Informational & Opinion Article: The Cycle of Abuse

An expanded article from a post on our Tumblr csa-survivors-cofessions.tumblr.com

It’s a common belief that abuse victims, especially victims of child sexual abuse, will become abusers. Abusers themselves are generally assumed to have been abused as kids, the abuse is believed to have made the abuser what they are.

A way that the cycle of abuse narrative shows up is when the media speculate on the life history when talking of perpetrator. An example is the responses to Michael Jackson and R. Kelly’s sexual crimes. Many people brought up his history of abuse and trauma not just as a factor but that it fated them to act the way they did.

People who choose to talk about the cycle of abuse present it as a given fact offender were all victims, and insinuate victims often abuse others. They often don’t have a more balanced view of talking about the reality of the effects of abuse. Trauma can make people angry and cause them to have unhealthy behaviours, however, the truth about that those expressions of traumatic stress do not make people abusers, and do not make them commit sexual abuse against anyone.

The cycle of abuse needs to be understood as it really is, not as a fate for all victims, an excuse for perpetrators or catch-all explanations of the culture of abuse we live in.

So Do Victims Become Abusers?

Statistics: 

  • Children and teens who have been sexually abused are no more likely to become sexually abusive adults than children who have not experienced abuse (Widom & Massey,  2015)
  • Girls who experienced CSA are in fact more likely to be sexually assaulted or raped as an adult. A rate of 2xs as likely than women who had not experienced csa (Lalor & McElvaney, 2010)
  • 95% of abuse victims (across multiple forms of child maltreatment) do not perpetrate abuse on others.  (Madigan et al, 2019)
  • Most victims of sexual abuse in childhood will not become perpetrators of sexual assault, and a history of sexual victimization is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to sexually offend (Whitaker et al, 2008)

The ‘cycle of abuse’ model does not apply to most victims, at least not of the victims become abusers construct. Victims becoming abusers, but that the inverses exist victims will be re-victimised and experience trauma. Revictimization is a common and well-known response. (Klolk, 1989)

The psychology of being abused does not hardwire us to harm others. Intrusive thoughts around sexual violence and arousal at reminders, triggers or flashbacks to trauma is not the same as paedophilia. 

If you don’t engage in behaviours that harm others you are not an abuser. If you don’t experience sexual arousal at the idea of sexual contact with a minor you are not a paedophile. Research does show abuse can be a factor in the psychology of child abusers but is neither the lone nor primary factor. 

So What About the People Who Do Become Abusers?

Abusers who were victims:

Statistics:

  • 6.2-23% of the perpetrators of CSA had experienced sexual abuse with physical contact in childhood (Hanson & Slater, 1988, Child maltreatment 2010)
  • 30% of sex offenders were sexually abused as children, 70% were not. (Becker & Murphy, 1998)
  • Rates of childhood sexual abuse in male perpetrators of abuse were higher than in the general male population (Glasser at el, 2001)

What this shows is that abuse is often over-represented in victims but it’s not ubiquitous people who were sexually abused others. It can be a factor in why certain people do it, but it is not the only determining process in a person becoming an abuser.

There is a subset of abusers called situational offenders. These abusers often act on people they have control over. These people may have a history of domestic violence, physical or emotional abuse. Sexual offences of adults might have also occurred. But they no history of CSA. These groups are situational because they act against people they direct control over in a pattern based on having options to hurt others. This can also be close to offenders who assist others in their abuse, or people who exploit children through prostitution.

The only time abusers are extremely like to have been abused are children who abuse other children [COCSA]. For COCSA offenders 40-80% of them were abused (Becker & Hunter, 1997). As they are 43% of the abusers of children under 6 this is important to know, but because of the wide range, it’s unclear how common this is. (Finkelhor et al, 2009).

