Child Sexual Abuse and Pedophilia

Sexual Abuser

Pedophilia means literally the love of children.  Today this term is primarily used as a diagnostic tool that hides the original definition. Pedophilia explains the love from adults to children and accepts children as being passive sexual objects. One of the first disputes discovered in the research is the question of whether or not this behavior is sexual in quality. There is no theory that is specific to the diagnosis of pedophilia; however, there are many that relate to the childhood sexual abuser.


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The Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect (1995) report that each year in the United States between 100,000 and 500,000 children are sexually assaulted by adult men. Comparative high rates have also been recorded in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands. It is critical that the legislative sectors, criminal law, and public health, communicate with each other to find practical and effective approaches to the issue. Investigations on Pedophilia are inadequate and the difficulty is in selecting and synthesizing the elements of the research that apply to treatment, intervention and assessment.

From a modern day perspective, childhood sexual abuse is a deeply rooted problem that has been documented for centuries (Brown, 1985; Maletzky, 1995).  The unblocked exploration and study of sexuality dates back a century to the work of Sigmund Freud. However, Brown (1985) discloses that the sexual abuse of a child has not always rallied such publicity and alarm. For instance, abuse of children, including castration and infanticides were common from ancient times until the fourth century AD (Brown, 1985; Maletzky, 1995). Likewise, sexuality between an adult male and a young boy was accepted and approved of in Ancient Greece (Dickes, 1981; Jones, 1982). Brown, (1985) believes that viewing childhood sexual abuse, as an abnormal behavior is a product of our contemporary value system.

The Social and Religious Influence of Childhood Sexual Abuse

The roots of Judeo-Christian tradition have influenced sexual attitudes. Dickes (1981) explains that the social climate on which the Judeo-Christian tradition is predicated was accepting of sexual contact between men and young girls. Brown (1985) points out that the law of sexual validity, or when a child is acknowledged as a sexual being implies the rationalizations that early offenders used to justify their actions for the punishment they faced. Brown (1985) further explains that during the time that the Bible and Talmud came into being, sex between men and very young girls in marriage, concubines, and slavery was condoned. Barnard, Fuller, Robbins and Shaw (1989) agree and further explain that in the Talmud there is a passage that states a female child of “three years and one day” could be betrothed by sexual intercourse with her father’s permission. If she was subjected to intercourse prior to three years and one day, it was considered to be of no consequence. The reason for the invalidity of this act was that another law stated that a female under three years and one day was too immature to have sexual validity and therefore had no virginity to lose (Brown, 1985). Brown believes that one way to try and understand this lack of concern for the female child is to remember that she was considered to be property that had no monetary value and had no human attributes or qualities. The law of sexual validity or having a sexual component to their being also applied to boys, except the age was nine. Sons were also considered to be worthy of carrying on the family history. A similar concept concerning sexual validity was that children were totally innocent of all notions of pleasure and pain (Brown, 1985). This concept also allowed those who were abusing children to use this as a defense against admitting that their acts were harming the child and allowed abusers to continue with their business (Brown, 1985).

Laws prohibiting the physical and sexual abuse of children slowly emerged with the influence of the Christian doctrine and the Renaissance moralists. Greenland (1983) reports that criminal laws prohibiting sexual intercourse with girls under a certain age have existed for over seven hundred years, in Great Britain. However, since children were considered property, the laws generally were not enforced. More often than not the victim was considered to be in the wrong and the perpetrator went unpunished. Greenland (1983) discovered that it was at the close of the Renaissance period when adults began to empathize with children, who were then considered to be separate, emotional beings. As attitudes changed towards the sexual abuse of children, the need for classification, treatment, and legal intervention arose.

Childhood Sexual Abuse vs. Pedophilia

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Researchers interested in pedophilia have analyzed the occurrence from a biological, psychological, social and learning perspective. However, the research is limited and the difficulty is in selecting and synthesizing the elements of the investigations that apply to assessment, intervention and treatment (Hall, 1996; Trepper, 1989; Seto, 2009; Kargel, 2016).

