Gender Roles and Childhood-Abuse

Gender Roles and Childhood-Abuse


The concern of child abuse has attracted attention of many psychologists. Definition of childhood abuse may include overt, where direct physical abuse or contact is established, and covert abuse, which refers to non-contact or non-physical or emotional abuse between victims and perpetrators (Brick, 2005). Reputable studies have identified significant gender differences for the perpetrators and casualties of child sexual abuse and likeness in emotional and physical neglect. Some scholars have utilized this concept to explain the phenomenon of male dominance in sexual relations and in describing the ambiguous rates of physical abuse by considering that the female gender have a higher responsibility and the time spent caring. Bornstein, Kaplan & Perry (2007) notes that customarily, the society assumed child abuse to be a male crime, but recent studies have indicated that a significant minority of perpetrators are female. Gender defines aspects such as the relationship, aggression and socialization that relates directly to child abuse. Considering the effect of gender on one’s behavior, it is apparent that there exists an intimate relationship between gender and child abuse. Furthermore, gender assumes a central role in determining the relationship of children and their parents by stating the duties for each parent (Barker-Collo & Read, 2011). In essence, gender has the potential of delineating children’s experience that may define their future habits. For example, studies indicate that mental health issues among adults are associated with early childhood sexual abuse and related issues.

The post-traumatic effects of early abuse psychologically and socially burden adult survivors. Childhood abuse can occur in different forms and degrees ranging from mild to extreme. According to Kendall-Tackett (2001), men or women who are victims of childhood abuse are likely to become bad parents in the future. The post-traumatic effects of childhood abuse can range from psychological issues to social problems, or daily instability in adult survivors. The effects are often long-term and vary among individuals, depending on their adopted coping styles. Victims can undergo emotional disturbances and toxic patterns that affect their future interactions. In addition, survivors of childhood abuse tend to isolate, and often neglect themselves. This may be evident as inconsistent or problematic patterns of social interaction (Moore, Davidson & Fisher, 2010). Besides the indisputable effect of gender on child abuse, there still exists no clear understanding of the relationship of the relationship between the two. Evaluating the relationship between gender and child abuse is essential in proposing effective strategies that can reduce case of abuse.

Literature Review

The subject of the relationship of gender and child abuse is highly contentious.  Theoretical and empirical evidence have illuminated the issue of childhood abuse with a special focus on the population of the adult survivor. There is abundant literature and theoretical framework that reflects on the subject by examining it from diverse perspectives. According to Hall (2011), women present high cases of abuse than their counterparts. Hall’s study identify that 28% to 33% of women are victims of childhood, or adolescent sexual abuse as compared to 12% to 18% of men. Scholars attribute the difference in the sexual abuse cases along gender line to the masculine state of the male gender and the feminine nature of the female gender (Barker-Collo & Read, 2011). This is because the feminine state renders susceptible to abuse while the masculine attitude motivates men making them have abusive habits. Kendall-Tackett (2001), report supports this position by noting by revealing that girls experience sexual abuse at a rate, which is three times that of boys. The study highlights that every 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men have been abused during their childhood. Past empirical findings indicate that the most vulnerable ages are between 7 and 13 years old.  At least any earlier study has indicated that girls report a higher number of childhood abuses and a common phenomenon indicate that perpetrators are overwhelmingly male and the majority of victims are female (Kendall-Tackett, 2001). In respect to this, effect of gender is identifiable in its potential of creating a gender that is dominant over another.

Sobsey, Randall & Parrila (1997), evaluated gender differences in children who had faced abuse cases. The scholars introduced new ideas regarding the relationship between child abuse and gender by noting that the nature of abuse may vary with the gender. The study indicated that boys have high chances of being neglected and are likely to face physical abuse and while girls have a high rate of sexual abuse cases. The study also identified that gender proportions among the abused children with disabilities differed considerably from those recorded among other abused children (Sobsey, Randall & Parrila, 1997). According to Futa et al. (2003), numerous concerns coincide with child abuse and those problems and most of these factors are linked with gender. Studies affirm that victims of early childhood trauma associated with severe and life-long pathology in the form of borderline personality disorder, or other sociopathic or disorders in adulthood (Allen & Lauterbach, 2007).

Scope of Effects

As mentioned earlier, the scope of child abuse goes far beyond the physical or sexual context.  The most accounted for, and largely documented, type of abuse is child sexual abuse.  The prevalence in child sexual abuse aligns along gender bounders in that girls experiences the highest number of sexual abuses than their counterparts. Male victims and female perpetrators do exist, though the level of documentation is relatively negligible. As Kendall-Tackett (2001) outlines, male dominance and access are some of the possible explanations for the sex differences in rates of abuse. Compared to boys, girls are more susceptible to familial abuse, especially from stepfathers.  In case of girls, family members and close family friends constitute half of the perpetrators population; however, tend to report abuse from outside the family.

