Understanding motivations

This module aims to help you explore and gain understanding of the following:

  • Your current problematic sexual behaviours
  • Your motivations for engaging in these problematic sexual behaviours
  • Patterns and trends within your current behaviour which help to maintain such problematic sexual behaviours
  • The process of offending

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Sexual behaviour is influenced by your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, values and experiences; however, it is not beyond your control. Even if you experience sexual feelings prompted by an unanticipated trigger (e.g. someone passing you on the street), the behaviour, which follows, is a choice and one within your control.

For example:

  • Fantasising
  • Masturbating
  • Accessing sexual content
  • Sexually touching another person.

The majority of people who engage in sexually harmful behaviour have a cycle or pattern of behaviour which is repeated, despite internal promises to never do it again. Therefore, while it remains a choice, the behaviour can become habitual and seem almost automatic. This can be seen in other patterns of potentially harmful behaviour, such as speeding when driving or chronic overeating.

The list below offers some common motivations we hear from people who have masturbated to sexual thoughts of children:

  • Boredom
  • Low self-esteem
  • Stress
  • Desensitised to adult sexual fantasies and/or pornography depicting adults
  • Sexual gratification
  • Loneliness
  • No sex life / decreased sex life
  • Sexual attraction to children
  • Comfort
  • Buzz of the ‘taboo’
  • Relationship problems
  • Sexual addiction or preoccupation

To understand your motivation(s) it is important to learn as much about yourself and your behaviours as possible. As a starting point, consider which of these might apply in your case and whether these may have changed over time. This may then help you to complete the following two exercises.


Making your timeline

In order to understand where your problematic sexual behaviours began, it is helpful to identify what was happening in your life at that time. This exercise gets you to look back over your life and reflect upon how your sexual thoughts of children began and developed over time.

In each box write a brief description of a key event in your life, marking a progression in your sexual thoughts and behaviour, eventually leading to your recognition that this was a problem. Have a look at the example below to help you get started. We recommend completing your timeline in the following order:

  1. Your current situation (at the far right)
  2. The first time that you were aware of having sexual thoughts of children (be sure to highlight this point on the timeline)
  3. Your first memory of being sexually aroused, be it with pornography or another stimuli (will likely be near the far left)
  4. In between each of the above, identify other significant key events that you believe can be seen as ‘signposts’ in your life for where you broke down a barrier (in your head or in your actions) and progressed to more problematic sexual behaviour. Remember that this is your timeline – if you feel that you need more boxes to tell your story, feel free to add more.

Click here for the blank, editable, pdf template.


Digging Deeper

To further explore and reflect on your timeline, think about how each point on your timeline made you feel. In particular, think about how you felt…

1) during the lead up to each point

2) going through each point

3) after each point

Why were you feeling these ways?


Some people find labelling their feelings very difficult. If you are finding this exercise difficult, take a look at the feelings below and see if any of these resonate with you:

Happy, Sad, Angry, Hurt, Depressed, Frustrated, Impulsive, Stressed, Relaxed, Excited, Bored, Curious, Rejected, Doubtful, Interested, Lonely, Irritated, Ashamed, Upset, Annoyed, Miserable, Guilty, In despair, Uneasy, Useless, Vulnerable, Afraid, Nervous, Timid, Indifferent, Restless, Alienated, Nonchalant, Dull, Anxious, Confident


Although sexual behaviour can be influenced by numerous factors, it is not outside of your control. Sexual offending is not something that just happens on the spur of moment and often appears as a cycle or pattern that can become automatic and can occur repeatedly becoming somewhat part of a routine.

Understanding thoughts

Thoughts are all mental activity including ideas, opinions, beliefs, values, judgements and impressions. Thoughts are the voice in our head which governs what we do. We are not always aware of our thoughts but they are always there.

Thoughts can be automatic, fleeting or more prolonged. Thought processes provide us with the capacity to reason, use logic, common sense and put ideas together. Your mind is seldom empty of thoughts-even when you are asleep your mind is active.

