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Why do people sexually use or abuse children?

This question always involves strong feelings. Be sure to pace yourself.

No Simple Answer

We can’t simply answer this question for you. But we can offer, based on years of experience and study, some information and some thoughtful reflections on this sensitive issue.

Before we say more, we have a recommendation: As you read this page, allow yourself to be aware of any strong emotions that this question stirs up in you and, if the feelings get to be too much, take a break or do whatever else you might need to calm down.

This question always involves strong feelings, both in those who have been hurt by an unwanted or abusive sexual experience in childhood, and in people who care about them. It’s also normal for such strong feelings to influence our thought processes, and to prevent us from thinking clearly or even to prevent us from absorbing information.

And so, as with everything else you can explore on this website, it’s important to pace yourself, and to give yourself all the time you need, including to put this page and this issue aside for a while, if that makes sense.

As you read this page, allow yourself to be aware of any strong emotions.


Why Ask Why?

Let’s begin with some thoughts about why people, including you, might ask this important question, and what they might hope to gain from finding such understanding.

For most people, there are several reasons for seeking to understand why another person chose to sexually use or abuse them. These may include:

  • Fearing they somehow brought it on themselves, and hoping that understanding the other person will prove it wasn’t their fault.
  • Still loving the person who used or abused them, and hoping that understanding why they did it will bring healing to their relationship.
  • Hoping that understanding why the person who used or abused them will help them to prevent other children (perhaps their own), from ever being sexually abused.
  • Feeling that life is unfair, unjust, random and/or meaningless, and hoping that understanding how someone could sexually abuse a child will bring some order and meaning to life.
  • Focusing on the other person, including why they did it, can be a way of avoiding one’s own responsibility, as an adult, for dealing with harmful effects in one’s own life, including self-destructive and harmful behaviors. (We mention this possible reason with no criticism of those to whom it applies. It’s not uncommon, and totally understandable, among those still struggling with major negative effects.)

Importantly, people may not be fully aware of some reasons why they’re asking why the other person (or people) did this to them. They may not recognize some hopes they have for the benefits that such understanding could bring. That’s totally normal. Over time the full significance of this question in your life may become clearer – or completely change as other aspects of your life change.

Whatever your situation, interest in honestly exploring this difficult question is a sign of courage. At the same time, it’s worth remembering that strong feelings may come up, and that it’s a good idea to pace yourself and take care of yourself.

Interest in honestly exploring this difficult question is a sign of courage.


Wanting to Understand (or Not)

In discussions of this issue, strong divisions often arise between different people – even between people used or abused by the same person. One person may want to “forgive and forget,” another may be enraged and focused on seeking justice or revenge, and another may cycle (repeatedly) through a whole range of emotions, perceptions and motivations related to the person who abused them.

Such differences and divisions totally make sense, and are normal. There is no one perspective that is right for everyone all the time. Of course, that doesn’t make the different perspectives, needs and strong feelings easy to handle, especially when they’re among family members.

Whether someone is interested in trying to understand why the individual(s) who sexually used or abused them did so, and what kinds of understandings or perspectives come most easily to them, depends on several factors. Here are some very important ones:

  • Who was (and is) the person who used or abused you.
  • Whether he or she is still in your life.
  • The nature of his or her relationship with you, then and now.
  • How dependent you were on them, or continue to be.
  • How long you knew them.
  • How you felt about them before the sexual experiences happened.
  • How you felt about them after the sexual experiences (began).
  • How much you’ve suffered and lost as a consequence of what happened.

For example, if you didn’t know them, or always disliked or even hated them, you may have little stake or interest in understanding what could have led them to do what they did to you. You could probably care less what was going on inside them, or what their childhood was like.

On the other hand, if it was someone you looked up to – or even loved, especially if you still love them – the wish to understand why they hurt you may be much stronger. The answer to this question will feel very important.

