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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
CUNNINGHAM, A.L. (1998). Suggested Punishment for Child Molesters Based Upon Victim`s Relationship to the Experimenter. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 1. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved September 25, 2023 .

Suggested Punishment for Child Molesters Based Upon Victim`s Relationship to the Experimenter
Missouri Western State University DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (cronk@missouriwestern.edu)
The victim of a child molester often spends the rest of his or her life dealing with the pain of the attack, while the perpetrator uses the molestation to channel emotional problems. Determining a proper penalty for perpetrators is difficult because most people fail to understand the full ramifications of child sexual abuse. This study attempts to establish a relationship between the penalties people choose for perpetrators and the closeness of the victim to the researcher. Participants included students from two introductory psychology classes at a small midwestern college. A paper and pencil survey with a cover story was administered to the participants. The hypothesis was that the closer my relationship is to the victim, the harsher the penalty participants will suggest for the perpetrator. Results indicate that there was not a significant interaction between the two variables (Chi Square(1) = 2.173, p = .337).

Sexual abuse of children is one of the most controversial social issues in America`s culture. Determining how to deal with child molesters continues to be a volatile discussion among citizens and policy makers alike. At the crux of the issue is whether child molesters can be rehabilitated through therapy or if lengthy prison sentences are the only answer for these people. The purpose of this study is to determine if people will deem longer, harsher sentences to be more appropriate based upon the relationship of the victim to the surveyor. In other words, will people be more lenient toward molesters if they cannot associate the victim or perpetrator with anyone specifically? Like most complex issues, there is not one simple answer. Understanding how the child reacts to the molestation and understanding the motives of the molester will help individuals make more rationalized decisions concerning the molester`s punishment. The following information will attempt to give a broad perspective on the effects of being a victim of a child molester the perpetrator`s motives. A common attitude among people is that child molesters are heartless, selfish, uncaring individuals looking to attack and harm children for the joy of it. However, research indicates that this is not always the case. According to Gilgun (1995) child molesters often believe that they are expressing love to their victims. They believe that their victims enjoy the attention and care they receive and that what they are doing to the child is acceptable. In addition, child molesters often believe that they are expressing a romantic love and that their victims are returning this love. They believe that the sexual feelings are mutual. Gilgun (1995) found that many child molesters display evidence of fragmented thoughts. The research indicates that while child molesters believe that they are expressing great love and caring for their victims and fail to see anything wrong with their actions, they know that the molestation must remain secret. In addition, while maintaining their love of their victims, the molesters are often mean and cruel toward them in an attempt to keep the relationship a secret. The molesters also are very persuasive and coercive in order to get their victims to participate in the molestations. The molesters offer bribes, beg and cajole, or will punish their victims for not cooperating. Although the molesters believe that the relationship is mutually satisfying, they do not give their victims the option of saying no. A final example of the molester`s fragmented thoughts is that while they do not believe they were doing anything wrong, they do think it is wrong when others do the same thing. They believe that what they themselves are doing is love, what others do is incest (Gilgun, 1995). There seems to be some characteristics that are shared by many child molesters. According to Smiljanich and Brier (1996) child molesters often display higher levels of sexual impulsivity, sexual conflict, and low self-esteem. One theory pertaining to abusers higher levels of conflict and impulsivity is that men are socialized to be more sexually aggressive than women and seek partners who are weaker, smaller, and less powerful than themselves. (For the sake of this example I am dealing only with men because there is such a low occurrence of women sex offenders.) Smiljanich and Brier (1996) also thought that molesters might tend to be more sexually impulsive and conflicted because molesters had low empathy levels and were more willing to act upon internal need. This impulsivity and conflictedness tends to put some males at higher risk for directing their sexual interests toward children. The low self-esteem of child molesters is a well-established relationship. However, it has not been determined which way the causal relationship goes. Researchers are uncertain if individuals with low self-esteem are interested in children or if individuals have a sexual interest in children and then develop a low self-esteem as a consequence. However, there is a correlation between individuals with a sexual interest in children and being unable to find romantic or sexual partners among one`s own peers (Smiljanich and Brier 1996). Low self-esteem is not exclusive to child molesters. Those who have been sexually abused are more likely than others have low self-esteem as well as experience posttraumatic stress disorder, sexualized behavior, depression, anxiety, and higher levels of anger and aggression (Luster and Small, 1997). Victims of sexual abuse tend to use a variety of avoidance methods to deal with their problems including the use of alcohol, drugs, indiscriminate sexual behavior and eating disorders. Adult women are more likely to be alcoholics and they are more likely to be suicidal. Overall, victims of sexual molestation are more likely to be self-destructive (Luster and Small, 1997). Long-term consequences of child sexual abuse include elevated levels of depression, sexual dysfunction, and revictimization (Banyard and Williams, 1996). Other consequences include higher levels of sleep problems, an inability to connect with humans, and feeling higher levels of betrayal. Feelings of betrayal are especially strong if the perpetrator was a member of the family. These feelings of betrayal seem to be a major factor in contributing to depression, dependency, and problems with relationships (Banyard and Williams, 1996). The purpose of this study was to determine if participants were more likely to say molesters deserve harsher punishments if the participants believed that I, the researcher, had a closer connection with the victim. The hypothesis was that there will be a direct relationship between the closeness of my relationship with the victim and the level of punishment participants will grant. In other words, the closer the relationship, the harsher the punishment will be.


