No informational series on abusive characters would be complete without some words about sexual abusers. And because I have many years of experience with this population and also because I’ve gotten so many requests for more information on the topic, I thought it best to conclude the series with a discussion of this particular group of disturbed characters. Now, I’m sure many are already wondering why I might classify sexual abusers in the disturbed character category. But as you read on, that should become clear.
During the years I actively worked in the field, I not only completed assessments on many hundreds of (nearly 3 thousand) sexual offenders but also devised state-of-the art treatment programs. And in my books Character Disturbance and The Judas Syndrome I give some examples of the kinds of character disturbances these individuals typically display as well as the manipulative behaviors they’re prone to use. What I’ve come to know with some certainty is that while a small percentage of sexual abusers struggle with highly deviant sexual arousal inclinations that they neither asked for nor can easily control, the vast majority have marked deficiencies in their character that predispose them to actually abuse.
Child molesters are perhaps the most unnerving kind of sexual abusers. And while it’s common for folks to equate child molestation with pedophilia, the fact is that the vast majority of child molesters are not pedophiles. Some disturbed characters simply target children because they are the most vulnerable and easiest to exploit. And make no mistake, all of the defining characteristics of character disturbance (e.g., deficient empathy and conscience, sense of entitlement, penchant for manipulation and impression-management, etc.) are at work in anyone who sexually abuses. Furthermore, there are in fact pedophiles (individuals who, for reasons we still don’t fully understand, have an abnormal attraction – sometimes sexual – to children) who don’t molest. Why? Because some pedophiles, while possessing deviant inclinations, are not character disordered. Having both a conscience and a heart, such folks simply couldn’t live with themselves if they even attempted to use or exploit a child. And if they’re only abnormally interested in children but not sexually attracted to their physical characteristics, many times they can channel that interest into socially acceptable enterprises.
While it’s not particularly abnormal for an adult to find a blossoming teenager sexually titillating, there are individuals who have an unusual sexual preference for near-pubescent or post-pubescent younger persons, and sometimes these individuals are referred to as ephebophiles or hebophiles as opposed to pedophiles (a term usually reserved for those who find themselves aroused by the characteristics of pre-pubescence). But once again, the key issue when it comes to the abuse and exploitation of an underage person is character. Attitudes of entitlement, callous disregard for the other person, and sexual objectification are all aspects of deficient character formation. And, of course, the predisposition to prey (i.e. establish a relationship for the primary purpose of eventual victimization) is the cardinal feature of the most serious type of character disturbance.
Then, of course, there are rapists (both emotional and physical) who satisfy their own urges at someone else’s expense and without that person’s consent. These folks come in a wide variety of sizes, including the rare but seriously dangerous types who actually derive pleasure from the force or coercion involved (The term biastophile is often used to describe a rapist who is mostly motivated by and derives pleasure from the force involved.). And whether the rapist is a cunning “date-rape” artist who stealthily slips debilitating drugs into an intended victim’s drink, an internet prowler, or a violent sexual assaulter, such folks are among the most seriously disordered characters there are.
There are many misconceptions about what “causes” a person to sexually abuse a child, have the urge to rape, etc. And, as is perfectly predictable, traditional notions have always been that the such folks must have themselves been abused in some way as children and in their inner pain, anger and anguish “act-out” with their sexually abusive behavior. But we now have some pretty solid evidence that while there may indeed be some correlation between all types of violent behavior and a past history of physical abuse, there’s no solid evidence that being the victim of sexual abuse as a child is the major reason for an adult sexually abusing. Sexual abusers (and other abusers as well) frequently report that they were the victims of all types of trauma, but several studies have demonstrated that abusers tend to over-report the degree to which they actually sustained any real abuse and to under-report the degree to which they have engaged in the abuse of others since early childhood, even in the absence of experiencing abuse themselves. Moreover, if sexual abuse inflicted on a child victim were itself the cause of that victim abusing others later in life, one would expect women to be the most frequent abusers, because they are by far the most common victims of abuse. But in fact, just the opposite is true. The vast majority of victims never abuse (for more on this see: Understanding the Predatory Aggressive – Part 2, and A Footnote on the “Abuse Excuse”). I’ve long thought that one of the main reasons sexual abusers use the “abuse excuse” is because it’s such an effective manipulation tactic (“Playing the Victim Role” is one of the most common and effective tactics I outline in In Sheep’s Clothing). And one only has to look at the famous case of Lyle and Erik Menendez to realize how easy it is to at least create some doubt in someone’s mind that maybe a cold-hearted psychopathic killing could really be the result of “acting-out” the terrible inner pain of past victimization.
Predatory sexual abusers are different from other predatory aggressors only in their principal aim. That’s why the notion that all rape is solely about power is also erroneous. All predatory aggression is about power and dominance in large measure. But not all predatory aggressors sexually prey. And sexual predators are among the most skilled when it comes to manipulation. Overtly revealing one’s deviant interests and one’s intentions would certainly lead most folks to take defensive action. So, sexual predators learn early how to keep their agendas hidden and how to best exploit the unsuspecting.
Of all the instincts we must tame to be persons of character, gaining mastery over both our sexual and our aggressive urges is the most challenging. But that’s what building character is all about. It’s about raising ourselves above the level of mere animals who satisfy our hungers at the expense of others.
I’ll be particularly attentive to the discussion on this topic, inasmuch as so many have asked me to write about it and given how much more there is to say about it. Hopefully, in my responses to questions that might be asked in the forum and the comments I might make on the input supplied by the readers, some of the lingering questions and concerns folks have had about the topic will be suitably addressed.
I’ll be having a special guest on this Sunday’s Character Matters program (7 pm EDT) and we’ll be discussing not only the character crisis and its tremendous cost to society but also the folly of trying to solve our character-related problems legislatively.