The ‘Cycle of Abuse’ myth

“The ‘Cycle of Abuse’ theory proposes that if you are abused as a child you will in turn abuse others. But if we begin with what we know about the gendered distribution of sexual victimisation and offending the proposition begins to fall apart. We know that girls are between three and six times more likely to experience sexual abuse, yet the vast majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by males. If there is any kind of cycle it is a gendered one, and that in turn requires explanation. Even if arguments that there is a hidden iceberg of female abusers have some validity to them, to reverse the gendered asymmetry would require an iceberg of literally incredible proportions.

There are two ways in which mothers who have been abused are implicated: experiences of abuse are presumed to make women less able to protect their children or to choose an abuser as a partner. These propositions are frequently used in tandem, but they are different arguments. The influence of this idea has been so strong that some social services departments consider knowledge of a woman’s abuse in childhood sufficient to place her children on the at risk register.

The first proposition is usually supported through reported cases, although few of its supporters take seriously what prevalence research tells us: that in any group of women a substantial number will have a history of abuse. Harriet Dempster’s (1989) Scottish study provides an explanation for why there may be a higher than predicted proportion: mothers who have been abused are more likely to report the abuse of their children. The link proposed here is precisely the opposite of that which ‘cycle of abuse’ presumes. (The tragic irony which some women encounter is that if they reveal their own abuse their report may be accorded less validity.)

The second proposition is remarkable. Very few women begin relationships knowing their male partner has abused children – prospective employers have legal rights to information about Schedule 1 offenders, prospective sexual partners do not. Since no clinician has yet devised a certain way of distinguishing abusive from non-abusive men, how do women achieve this? If clinicians/researchers really believe that women have ‘abuser detection antennae’, why are there no studies designed to discover how they do this? If ‘choice’ is operating here it is made by men. We know that some experienced abusers deliberately target single mothers. If we listened to what women have to say we would also know that some men, when trusted with information about a woman’s own abuse or that of her child by another man, use that as ‘permission’ to act similarly.

Recognising the deliberateness of abusers’ behaviour (Conte et al, 1989) is disturbing; it is much more comfortable to believe that abusers and/or their partners are merely repeating what they learnt in childhood. ‘Cycle of abuse’ theories rework old orthodoxies; transforming abusers into victims, and placing mothers back in the collusive frame. Quite how the theory is supposed to explain abuse outside the family (and more children are abused by known adults than family members) has not yet appeared in print.

‘Cycle of abuse’ is based on a psychic determinism: experience A leads to behaviour B with minimal choice/agency in between. Apart from offering abusers carte blanche to avoid responsibility, it makes the thousands of survivors who, as result of their own experiences, choose to never treat children in similar ways invisible, logically impossible. This theory does an outrageous injustice to countless women whose courageous and passionate testimony made sexual abuse in childhood a social issue. It also makes a travesty of support for children, since the aim becomes preventing them ‘repeating the cycle’ rather than enabling them to cope with having been victimised.

Why, when the evidence is shaky and the implications for child and adult survivors so negative, has ‘cycle of abuse’ has become widely accepted as an explanation? On one level it is a neat and accessible concept. In offering this ‘common sense’ explanation it represents abuse as learnt behaviour as if it were the same as learning a nursery rhyme. Apart from the basic fact that abusing others is a very different action to being victimised, a thinking and decision-making process is involved before we act similarly or differently to events we have been witness to or experienced. Much of the knowledge developed on offenders over the last ten years shows that they are careful, deliberate and strategic in entrapping children.

So powerful is this ‘idea’, though, that even academics who recognise that most people do not ‘repeat the cycle’ refer to this as ‘breaking’ it. We need to ask ourselves why this notion has taken such a hold within public and professional thinking. Most crucially it excludes more challenging explanations – those which question power relations between men and women, adults and children. ‘Breaking cycles’ is a much easier and safer goal to discuss than changing the structure of social relations.”

The above text is an excerpt from Weasel words: paedophilia and the cycle of abuse by Liz Kelly


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