What prompts an adult to molest a child? Whether we’re survivors of sexual abuse ourselves, involved with survivors, or simply reeling from ongoing revelations about the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, most of us eventually wonder about the perpetrators. Who are they, and what moves them to violate the strongest taboo in our culture?
And it is our strongest taboo—in theory, anyway. The infamous Roman Polanski, who raped a 13-year-old girl four decades ago, remains a pariah in the US, supported only by a handful of celebrities such as Harvey Weinstein and Woody Allen. Two years ago, right-wing troll Milos Yiannopoulos executed one of the most spectacular swan dives off the public stage in history by defending sex between adult men and boys in their early teens. Followers who had cheered him as he violated one taboo after another—attacking rape survivors, calling for the deportation of fat people, orchestrating racist hate campaigns—drew the line at child sexual abuse. In this politically polarized country, there’s one proposition we can all agree on: adults should not molest children.
So who breaks this taboo? The short answer: we don’t know as much as we should. For every study correlating molestation with low intelligence or brain damage or having been the victim of childhood sexual abuse, there’s a study challenging that study and a meta-study challenging both. Even collecting raw data is difficult, as most sexual abuse of children is neither reported by victims nor acknowledged by perpetrators. The most available subjects for study have been the few molesters who end up in the justice system, who are far from representative. The copious records kept by churches, useful as they can be, don’t record motives and feelings and personal histories, the kinds of data we need to really understand behavior.
That said, research has yielded a few preliminary insights. And therapists who treat child-molesters—or people worried that they might molest children—see patterns over time, patterns that can help us understand why the sexual abuse of children and teenagers seems so prevalent in the US and other developed countries right now. With, at a minimum, 26.6 percent of girls and 5.1 percent of boys sexually abused by the age of seventeen, such understanding is more crucial than ever.
First, an important distinction between pedophilia and child molestation. Though these terms are often used interchangeably, they refer to different phenomena. Pedophiles are sexually and romantically drawn to children, though they do not necessarily act on those feelings—or want to. On the web site Virtuous Pedophiles, for example, hundreds of members report both a strong attraction to children and an equally strong determination to keep that attraction locked down to protect children. Celibate pedophiles deserve our understanding and our help, not only because they’re our friends and neighbors, but also because social support decreases the risk that they will act on their desires.
Child molesters, on the other hand, use children for sexual gratification without necessarily preferring them to adults. Though some child molesters are pedophiles, as many as half feel no particular attraction to children but target them because they are available, weak, and easy to control. Among the few things we can confidently assert about child molesters is that they’re overwhelmingly male. Put that fact together with the fact that victims are five times as likely to be girls as boys, and you’ll conclude that most abusers are heterosexual, a conclusion research confirms. Where contradictory patterns appear, it’s usually the result of access, rather than victim preference. In the Catholic Church, for example, the preponderance of male victims shifted when the church allowed girls to become altar servers.
One of the reasons it’s hard to characterize people who molest children is that they tend to fall into two groups with different profiles. The first is extrafamilial abusers, people outside the family who use children for sexual gratification. These abusers tend to identify strongly with children and may see them as both desirable and desiring. Taking their cue from pornography and advertising that eroticizes children, some view children as sexually sophisticated and interpret their behavior accordingly, regarding innocent friendliness as flirtation, for instance. Others perceive children as innocent but see their own desire as expressing the same innocence, rather than adult lust. Such “offense-supportive beliefs” whether conscious or unconscious, enable molestation by justifying it, distributing responsibility, and diminishing feelings of guilt. In fact, extrafamilial abusers feel less guilt, sympathy, empathy, and other impulse-curbing emotions than most of the population, posting a “very high average score” on the affective segments of the Psychopathy Checklist. At the same time, they suffer many more major psychiatric and personality disorders and have fewer friends and weaker family ties than their non-offending peers, though as many as 50 percent do marry at some point.
