How social workers can spot sex abusers’ attempts to manipulate

Sex abusers often use the same manipulation techniques on pracititioners as on their victims. Molly Garboden reports

Sex abusers often use the same manipulation techniques on pracititioners as on their victims. Molly Garboden reports

(Picture: Rex Features, posed by model)

Perpetrators of child sexual abuse often use the same techniques to run rings around practitioners as they do to manipulate their victims, according to Joe Sullivan, director of behaviour analysis and forensic psychology at Mentor Forensic Services. Understanding the different models of manipulation can help practitioners know when a child is in danger – or when they are being misled themselves.

“Most people have real difficulty understanding how someone comes to sexually abuse a child and that gap can have a negative impact on their ability to protect victims,” Sullivan said. “Teaching professionals how sexual offenders think and operate is a big step towards preventing abuse.”

Following a series of intense interviews with perpetrators, Sullivan has created a framework of the manipulation techniques used by people who sexually abuse children, which he describes here:


● The “I’m a good guy” approach: “When a perpetrator seeks to gain the trust of children and practitioners they may try to appear particularly pleasant, considerate and charming. They make it difficult for others to imagine they could do something wrong or unkind.”

● The status approach: “This is often used by people in positions held in high esteem. They use this status to present themselves as someone with great integrity so people find it hard to believe they’re capable of such wrong-doing.”

● The faith-based approach: “There often can be a faith dimension to the status and ‘nice guy’ masks. This is a person children and adults have been taught to trust and is therefore an easy position for perpetrators to exploit.”


“This is a very aggressive, much more insidious, controlling approach. This is a relatively easy tactic to use to intimidate children, but of course professionals aren’t immune to it either.”


● The obstructer approach: “A lot of social workers will be familiar with this one from other areas of their work. These perpetrators keep practitioners at an arm’s length, avoiding engagement at all costs. It can feel like banging your head against a brick wall – it’s impossible to get anywhere with them. They just stand in front of you, arms folded.”

● The confounder approach: “If you ask this person a completely straightforward question, pack your bags, because they’re going to take you around the houses. They appear to cooperate with professionals, but talk in circles, actually sharing no information.”

● The jester approach: “This perpetrator is constantly making jokes or making fun of the process, distracting from the agenda. They use this on children a lot as well, deflecting the idea that anything wrong is happening by presenting it as fun.”


● The “I’m inadequate” approach: “This is often used by parents with drug and alcohol problems or emotional issues. They’re constantly falling apart, often shifting professionals’ focus to their problems and off any abuse allegations. They threaten suicide. They convince their victims they need to be taken care of. This is often used by mothers who are abusing their own children, particularly if there’s domestic violence in the home – the children accept the sexual abuse as a way of comforting mum.”

● The persecuted approach: “The perpetrator is focused on everyone always being against them. This is often used when allegations are made about the abuse – the perpetrators highlight their problems rather than what’s going on with the child. This is also a way that parents convince their children to present a united front: they turn the professionals into the bad guys.”


● The permissive approach: “This kind of perpetrator presents themselves as incredibly liberal, saying that if children want to experiment with sex, that’s OK. Children wishing to establish their independence can be receptive to this tactic and social workers are told: ‘If you saw this child, you wouldn’t think they were a child. They were behaving in such a sexual manner that what I did couldn’t have harmed them.'”

● The campaigner approach: “These people tell you that society is wrong and children are being oppressed because they’re not allowed to express themselves sexually if they want to. These perpetrators can be known as ‘intellectual paedophiles’. Social workers often don’t know where to begin when engaging with them because they are left speechless by the perpetrator’s logic. Professionals think this person is completely outside the realm of anything they can relate to or engage with – but what they need to realise is that it is just another manipulation tactic.”

To see more tools put together by Joe Sullivan, go to:

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