Does the search for the causes of child sexual
offending provide an excuse for the offender's behaviour,
who should be punished instead of let off?
to understand what causes some individuals to sexually
offend against children is neither to condone their
behaviour, nor to attribute blame. Aetiological theories are
important in order to identify factors that may be causally
associated with child sexual offending, and to identify the
mechanisms which explain how these factors translate into
the offending behaviour, so that effective preventative and
treatment interventions may be developed, and to predict the
risk of future sexual offending behaviour.
2. What factors are associated with child sex offending and
have identified many factors that are associated with, or
thought to cause, sexual offending against children.
Different authors selectively stress the importance of
different factors, depending on the particular theoretical
frameworks that they are interested in (see point 5 below).
There is variable empirical evidence for each of the factors
(see point 3 below).
can be grouped under the following main headings:
developmental experiences e.g. childhood sexual abuse, other
abuse and neglect, rejection, attachment difficulties
Psychological dispositions/traits e.g. empathy deficits,
intimacy problems, deviant sexual preferences, emotional
instability, cognitive distortions
Social and cultural structures and processes
factors e.g. intoxication, severe stress, characteristics of
and neurodevelopmental factors
3. What is the empirical evidence that these factors are
associated or might cause child sexual offending?
Headline: Studies have shown empirical
evidence for an increased prevalence of child sexual abuse,
attachment difficulties, social incompetence, emotional
dysregulation, disinhibition, and neurodevelopmental
abnormalities in child sexual offenders and paedophiles,
compared to controls.
Adverse developmental experiences:
Childhood sexual abuse is the most
frequently discussed unique explanation of sexual offending
against children, referred to as 'the cycle of sexual
meta-analysis of adolescent studies, Seto &
Lalumiere (2010) found that adolescent sex offenders had
approximately five times the odds of having a history of
sexual abuse compared to nonsexual offenders. Adolescent sex
offenders with child victims (30%) were twice as likely as
those who had peer or adult victims (15%) to have been
meta-analysis of 12 studies that cumulatively compared 778
adult sex offenders and 1,506 other adult offenders in their
history of childhood sexual abuse showed that adult sex
offenders were more likely to have histories of sexual abuse
than other adult offenders, but did not differ from other
adult offenders in the likelihood of having a physical abuse
history (Lalumiere et al, 2006).
offenders who victimized children were more likely to have
been sexually abused than those who victimized peers. In a
more recent meta-analysis of 17 studies comparing 1,037 sex
offenders and 1,726 non-sex offenders, Jesperson
et al (2009) found a higher prevalence of sexual abuse
history amongst the former compared to the latter. The two
groups did not differ in terms of physical abuse history.
Sex offenders against adults were less likely to have a
sexual abuse history but more likely to have a physical
abuse history than sex offenders against children.
studies have found that adult sex offenders were
significantly more likely than other offenders to report
insecure attachment styles (Lye & Burton, 20049
Marsa et al., 2004; Bogaerts et al, 2005). Moreover, sex
offenders against children retrospectively report less
secure childhood attachment and less secure adult attachment
styles than non-sexual offenders or non-offenders
(Marsa et al., 20049 Smallbone & Dadds, 1998). There is
also some evidence that men who offend against related
children are more likely to report insecure childhood
attachment than men who offend against unrelated children or
men who have committed property offenses
(Smallbone & Dadds, 1998).
Social incompetence has been identified as
playing a unique role in sexual offending against children.
Studies of both of adult (Dreznick, 2003)
and adolescent sex offenders, (Seto &
Lalumiere, 2010) found that both groups score
significantly lower on measures of social skills deficits
than other adult or adolescent offenders respectively.
evidence that distorted attitudes and
beliefs about sex with children is inconclusive, with some
studies (e.g. Racey et al, 2000; Abel et al.,
19899 Fisher et al, 19999 Gannon & Polaschek, 2005; Tierney
& McCabe, 2001) showing no significant difference
between adolescent or adult sex offenders and other
offenders on attitudes and beliefs about sex with children.
of adolescent sex offenders (Seto & Lalumiere,
2010) and adult sex offenders (Ahlmeyer et
al, 20039 Chantry & Craig, 1994) found that the sex
offenders reported significantly more anxiety or depression
than other offenders. However, the timing of symptoms was
not clearly distinguished, which may have preceded the
sexual offenses, but could also be a consequence of being
identified as a sex offender.
