Anna Salter understands how sexual predators think and operate. She has spent over two decades studying, interviewing, and treating sexual offenders and their victims. Her book, Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders : Who They Are, How They Operate, and How We Can Protect Ourselves and Our Children, is an accessible, powerful work that strikes at the heart of our common misinformation and misunderstandings about sexual offenders, their behaviors, and dangers.
How Big Is the Problem?
Sexual predators. Who are they?
- They are the man who relentlessly probes for weaknesses he can exploit to convince (or force) post-pubescent teenage girls into having sex with him. He will prey on those who are alone, have family issues, or otherwise make the mistake of trusting him. He volunteers extensively with the youth in his local church where most of his victims attend, and often sings there. Prohibitions against gossip, as well as naivete and shame, leave his crimes hidden for years. He marries, and the church staff presume incorrectly he is then “safe” from engaging in further predatory behavior.
- They are the church worker who, when the church bus is nearly empty, fondles the vulva of a gradeschool-aged bus rider.
- They are the homosexual man who has claimed there is nothing wrong with a sexual relationship between an adult male and a teenager. He is recommended by the church staff to direct a youth program at another church.
- They are the adult-age brother who repeatedly fondles his preteen younger sister.
- They are the employer who believes it is acceptable and understandable to have an extramarital affair with his older teenaged employees.
- They are the man who consummates his marriage by, after being told by his bride that she is both exhausted and suffering from a terrible headache, declaring, “I’m getting what I deserve,” and forces her.
- They are a respected, well-liked, family man who has been sexually abusing a neighbor for years. When the neighbor moves away, he finds a new victim—his granddaughter. In this rare case, the church he attended acted completely appropriately, working with law enforcement authorities to ensure the offender’s arrest, interviewing possible victims, and making the problem known to the congregation. (None of his offenses occurred in relation to any church activities or at the church itself.)
- They are a man no one—not even his wife, houseguests, or closest friends—suspects of sexually abusing and raping at least one boy over many years. He chooses his victims carefully: Those already suffering from abuse at home are not likely to be acknowledged or believed, whereas those from stronger families, despite ease of access, would present too high a risk. Church work guarantees access to the former. None of those around him know he had long ago beaten one rap in California. During a later trial he will not testify, but does not realize the statements made to friends are damning when statement analysis techniques are applied.
I have not taken any of the descriptions above from Anna Salter’s excellent book; rather, I have personally known every single one of the offenders I have described. I know some—but far from all—of their victims. From my own interactions with the victims of sexual predators, I am all too aware of the destruction their abuse causes, and the years of pain the victims suffer. A few victims eventually find deliverance in one way or another. Some, rarely, will have loved ones who patiently work to rebuild what others have destroyed. Some victims seem irreparably harmed—especially those who are abused at a young age—suffering severe psychological damage that persists decades beyond the abuse.
I have intentionally omitted the many victim stories of which I am aware, and described only the predators I personally knew. I am not that old. Most of my social contacts occur within the two churches I have attended in the past 30 years. Nevertheless, I can quickly call to mind the identities of eight such abusers (and at least five more that I have known but have sparser details about). Either my life is particularly prone to intersect with sexual abusers, or the problem is far more prevalent than most people would admit. It would seem that the latter conclusion is the correct one. (Many sexual predators like to target Christians and churches, because claiming to be a fellow Christian quickly helps establish unmerited trust. However, just because most of the abusers I listed were known from a church context, one should not assume churches harbor a greater number of sexual predators than would be represented in the general population. One exception to this would be the Catholic priesthood, where the required absence of adult romantic interests; an immense amount of respect and trust in the position; easy access to children; and the Catholic Church’s consistent cover-up, rather than removal, of abusers all worked together to create an ideal environment for pedophiles.)
