A Common Belief About Sex Offenders May Be Wrong

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Photo: Fredrik Telleus/Corbis

It’s a pretty widely held belief that people who commit sex crimes were most likely sexually abused as kids. But as Cathy Spatz Widom and Christina Massey, both of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, point out in a new paper recently published in JAMA Pediatrics, there’s less hard evidence behind this proposition than you might think. Many of the past studies showing a link have been flawed or limited — often, they haven’t been designed in a way that can filter out the differences between how sexual abuse and other kinds of abuse influence kids’ behavior once they’re adults — so Widom and Massey decided to try to a different approach.

For their study, the researchers looked back at court records and found 908 individuals who had been physically or sexually abused, or criminally neglected, between 1967 and 1971. Then, they found an additional 667 people who broke down similarly in terms of “age, sex, race/ethnicity, and approximate family social class” to serve as a control group of sorts.

Their group of 1,575 individuals assembled, Widom and Massey asked a simple question: Who has been arrested since childhood, and for what? The researchers hypothesized that individuals “with documented histories of childhood sexual abuse are at greater risk for being arrested for a sex crime.” But that’s not what they found. As it turned out, individuals with a history of being physically abused or neglected were more likely to have later been arrested for a sex crime than those who hadn’t faced those experiences in childhood. But there was no statistically significant link between childhood sexual abuse and later becoming a sex offender.

One study can’t fully debunk an idea — and in this case it can’t really answer the many “Why” questions about child abuse and sex crimes — but it does strongly suggest that a commonly held belief about sex offenders isn’t as sturdy as many people might think. If future research reveals similar findings, the folks who work in this field may need to take a long, hard look at policies and programs that assume a link between childhood sex abuse and adult sex offenses.