Barnard, Fuller, Robbins and Shaw (1989) believe that the problem of childhood sexual abuse has reached a magnitude where ignoring it is no longer justifiable. These authors explain that there has been a dramatic shift in the way in which our society views both the perpetrator and the victim. Encouraging signs indicate that the public is beginning to recognize that individuals diagnosed with pedophilia are in desperate need of medical, psychological, and psychiatric treatment. In response to this shift in attitude, it is important that the public health, criminal law, and legislative sectors work together to find practical and effective approaches to the problem.

Studies indicate that this population can be treated and effective programs exist. Recidivism rates are relatively low. It is generally agreed that a number of variables are associated with a favorable prognosis for outpatient treatment with these men. Low degrees of personality disturbance, no alcohol or drug abuse, or criminal justice system involvement are commonly mentioned. The impact of the level of personality disturbance and drug and alcohol involvement on treatment has not received significant empirical inquiry. The studies however are not without some methodological problems.

The Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Medical Association (1995) has recommended that child sexual abuse be defined as the sexual exploitation of a child for the gratification or profit of an adult. Sexual abuse often does not involve sexual intercourse or physical force.

Finkelhor (1979) believes that the most important factors that lead people to view an act as being sexual abusive are (p.143-148)

  • The perpetrator’s age.
  • The nature of the act.
  • The child’s consent to the act.
  • The age of the victim
  • The sex and relatedness of the victim and perpetrator
  • The consequences of the act for the child

The word pedophilia adds confusion when applied to the numerous definitions of child sexual abuse. Pedophilia, literally means, the “love of children” (Barnard, et al. 1989) and has been equated synomously, but falsely with child abuse. Barnard and his associates believe that pedophile implies that a mental disorder is present. Child molester refers to the perpetration of a more general sexual maltreatment of children. It does not connote that a mental illness exists. Lanyon (1986) defines that the childhood sexual abuser as an older person who conscious sexual desires and responses are directed, towards dependent, developmentally immature children who do not fully comprehend these actions and are unable to give informed consent.

The World Health Organization (1977) employs a definition and asserts that pedophilia exists if there are sexual deviations in which an adult engages in sexual activity with a child of the same or opposite sex. According to the DSM-V there are 3 criteria for having a Pedophilic Disorder:

  1. A person who has had arousing fantasies about, urges for, or behaviors with a prepubescent child or children.
  2. The person has acted out these sexual desires, or is experiencing significant distress or difficulty as a result of these desires.
  3. The person is 16 years of age, and at least five years older than the child or children in criterion #1.

The Five Specifiers are:

  1. Exclusive type-sexual attraction to children only.
  2. Non-exclusive type-sexual attraction to adults and children
  3. Attraction to boys.
  4. Attraction to girls
  5. Incestuous only

Although a variety of definitions describing the childhood sexual abuser have been offered, no single definition is universally accepted (Barnard et al., Finkelhor, 1979). These authors explain that because of the varying manifestations and causes of child sexual abuse, and because of the different viewpoints among investigators, it is unlikely that any one definition will ever be endorsed completely by everyone interested in the topic. There are no clearly defined theories exploring and explaining different types of abusers. All abusers are lumped into the same “childhood sexual abuser” category. Similarly, treatment programs often put a heterogenous group of offenders into homogenous treatments, regardless of their individual diagnoses or differences (Kargel et., al, 2016).

Two distinct literatures have developed that describe two types of childhood sexual abusers. One type of literature has focused on the non-family offender (Horton, Johnson, Roundy and Williams, 1990). These researchers assert that characteristics of pedophilia involve recurrent intense sexual urges and sexually arousing fantasies of at least six months duration involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child, who is generally 13 years old or younger (DSM – IV, 1994; Abel, 1986: Finkelhor, 1979). Some individuals with this diagnosis may be sexually attracted to children only (exclusive type) while others may also be attracted to adults (nonexclusive type). The second type of literature encompasses over three decades of sporadic work and has focused on a family member being the sexual abuser (Horton et al., 1990; Stevens, 1992; Skibinski, 1994; Madanes, 1995). This is incest and is generally recognized as being sexual contact between persons who are biologically related or between stepparents and stepchildren.

