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How do people commit a sexual offence against children?

Is a sexual interest in children a new phenomenon or has it just been hidden from view until recent years? There has been a consider amount of media attention on the issue of sexual interest in children and sexual offending in recent times; however the issue of sexual interest in children is not a new phenomenon.


The process of offending

Many people who sexually offend say the offences “just happened” or “it was a one off”. The truth is sexual offences rarely ‘just happen’. No-one does anything without wanting to do it and thinking about it first (although some people do spend longer thinking things through). In 1984, psychologist David Finklehor developed a model (called the Preconditions model), which breaks down the process someone goes through in order to commit a sexual offence. This model can be used to help professionals, family members, young people and offenders tp understand the process of sexual abuse, and what they can do to prevent it/reduce the harm caused by it. Finkelhor argues that four preconditions must be present in order for a sexual offence to occur. The model is based on a cognitive behavioural approach; examining the link between thoughts, feelings and behaviour.



Extra considerations

For whatever reasons a person begins to engage in sexually inappropriate behaviour involving children, it has become clear that, for some, it can become difficult for them to manage their behaviour. Of all the kinds of behaviours that might cause distress to partners, family members and friends, the thought that someone they has engaged in sexually inappropriate behaviour involving children is one of the most upsetting. For this reason – and because of the fear of the consequences of others finding out – it is almost impossible for people to talk to anyone about it. Usually, the first time that anyone else becomes aware of the behaviour is when the police arrive on the doorstep.

What is important is that it is possible for individuals to manage their sexual thoughts and/or behaviours towards children. This means that the process of sexual offending as documented above is not a certain process.

  • Some individuals may have sexual thoughts about children, but can never justify the behaviour to themselves (overcome their conscience). However, they may be troubled or distressed by their thoughts, and want to be able to manage them.
  • Some individuals may wish to commit a sexual offence against a child, but the protective environment around the child is too great, or they/those close to them have put measures in place to prevent their behaviour, meaning that they cannot overcome the external constraints.

This means that the individual, and others around them, can help in preventing inappropriate sexual behaviour towards a child. This will be discussed further in the What can I do if I have concerns? section, but first we going to look at what makes it difficult for people to manage their sexual thoughts and/or behaviours, despite knowing it is wrong and, often, wanting to stop.


Continue to Why might someone continue to have sexual thoughts about a child?