How can you tell when someone is a sex offender? You can't, say experts

Dros rape accused remains in custody. (Alex Mitchley, News24 via Twitter)
Dros rape accused remains in custody. (Alex Mitchley, News24 via Twitter)

In the wake of the Dros rape, where a 7-year-old child was raped in a restaurant toilet, and the trial of the so-called Springs monster who was sentenced to 35 years on Wednesday for abusing his children and raping his daughter, many parents wonder what they can do to protect their children from sex offenders.

What are the personality traits of an abuser? Are there behaviours that can signal to parents that someone is a risk to their child? Can you point out a serial rapist in a crowd?

The reality, according to experts, is that there is no way to tell. The causes of abuse are different in every case, and profiling sex abusers is virtually impossible.

Experts agree that the term "sex offender" is incredibly broad, and there is no single profile.

"Sex offender" is also a term that encompasses many different kinds of crimes - paedophiles, incest offenders, serial rapists and many other kinds of offenders, all fall under the umbrella.

And what motivates one offender might not motivate the next.

Forensic psychologist Dr Gerard Labuschagne says there can be different motivations behind each kind of sexual offender. But there are no traits which are common among them. Some might have a history of abuse, for example, and others might not.

In the case of abusers of children, it is important to distinguish between a paedophile and an abuser, say experts.

Forensic psychologist Bronwyn Stollarz, who was called as an expert witness in the "Springs monster" case, says the large majority of sex offenders have not come to the attention of law enforcement before.

'They don't stand out from the crowd'

"They don't have labels. They don't stand out from the crowd. The paedophile is everyone's favourite teacher, for example - that's how they get into the system," she says.

Stollarz adds paedophilia is a clinical diagnosis. The person has to be 16 years or older and the sexual interest has to have taken place in the case of a child of 13 years or younger for a period of more than six months.

To make the diagnosis, the person does not have to have abused the child in question, but it needs to be shown that there was sexual arousal on the part of the paedophile.

Stollarz says a paedophile who sexually abuses is typically not the same as the Dros rapist, who appears to have attacked the child impulsively. Typically, a paedophile is in the child's environment and grooms the child psychologically, to reduce the likelihood that the child will report the abuse.

Labuschagne says a paedophile abuser will spend a lot of time with their victim, gradually sexualising them over time and sometimes using threats against them if they threaten to report the abuse. But, he adds, many adults spend time with children and are perfectly harmless, so there is no way of being sure that someone is a potential threat.

"Children need to know what is good and what is bad, and to tell their parents or a responsible adult," Labuschagne says.

Stollarz says that not all people who abuse children are paedophiles, either. Some may abuse children if they suffer from a personality disorder, or there are sexually indiscriminate suspects would who harm anyone if given the opportunity. Again, there are too many variables, and there is simply no way to tell if someone is a threat.

'Teach your child to scream'

The only thing parents can do, says Stollarz, is to "teach your child to scream".

"We have to teach our children about their bodies - that's number one. What are okay touches and what are not okay touches? The appropriate labelling of their bodies is very important," she says, adding that children often don't have the vocabulary to describe the abuse when they try to talk about it.

Children need to know who is allowed to touch their bodies, and when, and that they are never allowed to touch someone else, she says.

"And if you are out with mom or dad, and someone touches you or makes you feel scared, scream. Children need to know, you can never be in trouble for screaming."

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