When an adult initiates sexual contact with an underaged minor, it’s a crime and a serious moral wrong. It seems that recently, we’ve seen a number of such cases. In March, a man who raped or sexually assaulted all three of his daughters over 14 years was sentenced to 33 years’ jail. In June, a man was jailed for six months for molesting his 2-year old granddaughter. But cases of child sexual abuse don’t just involve a paternal figure with a young girl.
More recently, a man was sentenced to 20 months’ jail for performing a sexual act on a teen boy he considered his own grandson, and a 20-year old pled guilty for persuading his two half-brothers, aged eight and 10, to perform a sex act on him. This shows that there’s no real age or ‘look’ of someone who can commit these crimes – they look like ordinary people.
While it’s horrifying to think that child sexual abuse can be this rampant, it would be wrong to consider these offenders just as “pedophiles”. It isn’t just about semantics.
Pedophilia vs child sexual abuse
“Pedophilia” refers to a sexual interest in prepubescent children (not just any person under the age of 18), which may or may not be acted on. Interestingly, there are distinct classifications for attractions to children: those who’re attracted to children on the cusp of puberty are “hebephiles” while those who find children who’ve reached puberty are “ephebophiles.”
Most importantly, not all those who sexually abuse children are pedophiles, and not all pedophiles are child sex offenders. Some people who sexually abuse children are not preferentially attracted to children at all, with many abusers acting opportunistically.
A paper released by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse identified three types of abusers:
- Predatory perpetrators (mostly pedophiles) are “exclusively sexually attracted to children” and tend to perpetrate the abuse over time and in multiple settings.
- Opportunistic perpetrators may have committed other crimes and may not prefer children to adults, but use children for their own sexual interests.
- Situational perpetrators don’t have a preference for children, but may abuse them due to a sense of inadequacy or the absence of an adult relationship (as was the case of a man and his 12-year old godson).
Pedophilia is an involuntary sexual attraction (ie. research increasingly suggests that a paedophilic orientation is innate), while those who abuse children choose to do so. This means that being a pedophile is not a crime, but physically committing the act of sexually abusing children is, whether they’re considered pedophiles or not.
Confusing psychiatric disorders (pedophilia) and sex crimes is likely to hamper treatment of the former, and may actually increase harm to children. While most victims of child sexual abuse don’t become perpetrators (most victims are female), there’s some truth to male victims becoming a risk factor for later offending: many perpetrators of child sex abuse were once victims themselves.
Why these crimes are insidious
It can be hard to find the appropriate sentencing for perpetrators of child sex crimes, since recidivism rates among child sex offenders are high, as can be seen in cases like the elderly gardener and a 61-year old cleaner who reoffended multiple times.
But one reason why these crimes is so insidious is that crimes on children are often committed by people who not only know them, but are often related to them. Many cases involved incest: there was a case where a 53-year-old barber raped his 2 teen daughters, while a 46-year-old raped his 10-year old daughter.
Often, these crimes happen over a prolonged period of time. In one case, a a bus driver was sentenced to nine years for molesting his stepdaughter for over 20 years, starting when she was just 7 years old. In another, a man was sentenced to 33 years’ jail for raping and sexually assaulting all 3 of his daughters for over 14 years!
You may wonder why these cases weren’t reported instantly, but there’s a complex interplay of familial, cultural, and societal factors that make it difficult for children to tell anyone.
Why don’t the victims speak up?
There are many ways in which they become victims and don’t speak up on it, at least in a timely manner. These include:
Not recognising sexual abuse: Younger children may not know what “sex” is without comprehensive sex education. There’s definitely a call for teaching very young children what to look out for when it comes to perverted behaviour from adults. Some experts say children can also become confused if they experienced physical pleasure or even emotional intimacy during the abuse.
They’re protecting family members: In many cases, children tend to hold back from revealing abuse to protect other family members. According to AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC), it’s not uncommon for children to hide the abuse because they don’t want to upset their mothers; some victims also want to save other siblings from being possibly assaulted. In many cases, when one child is assaulted, their sibling(s) also suffer the same fate. Sometimes, victims keep quiet from fear of losing a father (even though he’s the offender) or breaking up the family unit – for example, a 15-year old suffered in silence for 5 years for fear of breaking up her family.
They were sexually groomed: An abusive adult can make a child think that abuse and exploitation is normal. Among family members, offenders would sometimes teach the child about sex – sometimes through porn – and get them to perform those acts. Strangers would often try to establish trust with the child by either plying them with gifts or money, promising a loving relationship, or becoming their mentor. A lot of sexual grooming happens online, where offenders would make their victims feel special.
They were manipulated by adults: All offenders would tell their victims to stay quiet by convincing the child that they won’t be believed, or that they are somehow responsible for the abuse and will be punished for it. For children, these threats can feel very real because the offender often has power over the them.
In many cases, children experience all of the above. In one case, a 10-year-old girl only recognised her father’s sexual abuse after she attended sex ed classes, but even so, he warned her not to tell her mother or she would “lose a father.”
Being aware of the situation
In most cases, the perpetrators are hard to pinpoint. Sexual abusers often follow three stages: gaining access to victims, initiating and maintaining abuse, and then concealing the abuse. So what signs do we have to look out for?
First, a potential abuser might overtly make the child feel “special” or “privileged” by paying an unhealthy amount of interest. A big red flag is when an adult explicitly asks a child to keep a relationship secret. Another indicator is encouraging inappropriate physical contact.
The best way for a child to avoid being a victim is to ensure they’re educated about what’s acceptable and unacceptable behaviour between children and adults.