Abuse Experiences. Yet another explanation for the discrepant sexual abuse findings is that recent studies have suggested that it is not one type of abuse that serves as a developmental risk factor for later sexual offending. Instead, multiple abusive experiences or an impoverished family environment precedes maladjustment in adulthood (Dube et al., 2001; Lee et al., 2002; Rind et al., 1998). It has been shown that family dysfunctions often accompany childhood adversities with a reported comorbidity of parental violence, physical abuse, and emotional abuse, while other findings illustrate that emotional abuse enhances the effects of sexual abuse. Additional childhood factors include the indirect exposure to abuse (e.g., pornography and violent media), which also has been linked to sexual aggression. Further studies have demonstrated that it is the emotional component of parental bonding (i.e., attachment) that strongly influences later externalization. Recent findings have also illustrated that different types of maltreatment may be associated with different types of sexual offending behaviors (e.g., rape, child sexual abuse). From a social learning perspective, the following sections review the findings with respect to the childhood victimization experiences associated with sexual offending.


Violence in the Home. The experience of family violence (i.e., physical abuse and domestic violence) has been associated with sexual offending and deviant sexual preferences (e.g., Lussier et al., 2005; Salter et al., 2003; Simons et al., 2003).  From a social learning perspective, victims of physical abuse learn violence in their family of origin and may translate that violence into their interpersonal relationships as children and then later as adults. For example, a history of child physical abuse was reported by half of the sexual offenders in Graham (1996). Physically abused boys were more likely to be charged with a sexual offense during adolescence (Kobayashi et al., 1995) and arrested for a violent sex crime (e.g., rape) later in life (Widom & Ames, 1994). At CDOC, we have found that the majority (70%) of rapists report physical abuse during childhood with perpetrators consisting mostly of male caregivers (Simons et al., 2002).


 Another common correlate of child maltreatment (e.g., physical abuse) is domestic violence. Children who directly experience abuse are also likely to witness chronic violence in their homes. Over two decades ago, Straus, Gelles, and Steinmetz (1980) suggested that observing interparental aggression was a greater risk factor for engaging in violence against women than was experiencing physical abuse as an adolescent. Recent studies have identified domestic violence as a risk factor for sexual offending (Salter et al., 2003). Males who witnessed their fathers abusing their mothers were more likely to exhibit dating aggression (Jankowski, Leitenberg, Henning, & Coffey, 1999). Others have argued that sexually aggressive adolescents were more than three times as likely as nonviolent adolescents to have been exposed to severe parental violence (Spaccarelli, Bowden, Coatsworth, & Kim, 1997).  Simons et al. (2003) found that the majority of rapists (78%) report witnessing domestic violence with most of perpetrators (88%) consisting of male caregivers. More recently, Simons, Tyler, and Heil (2005) illustrated that parental violence predicted an increase in the number of adult and child victims.


Emotional Abuse. Childhood emotional abuse has been shown to be related to other forms of childhood maltreatment (McGee, Wolfe, & Wilson, 1997) and has been shown to be a direct developmental precursor to sexual violence (Lee et al., 2002). Emotional abuse or psychological maltreatment is defined in terms of verbal hostility or the degree of negativity and dysfunction governing parent-child attachment relationships (McGee et al.; Straus, 1979). Studies (e.g., Bagley et al., 1994; Hoglund & Nicolas, 1995; McGee et al.) have illustrated that the effects of child maltreatment on the subsequent development of negative attitudes and externalizing behaviors depend on the degree of perceived damage caused to the individual. The degree to which sexual abuse is perceived as damaging is often related to the perceived experience of emotional abuse. Hoglund and Nicolas reported that experiences of emotional abuse alone in or in combination with experiences of physical abuse were significantly related to higher levels of overt hostility and expressed anger in individuals. Findings have also indicated that child maltreatment (i.e., physical abuse, parental violence, and emotional abuse) result in externalizing behaviors (e.g., aggression) only when they are considered in combination (Lee et al.; McGee et al.). Indeed, Salter et al. (2003) illustrated that the combination of physical violence, domestic violence, emotional abuse, and neglect predicted subsequent sexual offending.


