Over the past 4 to 5 decades, an increasing amount of attention has been paid to adults and adolescents who are sexually attracted to or who sexually abuse children. It has only been in the last 10 to 15 years that more than lip service has been given to children 12 years and younger who sexually abuse other children. This discussion focuses on children 12 years and younger who sexually and aggressively target populations, particularly those similar or younger in age or those viewed as weaker and/or vulnerable. As the label indicates, this behavior has both sexual and aggressive components. This group of children represents the extreme end of a continuum of children who exhibit problematic sexual behaviors.
There are few studies on these children, but those that are available suggest that this group of young sexual abusers is about equally distributed between males and females. Based on this statistic, one might ask why more females do not show up in the statistics of known adolescent and adult sexual offenders. Like older sex offenders, many of these children tend to have more than one victim.
The modal ages for beginning sexual abuse appear to be 6 to 9, although children younger than these ages have been identified. The young abusers are found across social classes and ethnic-racial groups, but the phenomenon appears to be more predominate in the lower socioeconomic strata. Geography also plays a role in terms of which racial-ethnic groups are found in various studies.
Although this essay uses the term sexually aggressive to describe this abusive group of children, a review of literature and programs demonstrates that there is no agreed upon label. Some researchers or practitioners such as Berliner are opposed to viewing these children’s behaviors as crimes. Hindman, in contrast, indicates that children can be charged with crimes if they meet her definition of culpability, and she has developed a 16-item assessment tool for this purpose.
In addition to problems in knowing what to call young sexually abusive children, there is also the problem of distinguishing between behaviors that are considered normative (a more sociological–criminal justice term), or normal (a more psychological term), and other types of sexual acts. There have been a variety of attempts to sort out this problem.
Besides using demographics, some studies have profiled sexually abusive and sexually aggressive children in terms of family, environmental, behavioral, and psychological characteristics. What is found is that many of these children have other emotional, psychological, social, and behavioral problems besides being sexually abusive. Consequently, many of these children will require a comprehensive long-term treatment program.
Some families of these children have various types of dysfunctions such as being polyincestuous, exhibiting parent–child role reversals, being involved in various types of abuse and substance abuse, and participating in illegal activities. Other families do not appear to be dysfunctional—at least on the surface.
Many but not all sexually aggressive children have been victims, and some are simultaneously victims as well as abusers. When a child has been a victim and becomes a perpetrator, there is controversy in the field as to which should be addressed first—the victimization or perpetration issue.
There are many theories that have been used to explain sexually aggressive children’s behavior. These include developmental theories, those built on trauma models, coping theories, cognitive-behavioral theories, addiction theories, posttraumatic stress models, and those based on notions of sexual abuse and violence cycles. One of the most promising theories attempts to explain the link between the sexual and aggressive components of these children’s behavior— how the two types of acts might get paired together.
The above noted theories are used in program development. In comparison to programs for adolescent and adult sexual offenders, there are relatively few for preadolescent sexual abusers. Of over 2,200 programs identified in a 2002 national program survey, about 86% were defined as community based and about 17% as residentially based. Slightly over 40% of the programs focused on treating adults, and another 40% focused on adolescents. Only 18% of the programs treated children, and over 70% of the states have no residential programs for children. An overview of 10 programs by Araji summarized small and large-scale efforts to treat preadolescent sexual abusers and their families. Most practitioners agree that group and family–caregiver models are most effective with this age of sexually aggressive children. These can be supplemented by individualized counseling. The majority of providers also prefer cognitive-behavioral orientations, wherein sexual abuse and/or aggression is viewed as a learned behavior. Adequate treatment for sexually aggressive children may take up to 1 or 2 years. This time frame is much longer than would be required for children with minor sexual behavior problems.
Current and Future Directions
In 1997, Araji noted that professionals believed the number of sexually aggressive children was growing and were frustrated over the lack of public awareness, programs, services, and coordinated local and state efforts to acknowledge the children and to intervene. Almost 10 years later, many professionals, practitioners, and parents around the country are becoming increasingly alarmed as more cases of these children appear with little being done in most states and communities to address the problem. A recent case from Alaska, for example, involved a 6-year-old male student who sexually assaulted, sodomized, and raped a 6-year-old male classmate in a school restroom for about 45 minutes. The case resulted in several lawsuits and a great amount of trauma and life disruptions being experienced by the victims of these young perpetrators and their families. The good news for Alaska is that a task force has been formed to address this social issue and to draft legislation requesting the state to take action. In addition to families and schools being impacted by sexually aggressive children, foster parents, community organizations, and other social institutions and organizations where these children are found need to be concerned.
Some states such as Massachusetts, Oregon, Colorado, and Florida are taking steps to define young children’s sexually abusive and violent acts as criminal, although this solution is controversial. Nevertheless, we are learning from adolescent sexual offenders that some began offending as preadolescents. From a social policy perspective, if society is truly interested in reducing the number of sexual abuse victims, some who may go on to become perpetrators, a good place to start is by addressing the issue of sexually aggressive and/or abusive children.
- Araji, S. K. (1997). Sexually aggressive children: Coming to understand them. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Araji, S. K. (2004). Preadolescents and adolescents: Evaluating normative and non-normative sexual behaviors and development. In G. O’Reilly, W. Marshall, A. Carr, & R. Beckett (Eds.), The handbook of clinical intervention with young people who sexually abuse (pp. 3–35). New York: Brunner-Routledge.
- Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. (2006). Report of the Taskforce on Children with Behavior Problems. Retrieved from http://www.atsa.com/ pdfs/Report-TFCSBP.pdf
- Calder, M. C. (2005). Children and young people who sexually abuse: New theory, research and practice developments. Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK: Russell House.
- The Safer Society Foundation, Inc.: http://www.safersociety.org/
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