What does a person who sexually abuses children look like? We hear all the time, “I could tell if he was a child molester.” The reality is that you can’t.
Most child molesters aren’t creepy men in vans. They aren’t hardened criminals. They aren’t from one race, gender, or sexual orientation.
Those who sexually abuse children look and act just like everyone else. The chances are that you have met an offender and never even realized it. They often seek out “safe” neighborhoods, churches, schools, and youth sports leagues – any place that gives them easy access to children.
Molesters aren’t usually strangers. Only 10 percent of those who sexually abuse children are strangers. A staggering 60 percent of abusers are known to the child or the family, while 30 percent are actually family members. Significantly, nearly 40 percent of abusers are children themselves, as we learned recently with Josh Duggar.
Most disturbing, the very qualities that we admire in a person – a passion for nurturing children, for enriching their lives – are qualities that are common in those who abuse children.
When high profile abuse cases fill the headlines, we experience shock and horror. By many accounts, Josh Duggar was a model of morality and family values. As part of a highly popular reality television series, the nation watched him marry, have children, and celebrate parental milestones. Before the news broke regarding his molestation of other children as an adolescent, he seemed to be well on his way to establishing a new branch of the picture perfect family.
Today, further details were released in the Dennis Hastert child sexual abuse scandal. Before these allegations, many would agree that Hastert lived a life of honor and service. He spent 16 years as a dedicated teacher and coach, followed by a long and successful career as a politician. Married for over 40 years, Hastert is a family man with children and grandchildren. Whether he is found guilty or innocent, these cases show us that with child sexual abuse, there is no “typical” perpetrator.
Some ask, “Why did the victims keep the abuse a secret – why didn’t they come forward?” The fact is that only 30 percent of victims disclose sexual abuse to friends, family, or the authorities within a year, and many never tell. The reasons are numerous. Fear, shame, and even love for the perpetrator can keep victims from disclosing. Often, children are conditioned to believe the abuse is their fault. In many cases, they’re afraid they will not be believed and yet only four to eight percent of disclosures are fabricated.
The reality is that many victims who speak out about child sexual abuse face disbelief, and in some cases are even shamed for their disclosure. We see this reflected in high profile cases where despite convictions, a portion of the population supports the abuser and blames the victim. In the case of Hastert, many assumed that he was being extorted by the alleged victim until the news was released that there may be multiple potential victims, one of whom is deceased and apparently never publicly disclosed or sought reparation. Victim shaming on this scale makes it even harder for those who experienced child sexual abuse to talk about it.
For those who suffer in silence, the consequences of child sexual abuse are tragic. Victims are twice as likely to suffer from PTSD, depression, and anxiety. As adults, they are also twice as likely to smoke, engage in substance abuse, and be severely obese. Adult survivors of child sexual abuse are 30 percent more likely to develop serious conditions like cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and heart problems. The list goes on and on.
In the midst of this negativity, there is hope. When news headlines hit us with the hard truth that people we consider to represent the best in society are capable of sexually abusing children – that there is no perfect portrait of a perpetrator – it is scary. The good news is that child sexual abuse can be prevented, stopped, and overcome. We can prevent and intervene to protect children. Parents can take action that reduces risk, and professionals can learn how to recognize and report in a way that produces the best possible outcome for an abused child.
At some point in time, the attention surrounding these two cases will wane. Media tends to focus on shock without moving the conversation to prevention. Another news story will emerge and we will move on and forget – until the next headline that a celebrity, church official, political figure, or community leader has sexually abused children. How many need to occur before we realize the larger message?
As parents, educators, youth workers, and responsible adults, we have the opportunity to use these events as an incentive to educate ourselves on this issue and learn how to protect our children and our communities.
Learn the steps you can take to prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse: www.D2L.org/5Steps.
6 responses to “Portrait of a Perpetrator”
I agree that we should use these disclosures to launch, or further the conversation about child sexual abuse. The sad fact is that in the Duggar’s (and my) home state of Arkansas, there are cities where FBI statistics show that incest is more than 30 times the national average. In spite of that, there are only 2 Survivors of Incest Anon groups in the state and less than 100 Stewards of Light.
I would love to see the Duggar family use their national platform not for damage control, but for furthering the conversation about incest and abuse recovery.
Cindy, we totally agree, and think that should include TLC and all networks covering the issue. We need to start continuing the conversation beyond the story itself to how we can prevent and respond to child sexual abuse. Otherwise, it winds up being just another shocking headline.
Bravo!!! I wish there had been more open communication in my childhood about things like this. I was 30+ and facing the facts of my daughter being molested before it all came out. Prevention and open communication are the key to putting a stop to this.
I’m afraid I disagree that sexual abuse of children is not a gendered problem. The vast majority of offenders are male. Male media such as porn promotes sexual abuse of female family members and females at large. If you look at the home page of the most popular porn site in the world, you will see storylines and reportage purporting to show sons raping mothers, brothers having sex with sisters, fathers/daughters and amateur footage of boys having sex with girls where they boast that the girl isnt aware that a porn movie is being made of her. To state that sexual abuse is not a gendered issue is disingenuous at best. Male media uses hate speech about women and children as the norm – dehumanising phrases such as wh*re, b*tch, sl*t and similar are used to debase the human rights of the majority of females and children in order to ensure that male violence against them is blamed on the victim, not the perpetrator of the violence.
We understand what you are saying and agree that popular culture can create dangerous stereotypes about what is normal and acceptable. That said, over 90% of child sexual abuse is by someone the child knows and trusts, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of and safeguard against offenders who are strangers. By presenting child sexual abusers solely as male, we ignore the fact that females abuse and perpetuate the stereotype that children can’t be raped by females. Our Stewards of Children child sexual abuse prevention training features a survivor of sexual abuse by a female: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fr2OJ4BEPo8. We cannot discredit the stories and experiences of these survivors by labeling child sexual abuse as only an issue with the male gender – we believe this would be disingenuous.
Keeping it in the shadows is what allows it to continue, unchecked. It makes all of us at D2L hopeful to see the increased public response on the issue, and we hope that it will continue to shift to prevention. It sounds like your daughter had a great advocate in you, and that’s a big advantage in itself.