Early Exposure to Pornography and Violent Media. In addition to observing parental violence, studies have confirmed that excessive violence in the media (i.e., graphical depictions of aggressive behaviors) increases the likelihood that viewers will behave more aggressively (e.g., Huesmann & Malamuth, 1986; Huesmann, Moise-Titus, Podolski, & Eron, 2003). Exposure to violent media is exceptionally influential when the viewer is a young child, as younger viewers are more likely to acquire from the media habits and rules that will guide their behavior in later years. Repeated exposures to violent media increases retention and subsequently desensitizes the viewer, which may lead to changes in attitudes. According to Huesmann (1998) long-term effects with children are due to the observation learning of cognitions that support aggression. Violence in the media is more likely to be used as a model for behavior when (1) the child identifies with the perpetrator of violence, (2) the child’s environment matches the characteristics of the viewing situation, and (3) the perpetrator is rewarded for the violence.


Research findings have also demonstrated the indirect effects of mass media exposure on antisocial behavior against women (e.g., Linz, Donnerstein, & Penrod, 1984; Malamuth & Briere, 1986). Mass media portrayals of sexual violence may contribute to negative attitudes and perceptions of women that, in combination with characteristics derived from aversive childhood experiences may result in sexual aggression. Indeed, Simons et al. (2003) found strong associations between physical abuse, observation of parental violence, and early exposure to violent media among rapists. Today’s widespread availability of violent programming increases the relevance of the examination of violent media as a developmental risk factor.


There is also support for a link between early exposure to graphic depictions of sexual interactions (i.e., pornography) and sexual offending. Several researchers have found that men who commit sex crimes often report a history of early exposure to pornography. In one study (e.g., Goldstein, Kant, & Hartman, 1973), far more sex offenders (30% of rapists) reported having viewed hard-core pornography in their preadolescence (i.e., before age 10) than did non-offender controls (only 2% of whom reported such early exposure). Similarly, Ford and Linney (1995) found that 42% of their adolescent sex offenders reported exposure to hard-core sex magazines, with the child molesters being most frequently exposed at the youngest ages (between 5 and 8 years old). Early exposure to pornography may have been a function of the sexual assaults as there is a strong relationship between pornography and child sexual exploitation. Child sexual abusers use pornography with their child victims as a desensitization tool to legitimize and normalize their actions, to blackmail abused children to prevent them from disclosing the abuse, as a vehicle for their own and the child’s sexual arousal, and to persuade children to participate in the abuse. Simons et al. (2002) found that the majority of child sexual abusers (86%) reported early exposure to pornography. In a more recent study, Simons et al. (2003) found a significant relationship between early exposure to pornography, sexual abuse, and early onset and frequent masturbation among child sexual abusers. As the accessibility of pornography on the Internet continues to increase, the examination of early exposure to pornography as a risk factor for learning sexual offending behaviors has become even more imperative. 


Poor-Parental Attachment Bonds. Childhood adversities may result in the failure to establish secure attachment bonds to parents (Cicchetti & Lynch, 1995). In 1989, Marshall suggested that sexual offenders typically failed to achieve secure childhood attachment bonds with parents, which led to further theoretical development. For example, recent models of sexual deviance suggest that poor parental bonding enhances the effects of child maltreatment and may subsequently initiate the processes that lead to sexual offending, by creating vulnerability in the child (Marshall & Marshall, 2000), a lack of empathy for others (Craissati, McClurg, & Browne, 2002), or intimacy deficits (Ward, Hudson, Marshall, & Siegert, 1995).  Others have suggested that poor parent-child attachments may actually increase the risk of being sexually abused in childhood (e.g., Alexander, 1992; Marshall & Marshall; Smallbone & McCabe, 2003).


 Although there is clinical and theoretical support for the link between poor parental attachment relationships and sexual offending, empirical evidence is more limited. Studies have shown a relationship between disorganized attachment styles and sexual offending (Burk & Burkhart, 2003). Smallbone and Dadds (2000) have explained that children who experience sexual abuse may develop a disorganized attachment style. These individuals may sexually assault a child when they are experiencing stress and have access to a potential child victim. Smallbone and Dadds (1998) found intrafamilial child molesters to be more likely to regard their mothers as unloving, inconsistent, and abusive; whereas rapists were more likely to regard their fathers as uncaring and abusive. Ninety-three percent of sexual offenders had an insecure attachment style in Marsa et al. (2004). Child molesters in Craissati et al. (2002) described their mothers as uncaring and overprotective. An avoidant paternal attachment was related to aggressive behavior in Smallbone and Dadds (2000); however an avoidant maternal attachment was related to development of coercive sexual behavior in a later study (2001).


