Wed | Jun 16, 2021

Peter Espeut |Breaking the cycle of abuse

Published:Friday | May 14, 2021 | 12:05 AM

Recent cases of child sex abuse (rape, buggery) have provoked horror and disgust in some quarters, and the lynch mobs are knotting their ropes. But where do child abusers come from? Are child abusers born that way, or are they made so by their ‘broughtupsy’?

If they are born that way, then they are not responsible for their actions. In fact, I am sure that a lobby will emerge claiming that being sexually attracted to minors is ‘normal’ and ‘natural’, and therefore acting on that kind of sexual arousal should not be a crime.

But there is substantial evidence that people who were sexually abused as children often engage in abusive relationships as adults, and might repeatedly find themselves in adult relationships where they are victimised – physically, emotionally, or sexually. There is a cycle of child-adult-child sexual abuse that can play itself out across generations unless the cycle is interrupted.

Think about it: persons who were beaten as children (physical abuse) often end up beating their children – or their spouses; or both. And this applies to both genders.

“My mother beats me because she loves me, and wants me to behave. I love my children, so I beat them.”

If the connection between abuse and ‘love’ is made early in life, the feelings of shame and anger which naturally result as a consequence of abuse can become mixed up with sexual feelings, leading to confusion in the person who experiences the abuse. These feelings may become interpreted as feelings of love and passion, and can lead to sexual arousal.

People who have been abused may never come to know that healthier ways of ‘feeling’ in relationships are possible.


People who were abused as children may believe – on some deep level that may even be out of their conscious awareness – that they are not good enough to deserve a genuinely caring relationship, making it hard to accept real love. People who have been abused may try to counteract their feelings of inadequacy by believing that they are better than others; they may have a hard time respecting other people as equals, making it hard to enter a mutually loving, respectful relationship.

Some may even feel inferior to certain people and superior to others, engaging in abusive relationships at the same time they are being abused by others.

By becoming an abuser, someone who has been abused can play the role of the more powerful person in the relationship in an attempt to overcome the powerlessness they felt when they were being abused. It doesn’t work, of course; repeatedly dominating others does not overcome feelings of powerlessness experienced as a victim.

The late Prof Freddy Hickling famously claimed – following on from his psychiatric research – that more than 40 per cent of Jamaicans are “eligible for a diagnosis of personality disorder”. In his now famous 2013 article (along with Walcott) in the West Indian Medical Journal he stated that, “The heritage of slavery and colonial oppression in Jamaica has resulted in maladaptive personality disorders that have led to extremely high rates of homicide, violence and transgressive behaviour.”

He quotes the late Martin Henry writing on September 23, 2012 in this newspaper: “It appears to me, without the benefit of a scientific study, that political leaders who can build garrisons and use political violence as a tool for electoral victory and then display all the innocence and gentleness of a lamb would have Jekyll and Hyde personalities.”


How do we break the cycle of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in Jamaica, and reduce our high incidence of violent crime? Certainly not by creating another ‘eradication squad’!

Psychosocial therapy is required to ameliorate what is really a psychosocial problem.

I was pleased to hear Fayval Williams, the minister of education, in her recent contribution to the Sectoral Debate announce that the Ministry of Education will soon be including “character education” in public schools.

“We will design, develop and implement the curriculum for character education and we will give it the same importance we give to literacy and numeracy,” she is quoted as saying.

In my view, the school is the locus where the cycle of abuse may be broken, but I am not sure that the Government is up to the task of designing the needed therapeutic interventions. I call upon the churches which own and operate more than half the schools in Jamaica to develop and implement such a programme in their schools.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and is dean of studies at St Michael’s Theological College. Send feedback to