Various scholars identify fathers and stepfathers to be potential perpetrator of sexual abuse.  Although mothers and female relatives are sometimes perpetrators as well, many studies highlight lower chances of sexual abuse from mothers. In addition, boys or girls who often suffer sexual abuse from female perpetrator perceive it as the most secretive and harmful form of abuse.  These victims experience such shame and guilt that make them keep the information to themselves.

Childhood physical abuse is reported almost equally between male and female victims.  Theoretical frameworks do not provide clear-cut distinctions between abuse and degree, or what is considered extreme.  The boundaries of physical abuse include spanking of children by parents, or other people with direct access. Extreme behavior includes torture, to causation of death.  The perpetrator of physical abuse can include any family member and the prevalence remains non-biased along gender lines. Young children may experience physical abuse from parents in the form of discipline, or outright hatred.  The parents’ anxiety or differing temperaments may lead to the physical abuse of a child.  Hatred occurs in stepparents, or guardians of children responsible for their care (Moore et al, 2010).

The stake of gender in child abuse is also supported by higher rate of denial in the males that females (Yancey & Hansen, 2010). Neglect is one of the most common forms of maltreatment, and is often related to parental substance abuse and/or depression. When parents undergo emotional crises, or there are weak family relationships, the child is likely to face denial and other emotional disturbances. Poverty accounts for the greatest percentage of neglect cases; however, there are no findings to affirm that all children in poor families undergo neglect (Kendall-Tackett, 2001).  In some instances, sheer ignorance and lack of a good parenting role model can lead to child denial.

Psychological and Social Implications

Aspects related to gender enhance childhood that causes psychological instability in the adult survivor of trauma (Bornstein,Kaplan & Perry, 2007).  The impact of childhood abuse effects an individual’s interpersonal, sexual, intimate, and intrapersonal orientation and is largely recognized when treating mental health conditions in adults.  The relationship between an individual’s past abuse and psychopathology reflects the intensity and extent of future implications for adult survivors (Mullen & Fleming, 1998).  The effects of child abuse, how it manifests in the individual, and the situations surrounding the act differ for each individual (Futa et al, 2003). Childhood sexual abuse correlates with high levels of depression, guilt, self-blame, shame, somatic concerns, anxiety, dissociative patterns, repression, and sexual and relational issues (Yancey & Hansen, 2010). Adult survivors tend to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety related issues.  Perhaps this comes from their task of externalizing the abuse, which usually leads to self-blame and hatred.  Years of such self-blame results in the individuals/victims’ perception of themselves as worthless; at this point, suicidal thoughts creep into the victims’ mind coupled with disturbed eating and sleeping patterns.

A number of surveys reflect that adult victims of early childhood abuse blame themselves and feel responsible for their abuse.   Family members are still dear and falsely trusted by victims, so the resulting abuse is devastating to a victim who tends to take personal responsibility of the act rather than see the trusted perpetrators, in a negative light (Hall & Hall, 2011).  The victims’ self-blame is reflected in their self destructive, aggressive and violent tendencies.   Victims may grow up to become violent persons or criminals in a bid to avenge their suffering.  Eating disorders and body image concerns have been cited as long-term effects of childhood abuse.  It was noted that adult survivors tend to have body image problems in terms of feeling dirty or ugly.  According to Kendall-Tackett 2001, women in abusive relationships may have internalized early messages to such an extent, that they stay thinking that they are undeserving of a loving relationship and that no one else would want them.  They tend to be dissatisfied with their physical appearance and abstain from eating, or excessively abuse alcohol.  According to Hall & Hall (2011), female survivors reported significantly more medical concerns than females who were not abused.  Survivors reported gastrointestinal problems, pelvic pain and migraines, among other ailments.

Stress and anxiety are reflected in the victims’ social life and significant relationships. Victims of early childhood abuse reflect signs of insecurity and fear from early childhood experience.  Chronic anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias become evident in daily living, and they tend to remain detached from the world around them.  Their psychological issues prevent them from getting too close as a way of protecting themselves from future or potential harm.  A survivor can feel uncomfortable among people of the same sex as their perpetrators.  Feelings of confusion, disorientation, nightmares, and flash backs are very common in victims of childhood abuse.  Most victims have difficulty establishing interpersonal relationships.

