How Often do the Sexually Abused become Abuser?

As a therapist, there is often a big elephant in the room in sessions that only comes out eventually and normally only when trust has been established. This is the subject of clients being sexually abused by family members. They often have clouded memories of the event but the effects have stayed with them into adulthood in irresponsible behavior exhibited. We should never forget that this is the biggest betrayal of a young life and takes away many things but most damaging, the ability to see and set healthy boundaries. When a child is sexually abused by someone in a position of trust, they are being taught that it is ok to be doing this because of who it is who is doing it. It is often “their” little secret and creates dysfunctional bonds between abuser and victim. In a sense, it teaches them that abuse is normal. This, of course can create an adult who feels that abusing others is fine or indeed carries on being abused. However, there are some very misleading figures associated with this subject and abuse being transferred to the next generation is not guaranteed. What is sure is that abuse victims carry issues forward into adulthood. This doesn’t need to be abusing others but can manifest itself in inappropriate relationships, addiction and the like. Here I look at various theories that suggest the abused are more likely to become abusers than not. It really does depend on which angle you look at it from. Please be aware that I am writing this having personal experience of coming from a very abusive background where abuse of all sorts was the norm rather than the exception. I am survivor and there are many more out there leading functional lives. Why it worked for some and not for others is hard to assess. I feel blessed I am one of the lucky ones.

It is a widely held view that abused children are likely to move the abuse onto the next generation by abusing their own offspring in some way. The term “once damaged goods, always damaged goods” is a widely held belief in society and abusers are somewhat expected to repeat learnt patterns. Abuse survivors are even sometimes met with suspicion and derision once it becomes known that they have been abused, even if it is only that their story is not believed as is the case many times. It is clear that many people believe and hold the concept of “damaged goods” to be true and many of these people are at the front end of treating abuse victims or dealing with abusers.  Most of the statistics that go to make up the figures that most studies relate to concerning repeated patterns seem to be flawed at the very least. Many are only taken when incarceration takes place or if the police are involved, completely disregarding survivors who make a complete recovery or use private methods of treatment to recover. Given this, it is not surprising that official figures show that many victims of abuse become abusers themselves. While this can be said to be true in some cases, it does not take into account factors that can lead to a child surviving, understanding that it is not guaranteed that they will become abusers themselves.  There is much evidence that in some cases, life is not totally damaged by early trauma and due to such factors as a child’s natural resilience and bonds made with “good” people outside the family, things can return to normal.

Linda T Sanford in her inspiring book “Strong at Broken Places ” calls this rush to prove the “damaged goods” theory as projected deficiency which means that we take our own feelings about child abuse and project those onto the victims believing that they must feel the same. This opinion is also coupled with an expectation of what is likely to happen to the survivor in the future. The author believes that three psychological theories that are frequently applied to the „damaged goods” theory are in themselves flawed and often misused. The first is the Intergenerational Transmission of Violence theory which states that “eighty percent of sex offenders were abused as boys”. This figure is based on prison cases only and does not include, for example, sex abuse survivors who never became abusers, adding a counterweight to the argument.  Methodology applied from various other studies would bring the eighty percent figure down to thirty-five or forty percent. These studies also suggest that abuse is not contagious and it is not guaranteed that abused will become abuser. While some do, it is presumptuous to believe that it is the majority.

The second “flawed” theory deals with “learned helplessness”. This determines that abuse victims “learn to resign themselves” to the abuse, feeling they deserve it and seeing it as a way to cope. This was based on an experiment with dogs by Martin Seligmann who found that 65% of dogs chose to take pain rather than find an escape route. When applied to human behavior, some theorists believe that humans subjected to constant victimization as children will show helplessness, seeking no solace from the abuse and going on to be victims of rape, self-mutilation or prostitution, to name a few examples. The reality is somewhat different as it appears that many abuse victims actively seek help and had indeed moved on in life, according to studies. The third theory often misapplied is the one that states that child victims often show identification with the abuser going onto become offenders themselves because they found the abuse somewhat “justifiable”.  In a child’s mind, there is either an offender or a victim so the natural thing to do to stop becoming a victim is to be an offender. This statement totally disregards the fact that states that a lot of survivors have come through abuse knowing the difference between offender and victim and have used this knowledge in their interactions with their own children.

Sanford strongly  suggests that all three of the above mentioned theories, widely used by psychologists, cannot hope to predict future psychological problems for the majority but can only help to identify potential problems at best. While the number of abused who become abusers is clearly smaller than statistics show, they often suffer from other problems. Abused children who came from families where violence was common are more than three times as likely to become abusers as are those who experienced maternal neglect and sexual abuse by females. One-third of the adult abusers had been cruel to animals as children, compared with just 5% of the child abuse victims who did not grow up to commit sexual crimes. But abusers and non-abusers experienced similar levels of physical abuse as children, and there were few significant differences in the severity or characteristics of the sexual abuse they suffered.

“It is clear that prevention of sexual abuse involves not just treating the victim, but ensuring that the family environment is safe,” psychiatrist Arnon Bentovim says. “If you leave a child in a family situation where he continues to be subjected to abuse, even if it is not sexual, you are probably wasting your time.”

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