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Sometimes, child sex abuser is also a child

Updated: January 26, 2012 5:44PM

W hen we think of pedophiles, we tend to conjure up scary images of middle-aged predators.

However, the sad truth is that many children are abused by other children, and up to one-third of the sexual abuse in this country is committed by minors. (It is worth noting that while a small percentage of those who are sexually abused become abusers, almost all child abusers — adult or otherwise — are victims of sexual abuse).

When minors commit acts of sexual abuse, the results are not only tragic but also confusing. The legal system is built to respond to adult offenders, and lawmakers often are at a loss when it comes to responding to child-on-child sex crimes. For instance, should a 9-year-old perpetrator be on the sex offender registry? And what would cause a child to engage in this criminal behavior, particularly at such a young age?

Sadly, when children act out sexually in this manner, it is generally due to their own sexual abuse history. Sexual abuse is incredibly confusing and frightening for a victim, particularly for a victim who is a child. They have no way to rationalize or understand the behavior, and they don’t know where to place the blame or how to analyze their own thoughts and feelings.

Confusion such as this is common because sexual abuse often occurs at the hands of an adult who claims to love and care for the child, and this can further complicate the victim’s reactions to the abuse. The abuser often will tell the victim that they are special and they will reward their silence with gifts and acts of affection that the child might not receive elsewhere, which means that on some level, the child will have positive feelings for the perpetrator.

Furthermore, the victim’s own body might confuse them — sexual abuse is always wrong and always inexcusable, yet our bodies are built to physically respond to sexual touching, which can mean that victims might feel aroused during the abuse. This doesn’t mean that the victim is asking for the abuse or that they are enjoying it, but it can serve to confuse them and enrage them as they feel ashamed of that physical response. Even adult victims of rape and abuse have a hard time understanding these physical reactions and letting go of self-blame, so imagine a child trying to figure out these very complicated issues on their own.

Even though it is very difficult to think of children as sexual abusers, the truth is that many victims of childhood sexual abuse are sexually “groomed” by predators to respond to criminal sexual stimuli and behavior. They might show the victim child pornography as a way to teach them that such touching is “OK,” and they might encourage them to touch or become involved with other children. This isn’t as difficult as it might sound, because at this point in the relationship, the predator likely has manipulated the victim into silence and isolated them from their family and friends. Not to mention, children are naturally curious about their bodies and the world around them, and predators manipulate victims into believing that this curiosity means that they are ready to be sexual.

And, while some curiosity is natural, it’s important to remember that acting out in this manner can be a sign that sexual abuse is occurring. Children who are sexually abused (and those who are sexually abusive) often exhibit symptoms such as sexualizing their toys or games. They also might use new words for their genitals or discuss sexual acts in an adult way. They might suffer from strange ailments like mysterious stomachaches that come and go at seemingly random times, as well as nightmares and regressive childhood behavior (such as an older child wetting the bed or sucking their thumb). Sexual abuse also can make a child secretive, anxious and frightened by normal activities like bathing or changing clothes.If your child is exhibiting any of this behavior, get the communication lines open and take action immediately. Visit the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry ( ) for resources and therapists in your area, as well as tips on how to help your child during this time.

Dr. Berman is a New York Times best-selling author
and her television shows,
“In The Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman” and “The Dr. Laura Berman Show,” are featured on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network.

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