Need to know: Here’s how a child sex abuser operates

by Danish  May 2, 2013 15:16 IST

“I enjoy young people. I love being around them. I even feel like a child myself,” Jerry Sandusky, accused of 40 child molestation charges in the year 2011, told NBC.

The bestial rapes of two young girls in New Delhi, earlier this month, have proved that child sexual abuse is an uncomfortable reality staring in our faces. The criminal justice system has drawn flak, the potential of welfare schemes meant for vulnerable children is under radar, and society’s unabated silence on the issue has been questioned.

Photo for representation purpose only. Getty

Photo for representation purpose only. Getty

But the discourse has missed something that lies at the core of the issue: Mindset of a child abuser. A mystery shrouds the behaviour of child molesters in India despite child sexual abuse cases seeing a jump of 300 percent in the country since 2001 (National Crime Record Bureau data).

The one thing about a child abuser’s profile on which therapists and experts have unanimity is that there exists no profile. The abuser can be anyone, literally, who has access to the child, inside or outside the child’s home. “A regular person who likes to be sexual with children,” is how experts loosely describe a child abuser.

Kenneth V Lanning, former supervisory special agent, FBI, and author of ‘Child molesters: A behavorial Analysis’ – a project awarded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, US Department of Justice, describes an acquaintance offender as the ‘nice-guy’ offender. 

“These are 'nice guys' and 'pillars of the community' and quite often they actually are. Many individuals do not prevent, recognise, or accept sexual victimisation of a child by a respected member of society because they cannot believe that a man who is good and spiritual and who seems to truly care for children, could be a child molester. Such offenders can be the Big Brother of the Year, most popular teacher, or best soccer coach. It is not uncommon for these offenders to be viewed as 'child magnets' or 'pied pipers' who have an extraordinary ability to relate to children and to whom many children are drawn,” noted Lanning.

Why does one become a child abuser? The answers can be as varied as the reasons for which abusers, abuse.

According to Enakshy Ganguly of HAQ Centre for child rights, a Delhi based NGO working for child rights, in most of the cases where the offender is an adolescent, it is exploratory. "Some of them don’t even know that what they are doing is abuse or violation."

Much more complex dynamics are at play when the abuser is an adult. There are no scientific studies done by the government of India or a private organisation on what makes an adult sexually exploit a child. However, two factors emerge from the analysis of case studies: Individual and sociological.

Although there are no numbers to back it, individual pathology indicates that many child abusers were victims of abuse as children or had a troubled past. “Lot of them feel shy or scared to discuss it with anyone. Others want to talk about it, but don’t know whom they should approach. Those who gather courage and speak, are either shooed away or asked to keep quiet as the abuser is someone known to the family and the family honour has to be protected. The result is that they grow up with rage and angst. When they turn adults, abusing a child becomes an expression of sexuality for them,” said Jasjit Purewal, founder of Sakshi, a Delhi based NGO dealing with sexual abuse.

Among sociological factors, the patriarchal setup plays an important role. “Add to that a failed criminal justice system that has no mechanism to identify pedophiles and zero down on them, the availability of children without parental supervision and the family's propensity to not report the case fearing loss of honour. It’s a potent combination resulting in silent cries of children for decades,” said Dr Rajat Mitra, a psychologist who has worked with sexual offenders.

While child abusers show no common traits or distinctive features, the process of abuse follows a similar pattern. Therapists noted that abusers of their victims – varying in socio-economic backgrounds – follow a common strategy to approach their targets.

Achal Bhagat, chairperson of Sarthak, a Delhi based organisation, has worked on mental health for over two decades. He breaks down the strategy of a child abuser into four stages. In the first stage, they win the trust of the child. In clinical terminology, it is called grooming. If the child is poor, give him money or candies. If he has no father, become a fatherly figure. If he likes to study, gift him books. Then, they create a situation to be around the child when no one else is around. Go to the child’s place or take the child out. This is followed by abuse.  The last stage involves creating fear in the mind of victim.

The abuser does not necessarily show remorse or repent when caught. “He does either of the two: shifts the blame on the victim by saying the victim was the one who provoked him or turns apologetic and say things like… I don’t know what had come over me,” said Dr Bhagat.

Among the worst cases Dr Bhagat recalled are the ones where, after being caught, the abuser regains the trust of the victim and starts another cycle of abuse. “In such cases, the child, who is not emotionally mature, feels helpless and starts blaming himself or herself. The child thinks why did I trust this person knowing what he did to me. Between helplessness and mistrust, the game of abuse is played,” said Dr Bhagat.

Lanning has classified child molesters into two categories – situational and preferential.

The situational-type child molester does not usually have compulsive-paraphilic sexual preferences including a preference for children. For such a child molester, sex with children may range from a 'once-in-a-lifetime' act to a long-term pattern of behavior, noted the study published in 2010.

Preferential-type child molesters have definite sexual inclinations. For many, those inclinations or preferences include children and they are the ones it would be most appropriate to refer to as pedophiles.

Regarding therapy, it is a long way to go. First, the endemic of child sexual abuse has to be acknowledged. The abuser has to be seen in the context of his surroundings than in isolation. An environment has to be created where the abuser can approach therapists. “It is crucial to work on the mindset of the abuser. It is a compulsive activity and needs to be treated. Otherwise there will always be silence around child sexual abuse,” said Dr Anuja Gupta of Rahi Foundation, an NGO working on child sexual abuse.

With the lives of children at stake, silence is something which parents and concerned citizens cannot afford.