Prevalence of Child Molestation

Sexual abuse is a problem that has broad societal impact. The Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect (1995) reports that each year in the United States between 100,000 and 500,000 children are sexually molested by adult men. Proportionally high rates have also been reported in Canada (Glasser, 1997), Australia (Glasser, 1997), the United Kingdom (Bancroft, 1989) and the Netherlands (Bancroft, 1989). Although current method of estimation do not allow us to determine if the occurrence is at an epidemic proportion, most prevalence studies estimate that between one in ten and one four adult women have been raped or sexually assaulted (Koss, 1992; Koss, 1993). Prevalence figures are similar for child victims (Finkelhor, 1984).

National Surveys

Given the current interest in sexual abuse it is surprising that only two national representative sample surveys have been conducted in the United States (Kinsey et al., 1953; Los Angeles Times Survey, 1985). Although Kinsey’s methodology and sampling techniques have been questioned, this author believes that it is important to include the Kinsey Report (1953) (Janus & Janus, 1993; Jones, 1983). This report was the first large scale study performed on the sexual abuse of children, and was accomplished three quarters of a century after Freud (1905) identified this social and psychological issue as being a problem. Kinsey and his colleagues (1953) found that 22 percent of the women surveyed experienced some sexual activity during childhood, with sexual intercourse occurring in less than half of the cases. The Los Angeles Times survey (1985) conducted by Wyatt included a random sample survey of 2,627 adults in which 100 questions were asked concerning childhood sexual abuse. The reported results were that 27 percent of women and 16 percent of men experienced a wide range of sexual abuse before the age of eighteen. Fifty-five percent of all victims experienced sexual intercourse. Twenty-three percent of the offenders were relatives and the victims’ modal age at the time of the abuse was ten years.

Specific Group Studies

Other estimates of childhood sexual abuse are provided by the results of more limited surveys of various groups, which included college students and random sample surveys in specific geographic areas (Finkelhor, 1984; Kercher and McShane, 1984). The use of different methodologies complicates comparisons among studies. In addition the maximum age of the victim, minimum age of the perpetrator, and whether the perpetrator could be a peer differed from study to study.

In a random sample poll performed in the San Francisco Bay area, Russell (1983) found that 38 percent of the women surveyed reported sexual abuse that involved at least inappropriate touching before they were 18 years old. Among the victims 5 percent were abused by a parent, 16 percent a family member and in 31 percent the offenders were not related. In girls 13 years or younger the prevalence figures declined to that of 28 percent of the sample experienced intrafamilial abuse and 18 percent extrafamililal abuse. The data also indicate that for intrafamilial abuse, stepfathers were much more likely to abuse (17 percent) than were biological fathers (2 percent). Russell (1983) also recorded that when stepfathers did abuse, they committed more severe forms of abuse.

In their study of sexual offenders, Koss, Gidycz and Wisnieski (1987) detected that approximately one in four of their sample admitted to committing the sexual abuse of a child. Unlike physical abuse that is perpetrated by both males and females, males are far more likely than females to perpetrate childhood sexual abuse (Eagly & Stephen, 1986; Straus & Gelles, 1986; Hall, 1996). For example, in the epidemiological catchment area of Los Angeles it was reported that males perpetrated 93 percent of sexual abuses against children and 75 percent of the sexual abuse cases against adults (Siegel, Sorenson, Folding, Burma, & Stein, 1987).

Leventhal (1988) wondered if there were changes in the epidemiology of the sexual abuse of children during the 20th century. A comparison was made between the results of the survey conducted by Kinsey and his colleagues (1953), and the results of a more recent study of childhood sexual abuse. In Kinsey’s study, 24 percent of 4,441 women reported at least one episode of sexual abuse before adolescence. In 49 percent of these cases the child did not know the perpetrator. These findings were compared to the results of Russell’s study conducted in San Francisco (1983). Russell described a higher prevalence rate, a greater proportion of childhood sexual abusers who were relatives or adults known to the child, and a greater proportion of serious types of sexual abuse. Although there are important differences in the methodology used by Kinsey (1953) and Russell (1983), Leventhal (1988) is convinced that changes have occurred in the prevalence and nature of sexual abuse in the 20th century.

