NEARI NEWS: Implications of Adverse Childhood Experiences on Treatment for Adult Male Sex Offenders

» Posted by on Jul 4, 2016 in Alpha Blog | 0 comments

NEARI NEWS: Implications of Adverse Childhood Experiences on Treatment for Adult Male Sex Offenders

The Question

What is the prevalence of trauma in adult male sex offenders?

The Research

Jill Levenson, Gwenda Willis and (our own) David Prescott explored the prevalence of childhood trauma in 679 adult male sex offenders using the Adverse Childhood Experiences Scale (ACES). ACE research has consistently demonstrated the negative impact of early trauma on behavioral, medical, and social well-being in adulthood. As the authors noted, there has been emerging evidence that early traumatic experiences are common in the lives of sex offenders.

Given the previous studies, it is not surprising that this study found that males convicted of a sex offense had more than 3 times the levels of child sexual abuse, 2 times the levels of physical abuse, 13 times the levels of verbal abuse and more than 4 times the levels of emotional neglect Like in compared to males in the general population.

In the past, some professionals and researchers have suggested that a history of victimization may contribute to offending. The current study does not indicate a direct link but rather, it shows that it is more likely that a sex offender will have experienced multiple forms of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse early in their lifetime. Offenders in general had significantly higher ACE scores than men in the general population. Further, less than 16% of sex offenders had a zero ACE score compared to 38% in the general male population.

What is known is that early childhood maltreatment and family dysfunction are common in the general population. Criminal populations and specifically people who have sexually abused are even more likely than the general population to have a history of early trauma. These adverse child experiences are now clearly associated with the likelihood of adult substance abuse, suicide attempts, depression, smoking, heart and pulmonary diseases, fetal death, obesity, liver disease, intimate partner violence, early initiation of sexual activity, promiscuity, sexually transmitted disease, and unintended pregnancies. It is therefore incumbent upon sex offender treatment providers to more strongly emphasize the role of early trauma in self-regulation and attachment and use this information to inform their treatment practices.

Bottom Line: Sex offenders as a group have significantly higher rates of ACES (adverse childhood experiences) than men in the general population.

Implications for Professionals

Professionals working with people who have sexually abused, especially those professionals working with adolescents will want to include the often-pernicious effects of trauma and other adverse experiences into their assessment and treatment approaches. Three take-away messages seem clear for those at the front lines of practice:

1. Childhood adversity can result in physical as well as relational challenges for clients. Teaching and promoting physical and emotional health is crucial.

2. Adverse experiences not only can result in conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but may also affect people in ways that might not be as easily seen as linked to these early experiences (e.g., heart and pulmonary disease). In other words, many clients may be unaware of the myriad ways that their adverse experiences have shaped their lives.

3. Providers who are harsh and confrontational with clients may be replicating the environments in which our clients experienced adversity. Working to contradict these early adverse conditions is an essential part of effective treatment.

Implications for the Field

The field of assessing and treating people who have sexually abused has understandably focused in understanding risks, needs, responsivity (e.g., matching services to the characteristics and culture of each client), and other areas of program development and service delivery. This research indicates that a key component of responsivity is an understanding of the many ways that adversity can affect the mind, body, and life experiences of our clients. Treatment approaches must still be focused on holding people accountable for their actions. But with this newer research in mind, effective treatment must be a far more holistic process aimed at having clients re-claim their lives before they can entirely re-build them into one that ensures community safety.


This study explored the prevalence of childhood trauma in a sample of male sexual offenders (N = 679) using the Adverse Childhood Experience Scale (ACES). Compared with males in the general population, sex offenders had more than 3 times the odds of child sexual abuse (CSA), nearly twice the odds of physical abuse, 13 times the odds of verbal abuse, and more than 4 times the odds of emotional neglect and coming from a broken home. Less than 16% endorsed zero ACEs and nearly half endorsed four or more indicators. Multiple maltreatments often co-occurred with other types of household dysfunction, suggesting that many sex offenders were raised within a disordered social environment. Higher ACE scores were associated with higher risk scores. By enhancing our understanding of the frequency and correlates of early adverse experiences, we can better devise trauma-informed interventions that respond to the clinical needs of sex offender clients.


Levenson, J.S., Willis, G.M., & Prescott, D.S. (2016). Adverse childhood experiences in the lives of male sex offenders: Implications for trauma-informed care. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 28, 340-359.

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