Why Adults Sexually Abuse Children

I get asked this question often – especially after someone finds out that I have worked in the forensics field for over 3 decades and that I have a Master’s degree in Forensic Psychology and Criminology. I ran across a graphic that led me to a site that contained this article… 

There are some general principles that therapists and researchers have learned by working with and studying adults who have engaged in such behaviors. The principles I am referring to serve to answer the question “why adults sexually use or abuse children”.

Some adults who sexually use or abuse children focus all their sexual energy on children.

Some who sexually use or abuse children maintain sexual relationships with age-appropriate partners, including at the same time they are using or abusing a child.

Many adults who sexually use or abuse children were, during their own childhoods, abused sexually, physically, and/or emotionally, as well as neglected physically and/or emotionally. In reaction to those experiences of abuse, neglect, betrayal and powerlessness, they may have attempted to find feelings of power and control over others – including sexual power over children.

Some people who sexually use or abuse children have high social status in a group – a star athlete, a musician, a boss or manager, a prominent member of a community, even an especially popular person – and become so confused (and “intoxicated”) by constant admiration or praise that they begin to think the rules are different for them.

For some adults who sexually use or abuse children, it’s a one-time behavior that happens during a particularly stressful time, like the loss of a marriage or job, bankruptcy, or the death of a spouse, close friend or family member. Others struggle over time to contain their sexual interest in children, mostly successfully, but with periodic failures. (Alcohol or drug use can diminish the ability to control such impulses, though those are not actual causes of the behavior.)

Sometimes an unexpected opportunity to be sexual with a child suddenly presents itself and a person (with the potential to engage in such behavior) acts spontaneously and impulsively. This is true for some adolescents, who are dealing with intense sexual desires which are not focused on children, but due to biological intensity, suddenly sexually misuse a younger or more vulnerable child.

Finally, and this is extremely important: none of these possible reasons (or any others) can excuse the sexual use or abuse of a child nor do they diminish the negative impacts that such an experience can have on the person who has been sexually used or abused.

The Other Person’s Experience and Understanding…

Are you considering talking with or “confronting” someone who has sexually abused or used you? If so, it is important to understand that their experiences and understandings of what happened – both then and now – are likely to be very different from yours. What may have been a high-impact and life-changing event for you may have been, for the other person, simply the gratification of a perceived “need” in the moment. In fact, they may not have even allowed themselves to believe, or even think about, whether they hurt you. Even an outright assault that was sadistic (which involves the perpetrator actually taking pleasure in causing you pain) had much more to do with something going on inside them than anything at all about you.

Again, while it may feel right to see them as “purely evil,” people who sexually harm children are more complex than that. Like all of us, they have different ‘parts’ of themselves that come out under different circumstances, and some of those ‘parts’ are capable of doing very harmful things. All of us sometimes think, “I can’t believe I did that,” – “I hate the part of me that does that,” – “I hate myself when I do that, but I just can’t help it sometimes.” It’s not so different for those who sexually use or abuse children though of course it’s more extreme and harmful. For example, they may be highly “compartmentalized” or “dissociated” with the part of them that wants to be sexual with children. Basically this part of them is split off from the positive parts they usually present to the world. Like living a secret life in which they turn off their “perp switch” thereby being able to maintain a successful career and even find happiness in some relationships.

Also those who commit harmful acts – including violent ones – still want to see themselves as good, or at least “justified” in doing what they did. In many cases, they see themselves as still basically “a good person” except for the “one bad thing” that leads them to harm others.

However, in some extreme cases, a person is confused enough to believe their harmful behaviors are somehow good. This is usually grounded in deeply disturbed and traumatic childhood relationships in which they came to believe that there are only these types of people – ”the weak and the strong,” “victims and perpetrators,” “those who take what they want and those who get taken.” From those experiences they may eventually come to see themselves as choosing the “goods” of strength, domination, and getting what they want over feeling any sense of “weak”. The feelings and hopes of the hurt little child are still inside of them but such vulnerability and their capacity for love have long been suppressed by others and by themselves as a “survival strategy” that ends up being harmful to themselves and others.

To overcome the normal external and internal barriers against sexual involvement with children, adults who sexually use or abuse children often develop elaborate “rationalizations” of their behavior. They may fiercely deny or blind themselves to the clear negative effects of the behavior. They may even genuinely convince themselves that their actions are lovingly welcomed by children and are therefore justified and acceptable.

In some cases, people who sexually use or abuse children feel genuine positive feelings toward the child. While believing they truly care for the child, their sexual fantasies, impulses and behaviors come from a different part of their being – a part that has little to do with the child or the child’s well-being, and everything to do with fulfilling their own compulsive “need.”

In some cases, the person is extremely immature, terrified of emotional or sexual intimacy with adults and has no idea how to achieve either. They may believe that children are not only safer but more emotionally and sexually “pure” and much less judgmental and accepting.

None of this means that such people do not know right from wrong. After the fact, if they can ever let go of their rationalizations and other defenses against recognizing the harm they’ve done, they can feel great remorse for their actions. For others, the defenses may become so hardened over time that they are unable to ever acknowledge the devastating truth.

Regardless of the reasons, every adult who sexually harms a child needs to be held fully accountable for the harm they caused. This is true not only for the sake of the child they’ve harmed (or the adult that child has become) but also for the protection of other future children he could potentially harm. Only when the perpetrator is punished or seeks help to truly overcome the potential to hurt another child, can children feel safe again. Besides “prison justice” for this type of crime is typically very heinous.

Finally, all single parents who are dating should be informed that many sexual predators and child rapists seek out girlfriends or partners with kids in the age range of their desires – it provides “easy access” and their “grooming” can be much more easily accomplished.