Characteristics of Adult Males Diagnosed with Pedophilia

Sexual Abuse

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The myth about males diagnosed with pedophilia is that they are viewed as being dirty old men who are strangers to their victims. They are also thought to be mentally retarded or insane, alcoholic or drug addicted, sexually frustrated or inept and may become increasingly violent over time. Groth (1978) described this as being the accepted view that is shared by much of the clinical community as well as the general public. While pedophiles housed in prisons or forensic mental health units often reflect a number of these characteristics, they cannot be accurately described as being associated with the average offender. According to Herman (1981), men diagnosed with pedophilia often project themselves as church going, respected, hardworking, competent and successful people, who are admired as being perfect patriarchs.

Traditionally, men diagnosed with pedophilia have been lumped together to form one homogeneous group. However, current literature indicates that they tend to be a more complex, heterogeneous population. Research that has been done in community-based facilities indicate that these individuals vary considerably in their characteristics (Horton, Johnson, Roundy, & Williams, 1988). The more researchers’ study the topic the more it is realized that pedophiles look like everyone else which makes identification and treatment all the more challenging.

Two groups of researchers have found that there are four distinct age groups of people that perpetrate child molestation (Becker, Kaplan & Kavoussi, 1988; Abel & Rouleau, 1995). Abel and Rouleau (1995) believe that a male under 18 years of age may become involved in the molestation of a younger child as a result of easy availability. These males experiment with children to learn about sex. A second group involve themselves sexually with their own children or the friends of their children and is 35 to 45 years of age. A third group is over 55 years of age, and may have a central nervous system disease, or may involve themselves with children as a result of a variety of stressful situations such as the loss of an adult sexual partner. The fourth group is aroused to children all of their life. These individuals place themselves in situations where they can easily access children and are frequently involved with a large number of children over time (Becker, Kaplan & Kavoussi, 1988; Abel & Rouleau, 1995).


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Clinical Observations of Pedophiles

Fisher (1969) and Howells (1980) found that their clinical samples of men diagnosed with pedophilia appeared to have had profiles indicative of tendencies to be, dependent, passive, weak and emotionally inadequate in relating to adult females. Ballard, Blair, Deveraux, Valentine, Horton and Johnson (1990) agree, and further explain that those offenders convicted of a new sex offense were more likely to have committed other sexual offenses. Clinical samples of people diagnosed with pedophilia show that these men are likely to never marry, have a diagnosis of a personality disorder and display inappropriate sexual preferences on phallometric assessment (Abel, 1986; Finkelhor, 1979). Defenses such as the use of rationalization and compartmentalization are universal. There is also a need to deny their offense and to demand secrecy from their victims.

Researchers have tried, but failed to identify characteristics using psychometric testing. Goeke and Boyer (1993) tested the possibility of using the MMPI item pool for the purpose of constructing a scale to identify and assess the characteristics of pedophilia. In their sample of 89 subjects the findings did not support the usefulness of the MMPI in making identification. However, Vaupel and Goeke (1994) examined the MMPI profiles of 2 subtypes of pedophilia: Those who admitted their offense vs. those who denied their offense at the time of initial assessment. This study included 40 white, males who had the diagnosis of pedophilia (20 admitting and 20 non-admitting) and a comparison group of 20 white male mental health outpatients. These profiles differed significantly as a function of admission vs. non admission to the offense. General agreement appears to exist for factors involving certain personality types or at least a commonality of traits. Those who were categorized as non-admitting showed elevated characteristics on the psychopathic deviant sale whereas this elevation was not present in the admitting group.

