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Exploring the Victim-Offender Overlap: General Strain Theory, Negative Emotions, and Gender Dynamics

Photo by Mark Daynes on Unsplash

Agnetha Gillbanks
University of New Haven

Historically, the focus of the criminal justice system had primarily been on punishing the offender, while the victim’s needs and experiences were largely ignored. However, as criminology and victimology evolved, scholars realized that both victims and offenders required attention. While these disciplines were initially developed with distinct focuses on offenders and victims, it became evident that individuals could occupy both roles (Erdmann, 2022). Early victimologists such as Schafer (1968) and Wolfgang (1958) identified the need to examine the relationship between the victim and offender. As more research emerged, it was clear that the two were significantly interconnected (Averdijk et al., 2016; Dutton & Hart, 1992; Lo et al., 2020; Kushner, 2022).

Over time, the victim-offender overlap has been viewed from two different angles, with one side of researchers contending that victimization in the early years can lead to future offending behavior (Dutton & Hart, 1992; Watts, 2017; White & Frisch-Scott, 2023), while others believe that offenders are more prone to victimization due to risky their lifestyles (Berg & Felson, 2020; Schreck et al., 2008; Walters, 2020). While the former focuses on the psychological aspects of how the trauma of victimization can lead to offending (White & Frisch-Scott, 2023), the latter provides more of an understanding of how factors such as intoxication (Berg & Felson, 2020), neighborhood street culture (Berg et al., 2012) and various other circumstances can lead an offender to be more susceptible to becoming a victim of crime.  

With the extent of information available, various theories have been applied to explain this overlap. Self-control by Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) has been linked to the victim-offender overlap (Spivey & Nodeland, 2021; Turanovic & Pratt, 2013), while other researchers have focused on routine activities theory (Erdmann, 2022) and social bonds (Watts, 2017). Each theory has provided unique insights that have contributed to the overall understanding of the overlap. Among these theories, General Strain Theory (GST) by Agnew (1992) has gained attention in addressing this issue (Lee & Kim, 2018; Turanovic & Pratt, 2013; Zavala & Spohn, 2012). This theory explains the factors that lead people to commit crimes while accounting for individual emotions, gender, and environmental differences.

The purpose of this paper is to provide a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between victims and offenders with a focus on GST. The paper will examine past research that explores how early victimization can lead to strain and negative emotions among individuals, which may eventually result in future offending. It will also analyze research that has studied gender differences to better understand how negative emotions due to victimization vary between females and males. Additionally, the paper will assess three contemporary studies to provide a more current understanding of the topic. Finally, it will provide policy implications and suggestions for future research by addressing the gaps that still exist.

Literature Review

Victimization and the factors that contribute to it have been a topic of interest for a long time. Certain groups, such as women, elderly people, children, and minority communities, are more vulnerable to victimization than others. Children, in particular, are highly susceptible to victimization, not only from strangers but also from parents and close relatives. This is often due to their dependence on their parents and inability to protect themselves. According to the Children’s Bureau, 684,568 children were reported as victims of various crimes, with 76% of those cases being due to parental neglect (Children’s Bureau, 2021). Such victimization can adversely affect a child’s development, leading to alcohol abuse and violent and delinquent behavior (Dutton & Hart, 1992). A study by Watts (2017) found that physical abuse, sexual abuse, and maltreatment impacted the social bonds formed by children and led to delinquency.

The Landscape of the Victim-Offender Overlap

Children who experience victimization often lack the necessary coping mechanisms and support systems to handle the trauma they face, which can lead to negative behavior that carries forward into adulthood (Cain, 2021; Kushner, 2022; Lo et al., 2020). According to The National Survey of Children Exposed to Violence, 61% of children up to the age of 17 years’ experience some form of abuse annually (Finkelhor et al., 2013). A study by Cain (2021) used a nationally representative sample of incarcerated youth to compare the differences in crimes between those who were victimized and those who were not. Findings revealed that victimized youth were more likely to be incarcerated for violent crimes than non-victimized youth. A longitudinal study by Averdijk et al. (2016) collected data from youth over a 10-year time frame to determine if victimization had an influence on violent offending. The majority of youths in the study reported that after being victimized, they regarded violent offending as less serious. The study also found that prior victimization led to positive feelings of offending while reducing feelings of shame.