There is a strong belief of a causal link between early childhood sexual activities with a perpetrator of disparate age, and later acting out that same behavior as an adult perpetrator (Glasser et al., 2001).  The severity of abuse and lack of coping ability is reflected in the cycle of victim-to-victimizer.  Whether it is the need for vengeance, personal satisfaction, or mental instability, boys are the most vulnerable victims of becoming perpetrators as adults.  Individuals with a history of childhood abuse may encounter severe health problems that hinder them from establishing platonic or intimate relationships with anyone of the opposite sex.

Treatment Models

While assessing the cause and effect of childhood sexual abuse, Mullen & Fleming (1998) describe two main ideas.  The first emphasizes the stress from the traumatic period.  Initially, the psychopathology due to early childhood abuse was compared to post-traumatic stress disorder and centered it’s focus on symptoms triggered by trauma (Mullen & Fleming, 1998), and more recently it encompasses the dissociative disorders of amnesias, fugues, desensitization, and in some cases, multiple personality disorder.  This later model aims at mainstreaming and evaluating the damage in victims as well as assessing their psychological integrity (Mullen & Fleming, 1998). The model is grounded in strong clinical backings based on observation-oriented approaches by clinicians and psychologists.  The traumatogenic model is less pathological and assesses the effects of early childhood abuse.  It proposes multiple psychological effects from the time of abuse, and secondarily, projected behavioral patterns in victims. More precisely, the model predicts a range of psychological characteristics and behavioral imbalances in adult victims of sexual abuse and early trauma.


It is apparent that gender correlates directly with the case of child abuse. Differences in the extent and number of abuse cases along gender line highlight the relationship of gender and child abuse. Gender creates social forces, attitudes and situations that may increase the susceptibility of a child to abuse. Gender-based facts affect the severity of abuse, relationship to the perpetrators and nature of abuse. Consequences of abuse vary considerably because some individual reflect mild symptoms others may present severe symptoms capable of impairing their daily functioning. This may include self-rejection or inability to care for the self, suicidal thinking, suicidal attempts, as well as physical disease. The severity of the consequences of abuse is higher in the female gender than in male. Furthermore, girls are more susceptible to sexual abuse than boys and their feminine nature present coping challenges in their adult lives.  Adult victims of early childhood abuse develop extreme behavior and ways to cope that may be harmful to their psychological and physical health. Victims sometimes dissociate and retreat so far within themselves to protect them from the outside world and future harm.  Alternatively, they may choose to avenge themselves by becoming pedophiles or perpetrators of the same acts done to them. Considering the close relationship of gender and child abuse, it is apparent that gender sensitive strategies could be highly effective in addressing child abuse.


Allen, B. & Lauterbach, D. (2007). Personal characteristics of adult survivors of childhood trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 20(4). 587–595.

Barker-Collo, S., & Read, J. (2011). The Roles of Gender and Coping Styles in the Relationship Between Child Abuse and the SCL-90-R Subscales ‘Psychoticism’ and ‘Paranoid Ideation’. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 40(3), 30-40.

Bornstein, B. H., Kaplan, D. L., & Perry, A. R. (2007). Child abuse in the eyes of the beholder: Lay perceptions of child sexual and physical abuse. Child Abuse & Neglect, 31(4), 375-391. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2006.09.007

Brick, N. (2005). How childhood sexual abuse affects interpersonal relationships. Ritual Abuse Pages. Retrieved from

Futa, K. T., Nash, C. L., Hansen, D. J. & Garbin, C. P. (2003). Adult survivors of childhood abuse: An analysis of coping mechanisms used for stressful childhood memories and current stressor. Journal of Family Violence, 18(4). 227-239.

Glasser, M., Kolvin, I., Glasser, A., Leitch, I., & Farrelly, S. (2001). Cycle of child sexual abuse: links between being a victim and becoming a perpetrator. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 179. 483-494.

Hall, M., & Hall, J. (2011). The long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse: Counseling implications. Retrieved from

Kendall-Tackett, K. (2001). The hidden feelings of motherhood: Coping with mothering stress, depression and burnout. Chapter: The long shadow: Adult survivors of childhood abuse. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Moore, N. B., Davidson, J. K., & Fisher, T. D. (2010). Speaking of Sexuality: Interdisciplinary Readings 3rd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Mullen, P. E. & Fleming, J. (1998). Long-term effects of child sexual abuse. Australian Institute of Family Studies.  Retrieved from

Sobsey, D., Randall, W., & Parrila, R. K. (1997). Gender differences in abused children with and without disabilities. Child Abuse & Neglect, 21(8), 707-720.

Yancey, C., & Hansen, D. J. (2010). Relationship of personal, familial, and abuse-specific factors with outcome following childhood sexual abuse. Aggression & Violent Behavior, 15(6), 410-421. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2010.07.003

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