Children who are incapable of fully comprehending sexual activity and could not have yet processed are the subset of abusers most likely to then abuse others. This can be seen in further understanding of the real understanding of the cycle of abuse. This is not to excuse their behaviour, they are also less likely to be situational offenders and more likely to be replaying there abuse on others. It’s no less traumatizing to the victim and t is still an exercise of control and power, the offender is almost always older in a higher position socially. (Finkelhor, 2012 & Snyder, 2000)

Not on Paedophilia:

The causes of paedophilia are not entirely known. However, it is clear that it’s not an effect of abuse all the time. It appears to be a combination of neurological factors we don’t quite understand, trauma, other environmental factors, genetics, head injury and epigenetics. A confluence of events have to happen, it’s not a 1 to 1 pattern do to abuse. (Stines, 2015)

Having been abused yourself does seem to be a factor in some cases. I would also note that wider trauma and abuse (physical, emotional, neglect etc) show a similar casual link as CSA  again CSA is not the primary factor.

Choices play into any actions a person takes. It’s key that no one becomes an abuser by circumstance or accident. 

Why Do Some CSA Survivors Abuse Children?

It’s a confluence of factors that vary by situation

Wounds and frame works that contribute to victimization:

  1. Searching for power and control: By becoming an abuser, someone who has been abused can attempt to overcome the powerlessness they felt when they were being abused. 
  2. Making the abuse “better”: Often this becomes direct mimicking of what was done but in reverse with them in the opposite place. Filling in the holes of love they didn’t have but through manipulating vulnerable children and putting them where they were as children. These people accept the abuse, offten viewing it as possible healthy but not the way it went down for them.
  3. Feeling like they are better than others: Similar to other narcissistic tendencies it stims from an original wound that becomes a pattern of feeling like they have to better, and see others as less them they are. In the case of abusers how they enact these feelings of being better than others and dehumanizing others through sexual violence. Children are the easiest targets to act out feeling stronger and better than. These patterns might extend to other abusive behaviours.
  4. Deep Anger: Some CSA is sadistic behaviour borne from acting out their own anger on the children they victimize. 
  5. Paedophilia and sexual arousal by violence: Often overlapping with the others, if you experience sexual arousal by violence and/or a paedophile then it is part of why they sexual abuse others. 

All of these patterns have one major thing in common, the abuser has not only not dealt with their trauma but has chosen destructive coping mechanisms. Healthy behaviours are absent but unlike many victims, the outward harm manifests as severe abuse unlike many who may sometimes act our trauma inwards. The abusers are the ultimate manifestation as anger out.

Similar base wounds can become patterns of behaviour that are not abusive. For example, a deep need for control can manifest as compulsive symptoms, eating disorders, obsessive behaviours and choosing professions that lead to control. Feelings of being unworthy can manifest as self-harm and dangerous sexual behaviours. Anger may manifest as outbursts, recklessness or self-harm. The pain will act different on everyone, but the vast majority of people even if they are angry or searching for power don’t hurt others.

We don’t know exactly why some people take similar wounds to the self and put it on others in such a drastic abusive manner and others don’t. But i always land on it is a choice to hurt a child. It is a choice to abuse kids.

Something else that helps us understand some abusers behaviour of self-justification or being able to say something wasn’t “really abuse” is thought distortions and self-justifications. 

Self-Justification and Thought Distortions:

  1. Dehumanization of children, not beliving in their autonomy so the abuse isn’t really bad.
    Extremely young children won’t remember, so no harm is done. groom
  2. Their child is their property, hurting them is their right.
  3. If it’s not incest, then it isn’t “as bad” as the ones who do that. 
  4. Their abuse is a show of love to the victim. 
  5. The child sought out the relationship, making it okay.
  6. If the child says yes, then it’s consent. Not caring about the lack of ability or coercion. 
  7. That they are ‘teaching’ the child about sex.
  8. They are helping the child become an adult
  9. If they don’t leave (visible) physical scars they haven’t really harmed them. 
  10. That the child deserves to be punished or it’s an acceptable form of discipline. 

None of these are correct and if the offenders truly believe they are essentially buying their own bull. These lines are often what abusers tell the child as part of grooming. Abusers can absorb their own lies, and might also be holding on to what their own abuser told them. 

