Earlier this week I read a praiseworthy op-ed piece titled “Britain’s Crime of Complicity” in the New York Times. Written by Laurie Penny, the piece commented, among other things, on a parliamentary investigation that will look into “accusations that child abuse by politicians and other public figures was deliberately covered up or even facilitated by members of the [British] elite” and stated that:
The same Parliament has, it seems, spent 30 years failing to catch the pedophile in its own house. Before the inquiry was even announced, it emerged that 114 files concerning allegations of abuse against children involving senior political figures had mysteriously disappeared.
The piece went further into the “tradition of the British establishment’s looking after its own” and went on to assert that various British media celebrities who had sexually abused children, though possessing far from elite upbringings and backgrounds, were “united” by
power and access—and a sense of entitlement, acquired from Britain’s traditional elite, that came from the knowledge that their reputations were too great for them to be held accountable.
In this context, the piece noted that Jimmy Savile, the former children’s TV host and charity campaigner who, following his death in 2011, was found to have raped and otherwise sexually assaulted hundreds of children, was a friend of Margaret Thatcher.
All in all a—justifiably, it seems—scathing indictment of how, when it comes to child sexual abuse, a country’s power elite will protect not only its own but protect, as well—or, at least, readily turn a blind eye to its being used to protect—those who are favorably connected with it, doing so through a “culture of complicity that cuts across every major institution in public life.”
There was only one statement made in the piece that gave me a bit of pause, and not because it was necessarily inaccurate but because, I felt, it wasn’t as specific as it might have been for the purpose of avoiding one of the most common of various false beliefs that have sometimes contributed to a broad-brush stigmatization of child sexual abuse survivors.
The statement was as follows:
That victims of child abuse often grow up to replicate that abuse, to become bullies or tyrants or covert sexual predators, has long been understood as a human tragedy.
The key, and, I feel, unfortunately vague, word in this statement is “often.” Many readers, based upon inaccurate stereotypes concerning CSA survivors, might assume that the “often” in this statement means that a majority or even a substantial majority of child abuse victims grow up to become, in one way or another, abusers.
But reading this statement reminded me of passages from a book titled Betrayed as Boys: Psychodynamic Treatment of Sexually Abused Men by psychoanalyst Richard B. Gartner—a book focusing specifically on male child sexual abuse survivors. Based on research, the passages state that a “significant minority of sexually abused men do indeed become perpetrators of abuse,” but that “contrary to popular opinion, most [men sexually abused during childhood] do not become victimizers.”
The passages noted in detail the results of a 1996 study of nearly 600 randomly selected college men, including the following:
Of the [physically and/or sexually] abusive men, 79 percent had themselves been abused as children. However, when the researchers looked at the men who were themselves abused as children, only 19 percent later went on to abuse children. Thus, for this group of men still in young adulthood, although four out of five abusers had themselves been abused, only one out of five abused children had later become abusive. [italics in original]
I like to think of this in terms of two overlapping circles, with one circle, representing all men who were sexually abused as children, substantially larger than the other circle, representing adults who sexually abuse children. The smaller circle is mostly overlapped by the larger circle, but this leaves a substantial part of the larger circle not overlapped by the smaller—the part representing the substantial majority of adults sexually abused as children who do not themselves become sexual abusers of children.
Although Gartner noted a need for more studies to be done “with wider populations to see if these figures hold up,” doing some checking, they do, in fact, seem to hold up. One study that appeared multiple times in the search results (for “Do sexually abused become abusers?”) and otherwise stood out in particular was conducted by the Australian government’s Australian Institute of Criminology and involved “a sample of 2,759 CSA victims who were abused between 1964 and 1995.” Although the study found that “CSA victims were almost five times more likely than the general population to be charged with any [criminal] offence than their non-abused counterparts, with strongest associations found for sexual and violent offences” including the abuse of children, the study concluded that “this is the largest prospective study to demonstrate with confidence that the majority of victims sexually abused during childhood do not perpetuate the cycle of violence by becoming an offender [as a child sexual abuser or otherwise] or by the ongoing victimisation of violence.”
Based on the Gartner passages, the Australian study, and other results of my checking, an accurate picture of the total scope of the situation would be:
(a) Yes, people sexually abused during childhood do have a substantially higher risk as compared with the general population of themselves becoming child sexual abusers.
(b) However, (a) notwithstanding, a majority—and very possibly what could be termed a substantial majority—of child sexual abuse survivors do not become child sexual abusers or otherwise criminally abusive adults.
So the only issue I have with the use of “often” in Ms. Penny’s op-ed piece is that its meaning wasn’t given greater precision in order to make (b) clear.