South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

Psychological approaches

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Psychological approaches to what causes sexual assault have focussed on the abuser rather than on the victim or the family. Psychologists have focussed their attention on two levels:

  1. Identifying a personality profile of sex offenders.
  2. On isolating the motivations of abusers.

The search for a personality profile of sex offenders has focused on establishing the existence of fixed and stable personality traits that are predictive of sex offenders. A range of studies of diverse population samples have been conducted using differential research techniques and perhaps unsurprisingly, research results have been contradictory and inconclusive. Some of the personality characteristics that have been consistently identified include social introversion, feelings of masculine inadequacy and the need to exercise a high level of dominance and control in family relationships. This later characteristic is particularly true of incest offenders.

Abusers have also been found to be highly adept at rationalisation and displacing responsibility and blame onto others rather than the self. The inability of researchers to consistently define particular characteristics as indicative of sex offenders has nevertheless contributed to our knowledge of sexual abuse. The huge amount of demographic and clinical data that has been collected has helped to dispel many of the myths and stereotypes about who commits sexual abuse. It has become clear that abusers come from all social backgrounds and are not confined to socially or economically deprived families. In addition, they do not suffer from any mental illnesses nor do they necessarily have other criminal tendencies. In fact, the sex offender is often an otherwise law-abiding 'guy next door' type.

In terms of motivations for abuse, a common finding has been that alcohol or alcoholism contributes to a reduction in internal inhibitions to commit sex offences and/or incest. Poor impulse control is also seen as a common problem. In terms of child sexual abuse offenders, a distinction has been drawn between the fixated and the regressive abuser. The fixated abuser has been conditioned from childhood and adolescence to be primarily sexually attracted to younger children. While the regressive abuser, abuses in response to stress, which exacerbates existing feelings of inadequacy and impairs normal impulse control, thereby allowing abuse to occur.


The psychologist's shift in emphasis from victim and family to abuser is perhaps more helpful for understanding why sexual abuse occurs.

Nevertheless, this approach also has several limitations not least of which is that much of the evidence is contradictory and inconclusive. A further limitation is that the notion of 'poor impulse control' being a cause of sexually abusive behaviour against women and children implies that such abuse is a natural and normal part of male sexuality. As long as sexually abusive behaviour against women and children is seen to be part of the normal repertoire of male behaviour, even though a part that must be controlled, little progress can be made in terms of prevention.

This view also reinforces the myth that men cannot control their sexual urges.


  • Men can't control their sexual urges.

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