How they get that way is the subject of debate. Observed differences in brain structure and chromosomal abnormalities fuel limited speculation that child molesters may be born as well as made. Some pedophilia activists insist that attraction to children is innate, citing their own histories, but the one study on the topic concludes that genes play only a supporting role, if any. Some research on convicted child molesters identifies risk factors that could point to heredity or environment, such as greater maternal age, maternal psychiatric illness, and left-handedness. But much more research links observable differences in the brains of convicted child molesters with trauma, from early head injuries resulting in unconsciousness to long-term physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
Let’s start with the obvious trauma: sexual abuse. For years, we’ve been told that molesters of children were themselves molested as children, with different theorists offering different explanations of this victim-to-abuser cycle. In one, the abused identifies with the abuser to feel powerful, rather than helpless. In another, the abused tries to redeem the abuse by re-staging it as it should have happened, with affection, not terror. In a third, the abuse imprints a pattern of arousal or arrests psychosexual development so the abused gets “stuck” perpetuating the abuse.
These explanations are hard to assess for many reasons, chief among them that we don’t actually know how many child molesters are survivors of sexual abuse. For men, the figure may be as low as 5.1 percent or as high as 93 percent. There’s also evidence that the victim-to-abuser cycle eventually became such “common knowledge” that researchers simply assumed it was true and interview subjects shaped their own stories in its terms. The model has other shortcomings as well, but I don’t want to get too far into the weeds here. The important point is that those problems have prompted researchers to test the validity of the victim-to-abuser cycle, yielding some surprising results.
In one large prospective study, childhood sexual abuse did not increase the risk of becoming an adult sex offender, but childhood physical abuse and neglect did–quite significantly, in fact. In another, childhood sexual abuse did increase the risk of becoming a perpetrator, but so did parental loss. A third found that, not sexual abuse, but material and emotional neglect in childhood predicted adult sexual offenses. In other words, while childhood sexual abuse may be a factor in some cases, other forms of childhood trauma, are as important or more important. Among my clients, it’s primarily survivors of childhood emotional abuse who have struggled with the urge to molest children–and in Iron Legacy I tell the story of one young man who found himself on a playground looking for victims after a lifetime of loneliness caused by his parents’ religious extremism.
In fact, the victim-to-abuser cycle that I have seen most consistently involves victims of trauma who become victims of bullies first and then become pedophiles. It’s not uncommon for traumatized children to become targets for bullies. They may show physical signs of abuse or neglect, including shabby, odd, or ill-fitting clothes; they may show behavioral signs, such as agitation or lethargy; their faces may simply telegraph the shame at their core: all blood in the water to bullies. It’s a cruel truth that revictimization is common among survivors of childhood trauma, with bullies often first in line to dole out fresh abuse. When bullied children reach adolescence, a time to explore new romantic and sexual feelings, they can’t turn to their peers, as other children do, because their peers are dangerous to them. Instead, in the grip of normal urges but unable to express them with people their own age, some cast an eye on younger children.
Tragic as the outcome can be, this shift in focus is reasonable, though it rarely happens consciously. Younger children idealize older children; they’re thrilled when a big kid pays attention to them, rarely noticing the awkwardness that looms so large in older children’s judgments. For bullied teens, such acceptance is welcome rain after a long drought; they don’t need much to decide they prefer younger children, belong with younger children, and even identify with younger children. That some pedophile offenders enjoy children’s activities and entertainment results as much from this identification as it does from any strategic advantage they gain by knowing that Marshmello is in and Iggy Azalea is out. Such mental alignment with children is, in fact, one of the most recognizable traits of extrafamilial child molesters.
But not of the other major group of child molesters: intrafamilial abusers. When child sexual abuse happens within families, researchers see less “emotional congruence with children” and fewer of the “offense-supportive beliefs” I mentioned earlier. Familial abusers also show less evidence of psychopathy and of chronic interpersonal impairment, as well as much less interest in pedophilia. What all of that means is, not surprisingly, that intrafamilial child molesters do not present as recognizable a profile as those who prey on children unrelated to them. The only category in which the two groups are similar is psychopathology, meaning that they suffer mental illnesses and personality disorders at about the same (relatively high) rate.
What is more prominent within families is the classic victim-to-abuser cycle, not the cycle mediated by bullying that I just described, but the version “everybody knows,” in which a victim of sexual abuse grows up to become a sexual abuser. That said, other forms of childhood trauma are just as visible in the histories of intrafamilial child molesters, particularly abuse and neglect leading to attachment disorders, but large-scale studies of the relevant family dynamics simply haven’t been done. I said earlier that we don’t know why some people sexually molest children, and the largest piece of that unsolved puzzle is why some people sexually molest their own children. Frankly, I’ve been wondering about that question all of my life.
