Abusers Always Hide Behind This Common Veneer

Abusers want you to trust them and provide plausible deniability when they're found out.

Woman hiding behind a veneer of respectability Red Stock | Shutterstock

I was only a few months into my new job with a mobile forensics tool vendor when I heard the news: a former classmate of mine, someone I’d considered a friend when we volunteered together in Law Enforcement Explorers, had been arrested for possessing child sexual abuse material (CSAM). He was an emergency medical technician at the time of his arrest. More recently was the arrest of someone else I used to know, for an over-the-clothes contact offense. He was a school employee when his victim came forward.


So when a LinkedIn connection shared the news this week that a former colleague, someone who sold to law enforcement digital forensics examiners, had been arrested for CSAM offenses, I understood the devastation they felt.

These horrific crimes rip at the fabric of your reality. You realize there’s a whole other layer to this person underneath the one you worked with, laughed with, and broke bread with. You wonder how you could’ve missed the signs, and what it says about you and your character judgment.

RELATED: 5 Truths Emotional Abusers Hide To Keep You Under Their Control

Crimes like these destabilize our foundations of trust. I think a lot about trust, as a woman with ADHD who went undiagnosed for most of my life. Humans build trust through our actions rather than our words; by showing up for each other, and providing help and support for others in need. Neurodivergent traits can undermine these actions.

  • We promise, but then forget to follow through — sometimes even after repeated reminders.
  • We’re chronically late, or else overcompensate and are so early that it looks weird and awkward.
  • We might struggle to use our words or articulate our thoughts clearly enough.
  • Our emotions can get the better of us and make us look unstable.

These traits are all compounded by other societal expectations. Girls and women, especially, are expected to be quiet and accommodating. We're told we’re "too loud" and inflexible, hypersensitive, and flaky, we end up trying so hard to gain trust by becoming what we aren’t.

The less other people trust us, the more isolated we become the better targets for abusers.

It ends up being a cruel irony that the abusers I’ve known have been able to use basic likeability to achieve a level of trust I’ve struggled with my whole life. And that the victim-blaming that follows — the “why did you get involved with him?” — further attacks my sense of trust in myself. Of course, the reason I “got involved with” any of those men was the same one other people gravitated to them: often, they were the literal pillars of society.


Have you ever wondered why so many people in positions of trust get rounded up during proactive sting operations? Teachers, coaches, school custodians, scout leaders, cops, EMTs, pastors, counselors: it’s not only that these roles give them access to new victims. It’s also that we rely on them for support in our best and worst moments. To lift us when we’re down and be proud of us when we succeed. To show us where we went wrong and guide us to better. To help us grow into versions of ourselves we aspire to be. That’s a tremendous power trip for predatory people.

From their position of authority, they can survey the masses. Identify their targets. Groom them selectively: not just the victims, but also the people they trust. Convince everyone, including the victim, that they have the victim’s best interest at heart. When you’re on their web, you wish other people were as attentive as they are. (They’re learning your weaknesses to exploit later on.) As dedicated and loyal. (They’re softening your boundaries.) As empathetic, compassionate, and caring. (They hate themselves and other people.)

RELATED: 6 Types Of People You Should Always Be Wary Of Trusting

Often, we want to be able to trust others so badly that we gloss over the red flags we see. We want to believe we’re good judges of character. So we say things like: “I know him. He could never do this,” they might say. Or, “I never once saw her raise a hand to those children.” Abusers bank on this. The whole point is for them to gain plausible deniability, so that when they are found out — when their victims report them, when the material is found on their device, when they are literally caught in the act — they, not the victim(s), will be believed.


How do these dynamics develop?

A thing I haven’t been able to work through is how the abuser sees themself throughout all this. It isn’t clear whether they’re conscious of what they’re doing the entire time, or whether in reality, they’re lying as much to themself as to everyone else.

On LinkedIn, in response to my connection’s post, I commented: "If anything, I imagine the pressure and stress of work life can weaken a person’s boundaries and increase the likelihood of their preying on the vulnerable. Like any addict, they’d look to take the edge off their stress, and again, the power involved with gaining trust from their targets and surrounding people would provide the “rush” preventing the person from having to deal with much more troublesome and potentially crushing emotions having to do with inferiority, etc."

Let’s break that down. First, again: I’ve known child predators, not just the two actually arrested, but those I encountered who weren’t. Perhaps the reason they’re so good at blending in is that they convince themselves they’re ‘normal’ and even good human beings. The key word there, though, is “convince”. On some level, they have to be cognizant of the rot at their core. Perhaps they lie to themselves believing that if they can pass as ‘normal’ for long enough, they’ll achieve it. Or they carry on, hoping they’ll get caught so that they can be stopped. Or that nothing is actually wrong with them at all. Or else, they’re on so much of a power trip that they enjoy getting away with the truth of themself while others carry on around them, unawares.