What is sexual fantasy?

Do you ever think about winning the lottery? How would you spend the money? Where would you go? This is one example of a fantasy. A fantasy is something that is imagined. It can be sexual or non-sexual, so a sexual fantasy is something sexual that is imagined.

In a sexual fantasy your role may be as the person leading the sexual activity, as an equal participant in the act, as a person who is led or controlled by others, or as even a bystander watching what is happening in the fantasy.

What are feelings?

Feelings are emotions and moods that often occur after thoughts and are internal reactions to things going on around and within us. Thoughts and feelings are closely linked; either one may happen first closely followed by the other.

What is behaviour?

Behaviour is what you do; your actions as a result of what you think and feel.

Behaviour, thoughts and feelings are connected. Problematic behaviour is influenced by problematic thoughts and feelings, so in order to stop unhealthy behaviour it is important to be aware of the nature of the thoughts and feelings and to manage/change them.

Exercise: Thoughts and feelings links

  • Think of an example of a situation that does not relate to sexual offending behaviour, e.g. going to the office party or attending a job interview.
  • Identify some negative thoughts about the situation, e.g. ‘ I won’t know anyone there’ and ‘What’s the point? I am not going to get the job anyway’.
  • Then identify the types of feelings that are associated with these thoughts and how they will affect the way you behave in these situations.
  • Using the same examples apply positive thoughts and observe the differences in your feelings and behaviour.
  • Understanding how you perceive and respond to your thoughts and feelings and how this influences your behaviour is key to managing problematic behaviour. It is important to identify your thinking patterns including your thinking errors (see below).
  • Highlight which most apply to you and ask yourself how true they are. Challenge these errors and replace them with realistic thoughts. Reflect on how these thoughts influence your behaviour.

Learning how your feelings influence your behaviour; how your values and beliefs shape your behaviour; how what you believe about the world and your place within it influences how you act is vital as in order to change problematic unhealthy behaviour. You need to change the problematic thoughts and emotions which influence your actions.

Common thinking errors:

  • ‘All or nothing’ thinking – often termed ‘black and white thinking’
  • Over-generalising – overgeneralising from one specific experience/situation to expectations of future experiences
  • Shoulds/musts – Rigid expectations of what you or others should do, or of what should happen in life. This can include the things that you believe ‘must’ happen in order for you to be happy
  • Selective filtering – only paying attention to certain types of information (typically discounting positive information)
  • Jumping to conclusions
  • Catastrophizing – over-reacting to perceived negative events or setbacks


Finkelhor’s Model 

One model which demonstrates the link between thoughts, feelings and behaviour is that based on Finkelhor’s pre-conditions to sexual offending (Finkelhor D. (1984). Child Sexual Abuse; New Theory and Research). The four stages in this model are as follows:


A potential abuser needs to have some motivation to sexually abuse. This does not necessarily mean that they have a sexual preference for children, as motivation could include the meeting of emotional needs as well as sexual gratification. Also, a child may become the target when the potential abuser feels existing adult sources of sexual gratification are unavailable or unsatisfactory.

Overcoming internal inhibitors (or ‘Making it seem ok’)

Once motivated, the potential abuser has to overcome his or her internal inhibitions that may act against his motivation to sexually abuse. These inhibitions could include conscience and guilt, as well as fear of the consequences. Even someone with a very strong sexual interest in children can avoid offending if they are sufficiently inhibited by these factors. In fact, most people have some internal inhibitions against the sexual abuse of children. This second precondition aims to consider factors that account for how inhibitions are overcome. These include distorted thinking and excuses (e.g., “It’s only touching”, “I’m not hurting them”, “I’m showing love”, “No one will find out”).

Overcoming external inhibitors (or ‘Creating the opportunity’)

This considers the environment outside the abuser, and looks at the external obstacles that must be overcome before the abuse can take place. External inhibitors that may restrain the abuser’s action could include: other family members and the level of supervision the child receives from carers, as well as how much contact with the child it is possible for the abuser to have as a result of their circumstances and opportunity. External inhibitors are easily overcome if the potential abuser is left alone with an unsupervised child, but if the abuser is not closely related to the child there may be fewer opportunities for abuse to take place.