Preliminary findings (Ward, Hudson, & Marshall, 1996; Hudson & Ward, 1997) have also suggested that insecure attachment styles and corresponding intimacy problems may be related to type of offender (i.e., rapist or child molester). According to Shaver and Hazen (1988), anxiously-attached individuals lack self-confidence, are more impulsive, and view themselves as unworthy of love. Likewise, these individuals often sexualize their need for affection and security. In contrast, avoidantly-attached individuals blame others for their lack of intimacy and as a result, they often display hostility and demonstrate profound empathy deficits. Preliminary findings have illustrated that child molesters exhibit more preoccupied (i.e., anxious) or fearful attachment styles in comparison to rapists and violent offenders who display more dismissive (i.e., avoidant) attachment styles (Simons et al., 2003; Ward et al.). Findings from these studies suggest that maternal and paternal attachments of child molesters and rapists need further examination to be considered a developmental precursor to sexual offending. 


Mediating Processes


From these findings, it appears that multiple adverse childhood experiences serve as risk factors for the development of deviant sexual behavior. As these childhood adversities often coincide, it is essential to evaluate the full impact of childhood maltreatment to understand its influence on offending behaviors. Findings have also suggested that different types of abuse may promote different types of problems, with physical abuse and parental violence in childhood leading to aggressive and violent behaviors in adulthood (including rape), and sexual abuse in childhood to maladaptive sexual behavior in adulthood. Yet not all victims of sexual or physical abuse become perpetrators, and not all sexual offenders have experienced abuse as children. Thus, these factors appear to be neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for becoming a sexual offender. The variability in outcomes has led to an increased interest in factors such as empathy, frequent and early onset of masturbation, sexual interest, hostile attitudes, and animal abuse that may serve as mediating variables in the relationship between developmental risk factors and sexual offending. Within the conceptual framework of social learning theory, these variables function as mediators (rather than moderators) because they represent the sequential mechanisms through which the distinct developmental factors influence sexual offending.


Lack of empathy. When children are sexually molested, their emotional needs are not recognized or are subordinated to their abusers. Likewise, when children experience violence in the home, their needs and feelings are not recognized or responded to appropriately. They attain little experience of empathic responding themselves or opportunity to learn to identify and experience the affective cues and states of others (Miller & Eisenburg, 1988). Male physical abuse victims often display heightened aggression and coercive behaviors, including poor anger control, overt hostility, and a lack of regard for the rights and feelings of others (Hoglund & Nicolas, 1995; Klimes-Dougan & Kistner, 1990; Kolko, 2002). From a social learning perspective, by modeling the behavior of their abusers, these children may become insensitive adults capable of dehumanizing others (i.e., women and children) whom they perceive as vulnerable. These findings suggest that adverse childhood experiences may thwart the development of empathy or sensitivity toward others (Ginsberg, Wright, Harrell, & Hill, 1989; Hoffman, 1982).


            In the sex offender literature, lack of empathy has been presumed to play a major role in the etiology and maintenance of sexual offending. However, actual empirical support for this assumption is limited. Sex offenders (child molesters and rapists) have not differed significantly from various comparison groups on measures of general empathy (e.g., Hayashino, Wurtele, & Klebe, 1995; Langevin, Wright, & Handy, 1988). However, when victim- and abuse-specific measures are employed, rapists report less empathy for victims of rape (Rice, Chaplin, Harris, & Coutts, 1994) and young adults with histories of childhood victimization experiences show less concern about hypothetical victims who experienced the same type of abuse they had reportedly experienced during childhood (Ginsburg et al., 1989). Recent findings have also demonstrated child molesters and rapists suppress feelings of concern only for their own victims and that cognitive distortions such as the denial of harm prevent offenders from feeling empathy for their victims (Fernandez & Marshall, 2003; Fernandez, Marshall, Lightbody, & O’Sullivan, 1999). 


            Simons et al. (2002) presented a model of sexual deviance that suggests that lack of empathy mediates the associations between childhood victimization experience and adult risk for sexual offending. Specifically, sexual offenders who self-reported child sexual abuse and early exposure to pornography displayed less empathy for children in abusive situations and admitted to more child victims, whereas sexual offenders who reported experiencing physical abuse as children displayed less empathy for women in abusive situations and disclosed more adult victims. In contrast, a history of child sexual abuse and early exposure to pornography were not directly associated with an increase in number of child victims, and experience of physical abuse as a child was also not directly related to the number of adult victims. These findings provide support for the mediating role of lack of empathy, and suggest that negative childhood experiences influence adult risk for sexual offending indirectly, namely through their influence on perceptions of empathy for child and adult victims in abusive situations. Although the hypothesized model fit the data well, lack of empathy explained only a small amount of variance in the number of child and adult victims, which suggests the need for inclusion of additional mediating processes that may contribute to the developmental of sexual offending behaviors.


