Adverse Family Environment: A breeding ground for sexual offending
In the sexual violence prevention field, one of the things we are always asking ourselves is why people commit sexually violent acts. The answers are multiple and complicated, but a recent study by Levenson, Willis, and Prescott (2014) in Sex Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment reveals that male sex offenders in treatment programs are significantly more likely to report having a variety of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) than males in the general population.
The 679 male sex offenders in the study were more likely to have been verbally abused, physically abused, sexually abused, emotionally neglected, and physically neglected, as children than are males in the general population. They were also more likely to come from “dysfunctional homes,” in which their families dealt with domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, and incarceration. The more of these ACEs the sex offenders in the study reported having, the more likely they were to have victims who were younger than 12 and to have been convicted of sexual offenses that were violent, involved a weapon, and resulted in injuries for the victim.
This is not to say, of course, that ACEs cause people to be sexually violent, or that most people who experience ACEs become sex offenders. But it does suggest that ACEs might contribute to the conditions that encourage coercive sexual behavior. Levenson, Willis, and Prescott point out, “an adverse family environment is a fertile breeding ground for sexual offending. Abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction often lead to mistrust, hostility, and insecure attachment, which then contribute to social rejection, loneliness, negative peer associations, and delinquent behavior.”
So what does this mean for sexual violence prevention professionals? How can we think about addressing the broader social contexts that lead to sexual violence? And how might incorporating responses to these traumatic experiences in sex offender treatment programs help prevent recidivism and additional sexual violence?
Full Citation: Levenson, J., Willis, G., & Prescott, D. Adverse childhood experiences in the lives of male sex offenders: Implications for trauma-informed care. Sex Abuse. Epublished: May 28, 2014.
Full Abstract: “This study explored the prevalence of childhood trauma in a sample of male sexual offenders (N = 679) using the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) scale. Compared with males in the general population, sex offenders had more than 3 times the odds of child sexual abuse (CSA), nearly twice the odds of physical abuse, 13 times the odds of verbal abuse, and more than 4 times the odds of emotional neglect and coming from a broken home. Less than 16% endorsed zero ACEs and nearly half endorsed four or more. Multiple maltreatments often co-occurred with other types of household dysfunction, suggesting that many sex offenders were raised within a disordered social environment. Higher ACE scores were associated with higher risk scores. By enhancing our understanding of the frequency and correlates of early adverse experiences, we can better devise trauma-informed interventions that respond to the clinical needs of sex offender clients.”