Remember, what is true for you, in your situation, may be completely different from the experience of someone else, even someone who was used or abused by the same person.

What is true for you, in your situation, may be completely different from the experience of someone else.


Some Common Features

There is no simple reason for why someone misuses a position of power or influence to be sexual with a child. The answers are not only complex, but as different as the people and situations involved.

However, across every situation in which this happens, there are some common features:

  • A person with power or influence over a child develops a sexual interest in the child.
  • Whatever internal and external barriers or “stops” that would otherwise prevent them from betraying the child’s trust, are overcome.
  • The person acts on their sexual fantasies and impulses toward the child.


Understanding Is Not About Excuses or Forgiveness

It’s important to be very clear about what the effort to understand why is not.

Attempting to understand why someone behaved in a harmful way is absolutely not about making excuses for their behavior. Nor is it about denying or minimizing the negative effects of what happened on your life.

Understanding is very different from finding excuses. Excuses are reasons why the person is not responsible. Understanding can shed light on the conditions and circumstance that may have made someone more likely to want to be sexual with a child, and more likely to choose to act on his or her fantasies and impulses. But ultimately, the other person – at least if they were an older teenager or adult – did make choices (several choices over time, actually) which resulted in them giving in to desires, fantasies and impulses that they knew, at some level, were wrong and would be harmful to a child.

It is in everyone’s interest for those who sexually misuse children to be held accountable. That includes the interests of the person who uses or abuses a child. Only by taking genuine responsibility for their own actions, as well as responsibility for never doing it again, and by sincerely attempting to make amends (not necessarily directly with the child or adult the child has become, who may want nothing to do with them), can those who have sexually used or abused a child truly heal themselves.

Also, attempting to understand why is not about forgiveness, and helping someone attempt to understand why is not about encouraging forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift, both to oneself and the other person. It is only meaningful, and real, when given freely and willingly.

You may be ready now to forgive a particular person who has hurt you. Or you may not want to consider forgiveness until you’ve done a great deal of emotional work and soul-searching within yourself. Maybe you’ll never have any interest in even considering forgiveness. It’s completely up to you.

Whatever your situation and your path, please remember this: demands, threats, manipulation, trickery and guilt can never bring genuine forgiveness. In fact, when someone tries to manipulate or force you into forgiving them or someone else, they are mostly trying to help themselves – not you.

For example, the other person may be trying to relieve their own guilt, or to free themselves from uncomfortable questions your experiences and needs raises about how their family or organization (e.g., church) allows some people to harm others without being held accountable. Sometimes such behavior can be abusive in its own right.

Understanding is very different from finding excuses.


Understanding Is Not About “Demonizing”

While understanding is not about excuses or forgiveness, neither is it about “demonizing” the other person.

Like making excuses, demonizing can provide the illusion of understanding, as well as the illusion of having emotional resolution about what happened. This is revealed by the simplistic stereotypes that go along with demonizing those who are sexual with children. For example, on TV and the radio we continually hear people who sexually abuse children described as nothing more than “monsters” and “predators.”

Such labels may express totally justifiable anger, even rage, about what those people have done. But they provide zero understanding of why those individuals sexually abused and harmed children in the ways they did.

Also, like making excuses, demonizing others is an extreme way of responding to such experiences that – for totally normal and understandable reasons – many people get stuck in. (This usually happens before one truly acknowledges what happened and attempts to deal with its effects, or early in that process.)

Again, these extreme responses may be a necessary phase for many people, but they should not be confused with genuine understanding. At best, they can shed light on reasons that may cause one to feel sympathy or pity for the other person (making excuses), or reasons which only reflect the person’s worst qualities and result in contempt or hatred (demonizing).

Demonizing can provide the illusion of understanding.


People Who Sexually Abuse Children Are Complex

The reality, however, is that those who sexually abuse children – whoever they are, and whatever they’ve done – are, like everyone else, complex human beings. They have good qualities as well as bad qualities. They have positive motivations as well as negative ones. They have basic human needs for respect and love, and the need to have some control over how they seek to meet their needs.