 Early Onset and Frequent Masturbation. Masturbation to deviant stimuli may serve as a mediating process between sexual abuse and the development of sexual offending behaviors. Sexual offenders have reported early and frequent masturbation in several studies. For example, Condron and Nutter (1988) found evidence that sexual offenders begin masturbating at an earlier age compared with other males. Smallbone and McCabe (2003) found that those sexual offenders who had been sexually abused in childhood had begun to masturbate significantly earlier (11 years) than those who had not been sexually abused (13.4 years). Offenders who were sexually abused as children and use their experience as a stimulus for masturbation are more likely to develop sexual interests in children, especially when the content is repeated and used as a coping mechanism to escape from distress (Laws & Marshall, 1991). Frequent masturbatory practices to abuse experiences constitute conditioning processes that influence the development of deviant sexual behaviors (Abel & Blanchard, 1974).


In a recent study (Simons et al., 2004), child sexual abusers who reported sexual abuse disclosed that they had begun masturbating on average more than 3 years earlier than those who had not been sexually abused and the onset of masturbation was on average less than 1 year after the abuse had occurred. Of these offenders, over half (51%) reported masturbatory thoughts of their own abuse during childhood, which may reflect symbolic modeling and may facilitate the development of ritualistic patterns of sexually deviant behaviors. Child sexual abusers who reported thoughts of their abuse during masturbation in childhood were also more likely to disclose masturbatory fantasies regarding children during adolescence. These findings suggest that masturbation to abuse stimuli may serve as a mediating factor between the association of childhood sexual abuse and sexual offending against children. 


Sexual Interest in Children. According to researchers, the use of deviant sexual fantasy during masturbation may be the most influential learning process in developing a sexual interest in children and sexual victimization during childhood has been linked to the development of a sexual interest in children (Briere & Runtz, 1989). As an illustration, Lussier et al. (2005) demonstrated that sexual abuse during childhood was directly and indirectly (through sexualization) related to a sexual interest in children. Conditioning and modeling processes play a predominant role in the development of deviant sexual interests in children (Laws & Marshall, 1990). Within the context of Social Learning Theory, there are three modeling processes that are important to the learning of sexual deviant behaviors: participant modeling, vicarious learning, and symbolic modeling (Laws & Marshall). Participant modeling occurs when the child molesters replicate their own victimization with others. The effects of frequent exposure to sexually explicit material at an early age demonstrate vicarious learning. The offender acquires deviant sexual interests, vicariously, through observation. Symbolic modeling occurs when child molesters engage in frequent masturbation to deviant sexual fantasies. The conditioning process originates, as abused children experience physiological arousal as a response to the abuse. Such arousal may lead to subsequent masturbatory fantasies associated with the sexual abuse. With greater repetition, the masturbatory fantasies associated with the abuse may serve as a rehearsal that leads to further conditioning and to eventual sexual offending. Thus, a sexual interest in children may mediate the association between sexual abuse experiences and sexual offending behaviors in child molesters.


Hostile Attitudes toward Women. Studies have illustrated that rapists hold negative and hostile views of women and appear motivated by anger and power to sexually assault women. Violent home environments and child abuse may lead to developmental processes later affecting aggression against women, which include the development of hostile perceptions of women, the feelings of anger, and an exaggerated need to control (Malamuth, Sockloskie, Koss, & Tanaka, 1991). These researchers developed a causal model of aggression against women in which hostile childhood experiences were associated with delinquency, which in turn led to coerciveness against women. The acceptance of hostile attitudes toward women provides men who blame women for their intimacy deficits with the sense of powerfulness (Marshall & Hambly, 1996). To provide further explanation, researchers state that sex may be one of the areas where anger and power are often acted out, particularly by those who have felt powerless in childhood (Dutton, 1998; Lisak & Roth, 1988; Malamuth et al.). Studies have shown that rapists are more likely to demonstrate hostile attitudes and lack of empathy towards women compared to non-sexual offenders (Marshall & Moulden, 2001). Motivations of power and anger have also differentiated sexually aggressive men from nonsexually aggressive men (Lisak & Roth). From a social learning perspective, individuals who have experienced violence in the home may attempt to regain a sense of power from their victimization experiences through sexual violence against women. Thus, hostile attitudes may mediate the association between violent experiences during childhood and sexual assault of women.


