Do Sexually Abused Kids Become Abusers?

help for adult victims of child abuse havocaDo Sexually Abused Kids Become Abusers?
By Salynn Boyles, WebMD Health News

It is widely believed that boys who are victims of sexual abuse become abusers themselves. Studies of pedophiles suggest this often is the case, but new research shows that the risk may be smaller than previously thought.

Roughly one in 10 male victims of child sex abuse in a U.K. study later went on to abuse children as adults. But the risk was far greater for sexually victimized children who came from severely dysfunctional families. Family history of violence, sexual abuse by a female, maternal neglect, and lack of supervision were all associated with a threefold-increased risk that the abused would become an abuser. The study is reported in the Feb. 8 issue of The Lancet.

“The message here is that sexual victimization alone is not sufficient to suggest a boy is likely to grow up to become a sex offender,” study author and psychiatrist Arnon Bentovim tells WebMD. “But our study does show that abused boys who grow up in families where they are exposed to a great deal of violence or neglect are at particular risk.”

Bentovim and colleagues from London’s Institute of Child Health identified 224 adult male victims of child sexual abuse whose childhood medical and social service records were available for review. They then searched arrest and prosecution records to determine their later criminal activity. Most of the subjects were 20 years old or older when the study was conducted.

Twenty-six of the 224 sex abuse victims (12%) later committed sexual offenses, and in almost all cases their victims were also children. Abused children who came from families where violence was common were more than three times as likely to become abusers as were those who experienced maternal neglect and sexual abuse by females.

One-third of the adult abusers had been cruel to animals as children, compared with just 5% of the child abuse victims who did not grow up to commit sexual crimes. But abusers and non-abusers experienced similar levels of physical abuse as children, and there were few significant differences in the severity or characteristics of the sexual abuse they suffered.

“It is clear that prevention of sexual abuse involves not just treating the victim, but ensuring that the family environment is safe,” Bentovim says. “If you leave a child in a family situation where he continues to be subjected to abuse, even if it is not sexual, you are probably wasting your time.”

Child health specialist Paul Bouvier, MD, tells WebMD that the real incidence of abused boys becoming pedophiles themselves is probably higher than the U.K. study suggests because it only included sexual predators who had been caught.

In an editorial accompanying the study, Bouvier argues that much can be learned by studying child sexual abuse victims who do not go on to become sexual predators or experience long-lasting trauma.

“It is quite important to know the risks for these children to have a bad outcome,” he tells WebMD. “But it is also important to look at those who are resilient and who don’t become abusers later in life. What are the characteristics of those who evolve beyond this experience and go on to have a meaningful life?”


Salynn Boyles is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about medical issues and health for two decades. She has written more than 2,500 stories on a wide range of medical topics, with an emphasis on chronic disease, preventive medicine, and food policy. Her work appears regularly in WebMD and Cancer Weekly. She lives in Nashville.

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Support, Information and Guidance for adult victims of child abuse and their support networks.

4 Responses to Do Sexually Abused Kids Become Abusers?


    It sounds like he needs to be reported to the authorities and dealt with more forcefully. Whether that be mentally or physically something needs to be done. I would have thought his counsellor could help provide some positive direction.

  2. Can I ask the question, why is it you say “boys that have been abused” why do you not mention girls? Is there a belief that there are not female paedophiles or something?? I ask as I know of at least two situations where girls that were abused have gone on to abuse

    • HAVOCAHAVOCA says:

      Salynn Boyles’ article is about ‘kids’ but uses some stats that have been derived from boys. That doesn’t mean abuse is gender specific. In fact, if you take a look at the rest of this website you should be able to tell that abuse is gender agnostic, in the same way that perpetrators can be male and female too.

      • AvatarAqua says:

        I agree; as a woman survivor of childhood abuse (particularly violent, maternal, and from a dysfunctional home), I felt extremely disheartened that the comments in this article were focused only on boys. This sense of disappointment is very real for me: I spent my childhood, from the earliest age, being terrified of turning into my mother. I chose not to get married and not have children simply because my fear of turning into her (despite having none of her impulses) was so strong. I grew up feeling almost destined to, as if it were something I couldn’t control. Like there was an abusive sleeper agent hiding in my body that nothing I ever did would be able to weed out. I think that persistent terror has had a stronger impact on my life than the abuse itself, and I experienced a genuine sinking feeling when I read this article and women survivors weren’t even mentioned. It does have an impact.

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