There is a common belief in our society that all child sex offenders are paedophiles.
But is that really the case?
Child sexual abuse is a serious problem in Australia (2), with well documented serious consequences for victims.
Not surprisingly, child sexual abuse is a very emotive issue for the Australian public. Misconceptions are fuelled by the media with a view to demonising the perpetrators and selling more copy. These misconceptions can lead to poor policy making, and result in the general public having a misguided understanding of where the risks to their children lay.
Misconceptions about Child Sex Offenders
The “Stranger Danger” campaign which came to the fore in the 70’s and 80’s is a classic example of this. The campaign perpetuated the myth that children are more likely to be offended against by a stranger; when in fact statistics (2) show us that over 90% of victims of child sexual abuse reported being abused by either a relative, a family friend, an acquaintance or the father or stepfather. The Stranger Danger campaign no doubt confused children, and parents, possibly distracting them from the real risks to their safety and what they should do in event they were offended against by someone they might know.
Often we hear in the media about the apprehension of paedophiles, or the capture of a paedophile ring. While these are definitely events that occur, it does not reflect the majority of the offending which is occurring in people’s homes, perpetuated by people they know.
To understand sexual offending, it is important to understand that not all child sex offenders meet the criteria for a diagnosis of paedophilia – and not all paedophiles have committed child sexual offences.
Definition of a Paedophile
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (1) uses the criteria below to diagnose paedophilia:
- Over a period of at least 6 months, [the person has had] recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviours involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (generally aged 13 years or younger);
- The person had acted on these sexual urges or the sexual urges or fantasies cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty; and
- The person is at least 16 years and at least 5 years older than the child or children in Criterion A.
This criteria can assist us in understanding that not all child sexual offenders can be characterised as paedophiles.
While some child sexual offenders are attracted to children, some may offend against both adults and children, and some may act more out of opportunity rather than an exclusive interest in children.
It should also be noted that the term,”paedophile”, relates to those that are interested in pre-pubescent children – so someone who offends against a child with a body type of an adolescent, approximately 13 years and older, would not meet the criteria for paedophilia.
It is also important to note that situational and environmental factors can increase opportunity and therefore play a large role in the commission of offending against children. Research by Smallbone and Wortley (3) found:
- a late onset of offending behaviour (37% were aged 31 to 40 years);
- a low incidence of chronic sexual offending;
- a high percentage of previous convictions (60%) for non-sexual offences;
- a low incidence of stranger abuse, 94% abused their own children or a known child;
- a low incidence of child pornography abuse;
- a low incidence of interest in other sexually deviant behaviour;
- a low incidence of networking among other offenders – 8% had talked to other offenders.
Based on these findings the authors challenged the view that “most sexual offenders are dedicated, serial offenders driven by irresistible sexual urges” (4) and suggested that the role of opportunity should be given increased attention and further explored.
In order to develop effective responses to offending, and prevent childhood sexual abuse in the future, it is important that an understanding of child sexual offenders is based on evidence.
Author: Shelley Jacks, B Psych (Hons).
Shelley Jacks is a registered psychologist who worked for many years treating all types of offending in Queensland prisons. She has treated the highest risk sexual and violent offenders in the state and believes strongly that change and rehabilitation are possible.
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- American Psychiatric Association (APA) 1994. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM IV. Arlington: American Psychiatric Association.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2005. Personal safety survey Australia. Cat. No. 4906.0 Canberra: ABS. http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@nsf/mf/4906.0/
- Smallbone S & Wortley R 2001. Child sexual abuse: Offender characteristics and modus operandi. Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice no. 193. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology. http://aic.gov.au/publications/current%20series/tandi/181-200/tandi193.aspx
- Wortley R & Smallbone S 2006. Applying situational principles to sexual offenses against children, in Wortly R & Smallbone S (eds), Situational prevention of child sexual abuse. Crime prevention Series 19. Monsey: Criminal Justice Press: 7-35