Of course, people who sexually abuse children are also deeply confused about what they really need, at least in the realm of sexual experience, as well as extremely destructive in their attempts to meet such “needs.” Whatever else might have contributed, massive confusion is required for someone to believe they have the right to use a child sexually. In the case of children who sexually use other children, the confusion is usually about the impact of sexual abuse they have experienced themselves, as well as the general confusion and misunderstandings that children have about sex.


There’s No Single Path to Sexually Abusing

Because people who use and abuse children are complex human beings, with complex lives, there is no single path that leads them to engaging in such behavior. This is true whether they were an adult when they sexually used and harmed a child engaged, or an older or more powerful child.

Here are some of the keys to understanding why a particular, complex person has sexually used or abused as child (to the extent this is possible, and in many cases one simply can’t get enough information even to come close):

  • What are the confusions they have about their needs, especially why they believe they “need” to be sexual with a child?
  • How have their own life experiences – especially but not only sexual experiences – and how they have responded to those experiences, contributed to such massive confusion?
  • What is the unique combination of (confused) beliefs, motivations and rationalizations that made it possible for them to sexually use a child?
  • How have their own life and experiences (again, not only sexual), and how they responded to those experiences, helped to bring about such beliefs, motivations and rationalizations?
  • Which internal and external barriers to sexually abusing a child were overcome, and how (e.g., use of alcohol, use of child sexual pornography, extreme stress or other circumstance that contributed to their “giving up’ on resisting their sexual fantasies or impulses toward children)?

There are some general principles that therapists and researchers have learned, by working with and studying adults who have engaged in such behaviors, about why people sexually use or abuse children.

Some adults who sexually use or abuse children focus all their sexual energy on children.

Some who sexually use or abuse children maintain sexual relationships with age-appropriate partners, including at the same time they are using or abusing a child.

Most adults who sexually use or abuse children were, during their own childhoods, abused sexually, physically, and/or emotionally, as well as neglected physically and/or emotionally. In reaction to those experiences of abuse, neglect, betrayal and powerlessness, they may have attempted to find feelings of power and control over others – including sexual power over children.

Some people who sexually use or abuse children have high social status in a group – a star athlete, a musician, a boss or manager, a prominent member of a community, even an especially popular person – and become so confused (and “intoxicated”) by constant admiration or praise that they begin to think the rules are different for them.

For some adults who sexually use or abuse children, it’s a one-time behavior that happens during a particularly stressful time, like the loss of a marriage or job, bankruptcy, or the death of a spouse, close friend or family member. Others struggle over time to contain their sexual interest in children, mostly successfully, but with periodic failures. (Alcohol or drug use can diminish the ability to control such impulses, though those aren’t causes of the behavior.)

Sometimes an unexpected opportunity to be sexual with a child suddenly presents itself and a person (with the potential to engage in such behavior) acts spontaneously and impulsively. This is true for some adolescents, who are dealing with intense sexual desires that are not focused on children, but suddenly sexually misuse a younger or more vulnerable child.

Finally, and this is extremely important: none of these possible reasons (or any others) can excuse the sexual use or abuse of a child. Nor do they diminish the negative impacts that such an experience can have on the person who has been sexually used or abused.


The Other Person’s Experience & Understanding Now

Especially if you’re considering talking with or “confronting” a person who has sexually used or abused you, it’s important to understand two things: Their experiences and understandings of what happened, both at the time and now, are likely to be very different from yours.

What may have been a high-impact and life-changing event for you may have been, for the other person, simply the gratification of a perceived “need” in the moment. In fact, they may not have even allowed themselves to believe, or even think about, whether they hurt you. Even an outright assault that was sadistic (that is, involved them taking pleasure in causing another person pain) had much more to do with something going on inside them than anything at all about you.

