Understanding why people abuse is important because it can, in some cases, help us prevent them from carrying out the abuse and helps us to work out the best ways to protect children.
A range of factors
When someone decides to sexually abuse a child, a range of factors are likely to play a part.
Sexual enjoyment can be a motive for abusing a child but it is not the only one and there are usually also other motives at play.
Other motives people might have to abuse a child include wanting to:
● control someone and feel powerful,
● manage or act out difficult emotions,
● gain status in the eyes of others,
● hurt someone for pleasure,
● feel close to someone.
Most child abusers are not only sexually interested in children. Children are often targeted for sexual abuse simply because they are usually more vulnerable than adults.
Abusive people find it easier to act on their desires if they have convinced themselves that what they want to do is ok.
They may tell themselves that:
● they are more important than the children they abuse,
● the abuse isn't harmful,
● they deserve or are entitled to it,
● part of being a man is being sexually dominant (if the abuser is male),
● the child consented.
Some abusive people may have psychological difficulties that are contributing such as:
● problems controlling their emotions,
● an obsession with sex,
● difficulties feeling for other people or understanding social rules.
All of these things (their desires, beliefs and psychological difficulties) are influenced by past and present life experiences. So, for example, growing up living with domestic violence could make it more difficult to manage intense emotions, and make it easier to believe that it's ok to control others.
Messages they see or hear in society also play a large part in shaping how abusive people think, and can provide ready excuses. Our culture frequently shows people, especially women and girls, as sex objects, and often sexualizes children, especially teens.
It also sometimes promotes the idea that crossing and confusing important boundaries which respect other people, is in fact sexy – for example, a lot of media sexualizes power and aggression, and a large proportion of sexual scenarios in mainstream pornography include manipulation, coercion or persuasion.
Society still often treats victims of abuse with doubt, which makes abusers feel more confident that they will get away with it. So, in a nutshell, although on the one hand, society is outraged by abuse, on the other, many of its messages promote and encourage it.
The people around an abusive person are often important. Abusers may seek out like-minded friends who encourage abuse, or at least make it seem more ok and normal. Group dynamics can lead to abusive behaviour escalating – for example people may commit more extreme abuse to show off to those around them.
It’s also easier to abuse in certain organisations or settings including those where there are few real, positive relationships between adults and children, and where there are strong power dynamics and people find it hard to be heard.
More generally speaking, whether someone who wants to abuse a child actually does so will depend a lot on their day-to-day opportunities. For example, many potential abusers won’t try to abuse if they can’t find a way to be alone with a child or if they think they will get caught. Even small things like the design of school buildings and improving children’s knowledge of their rights can make a difference here.