Sexual abuse is not new. Sexual predators are not new. Hundreds of years before Christ, God provided in the Mosaic Law legal protection for women against rape, clearly attesting to the fact that such offenses span centuries and cultures. Research as early as 1929 “documented rates of sexual abuse of female children ranging from 24 to 37 percent” (p. 11). “[R]ates of child sexual abuse are extraordinarily high.”
What’s even worse is that offenders, even repeat offenders of the most egregious type, keep getting away with it:
In treating victims since 1978, I have heard the stories over and over of offenders who were never caught. A young woman tells me that as a young teen, she and a friend were raped repeatedly by a friend of their parents. It went on for years. He would rape the girls in front of each other and threatened the lives of both of them if they told. They didn’t. They were both afraid of him and convinced they wouldn’t be believed anyway, given his high standing in the community and his friendship with their parents. There is a song she still hates, she tells me, because he used to sing it as he undressed them.
Her friend committed suicide as a young adult. My client has been plagued with low self-esteem, ongoing nightmares, and depression. She has always lived a walled-off existence, keeping others at emotional arms’ length.
And what happened to him, I ask? “Him?” she says, perplexed at the question. “Nothing. He’s still moderator of the town meetings.” There … was a predator who was bold enough to rape children in front of each other. He was implicated in the suicide of one, had damaged the life of another, and more than a decade later was standing up in front of his peers cracking jokes. And, no doubt, still singing his song. (p. 13)
Of the eight predators that I have personally known and described above, only three have faced criminal charges, and even that represents an uncharacteristically high percentage. “There are a lot of sexual offenses out there, and the people who commit them don’t get caught very often. When an offender is caught and has a thorough evaluation with a polygraph backup, he will reveal dozens, sometimes hundreds, of offenses for which he was never apprehended.” (pp. 12–13)
Dr. Salter’s book is not simplistic or light handed, and even avoids being alarmist. She approaches the subject with a rationality and thoroughness that is scarcely seen, and conveys a strong empathy toward the victims she describes. She also is not afraid to sacrifice psychology’s sacred cows in the course of defining the problem:
In the past one hundred years, psychology has twisted itself into pretzels developing theories to answer [the question of why people molest children]. Few of these theories have any research at all behind them, and many of them are little more than excuses and rationalizations for child molestation. I am not talking now about Freud’s failure to accept the victim accounts given by his patients and his turning them into “Oedipal fantasies” to avoid ostracism by his peers. That has been too well documented to deserved further comment. Nor am I talking about cases where memory of abuse was lost and then recovered, although there is considerable evidence that this can occur.
What is actually more perplexing in the history of psychology is the attitude toward cases in which it was known and acknowledged that the abuse took place. In the early part of the century, psychoanalytic writers maintained steadfastly that sexual abuse was the fault of the child, not the adult … (p. 51)
Dangerous Misinformation and Knowledge Gaps
There are two major knowledge gaps—or perhaps broad categories of misinformation—in the general population, and even in the criminal justice system population: How skilled sexual predators are in deception; and how harmful sexual abuse is toward those who are abused.
There are other knowledge problems as well. Some of these, such as the idea that pedophilia is not immoral, merely illegal, are perpetrated by those who actively work to legalize pedophilia. Others, such as the concept that all recovered memory is incorrect, seem to take on lives of their own in the popular media and culture.
Masters of Deception
One of the things that is so puzzling, given the vast number of child sexual abuse incidents per year, is why perpetrators continue to get away with it. Even worse, why are people so willing to “forgive and forget” the actions of known offenders, blissfully ignorant of the virtual guarantee of reoffense in the long term?
The biggest reason is simply that children who are sexually abused rarely tell anyone what has happened, even when the results of the abuse are devastating. Forty percent of children who are infected with sexually transmitted diseases will deny any sexual contact.
But not all children tell in the first place. For reasons as varied as fear of the offender, shame at their helplessness, love and protection of a parent, or even—if the offender is clever enough to stroke their genitals—shame of their own sexual arousal during the sex acts—they don’t tell.
