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

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

Rhys Price-Robertson

CFCA Paper No. 6 – July 2012


The trauma of child sexual abuse can manifest in many areas of victim/survivors' lives, including their attitudes towards parenting and their relationships with their children. This paper outlines the key findings of the limited research that has investigated how a history of child sexual abuse can influence men's perceptions and experience of fatherhood, and also discusses some of the reasons why this important topic remains largely excluded from public, academic and policy discourses. This paper will be most useful to practitioners and policy-makers who work to support men, parents and/or families.

Key messages

  • Many men who were sexually abused as children face unique experiences and difficulties in connection with fatherhood, including fears that they may abuse their own children, problems with physical contact or displays of affection with their children, and overprotectiveness of their children.

  • The issue of child sexual abuse impacting on men's perceptions and experience of fatherhood remains largely excluded from both popular and professional discourses.

  • The first step towards improving policy and service responses to these male victim/survivors is to raise awareness of the difficulties they may face with regard to fatherhood.

  • As there are strong disincentives to male victim/survivors themselves revealing their difficulties with fatherhood, it is likely that service providers, practitioners and policy-makers will need to play a leadership role in promoting awareness of this issue.

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According to a review of available Australian evidence, 4-8% of males report having suffered penetrative sexual abuse as a child, and an additional 11-16% report experiencing non-penetrative sexual abuse (e.g., fondling genitals, exposure to masturbation) (Price-Robertson, Bromfield, & Vassallo, 2010). Although these figures are less than those for females,1 they are still substantial, and indicative of a large number of Australian males living with the painful legacy of child sexual abuse. Compared to women with a history of child sexual abuse, little is known about these men and how their history of abuse impacts on their lived experience (Nalavany & Abell, 2004; Sorsoli, Kia-Keating, & Grossman, 2008; Teram, Stalker, Hovey, Schachter, & Lasiuk, 2006).

A body of research now demonstrates that a history of sexual abuse can have a profound influence on women's perceptions and experience of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood (Klaus, 2010; Simkin & Klaus, 2004; Sperlich & Seng, 2008). Such insights into the experiences of victim/survivor mothers are important because they can inform improved service provision and policy development in fields such as health, mental health, maternal and parenting education, and child and family welfare (Simkin & Klaus, 2004). However, such experiences would not be completely applicable to a male victim/survivor of child sexual abuse. Indeed, as gender can strongly influence the ways in which the trauma of child sexual abuse is experienced, manifested, and treated (Crome, 2006; Draucker, 2003; Getz, 2011), many male victim/survivors who are or plan to be fathers may face challenges that are quite distinct from those commonly reported by female victim/survivors. Researchers are only just beginning to empirically investigate the ways in which a history of child sexual abuse can influence men's perceptions and experience of fatherhood.2

1 Evidence suggests that the prevalence rate of child sexual abuse for females is roughly double that of males: 7-12% for penetrative abuse and 23-34% for non-penetrative abuse (Price-Robertson et al., 2010).

2 In this paper, the term "perception" (as in "perceptions and experience of fatherhood") is used to denote the feelings and attitudes towards fatherhood of all male victim/survivors of child sexual abuse, including those who are or have been fathers, as well as those who have not. The term "experience" is relevant only to those who are or have been fathers.

Key research findings

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.

Why is this issue often overlooked?

Why is this issue often overlooked?

As discussed above, many males who have experienced child sexual abuse deal with unique experiences and difficulties in connection with fatherhood. Looking at the prevalence rates of child sexual abuse, it is also clear that this is not a rare phenomenon (Price-Robertson et al., 2010). So why, then, do researchers, practitioners and policy-makers seldom address this issue? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to investigate the contemporary social and political context that shapes how we view the relationship between gender and sexual violence.

Partly, this issue is hidden because much of the increased attention to the issues of child sexual abuse and sexual assault more broadly can be attributed to the consciousness-raising activities of specific segments of the feminist movement in the second half of the 20th century (Crome, 2006; Finkelhor, 1982; Hepburn, 1994); activities that were conducted, it should be added, in the face of widespread social "repression, dissociation and denial" of the seriousness and high prevalence rates of sexual abuse and assault (Herman, 2001, p. 9). While this has undoubtedly been a positive development, it has also meant that sexual violence has come to be construed by many as an issue that only affects women and children (Chaitowitz, van de Graaff, Herron, & Strong, 2009; Crome, 2006). As the broader issue of sexual abuse of boys and its effects often fails to garner much attention, more specific topics, such as the influence of child sexual abuse on men's perceptions and experience of fatherhood, can go unnoticed.

