It’s time to talk about something that is going to make all of us uncomfortable. When does sexual perpetration actually begin? It is commonly understood that predators often have multiple victims prior to actually being convicted of sexual assault, but we rarely talk about when and how this emerges.
According to the US Bureau of Justice, the age with the greatest number of reported sex offenses was age 14.
Half of adult offenders report that their first offense took place during adolescence- the average age reported? 12.
Even adolescent offenders often have numerous offenses prior to their perpetration being discovered. The numbers range from 1 to 15 prior victims.
This is hard to digest. We want to believe that the danger lies with strangers in vans, but the reality is that the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults happen at the hands of someone known the victim.
Even more concerning is this fact: Most predators begin perpetration as young teens.
Treatment and intervention with juvenile offenders looks different, and the therapeutic process includes the assessment/educational phase. During this phase, juveniles complete a detailed sexual history and complete a polygraph. This educational/assessment phase is considered the most effective point in treatment for perpetrators to disclose additional victims.
Some people believe it’s because of the looming polygraph.
However, other things happen during this phase. These juveniles are educated about the nature of sexual offending. They are taught about consent and violation, and many actually disclose additional victims because they didn’t know their behavior constituted a sexual offense. They learn about healthy and appropriate sexual expression as opposed to violation and exploitation. They are then expected to give a detailed sexual history with the help of their therapists.
Children who engage in sexually offensive behaviors often have substance use, domestic violence, poverty, intergenerational abuse, physical abuse and a family history of denying responsibility. They are often exposed to sexual aggression, sexual abuse, physical violence and blurred boundaries. Often, there is a family history of difficulties coping with abuse perpetrated against children.
Over 90% of the juvenile offenders in one study not only had experienced sexual victimization themselves, but their own abusive behaviors paralleled their victimization experiences.
So, what can we do?
I would suggest that we intervene preemptively, rather than waiting for catastrophe to strike. Often juveniles offend against their family members, which can have a significant impact on the family as a whole.
We start by believing children when they tell us something is off. Unfortunately, children (especially teens) are often not believed when they share that they have been offended against. Even worse, they are blamed and shamed.
Oftentimes adults will disregard a child’s disclosure, chalking it up to “normal exploratory play.” While most children do engage in some sort of sexualized play during childhood, that play is mutual, consensual and it is not coercive in nature. Perpetration is characterized by secrecy, coercion, and exploitation. There is an element of vulnerability and often some sort of power difference, whether that be size, age or influence. This isn’t two kids that are the “playing doctor.” It’s one juvenile using force, bribery, coercion, secrecy and/or manipulation to get sexual gratification from someone more vulnerable than them in some way. It is important to be aware that if one child feels uncomfortable, manipulated or exploited, then the interaction should not be dismissed as mere “play.”
In addition to believing, we also have to preemptively ensure that our children understand consent and healthy boundaries, even from a young age. We need to ensure that children understand that “No” means “No,” and “stop” means “stop.” We have to be intentional about teaching children that nobody is entitled to anyone else. This is difficult for us, as parents.
Our kids don’t have to give hugs they don’t want to give. They also aren’t entitled to hugs.
Our kids don’t have to share. They also aren’t entitled to other people’s things.
Our kids don’t have to play with people that make them uncomfortable. They do have to be kind. They are not entitled to other people’s play.
We have to teach our children to say “No” in a way that is kind and gracious, but also clear and direct.
We have to teach our children to accept the word “No” long before they even understand the concept of sex. Before sexual consent is even on the radar, children should understand consent and autonomy.
If the educational phase of intervention with juvenile offenders is so successful largely because of the understanding it provides regarding consent and autonomy, let’s provide that information before offenses occur in the first place.
Let’s be intentional. Proactive, rather than reactive. Let’s better equip our children to create a kinder, more Christ-like world.
Be Bold. Live out loud.
Jon A. Shaw et al., Practice Parameters for the Assessment and Treatment of Children and Adolescents Who are Sexually Abusive of Others, 38 J. Am. Acad. Adolesc. Psych. 55S-76S, ¶2 (1999 Dec. Supp.)
Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.701(b)(2)
Fla. Stat. ch. 985.01.
Howard N. Snyder, Juvenile Arrests 2001 (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention), December 2003, at 3-4.
Howard N. Snyder, Juvenile Arrests 1996 (Office of Juvenile and Delinquency Prevention), November 1997, at 2-3.
Sharon K. Araji, Sexually Aggressive Children: Coming to Understand Them xxvii (1997).
Stovering, J., Nelson, W. M., & Hart, K. J. (2013). Timeline of victim disclosures by juvenile sex offenders. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 24(6), 728–739. https://doi-org.proxy1.library.eiu.edu/10.1080/14789949.2013.848461
Sue Righthand and Carlann Welch, Juveniles Who Have Sexually Offended: a Review of the Professional Literature (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention), March 2001, at 3.
Thomas Oakland and Claudia Wright, The Value of High Quality, Comprehensive Information to Decisionmakers in Juvenile Cases, 77 Fla. B.J. 55–60 (Nov. 2003).
Falligant, J. M., Fix, R. L., & Alexander, A. A. (2017). Judicial Decision-Making and Juvenile Offenders: Effects of Medical Evidence and Victim Age. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 26(4), 388–406. https://doi-org.proxy1.library.eiu.edu/10.1080/10538712.2017.1296914