Predators and Child Molesters: What Every Parent Needs to Know to Keep Kids Safe

Predators and Child Molesters: What Every Parent Needs to Know to Keep Kids Safe

by Robin Sax

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There is no crime—not even murder—that worries and sickens parents more than child sexual abuse. Parents wonder how to protect their children when almost every day the news reports another incident of someone in authority arrested on suspicion of child abuse—from clergy and teachers to family members themselves. Even law enforcement has had


There is no crime—not even murder—that worries and sickens parents more than child sexual abuse. Parents wonder how to protect their children when almost every day the news reports another incident of someone in authority arrested on suspicion of child abuse—from clergy and teachers to family members themselves. Even law enforcement has had trouble defining the problem and only recently has the Department of Justice begun recording statistics of sexual assault against children. Amid the confusion generated by sensational news reports and uncertainty regarding the nature and extent of child sexual abuse, what can parents do?

In this straightforward, clearly written guidebook, veteran sex-crimes prosecutor and Los Angeles deputy district attorney Robin Sax answers one hundred questions that she has most often encountered in her fifteen years of experience. From the definition of abuse to the profiles of a predator to how to report an incident and to whom, Sax provides practical, reassuring, and appropriate information.

For ease of use, the book is organized into six major sections:

-Recognizing predators: molesters, pedophiles, and opportunists
-Talking to kids about risks and identifying potential problems
-Recognizing abuse
-Reporting sexual abuse
-Going to court
-Healing and moving on

Sax makes it clear that protecting children begins with every parent in the home. Parents must view protecting children from the potential of sexual assault as a priority. Teaching children preventive measures should be viewed as important as teaching kids how to dial 9-1-1.

Sax concludes by emphasizing that the best defense against sexual offenders is information. Her book provides realistic answers to empower parents and educators, even in the face of one of life’s scariest threats.

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Prometheus Books
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What Every Parent Needs to Know to Keep Kids Safe
By Robin Sax

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2009 Robin Sax
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-712-6

Chapter One


RECOGNIZING THE PREDATORS Molesters, Pedophiles, and Opportunists


This is an excellent question. Because child sexual abuse is underreported, in terms of both victim disclosures and reliable data about offenders, it's challenging to pinpoint the exact number of child sexual assaults. The following are just a few problems in obtaining accurate numbers of sexual abuse cases:

1. The largest bulk of statistics available are from criminal cases. And since we are limited to only the legal definitions of sexual abuse (as I will explore in question 2), we may be missing out on behavior that would otherwise qualify on a psychological or sociological basis. 2. Even under each state's criminal laws, there's a variation in the acts and behaviors that are considered criminal. If an act is not a crime in one place and it is in another, it may not make its way into a statistical information bank. 3. Individual police departments have not had uniform statistics readily accessible to those seeking them. Untilthe Department of Justice began collecting statistics from police stations across the country, the numbers were all over the place. In fact, even when the statistics became uniform in the last twenty years or so, only certain specific acts were identified and reported, including forcible rape, forcible sodomy, sexual assault with an object, and forcible fondling. These statistics do not take into account the many other acts, such as photographing children in sexual situations, that could still be subject to criminal charges, be considered sexual abuse, or cause psychological damage in someone's life. 4. If we were to look at child sexual assault from other avenues, such as from the offenders or the victims themselves, there are new problems in gathering information. First of all, offenders traditionally offer unreliable information about their offenses. If we turn to the victims, we find difficulty due to their reluctance to disclose what actually happened, memory lapses, and the reality that victims are often molested by more than one person during their lives, or at a specific time and place. 5. False allegations of child abuse occur when people disclose child sexual assault when it didn't happen. Not only does this affect the reliability of the statistics, but this is one of the biggest points of controversy and concern in the field because it creates the potential for heavily biased or inaccurate data. 6. Perhaps the biggest reason is that victims, quite understandably, are loathe to report that they have been abused. As I discuss in more detail in question 46, there are so many reasons why children don't report (shame, guilt, lack of knowledge, etc.) that even the professionals don't have a full grasp of the extent of the problem.

Despite the problem of variance in reporting child sexual assaults, there are considerable data that confirm my experience that child sexual assault is rampant.

In 2007, FBI reports revealed that:

One out of five girls will be sexually molested before her eighteenth birthday. One out of six boys will be sexually molested before his eighteenth birthday. One out of every seven victims of sexual assault reported to law enforcement agencies was under age six. Forty percent of the offenders who victimized children under age six were juveniles (under eighteen). Two out of three sexual abuses are perpetrated against teenagers or younger children. Twenty percent of all children receive unwanted sexual messages. Seventy-five percent of children who received an unwanted sexual message did not tell their parents. Four million kids are posting on the Web every day. There are four hundred thousand new victims of sexual assault each year. There are more than 550,000 registered sex offenders in the United States. There are more than a hundred thousand sex offenders who fail to register each year. Seventy-six percent of serial rapists claim they were molested as children. Over forty percent of male juvenile delinquents were molested as children.

