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Special Report: Key messages from research on child sexual abuse perpetrated by adults

It is unclear how many adults sexually abuse children, but there are more than official figures show, and large numbers of individuals are engaging with CSA images, according to the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse.

Most contact CSA is perpetrated by a person who the child knows and trusts. Almost all individuals convicted of CSA are men, but perpetration by women may be more common than official data suggests. Perpetrators come from all walks of life, and ethnicity is not a predictor of CSA perpetration, the ‘Key messages from research on child sexual abuse perpetrated by adults’ paper finds.

“There are likely to be a number of different and complex pathways into CSA offending. Most adult perpetrators of CSA do not have extensive criminal histories or criminal lifestyles,” said the report. “The great majority of victims of CSA do not go on to commit CSA themselves; however, those who commit CSA are more likely than other adults to have experienced multiple forms of abuse as children, including physical, domestic or sexual abuse, and neglect.”

It is impossible to know the true extent of CSA committed by adults, for reasons including societal denial, secrecy and fear of the consequences of disclosure. However, the majority of suspected perpetrators of CSA are never prosecuted: in 2017/18, only 14% of police-recorded CSA offences in England and Wales resulted in a charge or summons. Police data captures only a small proportion of perpetrators; among the adults who told the 2018/19 Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) that they had been sexually abused in childhood, fewer than one in four said they had reported it to the police.

Depression, anxiety and stress

The volume of CSA recorded by the police, and the number of defendants appearing in court, have increased in the past decade. Approximately 400 to 450 individuals were arrested each month for online-facilitated CSA offences, across the UK in 2019.

Offences of CSA occur mostly in contexts of ordinary social interactions. Situations and locations can present individuals with opportunities to offend, and/or exert social pressure or weaken their moral restraints, leading to CSA. First offences often take place at times of depression, anxiety and stress for the perpetrator.

Most individuals convicted of sexual offences, including CSA, are not reconvicted of further sexual offences. Few women and men convicted of online offences are reconvicted for sexual reoffences. However, most CSA does not come to the attention of the authorities, the report says.

Almost all adults convicted of CSA offences are men; in 2016, just 2% of those proceeded against for CSA offences in England and Wales were women. But perpetration by women may be more common than official records show as experiences of CSA provided to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales (IICSA), 16% of those abused in residential care and 6% of those abused in other institutional contexts such as schools, sports and religious settings said that female perpetrators were involved, although in some cases these may have been other children.

Professionals typically consider female perpetrated abuse to be less serious and harmful than male-perpetrated CSA, and this affects the recognition and level of support that victims and survivors receive.

Effectiveness of programmes

There is a lack of evidence regarding the effectiveness of programmes used in the UK to address sexual offending, particularly those specific to CSA. Current trauma-informed programmes used in the UK and based on the Good Lives Model have not yet been evaluated. The Core sex offender treatment programme in the UK was replaced after it was shown not to reduce sexual reoffending; however, individuals who completed similar programmes in other countries had lower rates of sexual reoffending than comparable individuals who did not.

“Providing interventions for individuals at risk of committing CSA is also important, as they may struggle with their sexual thoughts for some years before committing an offence, and many seek help prior to offending,” said the report.


One evidence-based theory, known as the Integrated Theory of Sexual Offending (ITSO), attempts to explain male pathways into sexual offending. It suggests that there are a number of different, interlocking factors – including ecological (i.e. social, cultural and physical environments, personal circumstances, and learning), biological (influenced by genetic inheritance and development), neuropsychological (such as motivation, emotion, memory, perception, control), and personal factors (negative/positive emotional states, thoughts about offending) – which all contribute towards a decision to commit abuse.

There is a common belief that perpetrators of CSA have themselves been victims of CSA, and that this is linked to their offending. Recent research suggests that, while most individuals who have experienced CSA do not abuse others, perpetrators of CSA are more likely than other adults to have experienced multiple forms of abuse (known as polyvictimisation) including physical abuse, neglect, domestic abuse and, in some cases, sexual abuse. As CSA is a largely hidden crime, the information available about those who commit it is partial and mainly drawn from individuals who have been identified and convicted.

8% of adults committed their first crime aged over 50

Adults who perpetrate CSA come from all walks of life. Most contact CSA committed by adults is perpetrated by a person whom the child knows and trusts, such as family members, friends or acquaintances and, to a lesser extent, people in positions of trust or authority.

Some perpetrators of CSA may share characteristics with those who perpetrate non-sexual offences, but overall patterns of offending do not replicate those of other types of crime.

While most crime is committed by young people between the ages of 16 and 20, a study in Australia of 280 males convicted of CSA found that 66% reported committing their first offence when aged between 25 and 49, and 8% when aged over 50.

Unlike other types of crimes, there appear to be two periods that are associated with increased risk of CSA: adolescence and mid-to late 30s. CSA that starts in adulthood coincides with changes in family, work, and social circumstances that enable unsupervised access to children.

The evidence indicates that there is no clear pathway from online-facilitated CSA to contact CSA, although it is important to recognise that existing research is based on individuals who have been identified or convicted, which is only a proportion of those committing CSA.

