Understanding Why

Once again the media in recent weeks have featured some very serious cases of child sexual abuse. When these horrific events take place I ask myself the question, how would I have coped if anything had happened to one of my own children, the honest answer is I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that having worked over twenty years in this field my view of the world has changed.

In all my years working with people who sexually abuse, I never really understood why people inflicted such pain. In my experience the answer to the question, “Why did you sexually abuse?” was much more complicated than a person being sexually attracted to children. In the majority of cases power played a significant part with sex being the vehicle to harm.

Recognising the essential role of power and the breach of trust at the core of these cases is vital on a number of levels.


Firstly, the language we use is extremely important, because apart from the fact that language provides meaning it also sets the tone. In my work I have heard professionals talking about adults having a sexual relationship with a child, and I wonder how can this be a ‘relationship’ when the child had no choice. It is rape, because there was no consensual part to the relationship. Using the appropriate language means that we do not downgrade the significance of what has happened. In this context it is always important to focus on offending behaviour first to avoid the offender trying to place himself in the position of victim.

The victim’s confusion

Secondly, it allows us to acknowledge the confusion that a child may feel when thinking about their feelings towards their abuser, i.e. they may love the person but not the behaviour. In cases where a child has trusted an adult, he or she may feel very confused about their feelings.

The abuser’s hold

Thirdly, acknowledging the power allows us to recognize the ‘hold’ the abuser may still have over the child, the hold that may even continue from behind the prison walls. Power is as much psychological as physical.

Allowing time

Finally, recognizing that a child’s ability to trust has been dented, means that we need to give a child time to trust again. This is particularly true when a child has been removed from their home into care, they have suffered loss through the experience of being abused and they have lost their home, family, friends, and possibly school.

How abusers operate

Child sexual abuse does not just happen. It is a conscious decision of an adult to abuse a child because as David Finkelhor (1984) showed in his ‘Four Pre-conditions’ an abuser needs to want to abuse a child. In this analysis an abuser needs to :

  1. Be motivated to sexually abuse;
  2. Overcome internal inhibitors;
  3. Overcome external inhibitors, and
  4. Overcome the resistance of the child1.

Working with sex offenders provides professionals with information about how abusers operate which in turn is vital information for those working with victims and their families. The work allows people to communicate appropriately and realistically with people who are understandably confused, angry, hurt and unsure of their future.


In all cases of sexual abuse children experience loss, and the emotions experienced will in many cases be very intense and confusing. Like any person who experiences loss we need to give the child time to grieve and recognise that the experience will be individual and in some cases long lasting. A good introductory book that can help professionals work with the issue of loss and bereavement is one entitled Lost for Words, which although primarily focusing on death covers other aspects of loss2.

1Finkelhor, D. (1984) Child Sexual Abuse: New theory and research, New York: Free Press – see also http://www.nota.co.uk/faqrisk_b.htm for a more detailed analysis of Sex Offender Characteristics (accessed 14/5/2007)

2HOLLAND, J., Dance, R., MacManus, N. and Stitt, C. (2005) ‘Lost for Words’ Loss and bereavement awareness training. London Jessica Kingsley

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