In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Polyvictimization

  • Introduction
  • Polyvictimization and Its Adverse Effects in Childhood and Adolescence
  • Polyvictimization and Its Adverse Effects in Adulthood
  • Measurement and Methodological Issues
  • Evidence-Based Treatment for Polyvictimized Children and Adults

Criminology Polyvictimization
Julian D. Ford
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0223


Victimization is the experience of being directly or indirectly harmed or deprived of protection from harm by the actions of other persons. Several types of victimization have been distinguished in psychological and criminological studies, including: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, physical assault, sexual assault, domestic or intimate partner violence, stalking, community violence, bullying, kidnapping, human trafficking, torture, war violence, genocide or ethnic cleansing, hate crimes or identity-based violence, property crimes, robbery. David Finkelhor’s research group originated the term, “polyvictimization” to refer to exposure to multiple (“poly”) types of victimization. A sub-group of polyvictims has been identified consistently in research conducted with community, school, psychiatric, child welfare, and juvenile justice samples of children and adolescents in numerous countries internationally. A subgroup of adults who were polyvictimized in childhood also has been identified consistently in research with college, community, psychiatric, and incarcerated samples in the United States. Polyvictims are exposed to adversity and violence, which is inflicted intentionally or as a result of neglect by a variety of perpetrators at multiple time points and in multiple contexts during formative developmental periods, including sexual, physical, and emotional maltreatment by caregivers or other adults; physical or sexual assault or bullying by peers or older youths; and witnessing violent and traumatic incidents in the home, school, and community. Polyvictims tend to have insufficient protection and limited social support to buffer the adverse effects of other forms of traumatic stressors such as severe accidents, illnesses, disasters, and loss of loved ones. Polyvictimization is associated with severe emotional, behavioral, and interpersonal problems across the lifespan, typically with a greater adverse impact than even the most traumatic individual types of victimization (e.g., sexual abuse or assault; catastrophic family or community violence). Therapeutic interventions for complex posttraumatic emotional and behavioral problems have shown promise in systematic empirical studies of the treatment of child/youth and adult polyvictims.

Epidemiology of Victimization

The epidemiology of victimization is based on data from governmental statistics (such as the US Bureau of Justice Statistics) and research surveys of representative community samples such as the European Union International Crime Victims Survey. These sources provide estimates of the prevalence (i.e., the overall extent of occurrence) and incidence (i.e., the frequency of occurrence within a specific period) of multiple types of victimization. Epidemiologic data thus provides a picture of trends in the occurrence of victimization over time in different populations, as well as descriptions of how different types of victimization co-occur (i.e., polyvictimization). The next two subsections provide an overview of epidemiological findings on victimization in the United States and internationally.

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