Perhaps the single most disturbing statistic I have come across is a study done by Dr. Gene Abel in the late 1980s on sexual offenders. In his research, he found that there was only a three percent chance of an offender getting caught for a sexual offense. Because of the problems mentioned above in reporting these crimes, Dr. Abel's statistic hasn't changed significantly over the past twenty-eight years-a damning testimonial to the continuing problem facing everyone who wants to prevent and solve these crimes.


There is no single definition of child sexual abuse. The term takes on different meanings depending on who's defining it-psychologists, cops, lawyers, and even victims, survivors, and perpetrators. Legal experts define child sexual abuse as "any act that violates the penal code." Psychologists define it as "any act in which an adult takes advantage of a child for sexual gratification."

Generally, child sexual abuse includes acts and behavior that violate an adult's position of trust and authority by taking advantage of a child's innocence. There is no specific physical act to qualify as sexual assault-in fact, nonphysical acts and behavior can also qualify as sexual abuse of a child. For example, such acts as voyeurism, taking pictures of a child, showing pornography to a child, watching a child undress, or even asking children to touch themselves or others can be considered child sexual abuse. Such acts as instructing a child to masturbate, touching genital areas, oral copulation, penetration, intercourse, and sodomy are the most obvious forms of sexual abuse.

For an act or behavior to be child sexual abuse, both of the following must be in play:

1. a person who is an adult or is significantly older or occupies a position of trust

2. uses a child for sexual stimulation

As you can see, a specific type of act, kind of force, or lack of consent must be present for an act to be considered child sexual assault. Agreeing to engage in such an act is legally referred to as "consent." Under the law, children do not have the legal capacity to consent unless they are over age eighteen. (In some states the age of consent is sixteen or seventeen.)

While a child's acquiescence may play a role in how people perceive the acts, everyone needs to be aware that the only reason a child is targeted is that an adult wishes to use his or her power, authority, or control to direct sexual acts involving a child to satisfy sexual desires. Often, the child depends on the adult in some way, whether for care, nurturing, education, shelter, and so forth, and feels his or her life could be in jeopardy by resisting the adult's wishes.

There are three forms of child sexual abuse:

1. Sexual assault: The focus of sexual assault is the physical component of the abuse. This is all the physical acts, including rape, sodomy, sexual penetration, oral copulation, digital penetration whether by a finger or other object other than a penis, and other lewd acts where physical contact is used for sexual gratification. 2. Sexual molestation: The focus of sexual molestation is the intent of the perpetrator to create inappropriate behavior. This includes any act where an adult engages in behavior that is not necessarily physical but uses a child for sexual gratification. Sexual molestation is further broken down into two categories:

A. Situational child molesters: A situational child molester is someone who does not necessarily have a sexual preference or attraction to children but at some point engaged in a sexual act with a child.

Mary Kay Letourneau was the first of the modern female child molesters entrusted to teaching our children. A sixth grade teacher, Mary Kay, although married with children, had sex with her thirteen-year-old male student and served just over seven years in prison as a result. Unable to stay away from the boy, she resumed her relationship with him and went on to produce two children with her teen lover. Later, they were married. Letourneau is considered a situational child molester because it was her unique attraction to the victim, not a general desire to be sexually gratified by children, that landed her in trouble.

B. Preferential child molesters: A preferential child molester is someone with a permanent fixation or desire to be with children. This is a person who is either only sexually attracted to children or is always attracted to children, with adults secondary in appeal. Whereas situational child molesters likely have few victims, and sometimes only one, preferential child molesters usually have many more than are ever known or reported.

3. Sexual exploitation: This occurs when an adult victimizes a child for personal advancement, sexual gratification, and financial profit. Examples of this would be exposing children to pornography, creating and trafficking child pornography, selling children into prostitution rings, and so on.

The term child sexual offender refers to anyone who has ultimately been convicted for one or more of the above child sexual offenses.


A number of different terms are used to describe child sexual offenders, depending on who's defining these types and the context of the statement, including pedophile, predator, opportunist, molester, sex offender, and incest offender. That these terms can be used interchangeably is confusing both to victims and society in general. The National Center for Exploitation and Missing Children says it best: "Referring to the same thing by different names and different things by the same name frequently creates confusion." This also affects the disclosures and reporting of sexual impropriety. Parents who don't want to accept an inappropriate situation may pretend it doesn't exist rather than deal with all the fallout from confronting it. However, children must be protected whether or not there's an official definition for inappropriate sexual activity involving a minor.