Also, they often think their silence affects only them. (p. 14)
Unfortunately, often, even revealing the abuse does not protect a child from from further abuse or protect other children from abuse by the same perpetrator (Salter, p. 14).
Another reason is that social workers and psychologists are ignorant about what to look for. They will perform an “interactional assessment,” and will watch the victims interact with their abusers. If they do not observe any fear, especially on the part of a child, or do observe what they believe is appropriate behavior on the part of the accused abuser, they conclude that the person must be innocent. Dr. Salter explains, however:
Of course, there is no research and no good theory to support this approach. I stood in a conference once when someone was discussing this type of assessment and noted the lack of research to support it. I mentioned that sex offenders are notorious for bonding with a child and using that relationship to manipulate the child into having sex with them. I stated that, in addition, a child might be afraid of the man for entirely different reasons. Perhaps he beat her mother but never laid a hand on her. What justification did the presenters have for believing that one could tell from the interaction between child and alleged perpetrator whether the abuse had occurred or not? (p. 16)
Dr. Salter explores the various techniques of deception used by sexual predators, as well as people’s inability to accurately detect deception. Surprisingly, almost no-one is good at detecting deception. Not surprisingly, almost everyone thinks that he or she is better at detecting falsehood than reality, with disastrous results. Modern tools such as statement analysis and polygraphs (when performed by a skilled interviewer) are much more accurate.
Then there is simply the double-life. Predators keep up an appearance of kindness and likability. Most of the predators I listed at the top of the article were extremely amiable. Several were extremely popular in their social groups. All of them were able to successfully project an image of fine, upstanding citizens. All of them were (and most still are) trusted by those around them. Nearly all have been praised for their fine Christian testimony.
Likability is such a potent weapon that it protects predators for long periods of time and through almost incomprehensible numbers of victims. Mr. Saylor, an athletic director in an elementary school, operated undisturbed for almost twenty years. He tells me there is almost no limit to the number of molestations that one can get away with. (p. 26)
We expect child molesters to be monsters. It seems to be contrary to human nature to think that people who project “niceness” and normality could harbor such dark secrets. (This happens for other sexual offenders as well. One court-appointed evaluator concluded that an offender could not be a rapist, because he was polite and performed such normal acts of courtesy like holding the door for her.) “But it is a misconception that child molesters are somehow different from the rest of us, outside their proclivities to molest. They can be loyal friends, good employees, and responsible members of the community in other ways” (Salter, p. 47).
[T]hose who see child molesters as monsters seem the quickest—when their neighbor, friend, or family members is accused—to say that it is definitely a false report. After all, child molesters are perverts, creeps, and monsters, and their nice neighbor/minister/father/uncle/friend/priest is not a monster. Ergo, he is not a child molester.
Once this kind of denial locks in, no amount of evidence will change their minds. A cab driver said to a colleague of mine, “Child molestation! I know all about child molestation. My father was accused of child molestation, and the children lied—all twenty-six of them.” (p. 47)
Remember that a sexual offender nearly always has to lead a completely double life. The ability to be dishonest yet convincing is a daily requirement, and practice improves that ability. One of the most terrible lessons I have had to apply in my life is essentially impossible to observe: “Never mistake for truthfulness the ability to lie with impunity.” Sexual offenders have been so convincing that they are able to fool those with the most experience. Dr. Salter notes the case of one offender who earned the trust of a correctional officer and his family to the extent that they allowed him to live with them, even though they had a nine-year-old daughter. He began molesting the daughter, and was sent back to prison for it, but even then they continued to try to visit him in prison. “The only rule for deception in sex offenders I have ever found is this: If it is in the offender’s best interests to lie, and if he can do it and not get caught, he will lie” (Salter, p. 73).
The ability to deceive is underestimated by people who are generally truthful. We do not see what we do not want to see. I have personally seen extreme examples of this. One father (whose wife I knew for years) killed his infant in an alleged accident while giving the child a bath. The same thing happened a few years later. This time he was found guilty of murder and sent to prison. Nevertheless, the man’s wife refuses to believe, against evidence and common sense, that both deaths were not accidental.