Studies have shown that individuals convicted of online-facilitated sexual offences are less likely to be subsequently convicted of a contact sexual offence than those originally convicted of contact sexual offences, with just 2% committing a contact sexual offence in a follow-up period of 1.5 to six years.

It is widely believed that adults convicted of CSA have an enduring high risk of sexual reoffending, but reoffending studies – although not CSA-specific – show that most individuals convicted of sexual offences are not reconvicted of further sexual offences. In England and Wales, for example, 7.5% of those released from prison between 2002 and 2012 had been convicted of another sexual offence by October 2015. It should be noted, however, that most CSA does not come to the attention of the authorities.

In that study, the reconviction rate for offences of any sort over the same period was considerably higher at 38%. However, there is some evidence that, in comparison with those convicted of sexual offences against adults, individuals convicted of CSA offences are more likely subsequently to commit only sexual offences rather than other offences.

Polygraph

Most of the attention of the treatment of sex offenders has been focused on sex offender treatment programmes (SOTPs). These are delivered in prisons and other establishments, as well as in the community (e.g. via probation services) and are usually delivered to small groups of individuals. SOTPs typically involve a range of activities believed to reduce the likelihood of reoffending. However, the Core SOTP programme delivered in England and Wales to individuals convicted of any sexual offences, including CSA, was discontinued in 2017 after an evaluation found that those who completed it had a sexual reoffending rate of 10% compared to 8% for a comparison group who did not complete treatment.

It was replaced by programmes such as ‘Horizon’ and ‘Kaizen’ which were developed using the desistance literature, the Good Lives Model – a strengths-based approach that focuses on assisting individuals to develop and implement meaningful life plans that are incompatible with future offending – and trauma-informed approaches. However, these programmes have not yet been evaluated.

The most recent review of SOTP effectiveness, in the UK and internationally, highlighted some factors found to increase programme effectiveness, which included:

- a qualified licensed psychologist being consistently present

- supervision of the staff delivering the programme by psychologists

- participants rating the quality of the programme highly

- programme delivery in groups, with a focus on managing sexual arousal

- not using the polygraph.

A number of strategies have been implemented around the world for the management in the community of adults convicted of sexual offences. These studies show that, rather than reducing reoffending rates, measures such as the USA’s registration/notification requirements and residency restrictions may actually increase reoffending by restricting the individual’s ability to obtain employment, housing and other aspects of building a socially positive life.

In the UK, each police force has a Management of Sex Offenders and Violent Offenders (MOSOVO) team which manages the convicted individuals in its policing area, according to the risk they pose. Some of these individuals are subject to Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA), with different levels of monitoring and intervention depending on their risk level.

One comparative study has assessed MAPPA’s impact on reoffending. It found small reductions in one-year reoffending and in serious reoffending among a group of MAPPA-supervised individuals compared to those who did not receive MAPPA supervision. However, a more recent report noted that the setting of MAPPA levels was not always consistent, well-communicated or underpinned by robust assessment and regular reviews.

One aspect of managing individuals convicted of a sexual offence involves the use of the polygraph. Since 2014 in England and Wales, it has been a legal requirement that all individuals convicted of sexual offences deemed to be at high risk of reoffending undergo polygraph testing following release into the community, to assess their compliance with licence conditions and risk. While the use of the polygraph is controversial, research has shown that its use enables professionals to elicit more information such as risk-relevant and in-depth information, resulting in more police action to protect the public. However, treatment programmes that use the polygraph have been found to be less effective than those that do not.

Individuals are less likely to reoffend if they have support on release from prison.

“The multiple pathways into offending show how difficult it is to distinguish those who commit CSA from those who do not, unless they request support or help. Prevention efforts are hampered by the erroneous belief that perpetrators of CSA are ‘sick’ or noticeably different to the rest of the population, as risk in apparently ‘normal’ individuals may be overlooked as a result,” said the report.

Suicide risk

A further indication of the need for interventions targeting those at risk is that individuals who recognise a sexual attraction to children, and/or who have been or are being investigated for sexual offences, have an elevated suicide risk. In England and Wales in 2017/18, 29 of the 56 apparent suicides following detention in police custody involved individuals who had been detained for alleged sexual offences, and 13 of these were related to CSA imagery.

Lucy Faithfull Foundation, Safer Lives, the Safer Living Foundation and StopSO have developed activities and interventions for a range of individuals who may be at risk of committing a sexual offence, or are being investigated or prosecuted for sexual offences. However, most of this work has yet to be evaluated.

Comparatively little research attention has been given to ‘primary prevention’ interventions, targeted at the general population to reduce the likelihood of CSA offending. An international review identified significant gaps in the evidence base for interventions aimed at preventing violence against women and girls. In respect of sexual violence, but not specifically CSA, it found good evidence that the following preventative interventions are effective, when well designed and executed:

- community activism to shift harmful gender attitudes, roles and social norms in the general population through multi-year intensive community activities

- school-based interventions to prevent dating violence or sexual violence, with more effective approaches being longer and focused on transforming gender relationships.

There was also “good but conflicting” evidence for the effectiveness of intensive interventions with men and boys alone, but good evidence that brief bystander interventions have no effect, the report concluded.

Key messages from research on child sexual abuse perpetrated by adults


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