There's no simple profile that predicts who will or who won't sexually abuse a child. But there are compelling reasons for the public to understand risk factors. Most children are molested by someone they know. A recent federal bulletin based on 1999 survey data reported that family members and acquaintances committed 75 percent of child molestations. The authors said that incidents, especially those committed by family members, were likely underreported. Thirty percent of cases were reported to authorities.
"You have to develop an eye for the behaviors," said Carla van Dam, a forensic psychologist and the author of books such as "The Socially Skilled Child Molester." "If people recognized them correctly we wouldn't hand our kids over."
Most offenses are committed by pedophiles -- a very small group of people who are sexually aroused by prepubescent children. Pedophilia is defined as a mental disorder by the American Psychological Association. As with heterosexuals and homosexuals, pedophiles recognize their sexual preferences during youth; they often begin offending in their teen years.
Pedophiles often target vulnerable families and isolated children. They may offer to help and support adults while working to win the child's trust and affection before engaging them in sex -- researchers call the process "grooming." Pedophiles often have many victims and one study estimates that they commit 95 percent of CSAs and molest 88 percent of victims.
Experts measure an offender's risk to society through screening tools and actuarial tables, and certain treatments -- often coordinated with law enforcement – have been shown to reduce future offenses. Such findings are important for public policy, since more than 95 percent of convicted sex offenders will eventually return to communities. (Public policy and law enforcement will be discussed in a forthcoming segment.)
In a CDC/Kaiser Permanente survey of adults, 16 percent of men and 25 percent of women said they had experienced contact child sexual abuse. An analysis of several sources suggests that more than 27 million adult women and 12 million adult men were sexually abused as children.
Read about medical and psychological treatment of pedophiles in the center's Q&A with Fred Berlin, M.D., Ph.D., founder of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma and the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic.
Non-pedophile molesters largely define themselves as heterosexual in their adult sex life, even those who molest boys. Researchers call their acts a crime of "opportunity," where people with emotional or relationship problems direct sexual aggression toward children. Like pedophiles, these offenders are overwhelmingly male. Abuse by women may be harder to detect -- they're routinely involved in caretaking and children's hygiene -- but studies also suggest a link between abuse and testosterone levels.
Juvenile offenders may be pedophiles or non-pedophiles. Juveniles who sexually abuse younger children (typically four years younger or more) account for half of reported CSAs. Interviews with pedophiles who were caught as teenagers abusing younger children have said that adults ignored what they saw. Prevention experts say that’s one reason why public education is so important.
Whether they are pedophiles or not, experts say that juveniles respond better than adults to treatment. Therapists say that sexual preference is something an individual discovers about himself, but sexual behavior is learned. So if a juvenile is a pedophile, early treatment will not erase his interests in young children, but it can help him learn to make appropriate sexual choices. Among non-pedophile juveniles, sexual assaults may reflect other behavioral problems -- such as a lack of empathy and other healthy emotions.