Background: There is widespread belief in a 'cycle' of child sexual abuse, but little empirical evidence for this belief.
Aims: To identify perpetrators of such abuse who had been victims of paedophilia and/or incest, in order to: ascertain whether subjects who had been victims become perpetrators of such abuse; compare characteristics of those who had and had not been victims; and review psychodynamic ideas thought to underlie the behaviour of perpetrators.
Method: Retrospective clinical case note review of 843 subjects attending a specialist forensic psychotherapy centre.
Results: Among 747 males the risk of being a perpetrator was positively correlated with reported sexual abuse victim experiences. The overall rate of having been a victim was 35% for perpetrators and 11% for non-perpetrators. Of the 96 females, 43% had been victims but only one was a perpetrator. A high percentage of male subjects abused in childhood by a female relative became perpetrators. Having been a victim was a strong predictor of becoming a perpetrator, as was an index of parental loss in childhood.
Conclusions: The data support the notion of a victim-to-victimiser cycle in a minority of male perpetrators but not among the female victims studied. Sexual abuse by a female in childhood may be a risk factor for a cycle of abuse in males.