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Why Do Some People
Sexually Abuse Children?

Understanding this issue is a good start for recognizing and preventing child sexual abuse. Sexual abuse can be triggered by several factors, and every offender has a unique mixture of factors that cause the abuse. But there are a few things that seem to be common to most, if not all child abusers.


On the most basic level, everything people think, feel, want, and do comes from their biological, psychological, and environmental (sociological) makeup.  That means that part of what makes us who we are is the way our bodies and brains have evolved, our thought processes contribute to who we are, and the environment that we grew up in also contributes to who we become.  There isn't one of these factors that determines who you are without the other two.


Becoming You


Children are influenced by these three elements at every stage of development.  In the first five years of life, we develop our sense of self and our sense of security in the world.  We might develop an unhealthy sense of self if our parents aren't "safe people" for us.  This will affect the way we interact with the world around us, and the way the world interacts with us.  This is the environmental (sociological) impact that affects everyone in childhood.


You could also be born with a genetic condition that affects the way your brain develops.  We've also seen with Aaron Hernandez, the infamous football player turned murderer, that repeated head injuries can negatively affect our brain functions, which can also affect our self-control and our decision-making abilities.  This is a representation of the biological part of how we become who we are.


Our worldview and personality can also affect how we view things every day.  This outlook can create beliefs that are reinforced by positive or negative experiences. We may become so biased or distorted when those beliefs are enforced to a point that we can't have what most people would consider "normal" human interactions.  The way we become who we are, has a lot to do with our psychological makeup.


Sexual Development


When we're growing up and around puberty, we'll learn what sex means to us, how we identify, and what our sexual orientation is, and our biology, psychology and environment all play a role in that development. 


Based on our genetic make-up, we could be predisposed to a certain gender identity or sexual orientation. Physical characteristics (like damage to the brain parts responsible for impulse control) can cause sexual behaviors to come out that wouldn't have under normal circumstances.


Psychologically, we can shape the way we interact with others sexually based on our beliefs and how we interpret our experiences. That will affect the way we feel sexual pleasure or discomfort.  When someone has been a victim of abuse or assault in the past, they may have flashbacks or triggers that make them feel very uncomfortable and anxious. Due to that experience, they may avoid having that type of sexual contact, or any type of sexual contact in the future, and may start to shape their lives and interactions with other people around avoiding similar situations.  Their interpersonal and romantic relationships may suffer because of this.


We may have been exposed to certain environments and experiences in our developmental years that shaped our understanding of the world, and those experiences may continue to shape the way we interact with it, even if we're not aware of it.  For instance, a boy might have a single-mother parent.  His mom may be verbally or psychologically abusive to him as a child and treat him like he's not good, worthy, or loved.  He might grow up seeing his mother in high heels and very revealing clothes as she goes out on dates with strange men.  As an adult, that boy might have a difficult relationships with women because of it, but he might also have an unhealthy fetish or obsession with feet and high heels.  He may or may not know why he's so obsessed with those shoes. In addition, he might work in an environment where women get a lot of attention from men and wear high heels.  A transvestitism fetish can also develop because he is seeking the same type of attention and affection in the process.




In some cases, sexual attraction may be a motivating factor when someone sexually abuses a child, but in most cases, that's not the case.  In many cases, older male sexual offenders can't even get or maintain an erection, but they'll still abuse kids.  In this case, the person has developed an unhealthy emotional attachment to sex, and the way they achieve emotional and psychological fulfillment comes from sex.  Adults who abuse children don't prefer to have sex with children (preferential child sexual abusers), in fact, most child sexual abusers are usually attracted to other adults, but they'll substitute a child for their adult partner when the opportunity arises (situational child sexual abusers).


Adults sexually abuse children for several reasons, including their sexual needs, which are driven by psychological and emotional needs for affection and attention. Some people, however, get their sexual fulfillment from experiences they feel give them a sense of "power" and "control".  Many of these people are situational sexual offenders. Law enforcement usually encounters these people during "routine" domestic violence calls, where one partner is exerting control and physical violence over the other. However, many police officers haven't been trained to ask victims of domestic violence whether they were also sexually abused by the same person. Around 76% of the time, victims of family violence are also victims of sexual assault by the same abuser.  Children in those environments also have a higher risk of being sexually abused by the same offender.