Disinhibition may increase the likelihood
of sexually offending against a child among individuals who
are motivated to do so. Disinhibition can involve both trait
and state components: in particular, researchers have
examined empathy deficits and substance use. There is
equivocal evidence for empathy deficits in child sex
offenders: Seto & Lalumiere, 2010 found
that adolescent sex offenders tended to score higher than
non-offenders on tests of empathy; whereas
Chaplin, Rice, and Harris, 1995 found that adult male
sex offenders scored lower than non-offenders on tests of
empathy and that these empathy deficits were correlated with
phallometrically sexual arousal to children.
Substance abuse: in their meta-analysis of
adolescent comparisons Seto & Lalumiere, 2010
found that adolescent sex offenders scored significantly
lower on measures of substance abuse than other adolescent
offenders, both for alcohol and for other drugs. 2 studies
(Abracen et al, 2000; Looman et al, 2004)
found that adult sex offenders engaged in more alcohol abuse
than nonsexually violent offenders but did not differ
significantly from the other adult offenders in their use of
behavioral genetic studies have been conducted on
paedophilia, however, researchers such as Seto
(2008) suggest that as there is good evidence of
moderate heritability for other aspects of sexuality (e.g.
sexual orientation, age at first intercourse, interest in
casual sex) there may be a heritable component to
Biological and neurodevelopmental factors
Neuropsychological differences have been reported in several
studies comparing paedophiles to the general population, the
prison population and other sexual offenders, including
lower intelligence (Blanchard et at, 1999;
Cantor et al, 2004; Kruger et al, 2011), increase in the
prominence of left-handed individuals (Cantor
et al, 2004), impaired cognitive abilities (Langevin
et al, 1988, 19899 Suchy et al, 20099 Kruger et al, 2011),
neuroendocrine differences, especially those involving the
serotonergic system (Macs et al, 2001a and
2001b) and neuroradiological brain abnormalities,
especially those affecting the temporal (Cohen
et al, 2002) and frontocortical regions (Wright
et al, 1990; Cohen et al, 2002; Schiffer et al, 2007).
Blanchard et al (1999) also reported an increased
incidence of head injury in paedophiles, and also increased
incidence of maternal psychiatric history.
findings have led to the hypothesis that early child sexual
abuse, and other factors such as brain injury, may lead to
neurodevelopmental abnormalites in the temporal regions
mediating sexual arousal and the frontal regions mediating
the cognitive aspects of sexual desire and behavioural
4. What protective factors have been identified?
victims of child sexual abuse do not become adult paedophile
reports suggest an elevated rate of child sexual abuse in
the history of paedophile offenders, ranging from 28.6% (Freund
et al, 1990) to 93% (Knopp and Lackey 1987).
Ward and Siegert (2002) have proposed a
pathways model of child sexual abuse, each pathway involving
a core set of dysfunctional psychological mechanisms.
According to Beech and Ward (2004), these
mechanisms constitute vulnerability factors and are
influenced by distal and proximal factors including learning
events, biological, cultural and environmental factors.
pathways model attempts to explain why most victims of
sexual and physical abuse do not subsequently victimize
others. The model suggests that this is moderated by factors
such as the response of others to their own abuse, its
length of duration as well as other socio-emotional factors.
Psychoanalytic papers tend to focus more on the victim's
mental structural integration and developmental stage prior
to such a trauma being experienced. If an individual child
with good parental care is unexpectedly sexually abused by a
stranger, and treated for any ensuing trauma, he or she is
likely to recover well. In contrast, a child from a
dysfunctional family where sexual abuse is experienced from
the very people he depends on, his parents or carers, on a
background of developmental impediments, any recovery is
likely to be curtailed and the risk of a subsequent
personality disorder developing is high.