These thought patterns are deeply connected to why a victim can do the same harm done to them on to others. 

Many abusers however use these lies knowing it’s wrong including offenders who were not abused.

Wo What is The Cycle of Abuse?

Definition:

The cycle of abuse can be understood as when someone is abused they will later in life continue the patterns they learned during the trauma and abuse others.

It is a construct in understanding how trauma is passed from person to person due to the original trauma being unprocessed. But if we’re going to talk about abusive cycles CSA survivors get trapped in it is being victimised over and over. Thought distortions similar to the traditional cycle of abuse drive revictimization. It’s also due to the way our brains become altered and we live in a mindset of abuse being normal and traumatic living is ingrained. The traumatic alterations to the brain can ingrain fawn and freeze responses, cause self-harm and lead to them to trauma bond easily. (Volk, 1989)

So while these are not the same process knowing the other common patterns of behaviour is important. And intergenerational and secondary trauma is incredibly common as well, sometimes this is invoked under the same label. But i believe this is better understood as a cycle of trauma (if we aren’t using intergenerational trauma) because it’s not always direct abuse, but teaching abnormal survival skills.

Discussing of The Cycle of Abuse:

Discussions of this can appear in many places. In recovery communities, this comes up, fears of being our abusers, dealing with our abuser’s own histories and wondering how? Online spaces also exist that are “supports” for paedophilia and even abusers. And of course the wider media of news, true crime, movies, tv and more.

Recovery Communities

As I mentioned before it tends to come up in three main ways; the worry we are or might be the same as our abusers, dealing with our abuser’s history of trauma and lastly the question that started this discussion just why?

The first conversation is something I think is influenced by two major factors; symptoms that can be misread as the same as paedophilia (arousal during memories of or abuse, intrusive thoughts around sexual violence, compulsive thoughts about abuse etc) and the misunderstandings of the cycle of abuse we are addressing. I think these discussions are widely productive and conducive to healing. It generally falls apart when people are misinformed on the topic.

Being able to realise when our behaviours can be toxic without being the same as our abusers is the most missed point. Learning to not think in black and white along with fighting guilt and shame as part of the long process connected with overall recovery.

Wondering why? Honestly, this is a question that we don’t fully understand but the research gives us a good frame.

Dealing with our abuser’s possible history of trauma is difficult and I recognize this. Honest processing of this is going to be individual, but being clear it never makes it okay is the only real advice we can give each other. Misunderstanding of the cycle of abuse is as influential here as in the first topic.

Toxic Online Discussions:

Many times these topics come up they are not done in a safe way. Many times these topics come up they are not done safely. Normalizing paedophilia, presenting it as always something sympathetic ad not complicated, trying to make it as healthy response and/or trying to make certain harmful behaviours “not that bad” (Like drawn/animated CP, sexualizing children in general media, or things like D-Dlg).

Knowing paedophilia has factors that are not environmental and/or the way abuse and trauma influence it is brought up as a reason to say that everyone needs to accept them. Even in mainstream sources like BBC (person,2017) will play apologia and support this idea. There are valid conversations about treatment to prevent abuse but talking about validation is dangerous.

The exposure, guilt trips or even conflation with being gay are abusive behaviours and wrong. It can be grooming the same way studies have shown that abusers use histories of abuse to groom and manipulate people. These conversations are not done in good in faith (essentially always, some victims parrot this or people who don’t understand may also).

General Media:

As in the BBC article, a toxic form of normalization of attraction to children is frustratingly common and this can be conflated with real honest discussions of how to treat and prevent child sexual abuse. Though we do get those articles which are important but good ones are rare.