Overcoming victim resistance

Finally, the potential abuser has to overcome the child’s possible resistance to being sexually abused. This does not necessarily have to involve force. Abusers may deliberately target children who can be manipulated or be persuaded to keep a secret, avoiding those children who might resist or tell.

The four pre-conditions for sexual abuse are considered to operate in the above sequence. So, firstly the abuser must have the motivation and be able to overcome any internal inhibitions. Then, when these have been overcome the potential abuser will need to overcome external inhibitors and finally the resistance of the child.

In essence this model allows for exploration of the process through which a person moves from thinking about committing a sexual offence to acting on those thoughts.


In addressing problematic sexual thoughts about children, it is vital to focus on understanding and maintaining your internal inhibitors as, even if you feel your sexual thoughts are unchangeable, strengthening these inhibitions will represent a significant protective factor. It is therefore important to have an awareness of how thinking can become distorted in ways which reduce inhibitions. The next section considers this process.


Cognitive distortions are thinking errors which we use to minimise, justify and excuse behaviours. They can act as permission givers which can overcome our internal inhibitors e.g. conscience, moral compass. They can be referred to as mixed up or ‘wonky thinking.’

(1) Consider a common example which does not relate to sexual offending, namely speeding while driving a car. Here are some common examples of cognitive distortions:

  • I know it’s a 50mph limit but I’m a good driver
  • Most serious accidents don’t happen on roads like this
  • No one will get hurt
  • Hardly anyone sticks to the limit
  • The law is wrong
  • I need to drive fast – I’ve got to get there on time
  • There’s no speed cameras – I won’t get caught

(2) Now consider the sorts of cognitive distortions someone might use in the case of having sexual fantasies about children.

  • It’s just a fantasy, no one is getting hurt
  • No one will know
  • It’s okay to think about it, as I know I won’t do it in real life
  • It’s not a real child, just a fantasy child

Exercise: Cognitive distortions

Make a list of your own cognitive distortions about sexual thoughts of children, and include any cognitive distortions related to your behaviour if you have ever acted on these thoughts (i.e. when you masturbated to them). When have you tried to make your ‘wonky thinking’ seem okay? How could you challenge these ‘wonky thoughts’?


A ‘cycle’ consists of a pattern of behaviour where the end leads you back to the beginning and the whole pattern repeats itself over and over again.

Here is an example of a ‘cycle of sexual offending’ model:

If you have offended, understanding the links and the steps that you took makes it possible to identify positive ways of intervening and stopping the cycle. If you have not yet offended, the cycle highlights the steps in the process which would indicate you were at an increased risk of moving from abusive thoughts to abusive behaviour.

Offence cycles comprise a number of stages:

  • The build-up stage involves the thoughts, feelings, situations and triggers which start the cycle. It also includes precursors such as lifestyle problems or events or pre-existing behaviour/ habits e.g. accessing adult pornography, substance misuse and relationship difficulties.
  • The acting-out stage is when the offence/problematic behaviour occurs.
  • Next are the justification and covering up stages which comprise of what happens afterwards, including feelings of guilt, shame and self-loathing, promises to not engage in the behaviour again and attempts to hide the behaviour.

Cognitive distortions (as described on the previous page) are influential in reinforcing the cycle as they usually serve to minimise and justify the behaviour before, during and after it has occurred.

Exercise: The offence cycle and you

(1) Consider how the offence cycle relates to you, paying particular attention to the various stages. How far around the cycle have you gone? Where are you on the cycle now?

(2) Identify the thoughts, emotions, behaviours and thinking errors which triggered and comprised your offence cycle.

Remember, there are many opportunities to interrupt the cycle and it is never too late to stop yourself from offending. However, the closer you get to committing an offence the more difficult it is to stop the behaviour. Early intervention is therefore desirable.

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