As an attorney who has advocated on behalf of sexually abused children for decades, I am often asked by parents and others: how can I protect my child from being sexually abused. In response, I tell them the most important thing to understand is how the average child molester thinks and operates. When you have some basic knowledge of these perpetrators, you will be better able to protect your child.
First and foremost you have to drop the idea that the greatest danger of sexual molestation comes from strangers lurking outside of schools or in malls. That simply isn’t true. While some kids are victimized by complete strangers, they are infinitely more likely to be sexually abused by people known to them, people they look up to – people who are placed in positions of trust by the community. These adults are so woven into the fabric of the child’s daily life that they are often seen as incapable of harming the child. And unfortunately because of the inordinate media attention that has been paid to stranger related kidnapping and sexual assault cases over the last 30 or so years, the public has been falsely led to believe in stranger danger. Media attention in the last ten years focusing on the predatory behavior of teachers, coaches, boy scout leaders and the clergy has gone a long way to educating the public about the dangers posed by trusted adults – but it hasn’t gone far enough.
The other fact that parents and the public in general seem to have a difficult time wrapping their minds around is this: sexual abuse is only occasionally carried out by these trusted adults in a forceful, physically aggressive manner. The majority of child molesters never beat or uses other similar violence in molesting children. The goal of trusted adult molesters is to fly under the radar, to achieve their goals spinning their web with kindness and solicitude in such a way that the sexual abuse becomes a normal part of the child’s life.
The most common pattern is that this adult will use his or her position of authority and influence to first gain the child or teen’s trust, then slowly ease his or her way further into the child’s life by giving them money, presents s and most importantly showering them with attention. This process is called grooming and follows a very deliberate pattern. It is also common that child molesters will work their way into a potential child victim’s life by befriending the family. It may be difficult to understand but child molesters succeed in large part because they are simply very good at what they do. They spend their lives learning about kids – what they like to do, what they like to hear, etc. Child molesters are the real life pied pipers because they know exactly how to excite and cater to a vulnerable child. These molesters are also a patient bunch. They know it takes many months sometimes even a year to gain a child’s attention (and the parents’ trust), they have no problem showering the child with attention, meaningful pep talks and small gifts – and never once through the process, even touching the child. After the child becomes very comfortable with the molester, the physical touching commences. And when I use the phrase physical touching, I do not mean touching in any way that most children would recognize or understand as sexual touching or even inappropriate touching, despite the fact that the molester certainly processes his touching as a sexually gratifying event. This touching includes but is not limited to a tussle of the hair, a brief rubbing of the leg, or even a quick hug. And all through this phase the molester continues to keep the child drawn into him by complimenting her, buying her small gifts etc.
This is a critical phase because it is the time when the molester makes the calculated determination whether he can proceed to the next step of a more invasive sexualized touching like back rubs or brushing his hand – seemingly innocently – over the child’s genitals or breasts. Many children will shrink from such touching for a variety of reasons — they intuitively know it is wrong or have been told about good and bad touching by a parent or teacher. Molesters thrive on the compliance and the silence of their victims. If a child resists the molester’s touchings, he will likely move on – it is simply not worth it to him to go after non-compliant child. And because the typical child molester has contact with scores if not hundreds of children in his life, he becomes highly skilled at identifying the subtle signs of whether he can proceed to more invasive touching.
Coaches, priest and Boy Scout leaders who molest children all become very skilled in identifying vulnerable children – like those who are starved for affection or lack self-esteem. These children are perfect targets for the molester’s attention. As the touchings proceed to sexual acts, the adult further exploits the child’s trust by variously saying things like these are things friends do with each other or “what we do with each other when we are alone has to be kept as our secret.” Soon the sexual abuse becomes a normal routinized part of the child’s life. The molester now has what he wants.
Knowing who molests children and how to spot inappropriate behavior will go along way to protecting your child.