Another reason this issue is seldom addressed is that the sexual abuse of boys and its effects challenge traditional Western notions of masculinity; therefore it is a subject that can be difficult for people - perhaps especially the victim/survivors themselves - to acknowledge, accept and discuss (Getz, 2011; Teram et al., 2006; Washington, 1999). Some of the key features of traditional masculine norms are: a repudiation of "feminine" characteristics, such as emotionality, vulnerability and passivity; homophobia; the expression of aggression, power and sexual prowess; self-reliance; and stoicism (Connell, 2005; Cossins, 2000; Kia-Keating, Grossman, Sorsoli, & Epstein, 2005). Since the act of sexual abuse commonly exposes boys to a sexual experience with another male and casts them as vulnerable and passive victims, it places them in a position that is starkly at odds with the dominant constructions of masculinity (Foster, 2011; Teram et al., 2006). Moreover, the "path to recovery [from child sexual abuse] winds straight through masculinity's forbidden territory: the conscious experience of those intense, overwhelming emotional states of fear, vulnerability, and helplessness" (Lisak, 1994, p. 262). This creates powerful barriers to male victim/survivors of child sexual abuse disclosing their experiences to others, accepting their experience as one that may have had a formative influence on their lives, and healing from the trauma of the abuse (Crome, 2006; Etherington, 1995a; O'Leary & Gould, 2010; Sorsoli et al., 2008). It also means that many in society have difficulty fully acknowledging and accepting the reality of the sexual abuse of males during childhood/adolescence, and the trauma it can inflict (Kia-Keating et al., 2005; Sorsoli et al., 2008).

When children are added to the equation, as is the case when victim/survivors are or plan to be fathers, it appears there are even further incentives for victim/survivors to keep their abusive experiences sequestered. For instance, earlier sections of this paper discussed the general heightened anxiety in contemporary society surrounding children's interactions with adult males, as well as the "victim-to-offender" discourse. Consider the bravery required of male victim/survivors to publically confront this issue (in a parenting class, for example) when they a) are aware of the heightened societal anxiety that exists around adult male and child relationships, b) are aware that they are a member of a group that is often assumed to be at high risk for being a perpetrator of abuse, and c) feel inhibited (by dominant constructions of masculinity) from discussing the struggles associated with their abusive experiences. It is little wonder that, although it often appears to be causing them significant distress, many male victim/survivors of child sexual abuse feel unable to share the ways in which their history shapes their experience with their children.

In summary, the issue of child sexual abuse impacting on men's perceptions and experience of parenting is hidden for two main reasons. Firstly, there is a common assumption that sexual violence is not an issue that affects men. Secondly, there are gendered social factors that make the effects of child sexual abuse on males, especially as they pertain to male victim/survivors' interactions with children, difficult for individuals, as well as society as a whole, to confront.

Next steps

Next steps

Very little research has investigated how child sexual abuse influences men's perceptions and experiences of fatherhood, and there is limited knowledge of this issue among practitioners and policy-makers who work to support men, parents and/or families. One of the main purposes of this current paper is to raise awareness of this important issue, which is likely to affect a minority, but still substantial number, of Australian men. It is hoped that by raising awareness more research will be conducted on this topic and greater numbers of service providers, practitioners and policy-makers will begin to consider how the trauma of child sexual abuse can influence men's experiences as fathers. It is likely that service providers, practitioners and policy-makers will need to play a leadership role in promoting awareness of this issue, because, as was explained in an earlier section of this paper, there are strong disincentives to male victim/survivors themselves revealing their difficulties with fatherhood.

Although increased awareness of this issue is important, some words of caution are necessary. We need to investigate and raise the profile of this group of men, whose abusive history often lives on both in their views on fatherhood and their relationships with their children. We need to further investigate the ways in which our society understands and constructs gender and sexual violence and how this may be compounding the difficulties of male victim/survivors of child sexual abuse. Yet too often when men are framed as the victims of violence, the issue is co-opted by what Flood (2004) called "angry men's movements" - socially conservative, anti-feminist men's rights and father's rights groups - in whose hands the recognition of men's pain can easily become an instrument of division, rather than an opportunity for understanding and healing. As Flood argued: "let us acknowledge and tackle the ways in which men are hurt and disempowered, but not do this, as men's rights does, at the expense of women or gender justice" (p. 275). Indeed, many of the insights of feminism - such as the ideas that identity is socially constructed, that it is important to understand the particularities and contexts of peoples' lived experiences (e.g., their gender, race and sexual preferences) and that gender can both constrain and enable life opportunities - offer a clearer understanding of the difficulties faced by male victim/survivors (Foster, 2011). The challenge we face is to explore and raise awareness about this issue without minimising the role that men and dominant constructions of masculinity play in the perpetration of sexual violence, without using language and arguments that create an attitude of competition - of "us versus them" - between men and women, and with methodologies and practices that are informed by nuanced understandings of trauma, gender and sexual violence.



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Authors and acknowledgements

Rhys Price-Robertson is a Senior Research Officer with the Child Family Community Australia information exchange at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

This is an abridged version of “Child Sexual Abuse, Masculinity and Fatherhood” (PriceRobertson, in press), accepted for publication in the Journal of Family Studies Volume 18/2–3 (December 2012) special issue on Fatherhood in the Early 21st Century (ISBN 978-1-921980-02-2). Reproduced with permission.

The author is grateful for the helpful conversation, advice and comments from Gary Foster, Antonia Quadara, Daryl Higgins, Elly Robinson, Amy Watson, Ken Knight and Cathryn Hunter.

The feature image is by Brendan C, CC BY 2.0.

Publication details

CFCA Paper
No. 6
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, July 2012
7 pp.

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