Research further supports the fact that many incarcerated individuals have experienced victimization during childhood and adolescence (Dutton & Hart, 1992; White & Frisch-Scott, 2023; Wolff et al., 2009). A study was conducted to estimate the prevalence of childhood abuse and neglect among incarcerated individuals in the United States (White & Frisch-Scott, 2023). The findings showed that a significant proportion of incarcerated individuals had experienced abuse or neglect during their childhood. In a similar study, Dutton and Hart (1992) reviewed files of 604 inmates to determine whether childhood neglect and abuse had an impact on their future offending behavior. The results supported their hypothesis that individuals who experienced childhood abuse were more likely to engage in abusive behavior in their adulthood. These findings shed light on the importance of addressing childhood victimization and providing necessary support systems to prevent delinquent behavior in the future. However, it should be noted that this overlap is not only due to childhood experiences but can occur at any time during the course of life. When adults experience victimization and do not employ effective coping strategies to deal with the trauma, it can result in negative behaviors (Muftić & Deljkić,2012; Muftić et al., 2015; Spivey & Nodeland, 2021).

Adding to the complexity of the victim-offender overlap is the way in which males and females respond to victimization. Much research exists that has tried to explain the variations in offending behavior between genders (Baron, 2007; Hay, 2003; Piquero & Sealock, 2004). Similarly, research indicates that men and women respond differently to victimization, leading to subsequent deviant behaviors (Kushner, 2022; Lee & Kim, 2018; Turanovic & Pratt, 2013). A study conducted by Kushner (2022) assessed whether the relationship between the victim and the offender played a role in the victim-offender overlap and if this relationship differed by gender. The study found that experiencing family-only violence and both family and non-family violence impacted violent offending, but only for females, while the association was weaker for males.

Applying General Strain Theory to the Victim-Offender Overlap

From a theoretical perspective, many studies have applied GST to explain why some individuals engage in criminal behavior. (Lo et al., 2020; Turanovic & Pratt, 2013; Wemmers et al., 2018). According to GST, individuals who experience strain, such as failure to achieve goals, removal of positive stimuli, or addition of negative stimuli, may resort to coping strategies that can lead to criminality (Agnew, 2006). Lo et al. (2020) conducted a study on individuals in early adulthood to investigate whether victimization, particularly bullying, causes strain and shapes future offending behavior among minority groups. Their findings showed that bullying in childhood led to an increased strain, resulting in later offending behavior across all groups.

Negative emotions, such as depression and anger, can arise from strain and serve as a link between victimization and offending. Studies have tried to identify the emotional responses that accompany strain among boys and girls but, the results have been mixed (Agnew & Brezina, 1997; Hay, 2003; Kaufman, 2009). While some studies have found that girls are more likely to experience depression following a stressful event (Kaufman, 2009), others show that boys are more prone to experiencing anger (Agnew & Brezina, 1997; Hay, 2003), while others found that both genders experience anger to the same extent (Kaufman, 2009).

From the context of GST, Wemmers et al. (2018) conducted a study on polyvictimization and its relationship with delinquency, focusing on emotions like anger, depression, and posttraumatic stress. The study found a positive correlation between GST and victimization, with anger playing a significant role in victimization leading to delinquency. Similarly, researchers sought to observe how strain and other negative emotions vary between genders based on data collected from a sample of delinquents (Piquero & Sealock, 2004). The study discovered that although strain was consistent across gender, females had more instances of anger and depression. Also, while both genders had a positive association between strain and anger, depression was more commonly associated with males than females. Recognizing differences in gender emotions adds yet another layer to understanding this overlap.