There is no cure for sexually abusive behavior. Dr. Salter agrees with the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA): “Although many, if not most, sexual abusers are treatable, there is no known ‘cure.’ Management of sexually abusive behavior is a life-long task for some sexual abusers” (p. 59).
[S]ixty out of one hundred sex offenders would still reoffend after the most effective treatment available today, and that means we are a long way from “curing” pedophilia or rape. Note also these results were for the short run. No one really knows the impact of treatment in the long run.
Another common mistake is the belief that child molesters are always themselves victims. Not all victims are offenders, and most offenders are not victims. (Salter, pp. 72–73) There is a long history in psychology of not holding sex offenders responsible for their behavior.
The behavior was, it seems, the fault of their ‘frigid’ wives or ‘seductive’ child victims. It was a symptom of family dysfunction. We mute the realization of malevolence—which is too threatening to bear—by turning offenders into victims themselves and by describing their behavior as the result of forces beyond their control. (pp. 174–175)
Most sexual offenders, especially those who abuse children, engage in a process known as grooming. According to one offender:
When a person like myself wants to obtain access to a child, you don’t just go up and get the child and sexually molest the child. There’s a process of obtaining the child’s friendship and, in my case, also obtaining the family’s friendship and their trust. When you get their trust, that’s when the child becomes vulnerable and you can molest the child….
As far as the children goes, they’re kind of easy. You befriend them. You take them places. You buy them gifts…. Now in the process of grooming the child, you win his trust and I mean, the child has a look in his eyes—it’s hard to explain—you just have to kind of know the look. You know when you’ve got the kid. You know when that kid trusts you.
In the meantime you’re grooming the family. You portray yourself as a church leader or a music teacher or whatever, whatever it takes to make that family think you’re OK. You show the parents that you’re really interested in that kid. You just trick the family into believing you are the most trustworthy person in the world. Every one of my victims, their families just totally thought that there was nobody better to their kids than me, and they trusted me wholeheartedly with their children…. (p. 42)
“Like Being Bitten by a Rattlesnake”—The Harm of Child Sexual Abuse
Childhood sexual abuse has significant long-term consequences. Even children abused at ages younger than two years, when no real memories tend to persist, are affected by the abuse. The major sequelae of sexual abuse include (from http://www.annasalter.com, as well as other sources):
- PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
- Anxiety disorders
- Sexual problems
- Traumatic worldview
Of these, the one that seems most counterintuitive is revictimization, yet it is a considerable problem. Why would someone who has been abused allow himself or herself to be abused again? There are many reasons for this, although the mechanism is not well understood. One factor that seems clear is discussed in The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse:
When children are abused, their capacity to say no and set limits is severely damaged. So even if the abuse continued into your adult years, you are still not to blame. There is no magic age where you suddenly become a responsble, cooperative partner in sexual abuse” (Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, pp. 117–118).
Other statistically significant long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse include:
- Needing psychotropic medication
- Attempting suicide
- Being battered as adults
- Drug addiction/abuse
- Having sexual problems
- Being afraid of men
- Having fear of women
- Reporting out of body experiences
- Having nightmares
- Decreased sex drive
- Anxiety attacks
- Trouble with temper
- Antisocial behavior
Studying the impact of child sexual abuse, Dr. Salter planned to read all the literature on the sequalae of child sexual abuse:
[B]ut that grandiose plan faded as I read for months on end without being able to tap into all the research. At the end of several months, however, I was convinced of one thing. Child sexual abuse was like getting bitten by a rattlesnake: Some kids recovered completely, and some didn’t, but it wasn’t good for anybody.
Sexual abuse will often haunt the victims for a lifetime. There is hope for those who choose to heal, but for many that choice may never be readily available. Healing can be extremely difficult and painful.