So what do we do? I’ve mentioned one response already: support celibate pedophiles, which means making sure they can receive help without facing legal discrimination simply for the way they feel. Another obvious response is to support anti-bullying efforts in local schools and communities. Such efforts are worthy in themselves but become doubly important when we appreciate the links between bullying and other social problems such as school shootings and child molestation. Still another response is to support policies and programs that seek to mitigate trauma and develop resilience in your community. If there’s one thing the research on child sexual abuse reveals, it’s that many kinds of childhood trauma create offenders, so we should do everything we can to reduce that trauma and help survivors heal. A great resource is ACEs Connection, an international community of people actively dedicated to these goals.
I have a last suggestion that may not be so popular: let’s stop supporting media that sexualize children. I know it can be cute to see a little tyke performing suggestive dance moves, but in the end it’s inconsistent to insist, as we must, that children are not for adult sexual gratification, all the while producing and consuming images suggesting that they are. Take the two photographs below.
The first image is from a photo essay about little girls in French Vogue. Yes, it’s edgy and playful, and, yes, little girls enjoy dressing up in grown women’s clothing, but if you’ve ever seen what happens when an actual child gets into mommy’s closet and makeup bag, you’ll immediately recognize the subjugation of childish play to adult sexuality in the pose, the props, the clothing choices, and the way the cosmetics are applied. With her curved spine and seductive stare, this six-year-old is not a little girl playing dress-up; she’s a child objectified by an adult male gaze.
The second example is harder for me because it’s an eleven-year-old drag queen who calls himself Desmond Is Amazing and celebrates tolerance and LGBTQ+ pride, two values I have worked for all my life. Part of me wants to shout “You are amazing, Desmond!” and cheer him on. But another part of me, a larger part, wants to rescue him from a culture that celebrates his mimicry of adult sexuality, however emancipatory the impulse. The adult sexuality is exaggerated and ironized, to be sure, but there’s no drag without complex erotic gestures such as the eyes-lowered, lips-pursed, head-flung-back pose he adopts here. That pose is as much a product of the adult male gaze as the little girl’s in the last picture, and it troubles me to see it struck by a child.
Let me be clear: children explore their sexuality, and we should support them when they do—or give them privacy or whatever the situation calls for. But there’s a difference between organic, self-directed exploration and mimicry of adult sexuality—not always a clear difference, given the ways children watch and imitate adults, but one worth trying to preserve. (Hint: children don’t naturally objectify themselves; they play Doctor, not Slutty Nurse.) Just as we absolutely must keep individual adults from encroaching sexually on individual children, so should we protect all children from advertising and entertainment in which the themes and tropes of adult sexuality encroach on their development and proclaim their availability for adults to use.
Main photo of Sebastian Maltz, who plays the title character as a child in Showtime’s Patrick Melrose, a miniseries that explores sexual molestation and its life-long consequences.
 An influential review article (a study of earlier studies) cites a range of 28 to 93 percent for men and 47 to 100 percent for women, with the women’s statistics skewed by the small number of female child molesters. But other articles (see next paragraph) find no difference from the general population (see second paragraph).
 One problem is that it diverts attention away from the experience of girls, who are the majority of victims but rarely become abusers. For example, a just-published article argues that an Australian campaign to establish child sexual abuse as gendered violence (like most domestic violence) failed due widespread public acceptance of the victim-to-abuser cycle, which aroused “sympathy for the devil.”
 In this case, as well as in the third example, there was one (rare) situation in which the victim-to-abuser cycle operated as predicted: when a male child was molested by a female abuser. In every other situation, the cycle was not evident.
 All of the facts in this paragraph and the next derive from a single meta-analysis, so I have not hotlinked individual points. See Michael C. Seto, Kelly M. Babchishin, Lesleigh E. Pullman, and Ian V. McPhail, “The puzzle of intrafamilial child sexual abuse: A meta-analysis comparing intrafamilial and extrafamilial offenders with child victims,” Clinical Psychology Review 39 (July 2015) 42-57.