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Understanding Child Sexual Offenders Kelli Palfy

Understanding Child Sex Offenders

By Dr. Kelli Palfy Registered Psychologist

         To better appreciate the prevalence of male sexual abuse it may be helpful to understand sexual offenders. Despite public awareness that strangers aren’t the only people parents need to worry about in regard to protecting their children, many people still struggle to recognize potential offenders who don’t fit the stereotypical image of a sexual predator—that being the creepy guy who sits in his van near the schoolyard offering little children candy or puppies to play with.

         Parents often warn their children about not talking to strangers and about never getting into vehicles with them. While this is good advice, the problem of sexual abuse far more commonly exists much closer to home. A large majority of abused children are abused by someone they know—a relative, caregiver, or other adult who has won their trust. Given that this may be hard to comprehend, here are a few statistics that support this assertion.

         In 2013, the Canadian Department of Justice conducted surveys at two centers offering support to male survivors of sexual abuse.[1] Of those who reported childhood sexual abuse, almost all of the males (57 out of 59) reported having been sexually abused as a child. Most reported that their perpetrator was someone they trusted or a family member. Thirteen were sexually abused by a family member other than a biological parent, 16 were abused by a person in authority such as a teacher, principal, babysitter or clergy and 12 were abused by a family friend. Eight were abused by their own father and three by their mother. Only four men reported having been sexually abused by a stranger.  

         Similarly, many of the men I spoke to were also sexually abused by a family member. Approximately half were violated by a biological parent, while a few were abused by male or female cousins or uncles. The remainder were abused by someone considered to be a family friend or someone known to their parent. Some were abused a second time by someone introduced to them by the original perpetrator. None of the men had their first experience of abuse with a stranger.

         The reality is that most child sexual offenders are known (if not well known) to their victim’s parent(s) or caretaker(s). I know this is difficult to comprehend; people don’t generally suspect (nor want to suspect) their friends, relatives or care providers. Perpetrators know this—and count on it. 

Situational or Opportunistic Child Molesters


         Child sex offenders may be categorized as either situational/opportunistic or preferential, though some possess characteristics of both types. As the name implies, the situational offender are indiscriminate in that they target children (of any gender), if an opportunity presents itself. The vast majority are male (more than 97 percent), and the frequency of their offenses depends in part on their access to the victims.[2]


Preferential Child Molesters


         Preferential child molesters create their opportunities. They are recognized as having long-term, persistent patterns of behavior that include grooming techniques which are often very well developed.[3] Preferential child molesters are much more common than situational offenders. In 1987, American psychiatrist Gene Abel conducted research on 561 offenders who admitted to an average of 150 male victims each. Among those diagnosed as pedophiles, as many as one-third (30 percent) admitted that by the time they were 13 they had already committed sexual offenses against children.[4]Having said this, it is important to distinguish that not all youths who sexually offend go on to become adult offenders. One study revealed that seven years after their initial contact with authorities, only 9 percent of youth offenders came to the attention of law enforcement agencies for sexual offenses, and only 5 percent were convicted.[5]  

         The preferential child molester often uses pornographic images of children to feed their sexual fantasies, much in the same way other adults use adult pornography. Some collect child pornography, then masturbate and fantasize about the material without acting out. However, in many cases arousal and fantasy fuel sexual deviance that leads to the acting out with children.[6]



[1] Susan McDonald and Adamira Tijerino, Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Assault: Their Experiences (Ottawa, Canada: Department of Justice Canada, 2013),

[2] Matt Logan, “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: Most Child Molesters Blend into the Background,” HALO Forensic Behavioural Specialists (blog), February 22, 2010,

[3] Logan, “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing.”

[4] Gene Abel, Judith Becker, Marty Mittelman, Jerry Cunningham-Rathner, Joanne Rouleau, and William Murphy, “Self-Reported Sex Crimes of Nonincarcerated Paraphiliacs,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 2, no. 1 (1987): 3–25,, “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing.”

[5] Ian Nisbet, Peter Wilson, and Stephen Smallbone, “A Prospective Longitudinal Study of Sexual Recidivism among Adolescent Sex Offenders,” Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment 16, no. 3 (2004): 223–34,

[6] Logan, “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing.”


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