Is Child Abuse Genetic?

13 Apr 2015 | Stephanie Prior

As scientists gain ever more understanding of genetic and hereditary traits, so some have fallen upon evidence that brothers and fathers of sex offenders are more likely to become child abusers or sex offenders themselves.

Though statistically significant – and the study was a very large one – this does not mean to say that all brothers and fathers of sex offenders are going to copy their brethren. Environmental factors are still a major player in leading to sex offences, but this research could help authorities target families more effectively with the hope that fewer people could end up victims.

The study

The epidemiological study was run by Oxford University and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and looked at 21,566 men who committed sex offences between 1973 and 2009 in Sweden.

The research being epidemiological means that no biological samples were taken. The links were found as paper based research – relationships were looked at between the offenders, and no ‘sex offending gene’ was searched for in a lab.

That the study was so large means that this will more than likely reflect the general population. It is interesting that Sweden’s sex offending profiles are similar to those in the US, UK and Europe. Thus it can be extrapolated that similar incidences will be found in those regions and countries too.

It looked at all sex offences. This ranged from keeping illegal pornography on their computers at one end of the scale, to child rape at the other with everything between.

The findings

Among the general population it is generally estimated that around 0.5% of men – 1 in 200 – will commit sex offences at some time in their lives. If you are the brother or father of a sex offender this rises to 2.5%. This means brothers and fathers of sex offenders are five times more likely to commit sex offences than the general population.

One of the core concepts of sexual abuse theory is the ‘cycle of abuse’ whereby a child who has been abused by their father is more likely to commit such an offence themselves. Where this holds true, the study also looked at maternal half brothers, who had not necessarily been brought up by an abusing father, and found that the hereditary factor was still present – regardless of whether the father in your family was a sex offender, you may still be prone to committing it if another sex offender is in your bloodline.

‘Sex offending gene’

It is unlikely that scientists will find a specific ‘sex offending gene’. As with all behavioural problems and many mental illnesses it is likely that there will be quite a large group of genes at play.  There definitely won’t be a blood test available that children could have at school to assess whether they are likely to be sex offenders.

Genes interact with the environment too. This is why it is so hard to predict whether someone will have a trait, even if their genes suggest they might. Genes increase the likelihood of a trait, but do not create certainty.

It may seem patronising and irritating to a parent but many sex offenders come from so-called ‘broken homes’ where they are left to fend for themselves from an early age.

Preventative measures

If such research is taken seriously by authorities, then they can intervene in families at an early stage after identifying a sex offender. Behaviours can be assessed and challenged and hopefully prevent another crime. Social services can work closely with the brother and father of an offender and hopefully prevent another offence.

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