Why do people do this?

The group of reasons that any particular person does this will be unique to them, but in general we do see some themes.

One of these is that while most people who have been victims of violence do not go on to perpetrate this on others, some people do. This can start when they are a child and they act out their experiences as most children do, but can also continue through teens and into adulthood. Research with people who were in community treatment for having perpetrated child sexual abuse, found that 65% of that group had been victims of violence when they were children.

Another theme is entitlement – some people seem to believe that what they want is more important than the well-being and autonomy of another human being. This can be regardless of what is driving that “want” – whether it is about sex, or power, or anger, or combinations of multiple emotions.

How do they pick a person to target?
Mostly this seems to be about who is around, and getting away with it. So, they choose:

  • Someone they have access to – so usually someone they know.
  • Someone who won’t protest – someone who might not have the language to protest, or who might be so confused they won’t.
  • Someone who won’t tell – this might be a child who doesn’t really have a supportive adult to tell, or an adult who is relatively powerless in a work or social environment.
  • If they do tell, someone who isn’t likely to be believed – such as a young person out drinking

There aren’t many people who fit all these requirements, so it is common for people with harmful sexual behaviour to groom the person to fit – deliberately confuse them so they won’t protest, tell them that bad things will happen to them or someone they love if they tell, and groom the environment around the person so they won’t be believed by making out that the person is unreliable or has been coming on to them for months or lies about other things.

How do we tell who might do this?
Our world could be a lot safer if we could tell by the way a person looks if they might do this. But we can’t. People who use harmful sexual behaviour look just like the rest of us.

Instead, we need to watch behaviour, the behaviour that happens before the sexual abuse, when they are setting the situation up to do it and get away with it. For child sexual abuse, this includes things like:

  • Spending a lot of time with children, often other people’s children.
  • Setting up “special” relationships with one or more children – bringing gifts or taking them out on special adventures.
  • Intruding on a child’s privacy by “accidentally” walking in on them.
  • Insisting on hugging, kissing, tickling or touching children when the child does not want the affection or attention.
  • Joking about sex with or in front of children.

This compares with safe behaviour around children, such as:

  • Respecting children’s wishes about when and how they are touched, such as when a child says to stop tickling or play fighting because they have had enough.
  • Respecting children’s privacy around things like bathing and dressing.
  • Being open to comments if their behaviour around children causes concern to others.

No one thing means someone will sexually abuse a child, but if you see some of these signs, don’t ignore it. Talk to someone who can help .

Does treatment work?
Treatment can work – particularly if the person is motivated to change and has social support.

Treatment programmes help people to understand what leaves them vulnerable to abusing others, and how to manage those vulnerabilities to reduce risk.

How to get help?
Community treatment is available across the country, with Auckland providers being Kaupapa Māori service Korowai Tumanako and SAFE Network .

But if you live somewhere else, or need help right now, call safetotalk .