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Linking Adverse Childhood Effects and Attachment: A Theory of Etiology for Sexual Offending

Melissa D Grady, Jill S Levenson, Tess Bolder
Trauma, Violence & Abuse 2017, 18 (4): 433-444
Sexual violence continues to be a significant public health problem affecting significant portions of the population. Unfortunately, an agreed upon theory of etiology remains elusive leading to challenges in developing effective prevention and treatment interventions. Recently, there is a growing body of literature examining the role of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in the development of sexually violent behavior. This research has begun to explore the rates of various types of child maltreatments and family dysfunction in individuals who have been convicted of a sexual crime. These empirical inquiries have been primarily descriptive in nature and have not yet provided a cohesive theoretical model as to why the presence of ACEs might contribute to sexually abusive behavior. This article suggests that attachment theory offers an explanatory link between early adversity and sexually abusive behavior in adulthood. We first summarize important attachment theory concepts, then integrate them with research in the area of developmental psychopathology and ACEs, and finally propose a model by which attachment can be used as an explanatory theory for subsequent sexualized coping and sexually abusive behaviors. Finally, this article explores the implications for practice, policy, and research using this explanatory theory as a framework for understanding sexual violence.


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