Myths about the people who abuse children, and how they do it, are legion. Most common are beliefs that offenders can be stereotyped as an isolated group of sick individual men; or that sex abuse is restricted to single incidents of aberrant behaviour by otherwise ordinary men; or that it is caused by family problems. The aim of this chapter is to draw together evidence to show that the reality is quite different, and to demonstrate that accurate knowledge about offenders helps society both protect children and provide effective intervention programmes for their abusers.
The research reviewed here challenges some deeply held beliefs about the types of men who abuse children. In reality there is no type. Abusive behaviour occurs in many different situations and in different and various social groups. Those concerned with child protection need to know that diversity is the main factor characterising men who abuse children, that most sex offending takes place within the context of a relationship which the offender makes with the child in order to gain compliance and prevent disclosure, and to move away from the idea that the family itself is at fault when a child is sexually abused by a family member. Effective therapy, not only for offenders but also for those affected by abuse, recognises that offenders create or exacerbate family dysfunction in order to ensure that they can abuse undetected.
The recognition of different offending patterns is very important in establishing appropriate intervention with offenders. The thinking processes of abusers usually includes 'distorted thinking' which legitimises offending. This thinking, together with the cyclical patterns which many offenders develop, are key targets for change in effective offender intervention programmes. In summary, the aim of this chapter is to stress the importance of using knowledge of offenders to inform assessment, intervention and prevention of sex offending.