More commonly in news media perpetrators of sexual abuse, and other violence is found to have trauma it is used as the full explanation of what they did. This takes two tones, a fatalistic idea kind of saying this was going to happen and sometimes can be almost saying they experienced trauma so now it’s okay. Though the latter is more common when we see other kinds of sexual assault and violence. Most people will condemn sexual abusers outright, but they act as if the CSA the perpetrator experiences is the total reason they abused children themselves. Possibly even worse is the assumption we can see that they must have had trauma to end up here. *

There are some good articles and conversations had in the media mostly when survivors are given a platform. We got some food stories out of the #metoo movement. These productive stories usually come when people discuss their adult stories of assault and bring up their CSA. These stories are honest about the effects childhood assault can lead to being harmed as adults. In general, these are the best stories as many tropes aren’t brought up and tend to have less misinformation. Anti CSA advocates work is generally well done as well. 

When looking at crime analysis and “true crime” (a large genre) the fatalistic view is very prominent. When going through the histories of criminals we get the story of their abused and how that’s why they ended up hurting others. It’s distressing to me as it tells victims we are always on the edge of becoming abusers, and also revokes choice from everyone. They tend to view children as victims and adults as abusers not understanding these are the same, and grown adult survivors exist. 

Sometimes we get a token “not all” but they are not trauma-informed in their discussion usually parroting poorly understood psychological concepts. 

When looking at movies and TV CSA is a rare topic in popular forms. It’s not generally handled well but the cycle of abuse is common in crime dramas and sensationalist dramas. The bad guy who abuses kids is revealed to have been abused themselves as part of the climaxes of these stories. Commonly presented as a sad inevitability or at the very least the norm. In the show Criminal Minds in the episode Profiler, Profiled we get this story involving one of the leads Derke’s history of sexual abuse. Thankfully he is not an offender, but the other victims of his abuser become criminals. Derke is present as being out of the norm. 

A good portrayal of the cycle of trauma is in the show Anne With An E. The title character Anne was abused multiple ways including COCSA, she is presented as having learned maladaptive patterns and this leaves her open for further trauma. When given a healthy life she is the one to speak out against sexual harassment and wants healthy love. This story is majorly shown in But What Is So Headstrong as Youth? & The Determining Acts of Her Life.

So What Now?

Blame & Choices

The pain, anger, powerlessness or feelings of being broken aren’t anyone’s fault. However, putting it on defenceless children and taking the same things from them that was stolen from you is a choice. 

Knowing how someone got to the point they harmed others and being able to understand what abusers have experienced can be useful in prevention and healing. That is the main reason we should engage in this is to be able to help victims and counteract a culture that leads to this level of harm to kids. 

Understanding should not be used as justifications or excuses. We must also remember to not strip victims or offenders of their autonomy. Trauma does not make people unable to make choices.

I am an adult my choices are my own, yes trauma changed my brain and influences my whole life, but I am not doomed to hurt others. Healthy relationships and expression come hard, but abusing others is an action I am capable of not doing. No one is fated to be an abuser, and we can all have a healthy life after trauma. 

How Should We Feel About This?

You don’t have to feel any specific way about this. Confusing and conflicting emotions about such a complex topic are completely normal. We can’t tell you what you have to feel as your emotions are yours and can’t be controlled. 

Should you feel bad, feel pity, anger, apathy or anything else those are valid emotions. You can’t control your feelings, but it is important to not let those feelings make you feel the abuse doesn’t matter or excuse it.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • You don’t have to force yourself to forgive anyone or prioritize feeling for their issues over yours. Recovery of yourself and compassion for the victims are okay to come first.
  • The job of people who work with abusers and offenders is not all of ours. Again we can understand but victims are under no obligation to centre the people who hurt them, no matter the history that got them there.
  • Again abusers do make a choice. I don’t buy that having a history of abuse means you no longer have a choice in rather to sexual assault others or not. Being abused, being in pain, not understanding how to cope or understand isn’t your fault but hurting others is. 

The complex construct of the cycle of abuse is valuable as part of treatment, prevention and recovery. But is currently used in a way that harms victims and is actively harming our work of recovery and prevention. Counteracting the misinformation and ensuring the statistics, psychology and a trauma-informed approach is in the media, discussions and policy around this is in important goal. 

