ענייני קדושה וצניעות

Messages from Chinuch Research Center

We are delighted to share a critical article about the important topic of modesty and sanctity (ענייני קדושה וצניעות). The article is authored by Elvie Friedman, a specialist in this field. It sheds light on the reasons behind children’s issues in these areas and provides guidance on how to prevent such problems. Education plays a vital role in protecting children from abuse. It is important to note that seeking guidance from a rabbi is necessary when dealing with such sensitive matters. Please note that this article is for informational purposes only.

ענייני קדושה וצניעות

The purpose of this article is to give an appreciation of what causes children and adolescents to abuse other youth sexually. It will also outline the treatment of youth offenders of sexual abuse in individual therapy, giving a window to laymen (and therapists unfamiliar) into the therapeutic process. It is my hope that in so doing, the needs of youth offenders will be better understood. This will not only help us prevent repeat offenders but hopefully catalyze the development of preventive measures that can be taken to stop youth from offending in the first place.  

The focus of this article is on youth who offend. The therapeutic community views minors who offend very differently than adults – and research indicates a much higher rate of success in therapy with youth than with adults who have molested1. The concern with adults is that their behavior has become entrenched in their personality. The manipulation of others and/or using others to meet their own needs is far more likely to have become their modus operandi.  

Mental Health Professionals don’t view youth who have offended in the same way at all. The assumption is that the behaviors of the youth – however unhealthy – are not yet inherently a part of who they are or how they operate. Their behavior is a response to their emotional state and mistaken understandings. When we adjust both, their behavior is corrected.  

Why Kids Offend 

There are many factors that can lead to children sexually abusing other children. Below I outline a number of the most common factors discussed in research and that I and my colleagues have seen in our practices. Rarely will one of these causes be sufficient to lead to abuse taking place; generally there will be a confluence of factors that lead to the abuse.  

Being a Victim of Abuse 

Most people – many professionals included – assume that a child who is abusing others sexually must have been sexually abused themselves. While being abused certainly can be a precursor to abusing others, it is by no means necessary. Though research indicates that a child that was abused is more likely to abuse than the average child (and perhaps even much more likely), it also indicates that the vast majority of victims of sexual abuse do not go on to abuse others. Furthermore, it seems that the majority of offenders were not sexually abused themselves2.  

Disclaimers aside, a child being abused can very well be a trigger to them abusing others. The best way to learn something is by experience. Children understand this intuitively and therefore mimic those around them, repeating behaviors they’ve experience or witnessed in an attempt to better understand them. Children also often act out based on their feelings. If someone made them feel helpless or controlled, they are likely to attempt to regain that sense of control or safety by exerting similar power over another child.  


1 Regarding the treatment of adult offenders, there is encouraging news coming from a program originated in Canada called COSA – Circles of Support and Accountability. There is an increasing number of scientific studies on the efficacy of the approach and it seems to be exponentially more successful than any other therapy to date. There is much overlap between the theory behind their work and the treatment described in this article. 2In a 2012 review of numerous studies it was found that maximally 23% of males who had admitted to committing sexual crimes reported having been abused themselves in childhood. The authors point out that this number, while higher than the percentage of males in the general population who have been abused (believed to be 10%), is still less than a quarter of perpetrators of sexual crimes. They also point out that the numbers may be skewed upwards as inmates may have made these claims in the hope of leniency in treatment in prison or sentencing.

On that note, many children who are abused are victims of abuse, though not necessarily sexual abuse. Children who were abused physically or emotionally are also more likely to be abused sexually, as just explained3. As the saying goes, hurt people hurt people.  

Unmet Needs 

Often sexual abuse is a maladaptive response to unmet needs. As previously mentioned, lack of stability or safety may lead youth to seek a sense of control in their lives. There have also been cases in which the primary cause of the abuse was jealousy4.  

Lack of Emotional Connection 

The most common cause of abuse that I’ve seen in my practice is a lack of emotional connection5. Many teens come to equate sexual activity with emotional connection. This is not incorrect; there’s a reason that we refer to sexual interaction as intimacy. Youth who don’t have healthy emotional relationships with parents and/or peers, who struggle to connect deeply with others, or don’t have whom they can turn to for support may turn to sexual behavior as a misguided way of establishing the connections they lack and desperately need. While for some, this translates as finding a willing partner (in the street or wherever), for others, they seek to connect more deeply with those with whom they already have a connection (siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, younger friends, etc.).  


It should be noted that children with ADHD or who otherwise struggle with impulse control are statistically more likely to abuse sexually. This does not mean that these struggles are the cause of sexual abuse. Such struggles are, however, highly correlated with a lack of academic success, low self-esteem, and low tolerance for frustration. These factors lead us to our previous points about unmet emotional needs. Additionally, children who struggle with impulse control have a lower threshold to cross before engaging in any inappropriate behavior, including in the area of sexuality. 

Exposure to Inappropriate Materials  


3 The psychology of rapists has long been considered to be centered on control issues, not sexuality. The greatest exertion of control over another, however, is in the area of greatest intimacy. We find similar trends with some youth who abuse sexually as well.  

4 This is most likely to be the case amongst siblings. When a child views a sibling as a parent’s favorite and feels that his needs aren’t being met, he may hurt the favored child in retaliation. This is much safer for him than attacking the parent directly, but is no less an attack on the parent than on the sibling. Even in cases where this isn’t the direct cause of the abuse, it may be the reason that one particular sibling was abused as opposed to another.  

5 This is not necessarily the lone cause; in the majority of cases there are multiple factors that contribute to the abuse taking place. But my experience has been that many young people who abuse weren’t seeking control or revenge and weren’t necessarily victims of any abuse. They were inappropriately seeking emotional connection that they were severely lacking. 