The victim-offender overlap has been extensively studied from multiple angles, but many issues remain unresolved, leaving several unanswered questions. To gain a better understanding of the current research scenario, three contemporary papers have been selected and an overview is provided in the following section. By enhancing our knowledge of the victim-offender overlap, we can develop effective interventions to prevent or mitigate criminal behaviors.

Contemporary Research

Constantin and Boyett (2021), conducted a study to investigate the relationship between sexual violence victimization and deviant behavior using the GST framework. According to GST, people engage in deviant behavior as a means of coping with the negative effects of being sexually victimized. The researchers believed that sexual violence victimization could result in negative emotions and coping behaviors, and their study aimed to provide a better understanding of the factors that lead to deviant behavior.

In their study, Constantin and Boyett (2021), applied GST to investigate the effects of sexual violence victimization on substance abuse, alcohol consumption, and violent or aggressive behavior. The researchers hypothesized that these factors are interconnected with negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and depression. To test their hypothesis, they utilized data from Kaplan’s Longitudinal and Multigenerational Study (KLAMS), which follows families in the United States over several years and interviews respondents’ multiple times throughout their lives. The study included 7,519 respondents from diverse demographics with an average age of 14, and data from the first interview was used.  Statistical analyses, such as regression analysis, were utilized to test the hypothesis.

Constantin and Boyett (2021) found that sexual violence victims are more likely to engage in deviant behavior as a way to cope with trauma. The findings showed that victims of sexual violence are 121% more likely to abuse drugs. Men, in particular, have a 56% higher chance of drug use than women. In relation to alcohol abuse, victims of sexual violence were 71% more likely to drink. Men were found to have a 23% higher chance of alcohol abuse than women. The study also revealed that sexual violence victims were 84% more likely to engage in violent/aggressive behavior. Men, in particular, were 198% more likely to exhibit this type of behavior than women. Anger was found to significantly increase the likelihood of drug abuse and violent/aggressive behavior. However, depression and anxiety were not statistically significant in predicting violent/aggressive behavior.

Another study by Gebo et al. (2022), was conducted to explore the correlation between victimization and adolescent offending, with a specific focus on the influence of different subtypes of victimization. Gender was also taken into consideration to examine how it could affect the victim-offender overlap. The researchers hypothesized that based on GST, physical victimization by parents was more associated with violent and property offenses, and males were more likely to offend than females; however, when all forms of victimization are taken into consideration, this gender gap would reduce.

Gebo et al. (2022), tested their hypothesis by analyzing the data from the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence. The study included a sample of 1,781 youths aged 10 to 17 years and utilized a comprehensive list of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) along with interviews with the participants. Bivariate associations and logistic regression models were used to test the hypothesis. The independent variables were physical abuse, child abuse, property damage, and witnessing parent or non-parent violence, while the dependent variables were violence and property offending. About 60% of the interviewed youths had experienced some form of physical or property violence. Non-physical victimization, such as community disorder and low parental monitoring, was also included as part of the study.

Findings showed that being a victim of physical violence increased the likelihood of engaging in violent offenses but not property offenses. Moreover, child abuse by parents was strongly related to physical violence, with those who experienced abuse being 2.92 times more likely to engage in such offenses. Furthermore, victims of property crime were 81% more likely to commit property offenses Witnessing violence also had an impact on violent offending, and higher ACE scores were associated with both physical violence and property offenses. The study also found that violent offending was more common among victimized males while property victimization was strongly associated with violent offending among victimized females.

Kim et al. (2023) studied the relationship between strain, negative emotions, and delinquency among South Korean youth. The researchers focused on gender differences and explored how anger and depression explain delinquency. The study aimed to fill the gap in previous research on whether anger is a significant factor contributing to boys’ involvement in crime.

