Many kids have been told not to talk to strangers, but sometimes it’s the people they know who can hurt them the most. Research shows that 90% of child sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator and 68% are abused by family members. A perpetrator does not have to be an adult to harm a child. They can have any relationship to the child including an older sibling or playmate, family member, a teacher, a coach or instructor, a caretaker, or the parent of another child.
Abusers can manipulate victims to stay quiet about the sexual abuse using a number of different tactics, most of all by methodically “grooming” them. Often an abuser will use their position of power over the victim to coerce or intimidate the child. They might tell the child that the activity is normal or that they enjoyed it. An abuser may make threats if the child refuses to participate or plans to tell another adult. Child sexual abuse is not only a physical violation; it is a violation of trust and/or authority.
Grooming steps include:
- Identifying and targeting the victim. Any child or teen may be a potential victim. Some predators may be attracted to children and youth with certain characteristics or may target youth with certain co-existing factors—such as vulnerable parents—to facilitate the crime.
- Gaining trust and access. The perpetrator may observe the child and assesses his/her vulnerabilities to learn how best to approach and interact with the child. Perpetrators may offer the victims special attention, understanding and a sympathetic ear, and then engage the child in ways that eventually gain their friendship and trust (they may play games with victims or give them rides, provide them with gifts and/or special treats).
- Playing a role in the child’s life. The perpetrator may manipulate the relationship so that it appears he or she is the only one who fully understands the child or meets the child’s needs in a particular way. A perpetrator may also exploit a youth’s empathy and convince the young person that s/he is the only one who understands the perpetrator and reinforce that the perpetrator “needs” the child or youth.
- Isolating the child. Offering the child rides and/or taking the child out of his or her surroundings is one way that the perpetrator may separate the child from others and gain access to the child alone, so that others cannot witness the abuse. (Note that in other instances, perpetrators have been successful in molesting victims without detection while other adults were in the room.)
- Creating secrecy around the relationship. The perpetrator may reinforce the special connection with the victim when they are alone or through private communication with the victim (such as letters, emails or text messages), and strengthen it with admonitions against telling anyone, lest others be unhappy about it. The perpetrator may threaten the victim with disclosure, suicide, physical harm to the child or loved ones, or other traumas if he or she tells.
- Initiating sexual contact. With the power over the child victim established through emotional coercion or one of the other tactics, the perpetrator may eventually initiate physical contact with the victim. It may begin with touching that is not overtly sexual (though a predator may find it sexually gratifying) and that may appear to be casual (arm around the shoulder, pat on the knee, etc.). Gradually, the perpetrator may introduce more sexualized touching. By breaking down inhibitions and desensitizing the child, the perpetrator can begin overtly touching the child.
- Controlling the relationship. Perpetrators rely on the secrecy of the relationship to keep it going, and to ensure that the child will not reveal the abuse. Children are often afraid of disclosing the abuse. They may have been told that they will not be believed, or that something about the child “makes” the abuser do this to them. The child may also feel shame, or fear that they will be blamed. Often, the perpetrator threatens the child to ensure that s/he won’t disclose the abuse.
Since children rarely admit to being sexually abused, it’s vital that parents, family members and friends keep an eye out for the following behavior of an adult:
- Making others uncomfortable by ignoring social, emotional, or physical boundaries or limits.
- Refusing to let a child set any of his or her own limits; using teasing or belittling language to keep a child from setting a limit.
- Insisting on hugging, touching, kissing, tickling, wrestling with, or holding a child even when the child does not want this physical contact or attention.
- Turning to a child for emotional or physical comfort by sharing personal or private information or activities that are normally shared with adults.
- Frequently pointing out sexual images or telling inappropriate or suggestive jokes with children present.
- Exposing a child to adult sexual interactions without apparent concern.
- Having secret interactions with teens or children (e.g., games; sharing drugs, alcohol, or sexual material) or spending excessive time e-mailing, text-messaging, or calling children or youth.
- Being overly interested in the sexuality of a particular child or teen (e.g., talks repeatedly about the child’s developing body or interferes with normal teen dating).
- Insisting on or managing to spend unusual amounts of uninterrupted time alone with a child.
- Seeming “too good to be true” (e.g., frequently babysits different children for free, takes children on special outings alone, buys children gifts or gives them money for no apparent reason).
- Frequently walking in on children/teens in the bathroom.
- Allowing children or teens to consistently get away with inappropriate behaviors.
If you are concerned about the sexualized behaviors in a parent, cousin, sibling, friend, or neighbor, you should consider contacting the police or children’s services in your area, they can take action if appropriate. Talking to the person whose behavior is worrying you is another step to preventing potential harm to a child.