It doesn't matter whether the abuse is motivated by attention or affection or power or control, sexual offenders have trouble controlling their emotions and behavior.  As a result, they find themselves in positions where they're far too capable of bypassing their self-control and they get caught up in behaviors that are sexually stimulating due to their perversity, deviancy, or criminal natures. Their lives are then turned upside down because of those obsessions and behaviors.  After they commit their first criminal sexual act, they will start to obsessively think about their behaviors in one of two ways.


Obsessions will give way to feelings of immense shame and guilt over engaging in sexual contact with a child. The offender will engage in cognitive distortions during this phase and will minimize or rationalize their own behaviors because they can't accept that they are a "bad person".  Or the offender, if their psychological and biological make-up supports it, won't feel any shame, guilt, or remorse.  Instead, they give in to further deviant fantasies because they're incapable of empathizing with the child (or anyone else) and they're only concerned about their own desires, pleasures, and contentment. These offenders, while less prevalent, are also the most dangerous because they likely have "antisocial personality disorder", "deep narcissism" and maybe "sociopathy" or "psychopathy".


Catalysts for Child Sexual Abuse


According to psychologists, a surprising number of men (as many as 5-6%) have had thoughts of child sexual abuse.  This doesn't mean all those people act out sexually with kids.  Most people who experience those "intrusive" thoughts have encountered some life experience that caused them to fixate on or think about child sexual abuse topics too often. They might have been sexually abused as a child, or they might have known someone who was.  For that reason, they may try to understand "why someone would do that" which causes them to experience a form of vicarious or secondary trauma that fuels those "intrusive" thoughts. These people aren't likely to become abusers themselves since they have significant barriers and inhibitions that stop them from acting out sexually with children. Unfortunately, some do act out sexually with kids.


On the other hand, there are some people who "normally" wouldn't engage in sexual behavior with a child, for various reasons (fear of getting caught and going to jail, for instance), but every now and then, they "crack" because of stressful life events. They'll have their first child sexual abuse incident in a moment of weakness.  Once they start abusing, they will start obsessively thinking about it (typically with shame, guilt, or remorse) and they will start making cognitive distortions, rationalizations, and minimizations to feel like they aren't evil.  In later incidents of sexual abuse, these people will probably believe that they weren't hurting the child, or that the child wanted the sexual contact, or there is some other reason why their behaviors aren't "that bad".  These are often our “situational” or "opportunistic" sexual abusers, and they're the most common type of child molesters we encounter. They'll likely keep on sexually abusing kids throughout their lives.


There's also a group of offenders who obsess over children as sexual objects.  They don't even consider what sexual abuse can do to a child. They're worried about being caught, but only because catching them would make it tougher for them to keep abusing children. They have preferences for certain qualities that they find most attractive in children. These offenders are true predators and will never stop preying on kids. It's estimated that these offenders sexually abuse about 200 kids before they're caught the first time, and about 400 kids over the course of their lives.


Certainly, the biological, psychological, and the environmental history of a person plays a role in these issues, but current environments and relationships do also.  An abuser who ends up working for a school district, for example, will have constant access to children and be surrounded by them all the time, which will feed his fantasies. Oftentimes offenders, who may have already sexually abuse a child, may seek out employment or environments that are “target rich” that allow them easy access to children. There are also cases where people who do not have a history of child sexual abuse might take a job at a place where they have easy access to children, and the job and environment itself becomes a catalyst or "fuel" for their thoughts and fantasies that eventually lead to them sexually abusing a child.


In addition, some relationships can lead to sexual abuse.  A situational offender might have a 12-year-old niece who is dealing with tough times with her parents and at school. The situational offender may be asked by his brother (the child's father) to help guide and look out for the child.  It's possible for the situational offender to get too emotionally attached to the child during their interactions and then confuse that emotional connection with a sexual desire in the child, and then use "grooming" behaviors thinking that the child is a willing participant in this "forbidden love" that they share. In this way, the relationship created a driving force in the offender's life that eventually led to child sexual abuse.


These situations can happen in lots of different ways, and there are lots of situations that lead to sexual abuse.  These examples are meant as an educational tool to help parents and professionals recognize abuse, intervene in incidents of abuse, and prevent abuse before it happens.

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