Citations:

  • Baril, K. (2012). SEXUAL ABUSE IN THE CHILDHOOD OF PERPETRATORS. Retrieved December 18, 2019, from https://www.inspq.qc.ca/en/sexual-assault/fact-sheets/sexual-abuse-childhood-perpetrators
  • Becker, J. V., & Murphy, W. D. (1998). What we know and do not know about assessing and treating sex offenders. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 4(1-2), 116–137. https://doi.org/10.1037/1076-8971.4.1-2.116
  • Becker, J. V., & Hunter, H. A. (1997). Understanding and Treating Child and Adolescent Sexual Offenders. In T. Ollendick (Ed.), Advances in Clinical Child Psychology (1st ed., Vol. 19, pp. 177–197). New York, NY: Springer US. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4757-9035-1
  • Finkelhor, D. (2012). Characteristics of crimes against juveniles. Durham, NH: Crimes against Children Research Center.
  • Finkelhor, D., Ormrod,R., Chaffin, M. (2009) Juveniles who commit sex offenses against minors. Juvenile Justice Bulletin, OJJDP, Office of Justice Programs
  • Glasser, M., Kolvin, I., Campbell, D., Glasser, A., Leitch, I. and Farrelly, S. (2001). Cycle of child sexual abuse: Links between being a victim and becoming a perpetrator. British Journal of Psychiatry, 179: 482–494
  • Hanson, R.K. and Slater, S. (1988). Sexual victimization in the history of child sexual abusers: A review. Annals of Sex Research, 1: 485–499
  • Hartney, E. (2019, May 4). 10 Reasons the Cycle of Sexual Abuse Continues. Retrieved December 18, 2019, from https://www.verywellmind.com/the-cycle-of-sexual-abuse-22460
  • Kolk, B. A. V. D. (1989). The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma. Psychiatric Clinics of North America12(2), 389–411. doi: 10.1016/s0193-953x(18)30439-8
  • Lalor, K., & McElvaney, R. (2010). Child sexual abuse, links to later sexual exploitation/high-risk sexual behavior, and prevention/treatment programs. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 11,159-177. doi:10.1177/1524838010378299
  • Madigan, S., Cyr, C., Eirich, R., Fearon, R., Ly, A., Rash, C., … Alink, L. (2019). Testing the cycle of maltreatment hypothesis: Meta-analytic evidence of the intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment. Development and Psychopathology, 31(1), 23-51. doi:10.1017/S0954579418001700
  • Person. (2017, February 11). ‘Paedophiles need help, not condemnation – I should know’ – BBC Three. Retrieved December 21, 2019, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/3216b48d-3195-4f67-8149-54586689ae3c
  • Snyder, H. N. (2000). Sexual assault of young children as reported to law enforcement: Victim, incident, and offender characteristics. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved January 12, 2009 from http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/saycrle.pdf
  • Stines, S. (2015, August 21). Causes of Pedophilia. Retrieved December 18, 2019, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/causes-of-pedophilia/
  • Tenbergen, G., Wittfoth, M., Frieling, H., Ponseti, J., Walter, M., Walter,  Kruger, T. H. C. (2015). The Neurobiology and Psychology of Pedophilia: Recent Advances and Challenges. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience9, 334. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00344
  • Think All Child Molesters are Pedophiles? Think Again. (n.d.). Retrieved December 18, 2019, from https://themamabeareffect.org/think-all-child-molesters-are-pedophiles-think-again/
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children?s Bureau. Child maltreatment 2010, Child maltreatment 20103–1273 (2011). Washington, D.C.
  • Whitaker, D.J., Le, B., Hanson, R.K., Baker, C.K., McMahon, P.M., Ryan, G., et al. (2008). Risk factors for the perpetration of child sexual abuse: A review and meta-analysis. Child Abuse & Neglect,32: 529-548.
  • Widom, C S, and C Massey. “A Prospective Examination of Whether Childhood Sexual Abuse Predicts Subsequent Sexual Offending.” Jama Pediatrics, 5 Jan. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25561042.

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