Many survivors inaccurately blame themselves for the abuse, or suffer enormous misplaced guilt in regard to the abuse. This may happen for many reasons. One is that guilt allows the survivor an illusion of power: If the survivor was at fault, he or she had the power to stop the abuse. (The same dynamics are observed in the survivors of violent assaults and other personal crimes.) The alternative is to admit that nothing the survivor could do would have stopped the abuse, and that helplessness seems like something we consciously or subconsciously avoid acknowledging.
In other cases, abusers or others—even caretakers—project their own guilt onto the survivor. Abusers often reinforce the idea that the child wanted the abuse to take place. This is especially true when the suvivor’s experiences automatic sexual arousal in response to the abuse. Others who should support the survivor often knowingly or unknowingly add to this guilt by refusing to acknowledge the abuse took place or failing to place the guilt solely on the abuser.
For some reasons, girls tend to channel their negative emotions inward, often engaging in a variety of self-destructive behaviors. The total impact is severe and frightening, and the lists above do not really do it justice.
“Trust No One”—Mitigating Risk for Our Children
Many child-safety programs focus on the danger of strangers. Although it is true that abduction and abuse by strangers does occur, most abuses are perpetrated by someone who is known to and trusted by the family of the child.
The best protection children can have is their own parents. In one sense, parents need to learn to be far less trusting than they are, and avoid situations and behavior that have no benefit. Would a child molester abuse a child when there were other children or people in the home? Yes. Some will be so bold as to abuse a child with a sleeping spouse in the same bed, and many with the spouse in the next room. Some will do it with the family watching, fondling children while in the process of wrestling with them, carrying them around, or throwing them up in the air. Learn to avoid high-risk situations. Like handling blood or body fluids that might be contaminated with HIV, our though process and actions need to reflect the possable danger in situations we formerly thought nothing about. We cannot guarantee we can protect our children from harm. There are times and places that we cannot control (such as a teacher or principal who takes kids out of the classroom and molests them at the school). “But in the majority of cases of child molestation, a parent has been conned into allowing the offender to spend time with the child. In those cases, we have considerably more of a chance to prevent it” (p. 226).
A friend called me recently. A young man has befriended the family of her son’s best friend. The young man seems particularly taken with the children in the family. In fact, he seems to adore them, and he is over at the house, mostly playing with the children, almost daily. He does not appear to have any adult love interests, male or female. He has never been married, and he does not date. My friend has met him. He seems delightful, a bit immature perhaps, but really a nice guy. Did I think there was any problem with her leaving her own son alone with this man? Would I be concerned?
You bet I would. Would I be rude to him or refuse to go out to dinner with the family if he’s along? Of course not. I have no proof that there is anything wrong with him. But would I quietly make sure my own children were never alone with him? Yes, because I know that he is in a high risk category. I would do it for the same reason that I don’t dive into pools that could hold hidden rocks. It only takes one.
I have since met this man. I like him. There is nothing about the way he talks or acts that suggests he is a child molester—which means nothing and changes nothing. I won’t leave my children alone with him. “Liking” isn’t enough for me to override what my head tells me. He is in a high-risk category, whether I like him or not. (pp. 227–228)
Dr. Salter illustrates the situations that can arise, and the social awkwardness that can arise as a result of being aware of such situations, with this experience from her own life:
I am standing at the gym at a children’s sock hop. The noise is deafening. Two hundred children are running, hopping, sliding, dancing, and whirling, all the while simultaneously shrieking at the top of their lungs. There is such a thing as a perpetual motion machine, and it is called childhood. The yelling children and the blaring rock music make me hunger for the quiet and the solace of my little fireplace and the book I left behind. Because neither of my children has given a backward glance since they headed into the fray, I began to wonder why I’m here. The mother of my daughter’s best friend had invited both of my children to come with her, but I had been reluctant to give them up. I work so much that time with my children is precious.
