In my blog, “Why me?” I explore the beliefs that survivors of child sexual abuse often have about their responsibility for the abuse.
David Finkelhor studied situations in which sexual abuse occurred. He outlines four things that MUST happen in order for abuse to happen. Understanding these facts can help survivors to challenge their thoughts that they may, in some way, be responsible for the abuse, or should have stopped the abuse.
- There is a person who wants to abuse
Abuse does not start with the child, abuse starts with the thoughts and desires of a person who wants to abuse children. It is not clear why these thoughts/desires occur, but we do know that a specific child does not trigger these thoughts. Abusers usually fantasise about what they would like to do to a child before the child appears and then they find a way to act on these thoughts.
- The person overcomes thought that abusing is wrong
Generally, people who want to abuse know that it is wrong and illegal to treat children in this way. Therefore abusers have to deal with any thoughts that they have that abusing is wrong, before they can act on their desires. Research has shown that to abuse, abusers use:
Justifying – Abusers may claim that they are helping the child in some way, e.g. teaching the child about sex, the act is comforting to the child, having a special relationship with the child. To do this, abusers must deny that their actions are abusive. Whatever the abuser thinks or says – abuse is never harmless.
Shifting blame from themselves – Abusers may blame the child for being attractive, blame others for not fulfilling their sexual needs, or blame their actions as being out of character due to mental illness/drink/drugs. Somme abusers may actively use drink or drugs to help them overcome thoughts that their behaviour is wrong.
Normalise abuse – Abusers may try to convince themselves that what they are doing is normal, through accessing child pornography on the internet or spending time with others who have similar desires.
Objectifying – dehumanising/objectifying the child
- The person can get the child alone
The potential abuser must be able to find or create an opportunity to get the child alone or at least away from a protective adult. Abusers often target children they have easy access to (e.g. when parents are absent/unaware, by baby-sitting, during bed-time or bathing, when out swimming).
- The abuser overcomes the child’s resistance
It is only when the scene has been set, by taking the above steps, that the child comes into the picture. Now with the desire to abuse, having given themselves permission to abuse and having spotted or created an opportunity to abuse, the abuser only has to make sure that they overcome any resistance the child may put up. This is often easily done through use of adult authority, bribes, threats or shame.