In other words, they congratulate themselves for their ability to fly under people’s radar. Any of these create the kind of pressure and stress, which — when added to what everyday life and work throws at us — create emotions we need to be able to regulate to function.

The difference lies in what we do to ‘ground’ ourselves.

I once interviewed a social worker who told me that sex offenders miss some key stages in their psychosocial development. For example:

  • ...insecure childhood attachment results in deficits of interpersonal skills, self-confidence, and empathy, which then leads to difficulties in engaging in appropriate courtship behaviors and in achieving intimacy as an adult.” 
  • “Sexual offenders exhibit heterogeneous characteristics, yet they present with similar clinical problems or criminogenic needs (e.g., emotional regulation deficits, social difficulties, offense supportive beliefs, empathy deficits, and deviant arousal)…” 

Then again, a lot of theories about sex offender development exist, often overlapping. Very little of any of this helps us know how, in our day-to-day lives, to defend our safety — or that of our children.


We must rethink how we build trust.

I don’t think it’s that humans build trust in the wrong things. Actions do speak louder than words. The times people have come through for me in life have felt amazing, and the sense of belonging that comes with trust is profound.

Ultimately, it’s that sense of belonging that I think abusers are chasing. The major difference is, that they believe ‘belonging’ is a short-term high rather than a long-term foundation. To that end, they control, manipulate, and hurt to get what they want. You don’t do those things unless you believe there’s something so fundamentally defective about yourself that you think showing up as ‘you’ will get you shunned for life. I can say this because I’ve spent the last few years healing from the kind of scapegoat abuse that made me vulnerable to abusers. To do that, I needed to face the ways I myself engaged in control and manipulation, largely through people-pleasing.

RELATED: 6 Little Forms Of Abuse Everyone Should Recognize Before It's Too Late


Again, as I explained at the beginning of this piece, I’m not sure how it happens for one person to gain trust by mirroring others’ values, actions, beliefs, etc… but for another to attempt the same thing and fail to gain trust. Some people in the neurodivergent sphere argue that we just communicate differently than neurotypicals, but I’m not sure it’s that simple. Other people might believe we just need to be more vigilant about who we ‘allow’ in our circles, but constant watchfulness isn’t good for human connection, either.

I believe we all need to get better at trusting ourselves first.

Our intuitions tell us quite a lot, and we routinely ignore them in favor of external measures of respectability: job titles, connections / social networks, degrees, and awards. I mean, of course, I’d love to win a Pulitzer and be a well-known, well-respected journalist. But I’d rather people focused on, to paraphrase the great Maya Angelou, how I made them feel.


When I look back at the predators I’ve encountered and the red flags they sent up that I ignored, I see:

  • Clear misogyny in the way they talked about other women and girls in their lives, the media, and in general.
  • Condescension in the smallest moments of interactions with me.
  • The way they sometimes triangulated me with other girls to make us compete for their attention.
  • The sense of emotional starvation, even when I thought I was the center of their attention.
  • The sense of being less than, no matter how hard I tried to be better or different.
  • The way I negged myself when I was around them.
  • The persistent “ick” I couldn’t explain and didn’t know how to address.
  • The sense that I ‘owed’ them whenever they gave something to me, even if they insisted I didn’t.

A lot of times I think we ignore these instincts because we believe we’re merely projecting our own shortcomings onto others. I’m not sure why we don’t take a moment to back off, step back, and evaluate what’s going on. Maybe it’s that we’re afraid of being alone, of missing an opportunity. Or maybe it’s simply that that’s what we’re taught to believe. Regardless, we now live in a world where individualism and tribalism insist that we must do for ourselves, but think the same as everyone else. This is how people end up isolated and longing to belong, and how we end up trusting people who are toxic to our well-being.

I think the reverse is what we need: to (re)learn to think for ourselves and do alongside everyone else.


If we trusted ourselves more, we would be able to reconnect to our own still, small voices to discern the people and situations that encourage our growth — the kind that’s true to ourselves rather than what others want for us. We would be able to take that deep self-knowledge back to our communities, where we could encourage the broken and hurting among us, as much as the healed and whole, to do the same. We would be able to trade respectability for restoration, and authority for accountability. We could create a world where everyone had a place. No one would need to hide — or cheat, conquer, or abuse.

Sexual abuse is very common. 

RAINN reports that every 68 seconds, an American is a victim of sexual violence. Females are far more likely to be abused and assaulted, and 90% of victims who are adults are women. This is especially prevalent among women who also happen to be college students, which makes their risk three times greater. 

Anyone affected by sexual assault can find support on the National Sexual Assault Hotline, a safe, confidential service. 


Contact The Hotline or call 800-656-HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member.

RELATED: 15 Easy Ways To Build More Trust In Yourself

Christa Miller has been a professional writer for 20+ years, publishing works in niche trade, nonprofit, and regional lifestyle articles, content marketing, journalism, peer-reviewed research, and fiction for both children and adults.