The participants included 75 students from two different introductory psychology classes at a small Midwestern college. There were 17 males and 58 females. Most of the participants, n = 43, were 18-years-old. The oldest participant was 38. Participants received credit toward their coursework for participating in the study. The participants consisted only those who attended class on the day of the survey.

The participants answered five questions on a paper and pencil survey. Each participant answered the same five questions, but the participants received randomly assigned cover stories. The cover stories were the same except for the relationship of the victim to me, the researcher. The cover story and survey are as follows - After four years of being sexually abused, my sister (my friend, a girl I know) Molly finally told our (her) family about the attacks and her attacker. Our (her) older sister`s ex-husband, Chris, had been coming to the house when he knew no one would be home and molesting Molly. Molly was 11 when Chris started molesting her and almost 15 when he stopped. By the time Molly finally confided to our (her) family, it had been almost one full year since Chris`s last attack. Molly would have maintained her silence except that there were signs that Chris had moved onto another victim - Michelle and Chris`s three-year-old daughter. A Grand Jury has since decided that there is enough evidence for Chris to stand trial and there is a warrant out for his arrest.1. If Chris is convicted, what should the penalty for child molestation be? a. Intensive therapy b. Prison sentences2. If he is given a prison sentence, what should be the minimum time served? ________3. Have you had any personal experience with child sexual abuse? (Been a victim or a perpetrator, or had a close personal relationship with someone who has?) a. yes b. no4. Are you male or female? (circle one)5. How old are you? _______

The paper and pencil survey was administered to students who attended their introductory psychology course on the same day I was there. They were instructed not to answer the questionnaire if they were uncomfortable with the topic. Participants were also given my e-mail address so that they could contact me for a complete debriefing of the experiment. Anyone who contacted me via e-mail was instructed to visit the counseling center here on campus if he or she experienced any discomfort or embarrassment from reading the cover story and answering the questions. Individual results from the survey were kept completely confidential. The surveys were immediately computed and the original documents were destroyed.

Only four participants suggested treatment as a suitable penalty for the perpetrator while 47 participants chose a prison sentence. Twenty-four of the 75 participants opted for a combination of both treatment and prison sentences. In selecting a minimum sentence, 29 participants thought life was the only solution for molesters. For participants who did not opt for life sentences, five years was the most commonly chosen minimum sentence with 13 participants making that selection. Twenty-one participants admitted to having had personal experience. To ascertain if there was a positive interaction between the victim`s relationship to me and the level of punishment suggested, I performed a Chi-square test of independence. There was not a significant interaction (Chi Square(1) = 2.173, p = .337). The two variables appear to be independent of one another. Another Chi-square test of independence was computed to determine if there is an interaction between a participant`s personal experiences with sexual child abuse and whether individuals choose treatment or prison for molesters. Again, there was not a significant interaction (Chi Square(1) = .099, p > .05).

The original hypothesis was that the severity of punishment for child molesters would increase as my relationship to the victim got closer. There are several variables that may have been involved in contributing to the lack of significance. One such variable may be that the relationship of the victim to me was not obvious enough. It is possible that the participants did not notice the relationship when they read the cover story. On the other hand, perhaps the participants noticed the relationship but did not personally know me so the relationship to the victim was unimportant. Perhaps if I had asked participants to imagine if the victim was his or her sister, friend, or acquaintance the relationship may have been more important to participants and they would have suggested harsher punishments for the perpetrator. The lack of significance could also be attributed to the topic itsself. Child molestation is an extremely volatile and emotional topic. Participants probably already had opinions about punishments for child molesters before they read the survey. They may not have needed an individual to directly associate with in order to make a decision about penalties. My relationship to the victim was probably unimportant because of this factor. There also was not a significant interaction between the severity of the punishment and participant`s personal experience. I believed that there would be a strong interaction between the two variables. I thought that people who had had personal experience would opt for harsher sentencing for molesters. However, personal experience did not make a difference. The reasons for the lack of interaction are the same as above. It seems that regardless of personal experience, people`s opinions are already formed on this controversial topic. Future studies with this may want to make a few adjustments to the cover story. Researchers may want to make the relationship between victim and researcher more obvious or simply choose a less controversial topic. In addition, in the questionnaire a few adjustments could be made. Researchers may want to make the third question more specific. Instead of asking if the participant had had personal experience, been a perpetrator, or known anyone who has, researchers may want to ask each question individually. Results from knowing the exact nature of individuals` personal experience may prove interesting.

Banyard, V. L., & Williams, L. M. (1996). Characteristics of child sexual abuse as correlates of women`s adjustment: A prospective study. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58, 853-865. Gilgun, J. F. (1995). We shared something special: The moral discourse of incest perpetrators. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 57, 265-281. Luster, T., & Small, S. A. (1997). Sexual abuse history and problems in adolescence: Exploring the effects of moderating variables. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 59, 131-142. Smiljanich, K. & Briere, J. (1996). Self-reported sexual interest in children: Sex differences and psychosocial correlates in a university sample. Violence and Victims 11, 39-49.

Submitted 12/2/98 9:30:45 AM
Last Edited 12/3/98 11:11:37 AM
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