The assumption that childhood sexual abuse is an expression of a non-sexual need had led generations of professionals to direct their attention toward non-sexual problems typically found in the abuser (depression, poor self-esteem, difficulties in relationships with adult women). Virtually all sexual behavior may include sexual (tactile, physiological) and non-sexual (affectionate) aspects. Whether the behavior is symptomatic or a fixation on young children or done for other reasons, issues of control seem to be a primary factor (Finkelhor, 1984; Abel, 1989; Madanes, 1991).

Influence of Past Child Abuse Victimization

It is widely held that the abused child, both physically and sexually, may become an abusing parent. There are suggestions in the literature that there is a relationship between childhood victimization and subsequent childhood sexual offending. However, the evidence for this is weak. Pelto (1981) found ten times as many childhood sexual abuse experiences in the histories of offenders as compared to non-offender controls. Finkelhor (1984) disagrees, and reports that only 24 percent of his sample of subjects claimed to have experienced sexual encounters with adults during their own childhood. Kaufman & Zigler (1987) agree with Finkelhor (1984) and conclude by stating that there is a 30 percent intergenerational transmission rate for abuse. This means that approximately two thirds of abused children would not be expected to abuse their children.

Hanson, Lipovsky, and Sander (1994) interviewed 74 subjects and 24.5 percent reported a history of sexual abuse. These researchers suggest that a combination of chaotic family actors may lead to sexual abuse of children. The mediating factors that can reduce the likelihood of intergenerational abuse are the family’s love and support, the family’s ability to reduce stress, and an awareness of the potential for abuse. However, it is important to note that men diagnosed with pedophilia that were sexually abused as children reported almost 3 times as many victims (Renshaw, 1994).

Characteristics of Families with Child Sexual Abuse

For many generations parents have warned children to beware of strangers. However, researchers suggest that sexual assault by a stranger is a relatively rare occurrence. Children are more likely to be sexually abused by members of their own family and by acquaintances than by strangers (Conte, 1986). Conte, Wolf, and Smith (1989) summarized by stating that adults unrelated and not previously known by the child or family consisted of 4 percent of their sample of 150 child victims.

Faller (1988) examined 171 cases of intrafamilial sexual abuse incidents perpetrated by 59 biological fathers, 62 stepfathers and 50 boyfriends. A close relationship between the mothers’ boyfriend and the victim resulted in sexual abuse that occurred the greatest number of times and endured the longest in duration. The more distant the relationship between fathers and victims characterized the fewest incidents of sexual abuse, sexual abuse of the shortest duration, and the shortest delay between the last incident of the sexual abuse and report.

Considerable evidence indicates that father daughter incest does not usually involve impulsive, violent sever force. Rather, it is a deliberate, coercive, planned event. In her study of 930 women Russell (1983) found 68 percent of the cases involved no physical force. Indeed in less than 29 percent of the cases examined only mild forms of physical force were used and severe force was used in only 1 percent.

Pedophilia is viewed by family systems theory as a family problem in which every member contributes to the development and maintenance of the sexual relationship between father (stepfather) and daughter. Conte (1986) has suggested that family views of incest rest on two key assumptions. The first being that the abuser does not perpetrate outside of the home and the second assumption is that incest is the sexual expression of a nonsexual need. The belief that the abuser does not act outside of the family is both a statement about reality and a statement about the nature of incest. This belief is based on the assumption that these abusers are not a danger to children who live outside of the home. Therefore, in most cases they can be left in the community during treatment. However, data reported by Abel, Becker, Cunningham, Mittelman and Rouleas (1988) reveal that 49 percent of incestuous fathers and stepfathers referred to outpatient treatment abused female children outside of the family at the same time they were abusing their own children. The incestuous abuser may be statistically less likely to offend outside the family, but it is not accurate to assume this behavior does not occur. Those who sexually abuse in and out of the family, often have a large number of victims (Abel et al., Finkelhor, 1984).

Marital and sexual satisfactions are also claimed by some to be no worse for those diagnosed with pedophilia (Parker & Paker 1986). However, Finkelhor (1984) explains that if marital satisfaction is rated poor, it is used as a main excuse for becoming involved in the incestuous behavior. Typically the father is described as being powerful and domineering whereas, the mother of the victim is weak and submissive. Parker and Parker (1986) found these father reported less mutual give and take in disagreements with their spouse, confide less with their wives and described being lonelier in their marriage.

