Desensitizing the Target

Until this point, all behaviors initiated by the offender are "positive" and do not involve any sexually abusive elements. During the desensitization phase, offenders will interweave abuse into their day-to-day interactions with the child to gradually sexualize the relationship (Berliner & Conte, 1990). Abuse does not proceed immediately to a high level, but is started at low levels. Slowly, abusive acts progress in a systematic, yet subtle, fashion. Because the victim does not understand the intention of their new "friend," he or she becomes desensitized to seemingly harmless acts that an objective observer might view as danger signals. Offenders might desensitize a child to physical touching by beginning first with non-sexual touching, such as tickling or stroking the child's head. Conversations may also become more sexual. The aim is to progress to sexual touching, first on top of clothes and then under or without clothes (van Dam, 2001).


Child sexual abuse is rarely an isolated event. Offenders often take great strides to maintain their relationships with victims. Maintenance activities include reassuring the victim that no harm (physical, emotional, moral, or otherwise) has been done. Statements such as "this is a way we show our love for each other" or "I am trying to teach you" are examples of how offenders mask their behavior.

Sex offenders rely on secrecy not only to maintain the relationship, but also to prevent the child from disclosing the abuse. Offenders will engage in myriad tactics, from instilling shame, blame, or guilt to shifting responsibility to the child. The offender may also threaten disclosure of the relationship, self-harm, or physical harm to the child or loved ones.

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