The researchers used data from the Korean Youth Panel Survey (KYPS) to conduct their study. The KYPS is a collection of longitudinal samples gathered by the National Youth Policy Institutions (Kim et al., 2023). The study followed 2,844 participants, starting from the age of 10 until they reached 14. The survey included questions about education, career, and delinquent behavior, which were answered by both the youths and their parents. A cross-lagged panel model was employed by the researchers to examine causal influences in the longitudinal data.

Findings showed that strain influenced negative emotions in both boys and girls, however the relationship was different for each gender. Both boys and girls experienced anger and depression after being victimized but anger was seen to increase delinquency among girls. However, depression, although more prevalent among girls, was seen to have no relationship to delinquent acts. On the other hand, victimization and delinquency were higher among boys, and depression played a more significant role.

Discussions and Implications

The above three contemporary papers have expanded our knowledge and provided a basic overview of the current literature. The recurrent pattern in all studies was that males are more likely than females to engage in delinquent behavior after experiencing victimization. In addition, the research indicates that depression and anger are common accompanying factors that lead to delinquency, with anger being the most significant of the two. The findings provide a strong foundation for future research to build on to better understand this issue.

Research on the victim-offender overlap has significantly contributed to the development of policies aimed at reducing criminal behavior. However, there are still many gaps in knowledge that need to be addressed. With the help of previous research, scholars can explore various avenues to investigate these gaps and identify ways to implement effective policies to address this issue. These efforts can help to develop programs that take into account the diverse experiences of victims and offenders and provide tailored interventions that address their needs.

Policy Recommendations

Gebo et al. (2022) and Kim et al. (2023) found that strain is the main factor that contributes to the overlap between victims and offenders. Therefore, it is important to provide early interventions that focus on the trauma experienced by victims and teach them effective coping strategies. Such interventions would be effective in dealing with negative emotions and reducing offending behaviours (Kim et al., 2023). In line with this, Kushner (2022) suggested that early intervention programs that incorporate therapy could be useful in addressing violence in relationships.

Sexual victimization can cause high levels of stress in individuals, which may be due to the fact that it is associated with low self-control (Constantin & Boyett, 2021). Sexual violence is often accompanied by victim blaming and stereotyping. Therefore, those who experience it may not always view their experiences as unjust and may believe that it is a common occurrence (Constantin & Boyett, 2021). To address this issue, awareness programs should be implemented in schools and other facilities to educate people on what sexual victimization encompasses. Safe spaces should also be provided for women to talk about the trauma they have experienced. Such programs can offer support systems and a chance for people to interact with others who have undergone similar experiences.   

Finally, it is important to provide more intervention and counselling programs for incarcerated individuals. According to Wolff et al. (2009), the majority of individuals in prison who have a history of prior victimization are more likely to experience further victimization while serving their sentence. Not only does prison life have a psychological impact, but additional trauma due to victimization can also make it difficult for such individuals to cope. Therefore, it is essential to offer various programs that teach coping skills, provide counselling, and trauma processing to all incarcerated individuals.

Future research

Research on the victim offender overlap is vast, but several gaps still exist. One significant issue that has been overlooked in most studies is the variations in the victim-offender overlap among different racial and ethnic groups. (Lo et al., 2020). While it is known that minority communities are more prone to victimization, it is important to investigate the differences in offending behavior between white and non-white groups. Furthermore, exploring sexual victimization among different genders and racial groups can provide better insights into group victimization levels (Constantin & Boyett, 2021). Another critical factor in the victim-offender overlap is ACEs. Therefore, more research should focus on gender differences while considering ACEs as an area of interest (Gebo et al. 2022).


Based on previous literature, it is evident that the victim-offender overlap is an issue that requires further research. GST has provided insights into the relationship between victimization and offending, highlighting the importance of addressing negative emotions and strain among individuals. However, more research is needed to better understand the gender differences in victimization and to identify effective policies that can prevent victimization and offending. Although this issue will always exist, finding solutions to underlying problems can help in developing approaches to mitigate it.


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