The relationship between critical development experiences during childhood and pubescence, hostility and negative evaluation and adult sexual interest in and abuse of children

Criminology Research Council grant ; (19/91)

This study was conducted with an experimental and control group of adult male inmates held in prisons throughout South East Queensland, totalling 100 offenders. Data from the study revealed a series of characteristics attributable to the perpetrators of sexual offences against children. These can be categorised into factors associated with their own sexual molestation, with more general socialisation factors, biological factors (such as physiological reactivity and physical health), cognitive and affective factors, and behavioural factors; many of which overlap with one another.

Perusal of the features relating to child molesting in adulthood indicates that these offenders have typically failed to develop the capacity to implement effective emotional and sexual relationships with other adults. The developmental experiences reported by these subjects have seen them socially and emotionally isolated. They were typically left feeling socially inept, anxious, lonely, frustrated (and typically passively aggressive as a consequence of not knowing how to overcome their frustration) and unable to form intimate relationships by prosocial means. Fear of negative evaluation and rejection, and intra-punitive and extra-punitive hostility were also elements which featured highly in the disposition of the subjects.

Investigation of the impact of sexual molestation upon the sex offenders showed that generally, although the sex offenders were uniformly young when molested, those who were in the age range eight to 11 years experienced greater impact than those who were younger.

The research strongly supports the literature, which indicates that the experience of sexual molestation, in conjunction with other experiences, influences later sexually inappropriate behaviour by those same individuals as adults. However, researchers and clinicians remain divided on whether to regard the effects of sexual molestation as learned behaviours, or as symptoms of internal "dynamics".

This study demonstrates empirical support within the Australian context for the contention that the variables associated with child molesters exist on a continuum. It provides support for earlier findings that there is no single set of characteristics which are unique to child molesters. It also indicates that sexual urge is not the primary reason for sexual assault and that child molestation can be in part related to unresolved life issues.

From a cultural perspective, whilst many of the results replicate the overseas experience, the uniqueness and individuality of the Australian culture and history suggest that there are strongly entrenched values, beliefs and accompanying behaviours which directly and indirectly (and under a network of specific circumstances influence the vulnerable to behave in this way.