Probably the only generalisations that can be safely made about sex offenders are that they are almost always male – and they are almost always known to their victims (ABS, 1996, 2004a).
Statistics show that sex offenders are a varied group of people who are not easily identifiable.
- They come from all types of social, income, racial, ethnic and religious groups (James, 1996).
- Offenders can be:
- married or not;
- employed or unemployed;
- have children and partners or not.
This is not to say that all men are violent. In fact, most men are highly ethical in their behaviours toward women and children.
Unfortunately, there is a small group of men who use violence to hurt, humiliate and gain power and control.
Women can also be sexually violent, in fact, in 2% of sexual assaults the offender is a female.
While most victims of sexual assault are women and children, adult men also experience sexual violence. In about 7% of all sexual assault cases, victims are men, and generally they are assaulted by other men.
Perpetrators of child sexual assault will fall into one of two groups:
1 – Paedophiles
- Their sexual preference is for children.
- They may or may not be homosexual.
- They may prefer specific groups according to age, gender, ethnicity, body type etc.
2 – Child Sex Offenders
- They don’t have a sexual preference for children.
- They may or may not be homosexual.
- They have sex with adults, too (which may be consensual or not).
- Children provide easy, accessible targets.
- They say they do it because they want to and they can.
Perpetrators of child sexual assault select a victim based on:
- Access; and
There are a number of techniques that offenders use prior to the assault, as well as during and after the assault.
Many deliberately establish themselves as the kind of person you wouldn’t suspect to be a sex offender because they are “too nice” or a respected person in the community. They may be involved in a number of socially responsible activities such as youth groups, churches and schools, giving them access to potential victims without ever being suspected. This causes parents and others to drop their guards and to allow access to their children without suspecting anything. It is important to also note, that the majority of offenders are known to the family, and too often are family members.
The second tactic is the ability to charm. People are often shocked when the truth comes to light because the offender seemed so likeable and genuine.
Some offenders will attempt to establish peer relationships with people much younger than themselves, as they prefer the company of children to adults, rather than looking for age-appropriate relationships.
The offender may also establish a trusting relationship with the family and friends of a child, in order to have access to the child alone. When they have obtained the trust of the child and family it makes it much easier for the offender to sexually abuse the child. It is also important to remember that the offender often grooms the family in similar ways by buying gifts or helping out around the house as a way to gain trust from the family.
Sexual offenders typically plan their sexual abuse of children with care. They may gradually de-sensitise the child and violate their boundaries. For example, they may spend a lot of time with the child when he or she is bathing, dressing, or going to bed. They may kiss and hug the child a lot. There may be ‘accidental’ sexual touching, or sexual touching as a game. There may be talk about sex and sexual jokes as well as tickling, wrestling, or being rough towards the child as a sign of affection. If the abuse isn’t stopped, the behaviour progresses to increasingly intimate acts.
Conditioning the victim for abuse (or grooming) may include any of the following:
- Establishing trust;
- De-sensitising – violating boundaries gradually;
- Sexualising environment;
- Alcohol or other drugs;
- Entangling child in wrongdoing (breaking rules and then agreeing to keep the activity a secret eg giving the child sweets before tea);
- Emotional blackmail;
- Creating secrets;
- Denigration (that is, unfairly criticising or putting a person down);
- Shifting blame (eg, sets victim up as a liar/trouble-maker);
- Extortion, threats and violence;
- Subverting relationships (that is, undermining the power/authority of an established relationship such as with parents);
- Ensuring position of control and influence;
- Promoting positive image of self and negative image of partner/child.
Grooming behaviours will depend on the relationship the offender has with those they are planning to assault.
The offender may establish trust by spending time with the child, listening to them, treating the child as ‘special’, giving them presents and compliments and gradually increasing their invasion of the child’s personal space. If targetting an adult, it may be offering assistance and friendship.
Grooming behaviours are rarely unusual behaviours. They are generally everyday activities that are a common part of a co-operative family or community. Sex offenders use these ordinary everyday behaviours to gain access to their intended victim and commit their act without interruption or witnesses.
Some offenders will seek to establish a trusting relationship with family or friends, so that if the victim tries to say what happened, many will find the report hard to believe.
Offenders work hard to be seen as the ideal father/step-father, uncle, grandfather, brother or a trusted family friend who is wonderful with children.
Through grooming, the offender engages their intended victim in behaviours which they may later use to make their victims feel responsible for the attack. This may also stop them from reporting the violence they have experienced.
The child is taught – by threats, manipulation, blackmail, bribes and punishments – to keep the abuse a secret. The offender assures the child that what is happening is ‘right’, and convinces them that if they tell about the sexual abuse, something terrible will happen – for example, the family will fall apart, threaten to hurt the child’s family or pets, tell the child that their parents won’t believe them, or that the offender may go to prison.
At the same time, the offender gives the child the impression that they have consented and that they are in a ‘relationship’ with the offender, or even that they initiated the relationship. In this way, offenders shift the blame from themselves and onto the child. The child may then feel responsible for the abuse and feel too ashamed or scared to tell anyone.
As a result, the child experiences feelings of:
It is also important to note that these tactics, that have been put in place by the offenders, are so strong that children are often unaware that sexual abuse is not happening to all children. Many children can go years before understanding that what is/has been happening, is NOT okay. However they will likely show signs that something is not right in their life.
Disclosures may not happen until a child learns about sexual behaviours in health education classes at school, watching television shows or movies that show someone’s experience of sexual assault, or if a friend or relative discloses.
The sexual abuse of children is just one part of a system of trickery and abuse created to maintain secrecy, isolation and the offender’s absolute power over the child and all others in the child’s life.
The offender sets up a web-like structure of traps, lies and distortions to isolate the victim and recreate the child as problematic in the eyes of siblings, parents, friends, family and neighbours. In particular, offenders admit that their prime target is to destroy the child’s relationship of trust with their mother (Morris, 2003).
If you, or somebody close to you, is suffering from the impacts of childhood sexual assault, I encourage you to seek out counselling from an experience professional who works in a person-centred, trauma-informed way.
Author: Merryl Gee, BSocWk, AMHSW, MAASW, MACSW, MANZMHA, MPACFA.
Merryl Gee is a psychotherapist working from a strengths-based, person-centred framework. With over 30 years’ experience, she has a particular interest people who have experienced trauma such as sexual assault or childhood sexual abuse.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychotherapist Merryl Gee try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422 .