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Appropriate Sexual Behavior and the Profile of an Abuser

In last week’s post, How to Talk to Your Child About Sexual Abuse, many topics were covered including body safety rules, how to teach the safety rules and tips for recognizing the signs of sexual abuse.

However, we are only scratching the surface of this epidemic. Child sexual abuse is a massive problem and prevention requires that many elements be evaluated and parents be educated.

Too often, parents think that their children are safe, or cannot be harmed by sexual predators. Unfortunately, this assumption is incorrect. “Parents don’t know this when they have children. What they know is that their kid needs to be in a car seat and that the child could choke on a grape. But they have no clue that sexual abuse of their child is real and possible,” said Feather Berkower, author, child abuse prevention specialist and founder of Parenting Safe Children.

The Face of an Abuser

The stereotypical image of a man lurking behind the bushes waiting to abduct children is often incorrect. While possible, the chance of a sexual predator being a stranger is unlikely.

“For the most part, 95-98 percent of the time when someone molests a child, the child knows that person,” said Berkower. “The people who molest children are the people children know, love and trust the most.”

This could mean family members, coaches, babysitters and schoolteachers.  Enacting a screening process is a great way to help protect your children.

The screening process has two goals:

  1. Invite the caregiver (or anyone who comes into contact with your child) onto your prevention team
  2. Inform them that your kid is off limits!

“If parents were just willing to do this with everyone, we wouldn’t have sex abuse anymore,” said Berkower. “But people are so afraid to talk about it. But the more afraid we are the happier sex offenders are.”

Knowledge is power in the fight against abuse. According to Berkower, if children are educated, they are much less likely to be abused. “If they [sex offenders] can’t get their environment, if they can’t get a kid to keep a secret, if they can’t get a kid to take their clothes off, then they can’t molest a child,” said Berkower.

The phrase “ignorance is bliss” is something that does not apply to abuse prevention. “The parents who don’t want to talk about it, who cover their ears and say ‘we don’t want to listen to this, it’s too painful, it’s too scary,’ those are the kids that offenders have access to.”

An Alarming Trend

In our society, child-to-child sexual abuse is becoming more prominent. This act is less discussed and often times, less understood by the general population.

“We know that children are sexual beings and most kids explore on some level, their own bodies and their peers,” said Berkower.

Nevertheless, understanding the difference between age-appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior is crucial.

Appropriate Sexual Behavior

  • Playing games such as the “doctor game,” or “I’ll pretend to be this and you pretend to be that.”
  • Lighthearted, spontaneous or mutual behavior
  • Looking at or touching a peer’s genitals

Inappropriate Sexual Behavior

  • Mature demonstration of sexual activities, language or gestures
  • A preoccupation with sexual activities and ideas
  • Attempting unwanted sexual contact with other children
  • Engaging in advanced sexual encounters such as masturbation, oral copulation or intercourse
  • If one child is coerced or forced to participate in sexual acts
  • If a child is bribed, they feel shame or if there is secrecy around the act

According to Berkower, “The biggest indicator of appropriate versus non, is when the sexual behavior is too advanced for the child’s age.”

It is important to remember that sexual exploration is normal, however when you witness this behavior it can be alarming. Here are tips from Feather Berkower on how to handle the encounter.

  1. Stay as calm as possible.
  2. Do not yell, punish, scold or shame the child.
  3. Redirect.  “It looks like you two are looking at or touching private parts, lets get dressed.” You stop it, name it and redirect it.
  4. Depending on what was happening, you talk to the child or children. If it was inappropriate, you need to call your social services agency.

While some parents may be wary of contacting social services, it is important if your child (or the other child involved in the incident) was performing advanced sexual acts. This can be an indication that the child perpetrating the act was or is being abused. “Oral copulation is not what children do,” said Berkower. “And if they are, we need to intervene and help them because someone has exposed them to that.”

It is important to take an objective look at the situation. “You assume that it’s the other child, but it could be your own that provoked this,” said Berkower. “And that’s what is so scary.”

Are you interested in learning more about sexual abuse prevention? Visit Berkower’s website or sign up for a Parenting Safe Children Workshop which focuses on parent education, child empowerment and caregiver screening.



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  1. Thanks for this important information, Nicole. It is critical to have ongoing conversations with kids about safe and appropriate touch. As parents we are often uncomfortable talking about it, but if we can then kids can.

    • Great comment! You are absolutely right! The more uncomfortable parents are, the more vulnerable their children become.

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