Animal Abuse.  Offenders’ childhood behaviors towards animals appear to be a mediating factor between victimization experiences and differential sexual offending behaviors. Preliminary findings have suggested that offenders’ first victims may be animals. For example, one study found high rates of bestiality among adolescent sexual offenders (Frazier, 1997). Simons et al. (2004) found that 38% of adult child sexual abusers and 11% of rapists disclosed engaging in bestiality with an average age of onset of 12 years old. After polygraph examination, the prevalence of bestiality increased to 49% in child sexual abusers, 19% in rapists, and 64% in crossover offenders (child and adult victims). Offenders who engaged in bestiality were more likely to be sexually abused and reported an earlier onset of masturbation than offenders that were not sexually abused. In a more recent study, Simons et al. (2005) found that 81% of offenders who sexually assaulted both women and children reported engaging in bestiality during adolescence. In this study, bestiality predicted an increase in the number of victims during adulthood.


Other studies have documented the relationships between physical abuse of children, domestic violence, and animal abuse (e.g., Ascione & Arkow, 1999; DeViney, Dickert, & Lockwood, 1983). Retrospective studies of incarcerated males have also shown that violent offenders, in comparison to nonviolent offenders, were significantly more likely to have engaged in cruelty toward animals during childhood (Merz-Perez, Heide, & Silverman, 2001). Salter et al. (2003) reported that 29% of sex offenders had engaged in cruelty to animals during childhood. Similarly, Simons et al. (2004) found that 44% of child sexual abusers and 68% of rapists disclosed cruelty to animals, with an average age of onset of 10 years old. Many of these individuals reported that they engaged in these acts for pleasure or with hostile intent. Findings from these studies suggest that animal abuse may mediate the relationship between childhood abuse and sexual offending.


How Do We Explain the Abuse Findings and What are the Clinical Implications?


Taken together, these findings illustrate that many sexual offenders have experienced sexual victimization. Correlational studies (through statistical techniques such as multiple regression and path analysis) have identified sexual abuse as a developmental risk factor for sexual offending. This indicates that sexual abuse may be associated with sexual offending as a risk factor (e.g., vulnerability), but not as a cause. The relationship between sexual abuse and sexual offending may be interpreted through a Social Learning Framework: sexual offenders replicate their own abuse with victims. According to Ryan (1989), an abused child may become fixated on his/her abuse experience and recreate this experience in ritualistic patterns that may become more rigid and elaborate over time. Studies have further illustrated that perpetration characteristics influence the development of sexual offending. In contrast to other male victims, male perpetrators who have been sexually abused often report being abused at a younger age, for a longer duration, by multiple abusers, by a relative or a close relation, experience more invasive abuse, and receive less support from family after the abuse is revealed.  


The prevalence of sexual abuse among offenders has varied according to population and across studies. To explain the discrepancy in the prevalence rates, researchers have emphasized the importance of methodology in the assessment of childhood histories. Studies that use terms such as “sexual abuse” often result in lower prevalence rates, whereas the assessment of treatment populations often result in higher rates of abuse. Another consideration is the finding that sexual offenders may be more reluctant to disclose victimization experiences when the perpetrator is a female. Cross-population research has shown that victims of female perpetrators may perceive their abuse as consensual or may be fearful of reporting due to societal beliefs regarding women as nurturers. Thus, the underreporting of male victimization combined with methodological issues may account for the diversity in the prevalence rates reported in the literature.