“This is spending time with your kids?” I think. I feel foolish and out of place. I don’t see anyone I know. I trudge grumpily over to check every twenty minutes or so just to keep track of my kids. It is a neurotic impulse, I think. What could happen in such a public place?
I find my daughter. At age six, she is dancing happily with her best friend and another girl and the other girl’s father, a man I don’t know. I wave and turn away.
Twenty minutes later I look for her again. She is still dancing with the same group. It crosses my mind that this is a little unusual. In a setting like this, her attention span is normally measured in nanoseconds, not in forty-minute blocks. Usually she has to see everybody, explore every corner of the gym. Why is she still there?
Twenty minutes later the same group is still dancing. I am uneasy now; this is simply not her pattern. I walk over and touch her arm and turn her to dance with me. Instantly the man grabs her arm and pulls her back, right out of my hands. I take her arm again, give him a look that would freeze blood, and yell, “I am her mother” over the blaring rock music. He backs off. My daughter and I and her best friend go off to dance together.
After that I keep an eye on her—and him. He ignores his own daughter, but when he thinks I am not looking, he finds mine and her best friend in a long line of kids waiting to go under a limbo pole. He looks around, then picks both of them up and throws them into the air, all the time smiling and laughing and focusing on them intently. I step up, and he slips off.
A few days later I call my daughter’s teacher. I was uncomfortable, I tell her. No other father in the room was hanging around other people’s children in that way. It was inappropriate, and if that man comes to school, I don’t want him alone with my daughter. “Funny you should say that,” she says. “He showed up for a field trip the other day. He spent so much time with another child that I thought he was that child’s parent and sent a note home to the wrong family.”
I go home and tell my nanny. Someone’s going to call, and it won’t be him. Likely it will be the child, perhaps the mom. They’re going to invite my daughter over to play. Just be ready because she isn’t going.
“What do I say?” my nanny asks, panicked. “I don’t know what to say.”
I stare at her incredulously. “Tell them she’s sick,” I say evenly. “Tell them she was abducted by aliens. Tell them she’s pulling the wings off flies or doing quadratic equations. I don’t care what you tell them. But she is never going.”
Within a week, the call comes.
I tell the parents of my daughter’s best friend because she was targeted too. Their daughter doesn’t go either—for a while. But time and social norms wear her parents down. “What could we say?” they ask me. “It was during the day. He wasn’t home. I don’t think he’d do anything during the day with the sitter there, do you?”
Maybe he won’t, I think. Maybe he isn’t even a child molester. Maybe I am wrong about this. But if he is, he will not hesitate to come home early from work, dismiss the sitter, and take a little girl’s trusting face in his hands and tell her he will teach her a new game.
I don’t know what to say to these parents. In their heart of hearts they believe what they want to believe. He is middle-class, wears a suit, goes to work every day, pays his bills, takes his family on vacation, and seems like a nice person. He is a “nice” man in their world, and niceness, they believe—they want badly to believe—is a character trait, not a decision. They are afraid of strangers. I am afraid of him. (pp. 79–80)
Should You Read Predators?
Be aware that the descriptions of sexual abuse in the book may (or perhaps should) evoke strong emotional or physiological responses. At times, the true evil exposed can be heart-wrenching or physically sickening. (I would caution those who have experienced severe sexual abuse.) It is, however, my strong recommendation that Predators be read by every parent, minister, grandparent, educator, church worker, social worker, criminal justice worker, police officer, or doctor.
Parents especially need to understand the scope of the problem, and be well informed about what risks they can easily avoid and what they should watch for in protecting their children. There is a misappropriation of effort in educating children to be aware of “stranger danger” (which is important, nevertheless), and the situational awareness parents must have to adequately perform their job of protecting their children.
For Further Reading
Although much more clinical, I have also found Dr. Salter’s Transforming Trauma: A Guide to Understanding and Treating Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse to be especially helpful in understanding the long-term affects of childhood sexual abuse.
When I finish a few more books, I’ll BLOG them as a resource guide, or add them to this entry.