Adolescent Male Childhood Sexual Abusers

Although sexual offending is typically thought of as an adult crime, early studies determined that juvenile sexual offending is also a problem (Doshay, 1943; Shoor, Speed & Bartlet, 1966). Juvenile sexual offenders are youths under the age of 18 who engage in coercive sexual activities including exposure, genital fondling, oral, anal and vaginal intercourse. In their review of perpetrators of child sexual assault, Becker, Kaplan and Kavoussi (1988) report that adolescents perpetrate 40 percent to 59 percent of the sexual abuse of children. Johnson (1988) reports 46 percent of his sample, and Kelly, Regan and Burton (1991) state that 27 percent of their samples were adolescent perpetrators.

Clinical Observations of Adolescent Child Sexual Abusers

Sibling offenses appear to fall into two categories. Pierce (1987) explained that one category generally begins as a mutual exploration and may end as the children realize their behavior is not appropriate. If the relationship continues into adolescence the siblings frequently have difficulty in subsequent sexual relationships. The second category involves one sibling forcing another to engage in sexual activities. Sometimes the offender is being sexually abused by a parent or relative and the adolescent is continuing on with the promiscuous family life style (Pierce, 1987). In other cases the adolescent offender may be acting out other family problems (de Young, 1982).  The juvenile offender uses some type of manipulation or coercion by using threats or implied power to engage the victim.

Longo and Groth (1983) categorized adolescent offenders into two groups: passive and aggressive. These researchers explain that the behavioral dynamics of the passive offender are likely to be subtler in contrast to the aggressive adolescent offender’s behavior, which are interwoven into a complex relationship between violence and sex. The aggressive adolescent childhood sexual abuser may commit rape, engage in forced, same sex intercourse, or act out violent threats toward family members or friends.

Victim/Perpetrator Age Differences

Although many studies assume that the offender is older than the victim, some studies such as the one conducted by, Pierce and Pierce (1987) reveal that juvenile offenders are sometimes younger. From a sample of 320 victims, 46 percent of the cases the offender was at least 5 years older, and in 13 percent of the cases the offender was 10 years older. These researchers further explain that in 13 percent of the cases the abuser and the victim were close in age. However, in 22 percent the offender was younger than the victim.

The childhood sexual abuser does not seem to be motivated primarily by sexual desire (Madanes, 1995; Finkelhor, 1976). Groth (1978) explains that this behavior may involve a distorted expression of identification with the victim, and the motives may involve power, control, and the expression of hostile and aggressive impulses. Sgroi (1982) agrees, and has the belief that power and control over the child are primary motivations. Conte (1986) concurs with both of these authors, and further explains that the underlying motivation may involve an expression of non-sexual needs and unresolved life issues. For a brief overview of which many of you may have interest read “Childhood Sexual Abuse Statistics”.


Robin B Powell

In conclusion, pedophilia continues to be an extremely important topic, which is, unfortunately, replete with misconceptions. Almost everything about pedophilia is fraught with controversy and uncertainty. Tremendous confusion occurs in the field because caseworkers, psychiatrists, psychologists, lawyers, child advocates, researchers, and writers use different terms in describing adult-child involvement. Terms such as pedophile, sexual abuser, incest offender, child rapist, sexual offender of children, child molester, sexual deviant, and serial child molester are used by different groups to mean different things. Unfortunately, as a result of these differences in terminology, considerable confusion exists as to who is doing what to whom. However, developing the relationship with a client is considered to be a critical component to individual therapy. As this relationship develops the therapist obtains a vast amount of personal information in regards to their clients’ developmental history, daily habits, fantasy’s, cognitions, and belief structure. Contemporary treatment goals continue to focus on stopping the behavior and achieving consistent behavioral control in communities.

To ordered my complete work on Treatment Effects of Pedophilia go here.

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