Child Sexual Abuse: Caused by Nature or Nurture

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The purpose of this literature review is to identify relevant findings for sex offenders and whether it is nature or nurture that causes them to molest children, from any published literature I find and also relevant websites. Searches were carried out on numerous books such as ‘theories of sexual offending’, ‘child molestation’ and ‘sex as a crime?’. As well as using books for research, searches were carried out on the internet on websites such as The Conversation and The Royal society. This literature review will discuss and review whether sexual offences such as child molestation is cause by nature or nurture and use theories to back them up.

Marshall and Barbaree’s Integrated Theory

The Marshall and Barbaree’s theory in the Theories of sexual offending book suggests that, Ward, et al (2006) “early developmental experiences are especially significant in the formation of psychological predisposition to behave in sexual deviant ways”. This indicates that if a child is abused then it is likely that they won’t develop trust in others and they will feel unworthy of love and respect. Marshall and Barbaree also argue that the child will endure problems with Ward, et al (2006) “emotional regulation, low self-esteem, impaired problem solving, poor judgement, impulsivity and low self-efficiency”. As a consequence of the child feeling that they are not able to trust others and they haven’t learnt how to control their emotions, Marshall and Barbaree believe that the child will turn to Ward, et al (2006) “less adaptive forms of mood management, for example, masturbation”.

A further complication to this theory is that because the child is more than likely to be rejected socially because of their lack of knowledge on trust and control over their emotions, they might also find it difficult to distinguish between sexual and aggressive impulses and indications.

Marshall and Brabaree propose that individuals that lack interpersonal skills will more than likely be more confused by hormones and the biological challenges that are puberty. There is also a greater chance that they will meet their sexual needs in a socially unacceptable manner.

Ward and Siegert’s Pathways Model

Ward, et al (2006) “Sexual offenders lack of empathy for their victims is subsumed under the cognitive distortions and emotional dysregulation categories”. The Ward and Siegert’s pathways model is very similar to Marshall and Barbaree’s theory in the way that both theories discuss the possibility that a sex offenders childhood has a massive impact on their behaviour and knowledge towards sex and their sexual impulses. Ward and Siegert recognise that not all sexual offenders are the same, some individuals may struggle to Ward, et al (2006) “establish and maintain close personal relationships whilst others report no problems in this aspect of their lives and instead experience difficulties monitoring their emotion states”.

Ward and Siegert believe that the clinical phenomena evident among child molesters are generated by four mechanisms: Ward, et al (2006) “emotional dysregulation, intimacy and social deficits, cognitive distortions, and distorted sexual scripts”. Emotional dysregulation means that they are less able than others to read one’s emotional state, to be able to identify other’s emotions, they aren’t as empathetic, and they aren’t able to adjust their emotional presentation to fit the circumstances. Intimacy and social skill deficits all comes’ down to not being able to trust people in relationships because they have been let down before, or people are emotionally unavailable when they need them. Sexual scripts mean’s that the they aren’t able to understand other people’s sexual behaviours or their own behaviour during sexual encounters. The four mechanisms all stem from the offender being vulnerable and not developing properly due to being mistreat as a child.

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Nature or Nurture

Many studies have been carried out on sexual offenders and their DNA to see if committing a sex offence is written in our genes. One study analysed DNA from (The Conversation, 2015) “21,566 men convicted of sex offences in Sweden found that sons and brothers of convicted sex offenders were four to five more time likely to be convicted of sex crimes than men in the general population”. The study also found that only (The Conversation, 2015) “2% of cases could this familial connection be explained by shared environmental factors”. On the other hand, their shared genetics were a factor in (The Conversation, 2015) “40% of cases, with the remaining 58% of cases stemming from environmental factors not shared between family members”.

In this case the research shows that the sex offence genes were inherited however they were developed by environmental factors. In this study they believe that sex offenders could potentially be biologically different however that isn’t going to prevent them from molesting children. They also believe that sex offenders will use research like this to get a lesser sentence as it was ‘in their genes’.

Some research shows that anywhere between The Conversation, 2016 “33% and 75% of child sex offenders report being sexually abused as children”, however there are other sex offenders that report that they have not been abused as children but still find children sexually attractive. The Royal Society, 2014 looked into human face processing to try and understand why some people are sexually attracted to children. Human faces can motivate nurturing or sexual behaviour when adults see a child’s or an adult’s face. They found that face processing is tuned to notice age cues of sexual maturity to encourage the appropriate reproductive behaviour: either caretaking or mating. They state that the The Royal Society, 2014 “brain networks that normally are tuned to mature face of the preferred gender show an abnormal tuning to sexual immature faces in paedophilia”. This theory shows that the brain of a sex offender reacts differently to pictures of an adult and a child to that of a normal brain.

Delusions and Psychological Difficulties

A lot of abusive people find it easier to act on their desires if they convince themselves that what they are doing or about to do is okay and that the child wants it. They think of themselves as superior to children and that the abuse isn’t harmful. As most of the theories discussed in this literature review have stated that sexual offenders have emotional dysregulation from being abused as a child meaning they lack empathy and understanding of emotions. This could possibly make it easier for them to convince themselves that what they are doing isn’t wrong, and that the child has consented. If a sex offender grew up around someone very controlling and undermining, they might also think it is acceptable to not treat people with respect and not care about their feelings.


In conclusion, the theories that have been focused on the most; Marshall and Barbaree and Ward and Siegert both concentrate on nurture and the effects child abuse has on them and their need to sexual abuse children. They both emphasise on the fact that most child molesters lack empathy and trust. They also mention that because of their lack of social understanding they are rejected socially.

There isn’t just one reason for why someone would molest a child, it stems from different things in different individuals. For example, if someone was abused as a child, it doesn’t mean they are automatically going to molest a child, there could be other factors in their lives that trigger them to sexually offend. Research also shows that gene development is affected by the environment, so someone could be born with sex offender genes but the environment they are brought into could determine whether they become a sex offender or not.

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Child Sexual Abuse: Caused by Nature or Nurture. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from
“Child Sexual Abuse: Caused by Nature or Nurture.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022,
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