Dawn Horwitz-Person and Oprah
Psychotherapist Dawn Horwitz-Person works with victims of sexual abuse, as well as the men and woman who abuse. What has she learned from child molesters? Find out. The warning signs you should look out for and misconceptions about molesters. Plus, how potential abusers can get help.
Q: How did you get started in this practice?

A: I started working with victims, and I still work with victims, but it occurred to me that no matter how many of us help victims, it is not going to stop sexual abuse. It is like the river scenario where the offenders are upstream throwing victims down the river and all the therapists, social workers, etc. who are downstream are pulling victims out of the river. That does nothing to stop the problem. It occurred to me that by working with offenders, I could better understand the problem; and that I was helping stop victimization by getting to the root of the problem. I feel like it has made me a better therapist to victims because I can help them work through taking the blame off themselves and understand that it is not their fault. I can give them real examples of set up processes, grooming, the time put into planning, etc. When they understand how they were set up and how much time and effort was put into the planning of their offense, they are better able to let go of the shame and blame that victims often feel. I also feel it helps to make me a better therapist to people who offend, as well, as I can use in-the-moment, daily examples to help them learn some empathy.

But, most importantly, I do it because of my grandfather. He was an amazing role model and mentor in my life. He always seemed to just do good things. Besides his family, the most important things to him were education and community service. His daily words and actions always matched those values.
Q: We understand it can be hard to differentiate between normal and inappropriate interactions with children, but what are common warning signs some molesters share?

A: Porn addiction, deviant sexual fantasies, unusual interest in young children (i.e., hanging around the kids at a party rather than the adults), isolating children, trying to spend alone time with your child, taking a special interest in your children, buying them little gifts or things that they like, childlike behaviors, getting themselves in a position where they are in control of children, having lots of kid-related stuff at their houses that they have no need for, secrets with your child, ignoring personal boundaries, walking in the bathroom pretending it is an accident, playing lots of tickling/wrestling types of games to get children used to their touch, sharing too much personal information with your child, turning to your child for emotional support, relationship seems "too good to be true" (i.e., offers free babysitting), sexualized talk, "accidently" exposing self.

Q: If someone is fantasizing about children in a sexual way, what should he or she do to get help?

A: Call a therapist who specializes in sex offender treatment and get help! Do not wait around and think that the fantasies are okay because they are not. Fantasies about children are dangerous. Most people who commit sexual offenses fantasize before they commit the offense.

Q: How does a person go about finding a therapist who treats child sex offenders?

A: Call a probation office, children's services or the court system and see if they have a qualified list of providers. Make sure the therapist is licensed with training and experience in the field. This is important because the treatment is very different than traditional therapy.
Q: How can therapy help people who've already abused children?

A: Therapy helps people who have committed sexual offenses learn new ways to handle their thoughts, feelings and actions. I don't think they can be cured, but they can learn new ways to manage their lives. In treatment, we address the underlying reasons people allow themselves to violate the boundaries of others. I help educate them on their usage of their distorted thoughts. By recognizing the distorted thoughts and justifications they used, they can work on changing their behaviors. We also do a lot of work on anger management, social skills, coping skills, learning to identify their triggers, their sexual abuse cycles, making a relapse prevention plan and empathy work.

We also work on identifying and expressing feelings and open, honest communication. They learn about the things that put them at risk for reoffending, and they work on those issues. If they were able to stop on their own, they likely would have after the first, second or 10th time they made that promise to themselves. Ninety-five percent of people convicted of child molestation return to their communities—would you rather have them treated or not? That's just how I look at it.

Q: Some people think all child molesters have a certain "look." Do you believe that?

A: Not at all! They are male, female, young, old, rich, poor, all different races, professions and religions. There is no certain look.
Q: What are some other misconceptions about child molesters?

A: That they look like creepy guys in long, black trench coats that drive a van with covered windows. People are often shocked about who they are, as they think they can't be nice guys or people who they've previously found as nice, good people. They are often people who others have trusted and would swear it could not be that person.

People think that if they're having sex with the person (offender), they can't be molesting a child, as well. They do. I hear women often say, "We were having sex all the time. There is no way he needed/wanted more sex." People also think it could not have happened because the child was only left alone for a minute—it sometimes takes just a minute or it is very sneaky. Or people think they were there watching the entire time, so it could not have happened. I have had offenders molest while other people were in the same room, car and even bed unbeknownst to them. If someone is a famous person (singer, actor, etc.), they must not have molested a child because they could have whoever they want. Big misconception!

Q: What is the one thing you want child molesters to know before they choose another victim?

A: There is help! Get it.

Watch Oprah's two-hour conversation with child molesters

4 things you need to know about child molestation


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