Regardless of what term is used, it is illegal and inappropriate to touch a child in any way for lewd intent. Further, any act that feels wrong or inappropriate is wrong or inappropriate, period. No matter how kind or upstanding the citizen, or how unfathomable it may be to parents that someone has turned their child's world upside down, there must be the courage-as parents-to confront a situation that feels wrong. As author and security specialist Gavin de Becker so aptly put it, we all benefit when we recognize "the gift of fear" (the title of his best-selling book) and act on it, particularly when the fear begins to haunt our lives or those of our loved ones.


People use the term pedophile to describe someone with an unnatural sexual interest in children. The "bible" of psychological conditions, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, defines the criteria for pedophilia as follows:

A. The person, over a period of at least 6 months, has a recurrence of intense, sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behavior involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (generally age 13 years or younger). B. The person acts on these urges, or they create distress or difficulty in his life. C. The person is at least age 16 years and at least 5 years older than the child or children in Criterion A.

(Note: This definition does not include an individual in late adolescence involved in an ongoing sexual relationship with a 12- or 13-year-old.)

While the preceding may provide some helpful criteria for evaluating who is a pedophile, criterion B creates some confusion. It states that to be a pedophile, the attraction to children must interfere with one's way of life. But most offenders would probably say that their interests never interfered with their life until their activities were reported to the police! By extension, that would imply that only when caught and possibly convicted would a person be deemed a pedophile. That is the route law enforcement has taken: officially, a pedophile is someone who has been convicted of, or is awaiting charges on, child sexual assault.

However, in most contexts, a pedophile refers to a person who is sexually attracted to and/or has an unnatural sexual interest in children. Merriam- Webster at least simplifies the definition by explaining a pedophile to be a person who has a "sexual perversion in which children are the preferred sexual object." This definition represents the mainstream, societal view of a pedophile-most people have a gut feeling that a pedophile is someone aroused by children.

Noticeably absent from most people's definition of pedophile are acts that are considered "statutory rape" or "unlawful sex." Statutory rape involves circumstances where the law defines a particular sex act as illegal strictly based on the victim's age. These acts are consensual and generally lack the perversity and grotesqueness of the traditional sexual assault acts. Statutory rapes present a lot of issues for parents, psychologists, and prosecutors because, again, there is a wide variety of what can technically qualify as statutory rape.

For example, under California law, statutory rape can be consensual sex between a fifteen-year-old and a twenty-year-old or consensual sex between a sixteen-year-old and a fifty-year-old. Certainly, parents, prosecutors, and psychologists have concern for the well-being of a sixteen-year-old who believes that he or she is in love and having a consensual relationship with a fifty-year-old.


The debate as to who exactly qualifies as a pedophile has given rise to other categories of offenders. Opportunists are a prime example. Some researchers and social scientists believe that pedophiles can be sexually attracted only to children. Therefore, people who sexually abuse a child and still maintain an interest in sex with people their own ages are placed in another category of offender called opportunists.

The definition of opportunist is related to the perpetrator's motivation, but not necessarily the act. For example, a thirty-year-old who has sex with a twelve-year-old could be called an opportunist or a pedophile, depending on whether the act was a one-time isolated incident (opportunist) or whether there is a consistent, ongoing preference or fixation for children (pedophile).

One specific category of opportunist is the incest offender. These abusers molest only their own children. Are they simply "lazy" offenders who molest the children most accessible to them-their own? Which leads to the question: Are these offenders really only attracted to their own kids or would they also seek other children to molest if they did not have their own or if their own were unavailable?


A molester is someone who touches a child in a sexual way that is unlawful but does not involve penetration. The offending act is done by an adult, male or female, against a minor that causes the adult to be aroused or excited.

The most common acts include the touching and fondling of a child. Legally, any touching or fondling does not need to be at skin level-it may also include the child's clothes or any protective layering. The law focuses on the intent of the individual, which may explain why touching can be of clothing as well as skin.


Excerpted from PREDATORS and CHILD MOLESTERS by Robin Sax Copyright © 2009 by Robin Sax. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Robin Sax (Los Angeles, CA) is a former deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County who specialized in child sexual assault cases. She is the author of Predators and Child Molesters: What Every Parent Needs to Know to Keep Kids Safe and the forthcoming It Happens Every Day: Inside the World of a Sex Crimes D.A. She is the Director of Child/Family Protection and Education for the Amber Alert Registry and is a prominent expert on sexual assault, family violence, domestic abuse, stalking, Internet safety, and the criminal justice system. Sax is also an instructor for the Los Angeles Police Department, Sheriff's Department, University of California at Los Angeles, and California State University, Los Angeles. She is a regular legal commentator on Nancy Grace, Larry King Live, Fox News and has a weekly radio show, Justice Interrupted. Sax lives with her husband and three children in Los Angeles, California. For more about Robin Sax, visit

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