Pedophilia and child molestation are often used interchangeably in the media, and even in professional literature to describe an adult, predominately male that performs sexual acts with children. The reason for this is the misperception that all child molesters are pedophiles and conversely all pedophiles are child molesters. This is simply not the case. Pedophilia as described in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (4th ed.) (1994) involves fantasy, urges, and sexual arousal pertaining to children yet does not indicate acting on the urges within the diagnosis. Thus, a person that has an attraction to children may fantasize about encounters with children and become sexually aroused without actually acting upon those urges. If the individual does not collect child pornography, he may be diagnosed with pedophilia without committing any crimes.
The misperception that all pedophiles are child molesters is likely due to the fact that most of those that come to attention of the media authorities and treatment providers, do so because they have been arrested for offenses against a child or children. If a pedophile is successful in resisting the urges and maintains his interest through the use of fantasy only, he will not be considered a child molester. The main problem for the community is that most individuals that would meet the criteria for pedophilia do not voluntarily present to treatment and continue to be a possible risk for becoming a child molester.
The other side of the misperception is all child molesters are pedophiles. This too is not always the case. There are sexual offenses committed by individuals that do not meet the criteria for pedophilia as described previously. There are offenders that are impulsive (Hazelwood and Warren, 2001) and although their fantasies may be deviant in nature, do not focus on children. There is also increasing data being collected, which shows that juveniles are responsible for more offenses against children than has ever been previously recognized. In these cases, even if the offender is having intense, sexually arousing fantasies about children, depending upon the age of the offender, this may be appropriate rather than deviant. There are also many sexually abusive acts that are committed by children under 10 years of age, yet these are not considered sexual offenses. Children under 10 years of age are considered sexually reactive rather than a sexual offender because it is believed that they are acting out their own victimization, whether that means they have been sexually abused or been subjected to a sexual environment.
The typical assumption is that child molesters will be easily discernable from the general public. Unfortunately this is not the case, and for the most part these offenders depend upon their appearance of normalcy to provide them continued access to children. One text that I recommend to parents that ask for advice on protecting their children from abuse is Identifying Child Molesters: Preventing Child Sexual Abuse by Recognizing the Patterns of the Offender by Carla van Dam. To protect children, one must also understand the offender and the cycle of abuse. The "dirty old man" depicted in the media, although at times accurate, does not apply in most cases. Child molesters can be clergy, Boy Scout leaders, teachers and coaches and as described by many of these offenders, they choose such positions in order to be around children and systematically abuse them.
Another misconception is that child molestation is committed mainly by strangers. Again, although this can occur, it is more commonly perpetrated by individuals known to the victim and their families. Systematic abuse takes time on the part of the offender. Grooming of a victim depends upon forming a relationship with the victim and them maintaining it. Offenders will work very hard to gain the trust of a child and then create a dynamic in the relationship that encourages secrecy.
Abuse begins by slowly introducing the victim to increasing levels of sexual encounters. Offenders "accidentally" leave pornography displayed for the child to view in order to test the victim's interest and reactions. As more time passes, the offender may volunteer to "teach" the child more about what they are viewing in the pornography, or "allow" the child to "practice" sexual acts upon them. Other offenders will "allow" victims to sit on their laps, wrestle, or tickle the victims to desensitize them to touching and violating boundaries. All these scenarios are premeditated by the offender to create situations that will allow them to victimize the child in the future.
All of the previous examples can happen within the victim's own home with other family members, which can mirror all the grooming behaviors that were mentioned above. I will write more about the family dynamics that occur in incest situations in another article.
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Hazelwood, R., & Warren, J. (Editors) (2001). Practical aspects of rape investigation: A multidisciplinary approach (3rd ed.). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
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Last Updated: 01/03/2011
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