5. What audiological theories have been
proposed to explain child sexual offending?
researchers and authors interested in the origins of sexual
offending, including child sexual offending, have proposed
different theories based on their own particular tradition
of understanding human behaviour and personality
development. The main theoretical frameworks are:
psychoanalytic; social learning processes (e.g. conditioning
and modeling); cognitive-behavioural theory; cultural and
feminist theories; attachment theory; evolutionary theory;
and biological theories (including genetic and
neurodevelopmental). The more recent literature emphasizes
the contribution of neurodevelopmental abnormalities which
are thought to underlie psychological vulnerability factors
for child sexual offending, and tend to omit or neglect
reference to psychoanalytic theories.
last 25 years, with the recognition that sexual offending is
multiply determined, and that there are different types of
child sexual offenders, several comprehensive,
multifactorial theories have been proposed. However, there
remain several limitations to these theories: all focus on
male offenders and do not discuss female offenders, all
apart from Finkelhorn's theory neglect unconscious factors
or psychoanalytic theory, none except Marshall and Barbaree,
and Seto specifically address paedophilia.
Ward and Beech (2006) helpfully summarize
the desirable features of a comprehensive multi-factorial
theory of child sexual abuse, which should:
incorporate psychological, biological, cultural, and
situational factors. Psychological factors should be broken
down into cognitive, affective and behavioural variables.
identify the clinical phenomena it is attempting to explain,
and be explicit about which population of sex offenders e.g.
adult, adolescent or child.
dynamic i.e. postulate mechanisms which generate the core
multiple offence pathways or astrological trajectories for
different types of child molesters
distal and proximal causal factors, and therefore explain
be developmental ice. explain why different types of
developmental adversity ay re' suit in subsequent sexual
strive for level of detail or clarity appropriate to current
level of knowledge
Key multifactorial theories:
Finkelhorns' 4 factor or precondition model
(1984) suggests that child sexual abuse is based on 4
emotional congruence (sex with children in
emotionally satisfying to the offender),
sexual arousal (men who offend are sexually
aroused by children),
blockage (men have sex with children
because they are unable to meet their sexual needs in more
appropriate ways, which may be facilitated by absence of
partner, social isolation), and
disinhibition (they are unable to control
their sexual impulses, e.g. due to alcohol, impulse
disorder, senility, severe stress, psychosis).
factors are grouped into four preconditions that must be
satisfied before sexual abuse can occur: motivation to
sexually abuse a child, overcoming internal inhibitions,
overcoming external inhibitions, and overcoming the child's
resistance to abuse.
theory attempts to integrate psychoanalytic, social learning
and feminist/cultural theories.
Marshall and Barbaree's Integrated Theory
(1990) describe a developmental theory integrating
biological vulnerabilities with adverse early experiences
(child abuse and neglect) to explain development, onset and
maintenance of child sexual offending. Considers proximal
and distal causal factors, as well as vulnerability and
protective factors. Negative childhood experiences cause
social skills deficits and self-regulations problems, so
they are less likely to develop adult heterosexual
relationships. Puberty, and hormonal changes contribute to
acquisition of deviant sexual fantasies and emotional needs
by fusion of sexual and aggressive needs, and contribute to
a dysfunctional picture of masculinity.
Situational factors such as stress, intoxication or sexual
stimuli overwhelm the person's inadequate coping mechanisms
to enable him to commit a sexual offence. Reinforcing
effects of deviant sexual activity and development of
cognitive distortions (e.g. sexual pleasure, sense of
control, reduction of negative mood) maintain offending.
Based on a cognitive behavioural model, but considers
Hall and Hirschman's Quadripartite model (1992)
is based on four components: physiological sexual
arousal, inaccurate cognitives that justify sexual
aggression, affective dyscontrol and personality problems.
The first three are state factors, whilst personality
deficits are vulnerability factors. The factors may operate
singly or in combination, but a particular factor is likely
to be the primary factor for a particular offender, implying
that there are different types of child sex offenders, for
which different types of treatment are appropriate.
E.g.paedophiles with strong deviant sexual arousal and
preference for children treated by reduction of deviant
sexual arousal by conditioning techniques; whereas incest
offenders who misinterpret child's behaviour as revealing
sexual intent benefit from modification of dysfunctional
cognitives, and challenging their sense of entitlement.
Those with more entrenched personality problems need more
long-term therapy addressing interpersonal issues. This
model draws from learning and cognitive behavioural theory.
Marshall and Marshall (2000) propose that
poor child-parent attachment leads to low self-esteem and
relationship deficits, which increase the individual's risk
of being abused as a child. Sexual abuse disturbs sexual
development leading to increased use of sex as way of coping
with negative affect. Situational factors and opportunities
to offend lead individual to seek inappropriate sexual
during offence and subsequent conditioning through
masturbation lead to increased sexual response to children.
