The statistics are staggering. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys will be a victim of child sexual abuse during their lifetime. But what is a pedophile exactly? It’s a term that is often thrown around but largely misunderstood. Although often heard and used by law enforcement, it is not a legal definition but rather a psychological diagnosis. Not all child molesters are pedophiles and surprising to most, not all pedophiles have sexually abused children and would not be considered child molesters.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the definitive guide psychiatrists/ psychologists use to diagnose mental and psychiatric disorders, defines a pedophilia as an adult psychological disorder characterized by a sexual preference and attraction to prepubescent children. Generally, to be labeled as a pedophile, an individual must be at least 16 years of age and at least five years older than the child to meet criteria for pedophilia. Most researcher consider pedophilia a predisposition ingrained in a person and not something easily overcome, which is why recidivism rates are extremely high and most who have offended will offend again.

It’s important for parents and the general public to understand that the majority of pedophiles identify themselves as heterosexual even when abusing children of the same gender. There have been many instances where an adult male is molesting male child victims but maintains a marriage to a woman. Often this offender is discounted and his victims not taken as seriously because the offender gives the appearance of being in a heterosexual relationship. Adult sexual orientation has little to do with victim type.

It is also vitally important to understand that a pedophile can be anyone regardless of profession, background, intelligence, race or socio-economic status. A pedophile often gets away with abusing children for so long and has so many victims because they have gained the trust of everyone around them and when the abuse is disclosed it is often hard for even those closest to the victim and offender to believe the allegations are true.

Most child molesters and pedophiles have a grooming process that if you pay attention to create serious warning signs, which most simply overlook. Understanding the dynamics of this process will also help to understand how a pedophile goes undetected for so long and why there are often so many victims.

The majority of child sexual abuse victims are known to the offender in some way. They are family or close to the family such as acquaintances, influential members of the community, trusted friends or connected to the child though school, church or other activities. One of the primary reasons that the offender is able to exploit the child is because he or she holds the power in the relationship based on age and experience, size and strength, and adult status. And they have taken steps to ensure they are in a position of trust with the child’s caregiver.

Targeting the victim – Any child could be a potential victim. Particularly those child molesters diagnosed as pedophiles are often attracted to a certain type of child. Age, gender, hair color and other similar characteristics are often shared with multiple victims of a pedophile. Many of the victims are often vulnerable in some way – little family support, low-self-confidence or low-self-esteem and trouble making friends for example. These victims are often more easily manipulated by the pedophile.

  • Isolating the child – Offering the child rides and/or taking the child out of his or her surroundings is one way that the offender may separate the child from others and gain access to the child alone, so that others cannot witness the abuse. Also making the child feel special or that the two share a special bond that isn’t shared by others is another way offenders manipulate and isolate the child.
  • Gaining Trust – The offender may observe the child and assesses his/her vulnerabilities to learn how best to approach and interact. They may offer the victim special attention, understanding or someone to talk to and then engage the child in ways that eventually gain their friendship and trust. It is not uncommon especially for pedophiles to give the victims special gifts or treats and single them out with extra attention.
  • Playing a role in the child’s life – The offender may manipulate the relationship so that it appears he or she is the only one who fully understands the child or meets the child’s needs in a particular way. Pedophiles, for instance, may seem overly involved in the lives of children – a special coach that maybe doesn’t have kids of their own who is constantly with children. Or even adults who prefer the company of children over other adults and find ways to be an important part of a child’s life in often inappropriate ways.
  • Creating secrecy – The offender may reinforce the special connection with the victim when they are alone or through private communication with the victim such as through emails, text messages or on social media. But they reinforce that their special relationship must remain a secret because others will not understand, will be jealous or come between the relationship. The offender may threaten the victim with disclosure, suicide, physical harm to the child or loved ones or other traumas if he or she tells.
  • Initiating sexual contact – When the power over the child victim has been established, the offender will eventually initiate physical contact with the victim. It may begin with touching that is not overtly sexual (though the offender may find it sexually gratifying) and that may appear to be casual (arm around the shoulder, pat on the knee). Gradually, the offender will introduce more sexualized touching. By breaking down inhibitions and desensitizing the child, the offender will continue advancing the sexual contact.
  • Controlling the relationship – Offenders rely on the secrecy of the relationship to keep it going and to ensure that the child will not reveal the abuse. Children are often afraid of disclosing the abuse. They may have been told that they will not be believed or that something about the child “makes” the abuser do this to them. The child may also feel shame or fear that they will be blamed.