What causes child sex offending?


1. 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?

Attempting 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 paedophilia?

Researchers 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).

The factors can be grouped under the following main headings:

(i)  Adverse developmental experiences e.g. childhood sexual abuse, other abuse and neglect, rejection, attachment difficulties

(ii) Psychological dispositions/traits e.g. empathy deficits, intimacy problems, deviant sexual preferences, emotional instability, cognitive distortions

(iii) Social and cultural structures and processes

(iv) Contextual factors e.g. intoxication, severe stress, characteristics of victim

(v)  Genetic predisposition

(vi)  Biological 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 abuse'.

In a 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 sexually abused.

A 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).

Adult sex 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.

Attachment difficulties:

Several 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).

Psychological dispositions/traits:

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.

However, 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.

Emotional dysregulation:

Studies 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 other drugs.

Genetic predisposition

No 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 paedophilia.

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.

These 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 inhibition.

4. What protective factors have been identified?


Most child victims of child sexual abuse do not become adult paedophile perpetrators.


Numerous 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.

This 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?

Different 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.

In the 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:

(i) incorporate psychological, biological, cultural, and situational factors. Psychological factors should be broken down into cognitive, affective and behavioural variables.

(ii) identify the clinical phenomena it is attempting to explain, and be explicit about which population of sex offenders e.g. adult, adolescent or child.

(iii) be dynamic i.e. postulate mechanisms which generate the core clinical phenomena

(iv) contain multiple offence pathways or astrological trajectories for different types of child molesters

(v) include distal and proximal causal factors, and therefore explain contextual influences

(vi) be developmental ice. explain why different types of developmental adversity ay re' suit in subsequent sexual offending

(vii) should 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 underlying factors:

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).

The four 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.

This 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 attachment theory.

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 outlets.

Arousal 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 arousal.

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 offending

The 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:

Freud (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.

There is 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 perversion."

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.

Normally 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.

Another reaction to the danger of annihilation is to respond with aggression.

Glasser 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.

The 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.


Research 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 offenses.

Female sex 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 2006)

Whilst 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).

The 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."

In recent 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 female offenders?

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:

1) an intergenerationally predisposed group who abuse their own children, regarded as replicating their own childhood abuse;

2) a teacher/lover group who abuse adolescents of their preferred gender and see themselves as having an affair;

3) a 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) and

4) women 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




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