We think of sexual offenders as wolves waiting to pounce from the shadows, when in reality - it's more often the gentle shepherd that we need to focus on. Why is this? Why would seemingly good people sexually abuse children? Decades of research suggests it has less to do with sexually attraction, and much more to do with the psychological issues behind their motivation.
What are Pedophiles, Exactly?
There are also hebephiles - adults attracted to adolescents that have entered puberty - generally aged 11-14 years old.
A pedophile does not become a sexual offender until they act upon those sexual urges, by viewing child pornography, or sexually abusing children.
Since they have an innate sexual attraction to children, those that offend, will seek out children. Some may groom children over a period of time, and others may act impulsively and abuse a child briefly.
Other predators that prey on children may do so because of sadistic or sociopathic tendencies - they take pleasure in mentally and physically manipulating and abusing others.
So, How is A Situational Offender Different?
Possible Scenarios of Situational Offenders:
They can be family members, teachers, coaches, babysitters, and most juvenile offenders. Examples:
- A grandfather that never abused his own children, but sexually molested his grandchildren.
- A teacher that seduced a student from class.
- A boy that sexually abused his sisters and her friends during a playdate.
- A nanny that took photos of her sexually abusing a young child in her care and sent the photos to her boyfriend.
In these cases, the offenders did not 'seek out' an opportunity to abuse a child, but rather, found themselves in a situation that enabled them to abuse a child and took it. Sure - some predatory pedophiles may purposely seek such positions, but situational offenders do not. Grooming techniques may be used, but the basic foundation of trust - and most importantly, access, has already been established.
Why Do They Abuse?
The morally indiscriminate may physically abuse children as well as sexually or physically abuse other adults. It's not about sex as much as it is about control and desecration of another human.
The sexually indiscriminate may have an addiction to sex and be involved in other illegal sexual behaviors - prostitution, bestiality etc.
The inadequate offender may be considered a social outcast due to communication barriers or physical differences that make forming intimate relationships with their peers difficult.
Children are an easy target - easier to coerce, manipulate, control and silence. It is no coincidence that child abuse and animal abuse are connected. Those most vulnerable are at the greatest risk to be targeted by those that seek pleasure in abusing others.
Situational offenders often have sexual relationships with their peers, or they may struggle socially and fail to form intimate relationships with other adults.
- They may convince themselves that if the child is young enough that he/she won't understand or remember.
- That children are not 'people' and do not have the same rights as adults.
- That their children are their property.
- Abusing children not their own is 'less bad' than abusing their own biological children.
- That the relationship is loving - that they are filling an emotional need for the child.
- That the child wants and/or sought out the sexual abuse and had the developmental readiness to enter into such a relationship.
- That they are 'teaching' the child about sex.
- That if the child consents to the abuse, it isn't abuse.
- That they are not physically harming the child - so therefore, their behavior is not damaging the child.
- That the child deserves to be punished.
Aren't Most Adult Offenders Former Victims?
Evidence would also suggest that female perpetrators are less "predatory" and lean more toward being "opportunistic" offenders.
Practical Aspects of Rape Investigation, offered the following types of female perpetrators:
- Facilitators women who intentionally aid men in gaining access to children for sexual purposes
- Reluctant partners women in long term relationships who go along with sexual exploitation of a minor out of fear of being abandoned
- Initiating partner women who want to sexually offend against a child, they may do it themselves or get a man or another woman to do it while they watch
- Seducers and Lovers women who direct their sexual interest against adolescents and develop an intense attachment
- Pedophiles women who desire an exclusive and sustain sexual relationship with a child (a very rare occurrence)
- Psychotic women who suffer from a mental illness and who have inappropriate sexual contact with children as a result
Seven out of eight juvenile offenders are at least 12 years old, and 93% are boys. (Crimes Against Children Research Center, UNH, 2010)
What would bring a child to sexually abuse another child?
- Sexual curiosity and a lack of proper education and guidance of healthy sexual behaviors
- Acting out in response to physical abuse, neglect, or sexual abuse
- Sexual abuse as a form of bullying
- Sexual abuse as a prank or form of hazing
While recidivism rates are hard to determine due to the challenge that most abuse is not reported, there is evidence to suggest that juveniles respond more positively to treatment than adult offenders.
However, the prevalence of child-on-child sexual abuse is enough to warrant a nation-wide awareness effort for parents and caregivers to educate children on healthy sexual behaviors and remain vigilant for signs of abusive tendencies. Also, given that most children are exposed to pornography before they enter high school, and the growing evidence that such exposure can create dangerous attitudes regarding sex, the threat of sexual abuse by juveniles to increase, not decrease, is certainly arguable.
How Can We Stop Them?
1. When we say that raising awareness for child sexual abuse is part of the solution - we mean it. Offenders can be deterred when people are educated and talk about child sexual abuse openly. Silence truly does empower abuse because it allows those 'thinking errors' space to grow. If no one is talking about it - then it is more comfortable for potential offenders to think about it, and rationalize abuse.
2.Minimize opportunity - child care centers, youth serving organizations, and schools have a lot of work to do to make their environments safer for children. How they screen applications, train staff, and the policies and procedures they have to make sure conduct between staff and the children are appropriate and increase understanding of grooming behaviors and how to appropriately handle suspected or disclosed abuse. And, there is a lot we can do within our own homes, during playdates, family gatherings etc to keep our kids safe with those we trust the most.
3. Educate children. Children deserve to know their rights and have those rights upheld by the people who have the power to do so - adults. They need to be told no one - not their parents, not their babysitter, or even their doctor should be touching them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable - and especially in regard to their private parts. They need to know that it is never their fault and that it is never too late to tell. It should never be a child's responsibility to prevent abuse - rather, the focus should best be kept on telling someone when they have a concern. And, with so much abuse being perpetrated by other juveniles, all children need to be educated early and often on the concepts of consent, respect, and healthy body boundaries.
Think of prevention education like a security system - awareness is the lock on the door that deters the situational offenders. By working to minimize opportunity and be vigilant for red flag behavior of possible grooming situations - those are the motion detectors that sound off when there is dangerous movement. The educated child knows they can call for help when someone (most likely someone they know) - violates the rules of body safety. Educating children without working to educate the adults that surround our children is, in a way, like leaving the door wide open and leaving it up to our children to defend themselves.
Does this mean we trust no one with our children? No. It means we trust with knowledge and vigilance. Trust is not a gift - it is a continual function of healthy relationships. And when we trust - we verify that trust.
Now the only question is - if education is a major factor in preventing abuse, what will it take to break the taboo surrounding child sexual abuse that holds people back from even talking about it? Perhaps understanding what motivates abuse can help tear down the blinders so many eagerly wear and tighten to defend identified abusers.
Child Molestors: A Behavioral Analysis
Typologies of Child Sexual Abusers
Psychology Today - Thinking Errors