In recent years, researchers and clinicians have focused increasingly on the nature of sex offenders' intimate relationships and their early attachment experiences (Marshall, 1989). Basically, three overlapping but distinct lines of research can be identified. The first area of research is concerned with investigating sexual offenders' adult romantic relationships and the interactions between attachment style, intimacy deficits, and offending behavior (Ward, Hudson, & Marshall, 1996; Ward, McCormack, & Hudson, 1997). The second line of research is concerned with offenders' early developmental experiences, documenting the variables that predict later sexual aggression (Prentky et al., 1989). The third type of research has examined adolescent sexual offenders' interactions with their caregivers and peers (e.g., Blaske, Borduin, Henggeler, & Mann, 1989). Despite the value of the above research findings, the link between the quality of early interpersonal relationships and interpersonal dysfunction in adult offenders is not well understood. This study represents an attempt to integrate the recent findings from these different areas of research using attachment theory as a basic explanatory framework.
According to attachment theory, individuals' interpersonal schemas and strategies are shaped by their cumulative experiences with other people. Furthermore, it is argued that the interpersonal relationships that have the most influence on a person's working model of relationships are his or her parents or primary caregivers. Therefore, in view of the apparent difficulty sex offenders have in establishing intimate relationships with other adults, it has been maintained that they had destructive and negative relationships with their parents. In fact, the literature suggests that sexual offenders typically perceive their mothers more positively than their fathers, although this difference appears only to be one of degree (Hazelwood & Warren, 1989; Tingle, Barnard, Robbin, Newman, & Hutchinson, 1986). For example, in one study 36% of sex offenders described their relationship with their mothers as warm and close, and a further 31% described their mothers as cold, distant, uncaring, indifferent, hostile, and aggressive (Hazelwood & Warren, 1989). Sexual offenders' perceptions of their mothers appear to range from positive to negative, a finding that provides us with little predictive utility. Further information on this issue is provided by Tingle et al. (1986), who found that although the majority of child molesters (83%) reported that their relationships with their mothers were close, only a quarter of these described their mother as someone to whom they could turn to with a problem (Tingle et al., 1986). These authors suggested that the relationship between child molesters and their mothers is best characterized as dependent rather than reciprocal in nature.
A number of more specific difficulties have been noted in the relationships between sexual offenders and their mothers. Blaske et al. (1989) compared adolescents who committed a sexual offence with other nondelinquent adolescents and found lower rates of positive mother-son communication in the sex-offender group. With respect to differences across sexual offender types, rapists were found to have significantly more arguments with their mothers than child molesters (Tingle et. al., 1986). There is also evidence that sexual offenders identify less with their mothers than do members of other offender groups (Levant & Bass, 1991).
Traditionally, the role of the father in the etiology of an individual's sexual offending is seen as insignificant (Tingle et al., 1986). This perspective may have originated from the absence and lack of involvement of fathers in the early upbringing of many sexual offenders. However, the picture appears to be more complex than these results suggest. Of those sexual offenders who reported a father present during their childhood, the relationship between the father and the individual concerned was typically described as more problematic and negative than that between mother and son (Lisak & Roth, 1990). Specifically, a large percentage of sexual offenders (57%) described their fathers as cold, distant, hostile, and aggressive, with fewer (18%) crediting their fathers with positive qualities such as warmth (Lisak, 1994). This negative perception may be related to the high rates of physical abuse inflicted by both biological fathers and stepfathers on sexual offenders (Kahn & Chambers, 1991). Moreover, sexual offenders appear to identify less with their fathers than do other offender groups (Levant & Bass, 1991). In turn, rapists' relationships with their fathers have been reported to be more distant than child molesters (Tingle et al., 1986). A negative view of the relationship between rapists and their fathers was associated with a need for power and control, as well as with anger and hostility toward women (Hazelwood & Warren, 1989; Lisak & Roth, 1990). In contrast, child molesters reported equivalent rates of maternal and paternal rejection to nonoffender groups (Marshall & Mazzucco, 1995). In combination, these findings suggest that fathers of sexual offenders do play a significant role in the development of sexually aggressive tendencies. This may be a function of either their lack of involvement in the upbringing of their sons or of the violence they inflicted upon them.
Another important source of disruption to early interpersonal relationships is the loss of caregivers. In a study by Ryan and Lane (1991), over half of their juvenile sexual offenders were found to have experienced some form of parental loss through death, divorce, or separation. Sexual offenders may be less likely than nonsexual offenders to have an intact family of origin, and this fact may be partly responsible for their subsequent interpersonal problems. However, the research on this issue is rather patchy. There is some confusion over whether rapists or child molesters are more likely to have parents with an intact marriage (Seghorn, Prentky, & Boucher, 1987; Tingle et al., 1986), although the available data suggests that the parents of rapists are less likely to be legally married in the initial instance than those of child molesters (Saunders, Awad, & White, 1986).
Regardless of whether one or both parents are present in the family home, the environments of sexual offenders are characterized by many features which have the potential to damage the quality of early interpersonal relationships. One such feature is the presence of physical abuse, which has been reported at high rates in the histories of sexual offenders (e.g., Ryan & Lane, 1991). This abuse is most often carried out by biological fathers (44%) and stepfathers (20%) (Kahn & Chambers, 1991). The presence of physical abuse is unlikely to be specific to sexual offenders, as rates also tend to be high for nonsexual offenders (Lewis, Shanock, & Pincus, 1981). Interestingly, physical abuse tends to be more predictive of nonsexual aggression than sexual offenses (Prentky et al., 1989). It is reasonable to conclude that the experience of physical violence is likely to result in the development of insecure attachment and the associated beliefs that relationships are inherently dangerous and other people unreliable.
The occurrence of sexual abuse as a child may occur in combination with physical violence or exist as a separate problem. Estimates of the prevalence of sexual abuse in sexual offenders range from 9% to 47% (Fagan & Wexler, 1988). Milner and Robertson (1990) noted that family sexual abuse is more common in the family backgrounds of sexual offenders than …