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Who Sexually Abuses Children?

When we think about people who abuse or hurt children we often think of a stranger in a long coat who lurks in the bushes near where our children play.  This is not the case.  Most sexual abusers are people that the child knows; it could even be someone they care about and trust.

In 85% of sexual abuse situations children and teens are sexually abused by someone they know and trust.  Most abusers are family members (parents, aunts/uncles, cousins).  They are people who are in close contact with children, like neighbors, babysitters, religious leaders or coaches. 

Unfortunately we cannot walk down the street and pick out the abusers, we cannot tell just from how a person looks.  What we do know is that sexual abuse happens every where, to all kinds of people.  That means that people who sexually abuse children can live in the same neighborhood we do, shop at the same stores and go to the same restaurants. 

It can be very scary to realize that a sexual abuser could be anyone- how do you protect your children?  You can help protect your children and family by knowing the patterns of an abuser. 


Many sexual abusers engage in what is called grooming behavior.  The grooming process begins with the abuser identifying a vulnerable child.  Some of the things that the abuser will look for are children who have low self-esteem or lack confidence, are lonely or are in need of attention. 

After picking a child, the abuser then forms a relationship with the child.  This is different from a normal adult-child relationship because the abuser interacts with the child as if they were a child; they are friends and equals. 

Once the relationship is formed, the abuser begins to desensitize the child to touch.  At first there might be a lot of tickling or roughhousing, and once the child gets used to being touched the abuser will then begin touching in other ways.  The boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate touch are made fuzzy. 

The abuser will do a number of things to stop the child from telling.  They may tell the child that it is “their little secret”, say that if the child tells the child will get in trouble, or that if they tell no one will believe them.  Many children feel isolated because they are keeping such a big secret.  

The final step in the grooming process is to make the child feel like the abuse is their fault.  Victims often believe that they did something to cause the abuse or that by not fighting back or saying “no” that they let the abuse happen.  It can be very confusing, and the victim often feels guilty.  

Visit the Stop It Now! The Campaign to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse web site for more information on people who sexually abuse children and warning signs about sexual abuse.


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