Ward and Siegart pathways model (2002)
attempts to integrate the best elements in the preceding
models, and propose that there are multiple pathways to
child sexual offences, based on four clusters of clinical
problems: intimacy and social skills deficits, cognitive
distortions, emotional dysregulation, and distorted sexual
scripts manifesting in sexual fantasies and arousal to
children. Each cluster is associated with a particular
pathway to offending; a fifth pathway represents sexual
offences by antisocial individuals who engage in a wide
variety of criminal arts.
Beech and Ward Integrated Theory of Sexual
offending (ITSO) (2006) expands on the pathways model to
provide overgrowing framework to explain sexual offending in
general, attempting to include evolutionary selection,
neurobiological functioning, learning, and psychological
systems associated with emotional problems, social
difficulties, cognitive distortion and deviant sexual
Seto (2008) reviews the above theories, and
evidence for different factors associated with child sexual
offending, and offers a specific astrological theory of
paedophilia. He proposes that paedophilia is a
neurodevelopmental disorder in which childhood sexual abuse,
as well as other putative factors including genetic
predisposition, cause brain abnormalities which underlie
sexual fantasies and arousal to children.
Psychoanalytic theories of child sexual
psychoanalytic theories of perversions, which are numerous,
need to be reviewed in order to introduce the psychoanalytic
thinking about paedophilia. A review of the psychoanalytic
theories developing over the last 100 years regarding
perversions is available in Schinaia's (2010)
book ''On Paedophilia''.
Highlights of theories on perversions:
(1896) - In his paper ''The aetiology of
hysteria," Freud wrote of traumatic sexual experiences
in childhood that led to later manifestations of hysteria.
This was then developed into an account of the patient's
fantasies or projections of desires of sexual contacts as
leading to the psychical trauma. Despite this, he did stress
that the reality of actual child sexual abuse should not be
overlooked. He did not write specifically about paedophilia
and this eluded his early framework of 1905, in
The Three Essays, where he described perversion as a
fixation on the early stages of sexuality, in which
situations of domination and aggression prevail, with the
aggression turning into sadism.
only one brief reference to paedophilia where he gives
clinical accounts of children being initiated to sexuality
by adult carers, understanding this as the child functioning
as a surrogate object when sexual impulses had no other
outlet. The minor importance of paedophilia in his thinking
was perhaps a consequence of decreasing attention to the
real child as compared to the analytic 'child' as well as
theoretical conditioning determined by the model of
instincts. In his instinct theory, he classified sexual
perversions into two groups, one according to the sexual
object, like the child in paedophilia, and the other,
according to the aim, as in the inflicting or experiencing
of pain in sadomasochism. The perversion was distinguished
from the classical neurotic or psychotic conditions, Freud
stating that ''the neuroses are the negative of
Ferenczi (1933)- introduced the concept of
identification with the aggressor.
Glover (1955)- wrote that the perversion
assumes a defensive function of control and avoidance of
more serious and unbearable hidden psychotic anxieties.
Under Klein's influence, he coined a variation on Freud's
original term and stated that ''the perversions
are the negative of psychoses".
Stoller (1975) - defined perversion as the
erotic form of hatred where he considered a revival of the
trauma but where the childhood trauma is converted into an
adult triumph. Revenge for the trauma is through the
dehumanizing and humiliation of the partner.
Glasser (1988) - in his core complex
theory, Glasser describes how it is the individual's wish to
form an intimate, indissoluble union with the love-object.
such a union is regarded and experienced as enriching and
enhancing the sense of self. However, the ''pervert'' looks
upon such a union as annihilatory since he believes "he will
be taken over totally by the object to the point of
disappearance of his separate existence". One reaction to
this danger is to narcissistically withdraw, leaving the
individual isolated and feeling worthless.
reaction to the danger of annihilation is to respond with
further described two types of paedophiles. The first,
primary paedophilia, is a perversion which shares with the
other reversions a particular type of psychopathological
structure which, amongst other things, enables the ego to
sustain a relative degree of stability and integration, in
other words, enabling the individual to otherwise manage in
their other daily aspects of life.
second, or secondary paedophilia, occurs in the context of
some other pathology not specifically related to
paedophilia, such as schizophrenia, organic disorders and
other disintegrated personality disorders.
6, Do women sexually abuse children?
