Perpetrator strategies. The motive for abuse is not sex but power

By Mathias Wais, July 2015

Trust does not protect against abuse. On the contrary, abuse situations are based on the carefully developed relationship of trust between the perpetrator and child. Mathias Wais shows the manipulative way in which perpetrators proceed, what happens to their victims and what we as parents can do to prevent abuse.

Photo: © stille wasser /

A twelve-year-old girl wants to have riding lessons. She is mad on horses and has been pestering her parents with her wish for a long time. The riding teacher is nice and is happy to take the child into his group. After a time he recommends individual riding lessons because the girl was very gifted and was making fast progress. The girl’s parents get on well with the riding teacher, are often at the stables and a friendship develops. They feel that their child is well looked after there and the individual lessons flatter the girl. That carries on for quite a while. 

The riding teacher approaches the girl with harmless friendly gestures. She was too tense so that he had to massage her back, legs and stomach. He was suffering from the same thing and wished someone would treat him. The child’s instinct to help is addressed, the individual attention makes her feel recognised and taken seriously. Sexual assault occurs. The riding teacher invites the girl into the shower. After all, they have already known each other for such a long time, he says, it’s no big deal. He asks the girl whether she prefers apple or chestnut shampoo … The perpetrator acts in a typical way: he turns his victim into an accomplice to the subsequent abuse through the pseudo decisions he asks her to make. That makes the victim feel that she has been actively involved in the abuse and this can cause lifelong feelings of guilt: “I must have been a really bad child.” On this “basis” the perpetrator gradually extends the sexual relationship.

Trust and secrecy

Abuse always takes place within a relationship of trust and within the social horizon of the child. Abuse is something quite different from physical violence (rape). Ninety-five percent of perpetrators are male and not paedophiles but also have normal intimate relationships with adults. The abuse victim has no feeling of victimhood – on the contrary: they feel socially enhanced through the perpetrator. The perpetrator can sense the child’s need for attention; he offers himself as a helper and systematically ensnares the child, for example through “initiation” into adult themes such as marriage problems. The children will not communicate their experiences with their peer group and will isolate themselves increasingly from young people of their own age. In very few cases does the perpetrator demand secrecy because the child will of their own accord keep the secret of a special – from their perspective – privileged relationship.

Distorted perception of “I” and “we”

Where is the child most traumatised through abuse? They are less traumatised in respect of their body and soul than with regard to their I function which is just developing. Such a disorder is revealed in that the child cannot set boundaries, cannot say no. They think that they have to be available for everyone else. We might say that the child grows up in a house without doors. This leads to a pathological and distorted attitude to what it means to be “we”, leading to a chronic and draining susceptibility to exploitation. In a healthy attitude to “we”, the “I” does not lose itself but feels supported in the “we” as something independent. Healthy boundaries and connections support us in finding our I. To this extent the abuse damages the innermost core of the victim.

Dissociation and derealisation

Sexual abuse is an escalating activity which can extend over many years. For a large part of this time the abuse is not experienced as such. The child has no sense of being a victim.

The perpetrator mostly includes the parents in building the relationship of trust with the child, often they are even friends or relations. Parents live in the belief that this person can get on with children particularly well. Since the abuse is embedded in a functioning social context, the child attempts to “normalise” what is happening. Derealisation increasingly occurs over time. The victim cannot integrate the abuse into the positive image of the perpetrator, dissociation occurs; the actual abuse becomes a “nightmare” or “phantom”. Such an attitude of doubt and suppression remains into adulthood: did it really happen? The suppressive mechanism works as far as into the public discourse.

Classic situations

A frequent example is babysitting. The child themselves makes the suggestion: why can’t the nice man from next door do it who has systematically built up a relationship of trust with the child, sometimes over years (grooming). Another example is private music lessons. The perpetrator is known to be particularly “committed”. But when the child no longer wants to play the recorder because the instrument “stinks of wee”, urgent action is called for. In this case it was a popular teacher who had his class well “under control”. Frequently it is the case that the perpetrators are “good” teachers who mask the abuse under their “special” educational qualification.

Secret manipulation

As discussions with convicted offenders repeatedly reveal, the motivation for abuse is not sex but the exercise of power. A rapist gets their kicks through physical violence, an abuser through manipulation.

This “motive” accords with the unobtrusive, subtle strategy of the perpetrator. The child and their environment are not intended to notice the former’s intentions. The perpetrator feels themselves to be the master and director of events without showing themselves as such. What they secretly prepared happens and the child acts as they have directed.

The way perpetrators express themselves in particular allows for ambiguity and a variety of interpretations. These innuendos irritate the child who cannot put them in context.

Hence the best way to prevent abuse is to cultivate a transparent way of dealing with children, that is, to make the motives of the adult actions clear and comprehensible for the child; the same applies to the consequences: the child can place their trust in reliable interaction and communication which is never manipulative and always direct. Such clear, child-appropriate dialogue is distorted when adult subjects, particularly relationship subjects, are discussed in front of the child or, indeed, the child functions as a surrogate partner (parentification). Here a boundary is already being crossed and emotional and verbal abuse takes place in a manipulative way.

A motive is manipulative when I actually want to achieve something for myself whereas a motive is educational when I selflessly want to achieve something for the child.

Children do not see through verbal and emotional strategies such as “Please do it for my sake …”, or “I’ll be awfully upset …” or “I knew I could rely on you …”. That creates unconscious feelings of dependency and guilt.

Boys must learn to talk about their feelings

In my experience in discussions and therapy, it is one of the psychological prerequisites of abuse that men in our present culture have not learnt to communicate inner emotions. It is seen as unmanly.

The best prevention, because causal, is to create an environment in which boys learn to talk about their feelings. The role models for this cannot be mothers, but only fathers!

Because mothers or girls talk and express their feelings differently from men or boys. In abusers the feeling of a lack of emotional sovereignty is compensated for by exercising power over others who are weaker and dependent.

What to do on suspicion?

Every establishment needs a prevention concept and that starts as early as the job interview. The signal that the prevention of violence and abuse is talked about openly in an establishment deters potential perpetrators: we do not look away and keep silent but speak with one another about it.

On suspicion, the child should not be included in the first instance if they do not raise the subject themselves because then there is the risk of a second traumatisation. The teachers are not under an obligation to solve cases of abuse themselves, there is professional help available for that purpose.

Investigative work without informing the parents is possible and legally permissible if there is a suspicion that the abuse has taken place within the family. Charges should only be pressed when there are clear findings.

About the author: Mathias Wais studied psychology, Judaic studies and Tibetology in Munich, Tübingen and Haifa. In his work he focuses on biography work, biographical and child guidance. He was a member of staff at the “Child, Adolescent and Adult Advice Centre” in Dortmund.

Based on notes from a lecture by and seminar with Mathias Wais on the “Have trust in yourself” thematic day in Kassel on 16 January 2015.