Research: Abused-Abuser

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Some psychologists have suggested that pedophilia is caused by childhood abuse. Empirical support for this hypothesis is thin and plagued by methodological issues.

  • Freund, Kurt; Watson, R.; and Dickey, R. (1990). "Does sexual abuse in childhood cause pedophilia: an exploratory study," Archives of Sexual Behavior, 19(6), 557-568.
    "The first however, to investigate the reliability of these offenders retrospective reports was Hindman (1988). This therapist compared paroled male adult sexual offenders against children in two periods: In the first (1980-1982) she interviewed 40 patients and in the second (1982-1988) she saw 129. The second period differed from the first in that the patients were told that they would have to submit to a polygraph test and that if their self-reports were contradicted they would be returned to jail. In the first period, during which patients were not threatened with polygraph testing, 67% indicated that they had been molested when children. In the second period, however, only 29% of the offenders indicated that they were abused as children. Hindman’s results imply that in a therapeutic climate where professionals tend to subscribe to the theory that pedophilia is caused by earlier sexual abuse of the offender himself, some offenders could fabricate such an event as an excuse for their erotic attraction to children. [...]
    A second question addressed by this study, and which had been investigated only by the Hindman (1988) study, was whether positive reports about sexual abuse in childhood sufficiently reflect true events. [...] The results of the present study are in agreement with those of Hindman, in that they demonstrate that the empirical basis of the molestation theory of pedophilia is unreliable."
  • McMillan, Dean; Hastings, Richard P.; Salter, Daniel C.; and Skuse, David H. (2007). "Developmental Risk Factor Research and Sexual Offending against Children: A Review of Some Methodological Issues," Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37(6), 877-890.
    "Any observed association between a risk factor and sexual perpetration may be a result of the fabrication of an experience rather than the actual experience of the risk. Hindman and Peters (2001) examined this potential source of bias in three studies. The first, originally reported in Hindman (1988), obtained self-reports of sexual offenders who were referred to a clinic between 1980 and 1988. The clinic began polygraph testing in 1982, and this provided an opportunity to assess the effects of testing on self-reported rates of victimization. Before the introduction of testing, 40 offenders were interviewed about their sexual history, and 67% reported that they had been sexually victimized; this compares to a rate of 29% (N = 129) made by those referred after its introduction. A second study, conducted in 1994, compared adult sex offenders (N = 76) who gave self-reports of their sexual history with a group who took a polygraph test (N = 152). By this time, all offenders referred to the clinic were polygraphed, but the self-report group was either sentenced or excluded from the clinic before testing could take place. The results were similar to the 1988 study, with the non-polygraph group reporting a higher rate of child sexual abuse (65%) than the polygraph group (32%). The final study used a repeated-measures design in which the researchers compared the self-reports of sexual victimization made with and without polygraph testing in 173 adult offenders. The results were broadly comparable with the earlier studies (61% without testing vs. 30% with testing). Hindman and Peters (2001) concluded that the base rate of victimization appears to change markedly when subject to the scrutiny of a polygraph test. [...]
    Hindman, J., & Peters, J. M. (2001). Polygraph testing leads to better understanding of adult and juvenile sex offenders. Federal Probation, 65, 8–15."
  • Hanson, R. K., and Slater, S. (2004). "Sexual victimization in the history of sexual abusers: A review," Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 1(4), 485-499.
    "While findings in individual studies ranged between 0% and 67%, on average about 28% of the offenders reported being sexually victimized as children. This rate is higher than the base rate for community samples of non-offending males (about 10%), but is similar to the rates found in other sexual or non-sexual offender populations. The relationship between childhood sexual victimization and sexually abusing children as an adult does not appear to be specific; rather, it is probable that many forms of childhood maltreatment can lead to many forms of behavioral and psychological problems in adulthood."
  • Cannon, Mary (2001). "Invited commentaries on: Cycle of child sexual abuse: links between being a victim and becoming a perpetrator," The British Journal of Psychiatry, 179, 495-496.
    "The use of self-reports of childhood sexual abuse from individuals who are, themselves, child abusers is bound to raise questions about the reliability of these data. Reporting sexual victimisation in childhood may be an attempt on the part of the perpetrators to explain their abusive behaviour and elicit sympathy from the therapist. Glasser et al used information in social service, probation and medical reports to complement self-report data for the assessment of perpetrator status but it is not clear whether this was also done for victim status. Recall bias is usually thought of as an unconscious action, a form of ‘search after meaning’ rather than deliberate lying or fabrication, but all these processes will lead to biased associations. Additionally, a form of interviewer bias may have operated if the therapists subscribed to the idea of a cycle of child sexual abuse and were more likely to enquire about such childhood experiences during assessment of perpetrators. [...]
    Widom & Ames (1994) used a prospective cohort design to assess the criminal consequences of childhood sexual abuse. Official criminal records were traced for a large sample (n=908) of children with a validated history of sexual abuse, physical abuse or neglect, and a control group matched for age, gender, race and family socio-economic status. The authors found no evidence for a cycle of sexual abuse as proposed by Glasser et al. Rather, they found that all three of the abuse groups (sexual, physical and neglect) were significantly more likely to be arrested for a sexual offence (including prostitution) than were the controls. In fact, although children who had been sexually abused were significantly more likely than controls to have an adult arrest for prostitution, they were not significantly more likely than controls to have adult arrests for other sex crimes."
  • Feierman, J. (1994). "Pedophilia: Paraphilic Attraction to Children," in Krivacska J. J., and Money, J. (eds.), The Handbook of Forensic Sexology: Biomedical & Criminological Perspectives (New Concepts in Human Sexuality), 49-79.
    "The 'abused/abuser hypothesis,' which perhaps should be renamed "the master's myth" because of its uncritical acceptance by so many master's level psychotherapists, is an example of a learning theory model gone awry. The best one can say about the abused/abuser hypothesis is as follows: Having been sexually abused as a child is neither a necessary nor a sufficent determinant of a previously sexual abused child’s becoming an adult sexual abuser of children. Nevertheless, there appears to be a weak correlation between being sexually abused as a child and again as an adult. No casual relationship can be concluded from a mere correlation, however (Garland & Dougher 1990). Most of the myriad adult psychopathologies attributed to the sequelae of previous childhood sexual contact with an adult are without scientific bases."