About Abusers

The first thing to remember about people who abuse other people is that they do not look like abusers. You can’t tell by looking. Abusers seem normal. Judith Herman summarizes this well:

Little is known about the mind of the perpetrator. Since he is contemptuous of those who seek to understand him, he does not volunteer to be studied. Since he does not perceive that anything is wrong with him, he does not seek help–unless he is in trouble with the law. His most consistent feature, in both the testimony of victims and the observations of psychologists, is his apparent normality. Ordinary concepts of psychopathology fail to define or comprehend him.1

A second important thing to remember is that not all abusers are the same. Because ‘abuse’ involves such a wide range of different kinds of behavior. . . it is almost impossible to generalize about the psychological makeup or motivations of people who abuse.

“Researchers and clinicians no longer view abuse and neglect as a monolithic problem. Accordingly, it will never be possible to come up with one profile of the maltreating parent. Parents who neglect their children because they are depressed and have too few emotional, cognitive, or financial resources are clearly different from those who inflict serious injury on their children, and these in turn are quite different from incestuous parents.”2

There are many common misconceptions about abusers/offenders. If your only images are of dirty old men or flashers in trench coats, you may be quite surprised when a respected member of your congregation is arrested for a sex crime. For a list of common myths — limited to myths about perpetrators of sexual assaults — see : list of myths


Why people abuse others

Why people abuse is a very complicated question. Some theories which have been proposed include:

  • Biological TheoriesThese theories suggest there is some kind of organic explanation for abusive behavior. For example, some people have suggested that correlations between androgen levels and aggression might help to explain why some people commit rape. .
  • Psychodynamic theories For example, the notion that abusive people did not successfully resolve oedipal conflicts during the phallic stage of development. Or the notion that are lacking in a strong superego which has become overwhelmed by their primal id.
  • Behavioral Theories Behavioral theories focus on abusive behavior as learned, acquired. The focus is often on how a person becomes ‘conditioned’ to abuse. This might include the notion that abusers are reenacting their own childhood trauma. Abuse allows them to connect with their trauma but puts them in a more powerful role.
  • Attachment Theories Attachment theories focus on how attachment deficits of various kinds can contribute to offending behaviors.
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Theories At the center of cognitive-behavioral theories are distorted thinking patterns. Most obviously abusers deny responsibility, make excuses, construct justifications, deny that any harm was done etc. Ward and Keenan3 identfied five core cognitive distortions common among abusers:

    Children as sexual objects. Children, like adults, are motivated by a desire for pleasure and are capable of enjoying and desiring sex.

    Entitlement. The desires and beliefs of the abuser are paramount and those of the victim are either ignored or viewed as only of secondary importance.

    Dangerous world. The abuser views other adults as being abusive and/or unreliable and perceives that they will reject him in promotion of their own needs.

    Uncontrollability. The abuser perceives his environment as uncontrollable wherein people are not able to exert any major influence over their personal behavior and/or the world around them.

    Nature of harm. The abuser considers the degree of harm to his victim and perceives sexual activity as beneficial and unlikely to harm a person.