Headline: Women do sexually abuse children,
but society finds this difficult to accept. When Estela
Welldon first published her book on female perversion 'Mother,
Madonna, Whore' in 1988, she received hate mail for
daring to suggest that mothers might hate and abuse their
babies and children.
available on child sexual abuse perpetrated by females is
far less extensive than that related to male sexual
offending against children, potentially a factor of the
small number of females who are actually convicted of sexual
offenders form only 0,5% of incarcerated sexual offender and
around 1% of total convicted sex offenders in England and
Wales (Ford 2006). The incarcerated
population is increasing, however, with data from the U.K.
Prison Service (2009) reporting that numbers increased from
31 in 2005 to 56 in 2009. These low conviction rates are
likely to reflect the fact that women commit fewer sexual
offenses than males. The question remains, however, as to
whether these offenses are as rare as these figures suggest
or whether they are simply under-reported (Ford
there are few studies on female sexual offenders, there are
even fewer specifically on female paedophilia. Apart from
Welldon's references to female perversions in her writings
since 1988, we have found only two papers on paedophilia
that make specific reference to female perpetrators
(Chow & Choy, 20029 Cooper, et al, 1990).
The reason for this may be ''an aspect of the universal
resistance to acknowledging the mother's filicide drives,
undoubtedly the most dreaded and uncanny truth for us to
facets, Rascovsky and Rascovsky (1968).
psychoanalytic literature from the 1960s onwards refers to
the importance of the mother-child relationship in the
formation of future perversions such as paedophilia
(Mahler 1963). However, Welldon was the
first to describe the actual perversion of motherhood
itself. In her book, Welldon (1988) states ''The
main difference between a male and a female perverse act
lies in the 'location' of the object. In men the act is
directed at an outside part-object. In women the act is
usually directed against themselves, either against their
bodies, or against objects that they see as their own
creations - that is, their babies. In both cases, bodies and
babies are treated as dehumanized part-objects."
times, there have been reported cases of female perpetrators
of child sexual abuse in the media. It may be that this will
stimulate more interest in studying this highly disturbing
phenomenon where a child is deceived by the very person it
depends on and who is expected to be nurturing.
7. What are the differences between male and
Due to the
limited research in this area there is a lack of data
regarding the clinical characteristics of female sex
offenders. Female sex offenders have been separated into
sub-types in the research literature:
intergenerationally predisposed group who abuse their own
children, regarded as replicating their own childhood abuse;
teacher/lover group who abuse adolescents of their preferred
gender and see themselves as having an affair;
male-coerced group who are coerced into sexually abusive
behavior and continue after the departure of the coercive
male; (Matthews et al, 1991; Saradjian, 1996)
who abuse with men without coercion (Nathan and
Ward, 2002). The literature suggests that female sex
offenders are more likely to abuse their own children than
male sex offenders, and also have a higher incidence of
having been sexually abused themselves in childhood than
men, and that the abuse was more severe and frequent (see
Elliot et al, 2010). However, in a case-note study of 43
female sex offenders, Elliot et al (2010)
found that female sex offenders reported similar clinical
deficits in the same risk domains as their male
counterparts, specifically low self-esteem, low confidence,
social isolation, depression, cognitive distortions, poor
parenting skills and relationship instability.
8. Are adolescent abusers destined to become
abusers in adulthood?
Headline: Only a minority of adolescent sex
offenders will go on to become abusers in adulthood.
Retrospective studies suggest approximately one half of
adult sex offenders report that their first sexual offense
was committed as a juvenile (Abel et al, 19859
Abel et al, 19939 Groth et al, 1982), and up to one half
of adolescent sex offenders have engaged in sexual
misconduct when they were under the age of 12
(Burton, 2000) Ryan et al, 19969 Zolondek et al, 2001).
However, prospective studies show that only a minority
(perhaps 10% to 15%) of adolescent sex offenders commit
another sexual offense over 5 years of opportunity
(Caldwell, 2002). The proportion of
children with sexual behavior problems who persist and
commit a sexual offense later in life is also relatively
small (Carpentier et al, 2006). Problematic
sexual behavior in children and of adolescents' sexual
behavior problems may be a reaction to sexual abuse they
have experienced, or reflect sexual precocity or normative
sexual play. Many adolescents' sexual offenses may represent
opportunistic and relatively transient criminal behavior.
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DR. Carine Minne and Dr. Jessica Yakeley