How do people commit a sexual offence against children?

Is a sexual interest in children a new phenomenon or has it just been hidden from view until recent years? There has been a consider amount of media attention on the issue of sexual interest in children and sexual offending in recent times; however the issue of sexual interest in children is not a new phenomenon.

The process of offending

Many people who sexually offend say the offences “just happened” or “it was a one off”. The truth is sexual offences rarely ‘just happen’. No-one does anything without wanting to do it and thinking about it first (although some people do spend longer thinking things through). In 1984, psychologist David Finklehor developed a model (called the Preconditions model), which breaks down the process someone goes through in order to commit a sexual offence. This model can be used to help professionals, family members, young people and offenders tp understand the process of sexual abuse, and what they can do to prevent it/reduce the harm caused by it. Finkelhor argues that four preconditions must be present in order for a sexual offence to occur. The model is based on a cognitive behavioural approach; examining the link between thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

Step 1: Motivation

There are many more reasons why people may sexually offend against a child more than the ‘obvious’ one of sexual interest, some of which include:

  • Feeling rejected
  • Feeling abandoned
  • Sexual gratification
  • Sex addiction
  • Substance abuse
  • Own experiences of abuse
  • Inability to relate to people/relationship problems
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Loneliness
  • Decreased or no sex life
  • Excitement
  • Comfort
  • Stress

Some people who sexually offend, or have sexual thoughts about children, state that they are mainly sexually attracted to adults. Others say that they are attracted to both adults and children; while others acknowledge that they are exclusively sexually attracted to younger, pre-pubescent children. They have no sexual interest in adults at all and may never have had an adult sexual relationship.

It is often a combination of factors.

To sum up: people’s sexual interests vary, and so do their motivations for sexually offending.

Step 2: Overcoming internal inhibitors (justifying offending and making excuses)

Most people who commit sexual offences know that sex offending is harmful or wrong in some way.

To commit a sexual offence, the offender must ‘silence’ the thoughts pulling them away from offending. This part of the process is referred to as overcoming internal inhibitors (or conscience). Here are some examples of things people say to convince themselves their behaviour is not ‘that bad’:

  • ‘children enjoy sex’
  • ‘s/he wants it to happen’
  • ‘children are not harmed by sexual contact’
  • ‘the age of consent is wrong’
  • ‘other people do it, so it can’t be that bad’ (normalisation).

Step 3: Overcoming external constraints

The third stage requires creating the opportunity to commit the offence. The offender has to create the opportunity by making sure that his partner, parents or other family members and friends do not know what he is doing and that he is able to gain access to the child. Sexual abuse thrives on secrecy. David Finklehor calls this the removal of external constraints.

Step 4: Overcoming victim resistance

The final stage of the model involves making the child comply with the behaviour. This may involve the child victim being groomed in a variety of ways in order for the offence to be committed – they are not willing participants. This might involve a child being offered gifts or rewards for engaging in the behaviour, or being emotionally manipulated by being told that all children do it, or that this is how to show their love or care for the person committing the offence.

Extra considerations

For whatever reasons a person begins to engage in sexually inappropriate behaviour involving children, it has become clear that, for some, it can become difficult for them to manage their behaviour. Of all the kinds of behaviours that might cause distress to partners, family members and friends, the thought that someone they has engaged in sexually inappropriate behaviour involving children is one of the most upsetting. For this reason – and because of the fear of the consequences of others finding out – it is almost impossible for people to talk to anyone about it. Usually, the first time that anyone else becomes aware of the behaviour is when the police arrive on the doorstep.

What is important is that it is possible for individuals to manage their sexual thoughts and/or behaviours towards children. This means that the process of sexual offending as documented above is not a certain process.

  • Some individuals may have sexual thoughts about children, but can never justify the behaviour to themselves (overcome their conscience). However, they may be troubled or distressed by their thoughts, and want to be able to manage them.
  • Some individuals may wish to commit a sexual offence against a child, but the protective environment around the child is too great, or they/those close to them have put measures in place to prevent their behaviour, meaning that they cannot overcome the external constraints.

This means that the individual, and others around them, can help in preventing inappropriate sexual behaviour towards a child. This will be discussed further in the Help with inappropriate thoughts or behaviour section, but first we going to look at what makes it difficult for people to manage their sexual thoughts and/or behaviours, despite knowing it is wrong and, often, wanting to stop.

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