Fathers with a history of child sexual abuse: New findings for policy and practice

CFCA Paper No. 6 – July 2012

Key research findings

Although there is very limited research that has focused specifically on the issue of child sexual abuse as it relates to men's perceptions and lived experiences of fatherhood, a small number of key findings tend to emerge when male victim/survivors discuss fatherhood. In this section seven of these key findings are identified and discussed with reference to any relevant sociological, psychological and gender studies literature.

1. Awareness of the "victim-to-offender" discourse

Many male victim/survivors of child sexual abuse are aware of, and troubled by, the widespread promotion of what has been called the "victim-to-offender" discourse. This perpetuates the idea that a boy who experiences sexual abuse is likely to go on to perpetrate abuse - that the progression from victim to offender is somehow natural or automatic (as noted by, for example, Crome, 2006; Foster, 2011; Getz, 2011; Teram, et al., 2006). This discourse is often uncritically reproduced in the media, in popular culture, in government reports and publications, and even in the literature of child abuse prevention organisations and programs (Foster, 2011; Teram et al., 2006). For example, the website for the North American Safe Child Program (www.safechild.org/abuse1.htm) states that "95% of child abusers were themselves abused as children", but gives no indication of what percentage of sexually abused boys go on to become perpetrators, and thereby subtly creates an impression that the route from victim to offender is automatic.

The problem with the "victim-to-offender" discourse is that evidence for a causal link between the experience of child sexual abuse and adult perpetration of child sexual abuse is at best inconclusive (Crome, 2006; Teram et al., 2006), with much of the research purporting to provide evidence of causality dogged by methodological weaknesses or flaws (Cossins, 2000; Newcomb & Locke, 2001). Reliable research does suggest, however, that while certain childhood experiences, including neglect, lack of supervision and sexual abuse, are associated with an increased risk of becoming a perpetrator of child sexual abuse, the vast majority of male victim/survivors of child sexual abuse do not go on to become perpetrators (Glasser et al., 2001; Salter et al., 2003). In other words, while male victim/survivors might be at a higher risk of perpetrating child sexual abuse, the route from victim to offender is certainly not automatic and, indeed, occurs in only a small proportion of cases.

2. Fear of becoming abusers of their own children

Perhaps the most dominant theme to emerge from the literature is a fear on the part of male victim/survivors that they may sexually abuse their own children. Many such men speak of significant anguish associated with the birth of their children and relate that their fear of becoming a perpetrator has significantly and negatively influenced their relationships with their children.

There are different possible explanations for these fears. It is possible that these men have internalised and are reacting to the "victim-to-offender" discourse (described above). If they also experience disturbing memories and imagery of abuse in nightmares or flashbacks (as is common among victim/survivors of child sexual abuse [Spiegal, 2003]) this could reinforce their sense that they are irrecoverably damaged and likely to abuse their own children. It is also possible that some of these men may fear abusing their own children because they recognise in themselves a genuine potential or capacity for the perpetration of abusive behaviour. It is not possible from the available research to ascertain which of these explanations - or whether a combination of the explanations - is the most plausible account of the victim/survivors' fears of abusing their children.

3. The assertion of moral choice

There is a tendency for male victim/survivors to view sexual abuse perpetration as a moral issue and to assert that they made a decision, often early in their lives, to break any potential cycle of abuse. This finding supports the conceptual work of Alaggia and Millington (2008), who argued that a history of child abuse can lead to significant moral confusion, and one of the ways in which victim/survivors can overcome this confusion is to make moral resolutions - not to be like their parents or other significant adults, to treat their own children well, to end the cycle of abuse, and so on. Again, however, the limited nature of the research in this area makes it difficult to distinguish whether these assertions of choice are indeed a response to moral confusion, whether they reflect the influence of the "victim-to-offender" discourse, or whether they stem from the victim/survivor's awareness of his own propensity to perpetrate abuse.

4. Problems with physical contact and/or displays of affection with their children

Another dominant theme in the literature is victim/survivors' discomfort with touching or displaying affection with their children. Once again, it is difficult to ascertain the exact causes of this discomfort. In this case, however, the possible influence of another social factor is worth considering. That is, we live in an era in which the relationships and interactions between adult males and children are influenced by an increased awareness of the issue of child sexual abuse (Furedi, 2006; Hayes, 2008). Hayes contended that "concern over child sexual abuse has to some extent altered the nature of relationships and the behaviour of fathers and male members of extended families particularly" (p. 62). Similarly, there is generally heightened anxiety surrounding children's interactions with male professionals, such as teachers, sports coaches or carers (Hayes, 2008); anxiety that can encourage people to "regard others with the kind of suspicion that would have been rare just a few decades ago" (Furedi, 2006). It seems quite possible that, as a concomitant to an awareness of the "victim-to-offender" discourse, many male victim/survivors are keenly aware of the altered nature of adult male-child relationships, and this contributes to their problems relating in physical or affectionate ways with their children.

5. Overprotectiveness of their children

There is a tendency for some male victim/survivors to be overprotective of their children. As with the other themes, in this instance it is useful to look at the broader social factors that may be impacting on male victim/survivors' perceptions and experiences of fatherhood. Western post-industrial societies - such as Australia, the UK and the US - have become increasingly risk-averse (Beck, 1992; Furedi, 2006; Giddens, 1990). This has had a profound impact on children's lives and parenting norms and practices (Guldberg, 2009; Layard & Dunn, 2009), as Furedi (2006) explained:

It is in the sphere of children's lives that the institutionalization of caution has had the most far-reaching effect. During the past twenty years, concern with the safety of children has become a constant subject of discussion. Children are portrayed as permanently at risk of danger … Childhood activities such as roaming about the streets have become increasingly rare experiences. (p. 121)

It is unclear whether male victim/survivors indications of overprotectiveness are simply reflections of the current culture of parenthood in general, or whether they do indeed tend to be more protective of their children than other fathers. It seems quite possible that the latter could be true; for instance, the damaged sense of trust experienced by many male victim/survivors (Etherington, 1995b; Lisak, 1994) could combine with increasingly risk-averse parenting norms to create a pattern of anxious and overprotective parenting behaviours in some male victim/survivors.

6. Fatherhood as a catalyst for the resurfacing of trauma

For some male victim/survivors, becoming a father can act as a catalyst or trigger for the resurfacing of hitherto supressed emotion and trauma, as Lainsbury (1999) explained in an autobiographical account:

After the birth of my children I was forced to reflect on my childhood, which started the process of painful realisation that my memory of the abuse was not going away. My relationship with my wife began to get worse. After several months of psychotherapy, which was unable to uncover these hidden feelings, I took a massive drug overdose and ended up in an intensive care unit of the local hospital on a life support machine. (p. 1)

Although more research is necessary to establish whether the resurfacing of trauma at the time of their children's births is indeed a common experience among male victim/survivors, a number of authors have noted that memories of child sexual abuse can be triggered by specific life events or by therapy (Alpert, Brown, & Courtois, 1998; O'Leary & Gould, 2010), and it seems quite likely that the birth of a child could act as such a catalyst.

7. Fatherhood as a healing experience

Some men indicate that having children is a very important factor in their recovery from the trauma of child sexual abuse. This finding offers a counterpoint to the other key findings, which are most often experienced as negative or distressing by victim/survivors. As researchers, service providers and policy-makers begin to grapple with the problem of child sexual abuse influencing men's perceptions and experiences of fatherhood, it will be important that they emphasise this point: that although victim/survivors may face unique difficulties as parents, having children is also viewed by many as a positive, healing experience.