Who are abusers and why aren't we better at spotting them?

Broken black crayon, stick man drawing

Photo: Phil Long

We often hear more than we want to about child sexual abuse. The media seems to be full of horrific stories about children who are abused, exploited, abducted and even murdered, often by strangers. But the reality of abuse is rarely what we hear in the news: the stories that get the most media attention aren't typical. 

  • Over 90% of children who have experienced sexual abuse were abused by someone they knew.1
  • The majority of perpetrators sexually assault children known to them, with about 80% of offences taking place in the home of either the offender or the victim.2
  • The overwhelming majority (more than 80%) of disclosures to the National Association of People Abused in Childhood are from people reporting abuse inside families.3

Abusers are often skilled at building trust with children and their parents or carers, and abuse may take place for years with no one knowing. Children rarely tell about abuse - so we need to protect them.

Recognising the behaviour of people who sexually abuse children is not easy for a number of reasons:

  • We don't know what to look for in people who spend time around our children
  • We're often looking in the wrong places 
  • Our suspicions may be so disturbing that we push them out of our minds

    'He looks so ordinary and is great with kids. I’d have never recognised him as an abuser,'  mother of 7-year-old boy abused by a neighbour.

Who abuses children?

People we know

Abusers are likely to be people we know, and could well be people we care about. They are family members, friends, neighbours or babysitters. Many hold responsible positions in society.

People who have adult relationships

Some people who abuse children have adult sexual relationships and are not solely, or even mainly, sexually interested in children. 

People of all classes, races, religions and gender 

Abusers come from all classes, racial and religious backgrounds and may be homosexual or heterosexual. Most abusers are men, but some are women. 

Your child’s peers 

A third of those who have sexually abused a child are themselves under the age of 18.

This can be especially difficult to deal with, partly because it is hard to think of children doing such things, and also because it's not always easy to tell the difference between normal sexual exploration and harmful sexual behaviour. 

Information and advice is available here:  http://www.parentsprotect.co.uk/age_appropriate_sexual_behaviour.htm

If you have concerns it is best to seek help. Information about how to recognise worrying behaviour in children and teenagers and what to do about it is available from the Stop it Now! Helpline on 0808 1000 900

Why do abusers do it?

It is not easy to understand how seemingly ordinary people can do such things. Some abusers recognise what they are doing is wrong and are deeply unhappy about what they are doing. Others believe their behaviour is OK and that what they do shows their love for children. 

Some, but not all, have been abused themselves; others come from violent or unhappy family backgrounds. Many struggle to meet their needs in consenting adult relationships. Others lose sight of appropriate behaviour at times of upheaval or crisis in their lives. A few have mental health problems and may actively seek to hurt children. 

Individuals who sexually exploit older children may hold distorted attitudes regarding teenagers and their behaviour. They may regard these young people as sexualised and ‘fair game’. They may also see the abuse as part of a transaction in which they give the young person ‘rewards’ in return for sexual favours, which leads them to see their behaviour as ‘consenting’. 

Knowing why people sexually abuse children does not excuse their behaviour, but it may help us understand what is happening and take steps to prevent abuse.

Does treatment of abusers really work?

Most abusers are not monsters, however abhorrent their behaviour, and few are the predatory violent offenders portrayed in the media. Adults who abuse children are responsible for their behaviour and can choose to stop. Experts agree that with successful completion of specialised treatment, people who sexually abuse children can learn how to control their actions. This is especially true of youngsters who have abused, the majority of whom are unlikely to come to police attention for abuse again.


Radford, Lorraine, Corral, Susana, Bradley, Christine, Fisher, Helen, Bassett, Claire, Howat, Nick and Collishaw, Stephan (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today . London: NSPCC.

 Grubin, Don (1998) Sex offending against children: understanding the risk (PDF). London: Home Office

 Stop it Now! Letter to Tim Loughton MP 2012

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