            Findings further suggest that it may not be one form of childhood maltreatment that influences the development of sexual offending, but a combination of negative experiences. Within the literature, significant relationships have been found between the experiences of childhood sexual abuse, insecure attachment bonds, early exposure to pornography, and emotional abuse. In addition, associations have been found between the experience of physical abuse, domestic violence, and early exposure to violent media. There is support for these experiences as developmental risk factors for differential sexual offending (e.g., child sexual abuse and rape). Yet these findings confirm that not all perpetrators have experienced abuse and not all victims become perpetrators, which stresses the importance of the examination of mediating and moderating (intervening) factors. Through these mechanisms, it may be possible to explain the relationship between childhood victimization and the development of sexually abusive behaviors. As the findings were presented within the Social Learning Framework, the article focused on abuse factors and the mediating variables consisting of empathy, hostile attitudes, sexual interest, frequent and early onset of masturbation, and animal abuse. Additional factors such as cognitive distortions, biological factors, motivations for offending (e.g., approach goals), substance abuse, and impulsivity have been shown to be strong predictors of sexual offending and therefore, should be included in etiological models and developmental pathways. These findings have clinical implications for sexual offenders.


            From a Social Learning Framework, offenders have been socialized to satisfy human needs through the use of maladaptive means. From experiences of indirect and direct abuse, they have developed a mode of thinking and relating to others that permits socially inappropriate strategies of goal achievement. Specifically, these individuals have observed and experienced violence as a means to ascertain autonomy, sexual abuse as a form of intimacy, and frequent masturbation to thoughts of children as means of sexual satisfaction. These findings imply that a risk management model such as relapse prevention may not be sufficient to prevent reoffense. Although relapse prevention provides skills to offenders that assist them in avoiding high risk situations, it fails to assist offenders in learning to live healthy lifestyles (Ward & Brown, 2003). Indeed, clinical reports have illustrated that relapse prevention is often frustrating for offenders who lack a cognitive model of an appropriate lifestyle; their strategies for satisfying needs have been taken away without replacement.


            The Good Lives Model (GLM) holds promise as an option or an adjunct therapy to relapse prevention due to its emphasis on self-efficacy, individual strengths, individualized interventions, and on the collaborative nature of the therapeutic relationship (Marshall et al., 2005). GLM ascribes that individuals demonstrate the ability to alter their beliefs, behaviors, and ultimately their lives within the constraints posed by social, biological, and individual factors (Ward & Marshall, 2004). Treatment from a Good Lives Model provides offenders with the skills, values, social supports, and opportunities for meeting their needs in a prosocial manner; hence, GLM focuses on achievement of basic needs rather than on risk reduction (Ward & Marshall). GLM examines offenders’ motivation for sexual assault. Specifically, it is based on the premise that individuals commit sexual offenses as a misguided attempt to meet primary needs such as autonomy, relatedness, or sexual satisfaction. It further ascribes that although offenders may have a life plan, they neglect one human need at the expense of another, or they lack the abilities to develop a life plan and adapt to changing circumstances (Ward & Marshall).


            The application of this model begins as the therapist collaboratively works with the offender to assess his/her vulnerabilities or motivations for offending through the conceptualization of the offense as a misguided strategy to achieve primary needs (i.e., goods) essential for all human beings (Marshall et al., 2005). According to researchers, primary goods consist of the following basic human needs: biological (e.g., sex, food, health), self (e.g., relatedness, autonomy), and social (e.g., work, social support). This process serves several purposes: it identifies the offenders’ motivations and developmental risk factors; it is the inception of the development of the therapeutic alliance; it instills hope for the future; and it invests the offender his/her own treatment (Marshall et al.). During the initial process, the offenders’ internal capabilities and external obstacles (e.g., education, support) that prevent him/her from achieving primary goals are evaluated. The next process requires the therapist to assist the offender in identifying and subsequently prioritizing his/her primary needs. As an example, the offender perceives that autonomy (e.g., control) and excellence at work are important needs that he previously met through domestic violence and working long hours. The therapist role is then to construct a good lives model that illustrates attainable possibilities of meeting these needs while taking into account the offenders’ values, environment, and capabilities (Ward & Marshall, 2004). A general plan is then devised to help the offender change his/her lifestyle by providing additional skills and opportunities necessary to live a life without offending. The plan is organized to ensure that all primary needs are met in a coherent manner while maintaining the identity of the individual (Marshall et al.). To prevent failure, several outcomes are devised. Thus, the overall goal is to provide the offender with a realistic plan with concrete goals and sub-goals that will ultimately result in a meaningful life with a purpose.


The GLM promotes self-efficacy and hope for a quality of life that the offender may have not previously experienced. Through a Social Learning Framework, the offender learns to live a healthy lifestyle; he or she attends to the process, learns skills and alternative strategies to satisfy primary needs, experiences rewards, and models the behavior. With repetition of skills and consistent encouragement from the therapist, the offender may learn to live a satisfying life without offending.




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