Another factor to consider is that many youth – in particular teens – who abuse have been exposed to pornographic material. Premature exposure6to such materials can often trigger anxiety, depression, or worse. Just being exposed to this material can be a form of victimhood for many children. Even teens mature enough to not be traumatized by exposure to these materials are certainly affected by them. The objectification of women (or even men) and the unhealthy and unrealistic nature of the interactions skew the viewers’ understanding of intimacy. For young people whose views on such matters are unrefined at best, this can be catastrophic. Many youth offenders are convinced that their victims enjoyed the experience – and exposure to pornography can play a large role in facilitating such misunderstandings.  

Lack of Education 

A lack of education can play a large role in young people abusing others as well, and this happens most often in religious communities. Our understandable reticence to discuss these issues with our children often leaves them ill-prepared for the changes that naturally take place in the body of a teenager. They  

are suddenly confronted with intense desires with which they are unfamiliar and unsure how to face. A number of clients that I’ve worked with were genuinely unaware of the impropriety of much of what they’d done. No one ever spoke with them about healthy boundaries between siblings or friends. Even those who realized that they were doing something they shouldn’t, often couldn’t differentiate between that which is slightly inappropriate and that which is יעבור ואל יהרג. This often leads to small infractions quickly escalating to far worse behaviors simply because after the first (relatively minor) infraction they’re already convinced that they’ve committed the worst atrocity.  

In addition, many youth have not yet developed the skills to deal with their own failures and disappointments. They have not sufficiently learned how to forgive themselves or to be forgiven. They don’t properly understand Teshuva. They can come to believe that Hashem hates them and develop a very negative perception of Him or of their relationship with Him. This clearly complicates their experience (and ability to admit to what they’ve done) even further.  

Usually a Combination 

As mentioned earlier, in most cases there are multiple factors that play a role in fertilizing the ground for sexual abuse. None of the abovementioned causes necessarily leads to abuse in and of themselves. Just as most victims of abuse don’t go on to abuse, so too, most children whose emotional needs weren’t met don’t abuse. The same is true of youth with ADHD and those who view pornographic materials. It generally takes months of work in therapy to properly understand the factors that contributed to that particular youth abusing sexually.  

The Bottom Line 

The bottom line is that youth who abuse are suffering. It is from a place of pain and confusion that they hurt others. The successful treatment of abusers hinges to a large extent on appreciating this point.  

When is Treatment Necessary 


6 This is not to suggest that there is ever an appropriate time to view such materials. But exposure to such materials isn’t necessarily a traumatic experience; this will depend, among other factors, on the emotional and physical development of the viewer. 

The first step in the treatment of youth offenders of sexual abuse is to determine whether or not anyone has offended. There is a distinction between behavior that is inappropriate – or even very inappropriate –and behavior in which someone in being victimized. The response to inappropriate behavior is education. In a situation in which someone is being victimized there is a need for therapy – for both the victim and the abuser. The determining factor in making this distinction is whether or not there is mutuality in the experience.  

Children by nature tend to be curious. It is actually common that children will explore sexual behaviors with peers. Because these experiences can be physically pleasurable7children may do it for prolonged periods of time until they’re caught. Proper education, however, should lead to immediate cessation of the behaviors. In situations in which the behavior continues one should suspect that something more is going on and a trained therapist should be consulted to look further into the matter.  


It can be extremely difficult to gauge whether or not an experience is mutual. We can’t necessarily be sure what dynamic exists or existed in a relationship between children. There are guidelines that the legal and therapeutic communities generally follow to determine (to the best of our ability) whether we’re dealing with a case of mutual exploration or a situation in which one child is manipulating, controlling, or otherwise taking advantage of another child.  

Imbalance of Power 

In relationships between children, the older child will generally be the more dominant. This is because as a rule they are more advanced intellectually, emotionally and physically. If one child is coercing or manipulating another into a given behavior, almost invariably it will be the older bullying the younger. Therefore, when there is inappropriate behavior between two children of different ages (how large of a difference will certainly be taken into account) there is concern that the older child was manipulating the younger.  

Any other “imbalance of power” will similarly lead to the belief that in all likelihood we aren’t dealing with a case of innocent exploration. If one child is intellectually or emotionally more developed than the other this will raise concerns8. Similarly, if one child is much stronger socially, it will be a red flag. Children that are popular are more likely to be able to take advantage of those who are less so.  

Different Experiences 

It’s important to note that even in situations where it may appear that there is mutuality each party may experience the behavior quite differently9. In any case of doubt the best course of action is to consult with a trained professional who is experienced in this area to receive guidance as to how to approach  


7 Even at an age at which children don’t yet appreciate sexuality there is physical pleasure in acts that adults interpret as sexual. 

8Far too often children who are developmentally disabled are abused. They are “ideal victims” because of the belief that they won’t appreciate what’s happening to them and therefore won’t tell anyone what happened. Unfortunately, this commonly is the case. If a regularly developing child engaged in sexual behavior with a child who is developmentally disabled, one can be confident that it is a case of victimization. 9Some might argue that the difference in experience – one child enjoyed while the other was traumatized – indicates a lack of mutuality. While in many cases there may be merit to this claim it is not necessarily the case. 

the children and discuss what happened with them. Minimal intervention is preferred when it will be sufficient. If education is all that is necessary, one should suffice with that. If parents can do it, that’s best. If not, there are educators with experience in this area who can speak with the children. If therapeutic intervention is necessary, however, it is critical to consult a therapist with training and experience in this field.