  • Moral Theories Abuse is a kind of morally meaningful behavior not a psychological problem — abusers do what they do because they want to do it. It is a moral failure not a psychological illness. See for example: Why Adults Molest Children by Ron Kokish
  • Integrated Theories David Finkelhor, one of the most prominent researchers on child abuse, has proposed that four preconditions must exist for sexual abuse to take place.4First, there must be a person who is motivated to abuse a child sexually. Finkelhor suggests that there are three components to this motivation:emotional congruence (sexual interaction with a child must somehow ‘make emotional sense’ in the experience of the abuser)sexual arousal (in addition to ‘making emotional sense’ the abuser-to-be must experience interactions with children as a potential path to sexual gratification)blockage (other sources of sexual gratification are either unavailable or experienced as less satisfying)Second, an abuser must be able to overcome normal internal inhibitions. The assumption is that everybody has inhibitions to sexual relations with children. Everyone is (thankfully!) inhibited by social, moral or psychological factors (eg: incest taboos). But abusers find ways to overcome these inhibitions. Alcohol consumption is in many cases a key factor which allows abusers to overcome inhibitions.Thirdly, an abuser must overcome external inhibitions. Churches that screen child-care workers set up an external inhibition for abusers who are registered sex offenders. That’s good. Healthy families teach self-protection skills to their kids. That’s an external inhibition. That’s good. Unfortunately, relying entirely on robust external inhibitions is not a very effective strategy for reducing child abuse. Abusers are just as able to overcome external inhibitions as they are able to overcome internal inhibitions.Finally, an abuser must overcome a child’s resistance. Abusers often have extraordinary ‘radar’ for a child’s emotionally vulnerabilities, dependencies and loyalties. Abusers often begin relationships with nurture and support and only gradually introduce abusive behaviors. Note the emphasis on “a child’s resistance”. People who have been abused often struggle with “their role” or “their part” in the abuse. Maybe I didn’t resist enough. Maybe I didn’t tell soon enough. Maybe there were pleasurable elements to the exchanges. `
  • Misc Theories (may fit in above categores) Abusers have impulse control disorders — often complicated by substance abuse. Abusers are sexual addicts. Sexual addiction is a progressive illness and can in it’s later stages lead to offending behaviors. Abusers are under a lot of stress. Think here of elder abuse where the abuser is perhaps a family member with ‘compassion fatigue.’ Abusers have a non-normative sexual preference — nothing is wrong with them, the problem is with a shaming culture which fails to accept and affirm them as they are.

Characteristics of Abusers
There have been many attempts to look for typical personality characteristics of abusers in the hope of developing a kind of typology or ‘profile’ of abusive persons. These efforts have not been very successful.5 Lots of different kinds of people abuse others. There are therefore some dangers associated with making lists of characteristics of abusers. There are people who don’t fit the pattern but who will offend. And there are lots of people who match any list of characteristics who do not offend. With these limitations in mind, here is a list that I found to be useful.6 This list is limited to sex offenders but the characteristics might overlap with some other kinds of abusers.

  • Secrecy and dishonesty is a major component of sex offending behavior. Sex crimes flourish in silence and deception.
  • Sex offenders typically have developed complicated and persistent psychological and social systems constructed to assist them in denying and minimizing the harm they inflict on others, and often they are very accomplished at presenting to others a façade designed to conceal the truth about themselves.
  • Cognitive distortions allow the sex offender to justify, rationalize, and minimize the impact of their deviant behavior (i.e. “I was drunk”, “We were in love”, “She came on to me”, “The child wanted it and I did not have the heart to say no”).
  • Sex offenders use thinking errors to engage in deviant sex. The following are some examples:
    1. Mr. Good Guy-“I wear a mask or false front”. “I give the right answer”.
    2. Poor me-“I am the victim of this unjust system”. “Everyone is out to get me”.
    3. Victim stance-“I am the one hurt”. “I will convince others that I was more hurt than the victim”.
    4. Power play-“It is my way or the highway”. “I will dominate and control others”.
    5. Entitlement- “The world owes me”.
    6. Selfish-“I do not care for others”. “I want what I want when I want it”.
    7. Blaming- “I blame others so I can avoid responsibility for my actions”.
    8. Minimizing- “I only fondled the child”. “It wasn’t intrinsically harmful”.
    9. Hop Over-“I do not answer questions when I know the answer is unpleasant”.
    10. Secretiveness-“I use secrecy to control others and continue being deviant”
  • Sex offenders are highly manipulative and will triangulate/split those around them. The skills used to manipulate victims are employed to manipulate family members, friends, co-workers, supervision officers, treatment providers, and case managers.
  • Grooming activities are not solely for potential victims. Offenders will groom parents to obtain access to children. Grooming is well-organized and can be short or long term.
  • The longer a sex offender knows an individual the better they are at “zeroing in” their grooming (“I can read people like a book. I know what others need and I am available to help out”.)
  • The longer a sex offender is on supervision the higher the probability staff will lose their objectivity.
  • Sex offenders are generally personable and seek to “befriend” those around them (“My smile is my entrée”. “I ‘m like a salesman but I’m never off work”.)
  • Sex offenders will continually test boundaries (personal/professional space).
  • Sex offenders exploit relationships and social norms to test boundaries.
  • Sex offenders seek professions that allow them access to victims.


Do Abused Persons Become Abusers?

Cycle of Sexual Abuse: Research Inconclusive [PDF] Summary: “the experience of childhood sexual victimization is quite likely neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause of adult sexual offending.”

