Why do people sexually abuse children?

Why do people sexually abuse children?

Understanding why people abuse can help us work out the best ways to protect children. Dr Elly Hanson, clinical psychologist and advisor to CEOP, outlines some of the factors involved.

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Why try to understand?

The first thing to say is that understanding why people sexually abuse does not remove their responsibility for their actions. The responsibility for the abuse lies with the abuser, and never with the victim.

However, understanding why people abuse important because it can help us prevent them from carrying out the abuse and 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 gratification 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:

  • The desire to control someone and feel powerful,
  • A need to manage or act out difficult emotions,
  • A desire to gain status in the eyes of others,
  • A need to 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.

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Abusive people find it easier to act on their desires if they have convinced themselves that what they want to do is fine.

They may tell themselves that they are more important than the children they abuse, that the abuse isn't harmful, that they deserve or are entitled to it, that part of being a man is being sexually dominant, or that the child consented.

Psychological difficulties

Some abusive individuals may have psychological difficulties that are contributing such as:

  • Problems controlling their emotions,
  • A preoccupation with sex,
  • Impaired abilities to feel for other people or understand social rules.

Life experiences

All of these things (their desires, beliefs and psychological difficulties) are themselves influenced by previous life experiences and current life circumstances. So, for example, growing up living with domestic violence can make it more difficult to manage intense emotions, and make it easier to believe that it's fine to control others.

Outside influences

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 depicts 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 porn include manipulation, coercion or persuasion.

Society still often treats victims of abuse sceptically, 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.

Supportive friends

The people around an abusive individual 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 in which there are few genuine, positive relationships between adults and children, and where there are rigid hierarchies and people find it hard to be heard.


More generally speaking, whether someone who wants to abuse a child actually goes ahead will depend a lot on their day-to-day opportunities – for example many potential abusers won’t pursue abuse if they can’t find a way to be alone with a child or they think they will get caught. Even small and indirect things like the design of school buildings and improving children’s knowledge of their rights can make a difference here.

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Worried about your own thoughts about children?

If you are worried about your own thoughts or feelings, remember you can make positive choices. Help yourself and others by seeking free, confidential support from Stop it Now. This is also a great resource for people who may be worried about the behaviour of a family member or friend.