Adverse Childhood Experiences and Sexual Offending

Updated on March 7, 2019
David AZ Cohen PhD profile image

David Cohen has a PhD in clinical criminology and worked in forensic psychiatry for 28 years. He also suffers from chronic back pain.


In 1933, Sándor Ferenczi, an Italian born psycho-analyst, a respected member of the Vienna psych-analytic society and one of Sigmund Freud's "inner circle" announced that he was convinced that his patients' accounts of childhood sexual abuse were true. He also wrote about the adverse and long-lasting effects of such victimization. Society then wasn't capable of accepting such a determination, especially as it was directly opposed to Freud's teaching that claims of sexual abuse were fantasy and nothing more. Ferenczi was vilified and exiled- but he was right.

Childhood Abuse is More Common than We May Think

Today, we know that child abuse, be it sexual, physical or emotional, is relatively common, and that such abuse does indeed have adverse and long-lasting consequences.

According to the center for disease control, 24.7% of women and 16% of men in the USA were victims of sexual abuse in childhood, 27% of women and 29.9% of men were victims of physical abuse in childhood and 13.1% of women and 7.6% of men were victims of emotional abuse. About 15% of adults were victims of physical neglect in childhood, and 10% were victims of emotional neglect (The full chart can be seen here).

The CDC has formulated an "Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE)" questionnaire, which polls adults on 10 different types of adverse childhood experiences, such as: "Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? Or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?"; 'Was a biological parent ever lost to you through divorce, abandonment, or other reason?"; " Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or who used street drugs?".

According to the CDC, 61% of the population reported 0 or 1 such traumatic childhood events. About 13% reported experiencing four or more.

Adverse Childhood Events among Sex Offenders

Jill Levenson, a social worker and leading expert on "trauma informed care" of sexual offenders and her colleagues have found that compared with men in the general population, sex offenders had more than 3 times the odds of being victims of child sexual abuse (CSA), nearly twice the odds of being victims of physical abuse, 13 times the odds of being victims of verbal abuse, and more than 4 times the odds of being victims of emotional neglect and coming from a broken home. Less than 16% endorsed zero ACEs and nearly half endorsed four or more. They also found that Higher ACE scores were associated with versatility and persistence of criminal behavior.

Men who sexually victimized adult women had higher ACE scores,were more versatile in their criminal behavior and had higher levels of persistence than sex offenders with minor victims only. Child sexual abuse, emotional neglect, and domestic violence in the childhood home were significant predictors of a higher number of sex crime arrests.

Why Do Adverse Childhood Experiences Lead to Criminal Behavior?

The interaction of abused children with the world is pathological. They have trouble forming healthy attachment, they have a weak sense of safety and a low threshold for danger. They may grow up feeling "invalidated", that is: ignored, mocked, teased, unwanted, unloved, and unworthy of being loved or of loving others. They may come to see the world as a dangerous place, in which they have no control over what happens to others or to them.

In the "circle of invalidation" (see illustration below), victims of childhood abuse experience emotional pain, and they realize that they need help, but they don't know how to ask for it. They feel they must "do something" to ease the pain- and they do. Usually, they do something which has been done to them, which is why many sexually abused children (but, I stress, not all) become abusers themselves. In some cases, they harm themselves. This makes them feel better, for a short time: just until reality intervenes. They get yelled at, may be arrested, may be hospitalized, may permanently injure themselves. They feel ashamed, realize that they really are outcasts, unloved and unlovable, and their negative self-concept is reinforced by the reactions to their behavior. They are so emotionally scarred that learning from the experience is impossible (without serious treatment) and the feelings of emotional pain, along with the need to relieve them. It’s a very vicious circle, and can end only in one of two ways: Death / serious injury or treatment to end the circle.


This is an Explanation, Not an Excuse

It must be emphasized that this process does not excuse abusive behavior in people who were abused as children- but it does explain it. One of the aims of trauma informed therapy is to help the offender realize that, on the one hand, there is a connection between adverse experiences in childhood and abusing others as an adult. On the other hand, they learn that now that the abuse is (at least objectively) over, and they realize why they acted as they did, they are responsible for taking control of their lives and stopping the cycle. Once an offender realizes this, he is on the road to desisting from his offensive behavior and starting to lead a productive life.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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    © 2019 David A Cohen


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