M. Glasser and I. Kolvin, Cycle of child sexual abuse: links between being a victim and becoming a perpetrator The British Journal of Psychiatry (2001) 179: 482-494

See also comments on this article here

See also a report from National Institute of Justice: [PDF] An Update on the “Cycle of Violence” Summary: “Although many individuals in both groups had no juvenile or adult criminal record, being abused or neglected as a child increased the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile by 59 percent, as an adult by 28 percent, and for a violent crime by 30 percent.” Note that this study only looked at people within view of the criminal justice system. It relied on arrest records to measure criminality,


Can Abusers be Treated Effectively?

Sex Offender Treatment: Does It Work? Is It Worth It? by Ron Kokish

The Effectiveness of Sex Offender Treatment

Ron Langevin. et al., Lifetime Sex Offender Recidivism: A 25-Year Follow-Up Study. Canadian Journal of Criminology & Criminal Justice, Oct2004, Vol. 46 Issue 5, p531 [Full text available on line at EBSCOhost. Accession Number: 15192185]


Adolescent Offenders

Gregory K. Fritz, M.D., The juvenile sex offender: Forever a menace? Brown University Child & Adolescent Behavior Letter, Feb2003, Vol. 19 Issue 2, p8, 1p; [Full text available on line at EBSCOhost. Accession Number: 8948758]

Summary: “existing studies consistently report rates of recidivism in the range of 8 to 14 percent.”


Abusers Living in Our Communities

There are over 100,000 registered sex offenders in the state of California. The church could play an important role in shaping public reponse to this very difficult and complicated question.

Educating the Community about Sexual Assault and the Management of Sex Offenders in the Community

Using The Internet To Provide Passive Community Notification About Registered Sex Offenders

National Sex Offender Database

California Sex Offender Database


Sexual Addiction and Sexual Abuse

For a short introduction to sexual addiction read this interview with Mark Laaser. Here are the key exchanges:

STEPS: I’d like to start by talking about some of the common myths and misunderstandings about sexual addiction. First of all, there have been quite a few stories in the news recently about sexual offenders. In several conversations about those news reports I have been struck by the fact that people in the Christian community are often unable to distinguish between sexual offenders and sexual addicts.

Mark: It’s a common misunderstanding. But only a very small percentage of sexual addicts become sexual offenders. The cases that make the newspapers are, however, the most perverse cases and therefore have an exaggerated effect on people’s perception of the problem of sexual addiction. But offenders are only 1 percent or less of the people who struggle with sexual addiction. It’s important to remember than a sexual offender is a person who has used physical force to gain sexual access or who has used some kind of emotional or even spiritual force to gain control over a person physically, emotionally or spiritually in order to gain sexual access. That improper use of force or authority is what, in my mind, puts a person in the category of sexual offender. For example, a pastor who uses the authority of his role to gain sexual access to people who respect that authority – that’s what we mean by sexual offender.

STEPS: Most sexual addicts are not in that category?

Mark: No. For a person to commit a sexual offence there may also have to be other emotional or spiritual problems present. It may not be just pure sexual addiction. There have been a couple of studies that have suggested that among incarcerated sexual offenders, people in jail for their actions, only about 50% are sexual addicts. So there are obviously some other dynamics going on with sexual offenders in addition to sexual addiction.


Misc. Links


  1. Judith L. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, p 75 []
  2. Birns, Beverly, The Mother-Infant Tie: Of Bonding and Abuse in Abuse and Victimization across the Life Span (Martha Straus, ed. John Hopkins University Press, 1988). []
  3. Child Molesters’ Implicit Theories. By: Ward, Tony; Keenan, Thomas. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Aug99, Vol. 14 Issue 8, p821, 18p; (AN 2081222) []
  4. Finkelhor, David and Sharon Araji Explanation of Pedophilia: A Four Factor Model. Journal of Sex Research 22:2 pp 145-161, 1986. []
  5. Marshall, W. L., & Hall, G. C. N. (1995). The value of the MMPI in deciding forensic issues in accused sexual offenders. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 7, 205–219. []
  6. English, K., Pullen, S., & Jones, L., (1996) “Managing adult sex offenders: A containment approach”. Lexington, Kentucky: American Probation and Parole Association quoted in [pdf] The Management and Containment of Sex Offenders []

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