Again, while it may feel right to see them as “purely evil,” people who sexually harm children are more complex than that. Like all of us, they have different ‘parts’ of themselves that come out under different circumstances, and some of those ‘parts’ are capable of doing very harmful things. All of us sometimes think, “I can’t believe I did that,” or “I hate the part of me that does that,” or “I hate myself when I do that, but I just can’t help it sometimes.” It’s not so different for those who sexually use or abuse children, though of course it’s more extreme and harmful. For example, they may be highly “compartmentalized” or “dissociated,” with the part of them that wants to be sexual with children split off from the positive parts they usually present to the world (and which may enable them to succeed in work and in some relationships).

Also, like everyone else, those who commit harmful acts, even violent ones, still want to see themselves as good, or at least “justified” in doing what they did. In many cases, they see themselves as still basically good, except for the “bad” part of them that leads them to harm others.

However, in some extreme cases, a person is confused enough to believe their harmful behaviors are somehow good. This is usually grounded in deeply disturbed and traumatic childhood relationships in which they came to believe that there are only two types of people –”the weak and the strong,” “victims and perpetrators,” “those who take what they want and those who get taken.” From those experiences, they may eventually come to see themselves as choosing the “goods” of strength, domination, and getting what they want. The feelings and hopes of the hurt little child are still inside of them, but such vulnerability and their capacity for love have long been suppressed, by others and by themselves, as a “survival strategy” that ends up harming themselves and others.

To overcome the normal external and internal barriers against sexual involvement with children, adults who sexually use or abuse children often develop elaborate “rationalizations” of their behavior. They may fiercely deny or blind themselves to the clear negative effects of the behavior. They may even genuinely convince themselves that their actions are loving, and welcomed by children, therefore acceptable.

In some cases, people who sexually use or abuse children feel genuine positive feelings toward the child, including caring feelings. But the sexual fantasies, impulses and behaviors come from a different part of their being, a part that has little to do with the child or the child’s well-being, and everything to do with fulfilling their own compulsive “need.”

In some cases, the person is extremely immature, terrified of emotional or sexual intimacy with adults and has no idea how to achieve either. They may believe that children are not only safer, but more emotionally and sexually “pure.”

None of this means that such people don’t know right from wrong. After the fact, if they can ever let go of their rationalizations and other defenses against recognizing the harm they’ve done, they can feel great remorse for their actions. For others, the defenses may become so hardened over time that they are unable to ever acknowledge the devastating truth.

Regardless of the reasons, every adult who sexually harms a child needs to be held fully accountable for the harm they caused. This is true not only for the sake of the child they’ve harmed (or the adult that child has become), but for the protection of other children they could harm in the future, who will only be safe when the person can overcome their potential to hurt another child. Finally, being held accountable is necessary for their own well-being, because it can never be good for them to sexually use or abuse a child, or for them not to come to terms with what they’ve done and find genuine healing.


Children & Teenagers Who Sexually Abuse Others

A large percentage of all harmful sexual interactions with children are committed by other children or adolescents. Some research suggests that it’s 40 percent or higher.

Most kids who sexually use or abuse other kids are – at least in part – reacting to physical, sexual or emotional abusive experiences of their own. Also, as children and teenagers without the knowledge or cognitive capacities of adults, they can’t fully understand the impact of what they’ve experienced, let alone what they’ve done to another child. Some are too young even to fully comprehend the difference between right and wrong.

Still, it’s important to emphasize that even when an older child doesn’t understand the effects of their actions, the sexual use or abuse of the other child, which usually includes a betrayal of the other child’s trust, may still have a deep effect on the other child’s life.

If you’re wondering what’s appropriate vs. concerning sexual behavior in children, we recommend the booklet, Understanding children’s sexual behaviors: What’s natural and healthy, by Dr. Toni Cavanagh Johnson. See also, Do Children Sexually Abuse Other Children, a free online ‘guidebook’ written by Stop It Now.