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“Minority of abuse victims become abusers”

Deirdre Lee, London, February 07, 2003

The risk of men who were sexually abused as children becoming abusers themselves in later life is lower than previously thought, according to UK research.

Estimates have suggested that as many as 37 per cent of male victims of child abuse become abusers in later life. But a study by researchers at the Institute for Child Health, in London, found that most men abused as youngsters do not commit sexually abusive acts towards children.

Furthermore, the study – published in the Lancet – suggests there are specific factors that increase the chance of sexually abused children becoming abusers. This could lead to improvements in intervention programmes, researchers say.

In the study, led by Professor David Skuse, researchers assessed the childhood experiences and personal characteristics of 224 men who had been abused as children, and collected information detailing whether any had been convicted of sexually abusive acts as adults.

Results showed that 26 of the former victims (12 per cent) had committed sexual offences – in almost all cases with children – mainly outside their families.

Several factors during childhood increased the risk of male victims becoming abusers by around threefold, researchers found. These included

material neglect,

lack of supervision and

sexual abuse by females.

Abused children who witnessed violent behaviour within their families were also more than three times as likely to become abusers in later life.

In addition, a third of abused children who became abusers had inflicted cruelty on animals during childhood, compared with only 5 per cent of abused children who did not become abusive.

Prof Skuse says, “Public concern about paedophilia is rising. Our results suggest that other early life experiences can substantially increase the risk of subsequent sexually abusive behaviour, above and beyond the fact of sexual victimisation.

“With a greater understanding of the potential mechanisms underlying continuities in sexual abuse, from adolescence to adulthood, comes the possibility of designing more effective preventive intervention programmes.”

In an accompanying commentary, Dr Paul Bouvier from Service santé jeunesse, in Switzerland, says future research should focus on abused children who do not become abusers.

He says, “It would be most interesting to study those victims who became resilient. About 20-44 per cent of previous victims of child sexual abuse seem to experience no symptoms or mental health problems. How did these individuals manage to get out of the circle of repetition of the abuse, to avoid other risks and to develop a meaningful life in spite of their terrible history?

“There is much to be learnt from resilient individuals. Resilience, just as vulnerability, is influenced by genetic and environmental factors, which interact, most probably with a contribution of the will of the subject.”

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