Academic journal article Violence and Victims

Aggressive Behavior among Women Sexually Abused as Children

Academic journal article Violence and Victims

Aggressive Behavior among Women Sexually Abused as Children

Article excerpt

Although research shows that sexually abused children appear to be at risk of subsequent aggressive behavior, few investigations address whether such behavior persists beyond childhood. This research describes the self-reported adolescent and adult fighting behavior of 136 women sexually abused as children and examines the role of intervening variables in the risk of such behavior. The women are part of a longitudinal study of 206 primarily low-income, urban women whose abuse was documented at the time it occurred. Fighting was common, particularly during adolescence. Adult aggression was strongly associated with being a victim of violence by an intimate partner. A history of exposure to other forms of violence significantly increased the risk of fighting while strong maternal attachments mitigated the risk, primarily by reducing the likelihood of involvement in an abusive intimate relationship.

A number of empirical studies of the immediate consequences of child sexual abuse found a relationship between victimization and a variety of troubling outcomes, including antisocial and aggressive behaviors such as delinquency, physical aggression, and adolescent "acting out" (Cosentino, Meyer-Bahlburg, Albert, & Gaines, 1993; Gomes-Schwartz, Horowitz, & Cardarelli, 1990; Runtz & Briere, 1986). Despite findings of an association between sexual victimization and physical aggression among children, few studies of adults examined whether the relationship persists in adulthood. This article helps to bridge the gap between what is known about aggression in child and adult victims by reporting findings about self-reported violence among a group of women sexually abused as children. It also examines the role of other lifetime experiences together with the characteristics of the abuse itself as possible risk factors for violence.

BACKGROUND

Sexual Abuse and Aggressive Behavior

Differences in the aggressive behavior of abused and nonabused children have been measured in various ways: direct observation of behavior, self-reports of violence, a history of violent offenses, or, in the case of children, adults' reports about children's behavior.

Studies based on parental or other adults' (e.g., social workers) assessment of sexually abused children's behavior or on observation of such children compared to nonabused peers have found a consistent association between abuse and physically aggressive behavior (e.g., Conte & Berliner, 1988; Cosentino et al., 1993; Dubowitz, Black, Harrington, & Verschoore, 1993; Gomes-Schwartz et al., 1990; Mannarino Cohen, Smith, & Moore-Motily, 1991). In their meta-analysis of the effects of sexual abuse, Kendall-Tackett, Williams, and Finkelhor (1993) found that sexual abuse status alone accounted for 43% of the variance in measures of aggression comparing abuse victims to nonabused, nonclinical controls.

Evidence of an association between sexual abuse and aggression is less pronounced when violence is measured by official records of offenses. Subjects in such analyses are older than those based on adult assessment of children's behavior. Studies of delinquents indicate that those who were sexually abused do not have a significantly greater likelihood of arrest for violent offenses (Famularo, Kinscherff, Fenton, & Bolduc, 1990; Reich & Gutierres, 1979). Prospective studies of abused children have yielded differing results. Zingraff and his colleagues (Zingraff, Leiter, Myers, & Johnsen, 1993) report that the sexual abuse victims in their sample of maltreated children were no more likely than nonabused children to be referred for a delinquent complaint for a violent offense. Widom's (1989) analysis of arrest data for her matched cohort study produced similar results when she examined arrest records for her entire sample of abused and nonabused children. Only a portion of her sample of abuse victims, however, had matched controls. When the analysis was restricted to those subjects who did have matched controls, sexual abuse was a statistically significant risk factor for violent offending. …

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