Preventing sexual abuse is a global priority. However, to effectively prevent sexual violence, it is vital that we base our prevention strategies on facts and not myths or misconceptions. Below are some of the top myths about sexual offending and the most current research evidence to debunk them.
Myth: Sex Offenses are perpetrated by strangers.
Reality: Only 7 percent of child sexual abuse and 19.5 percent of adult sexual abuse is perpetrated by a stranger. Of all the myths about sexual offending, this is perhaps the most dangerous, as it still drives many of our prevention strategies. It is estimated that 34 percent of children are abused by family members and 59 percent by acquaintances. Among adults, 39 percent are sexually abused by an acquaintance and 33 percent are abused by a current or former intimate partner.
Myth: Sex offender registries prevent sexual abuse.
Reality: Sex offender registries demonstrate no effect on reoffending. A recent meta-analysis (a larger study that combines the findings of previous studies) of 25 years since the establishment of sex offender registration and notification laws found that the legislation demonstrated no effect on reoffending, meaning that was no decrease in reoffending for those individuals who are on the sex offender registry. This combined with findings that only 5 percent of new sex crimes were committed by someone on the sex offender registry (meaning that 95 percent of those arrested for sex crimes had not been previously apprehended for a sex crime) suggests that sex offender registries cannot be relied upon to keep communities safer.
Myth: All sex offenders are adult men.
Reality: Up to 12 percent of sex offenders are women and 25-35 percent are minors. This is also a dangerous myth because when teaching sexual violence prevention, we almost always identify the perpetrator of these crimes as adult men. While adult men do perpetrate the majority of sex crimes, a recent meta-analysis of self-report data suggests that in 12 percent of cases of sexual abuse, the abuser was a woman. Further, 40 percent of men who experienced sexual abuse reported that their abuser was a woman compared to only 4 percent of the women. We also must consider that more than one-third of those who abuse children and 25 percent of those who sexually abuse adults are minors. Failing to teach individuals that perpetrators may also be females or minors may prevent detection or reporting.
Myth: Child sexual abuse happens spontaneously.
Reality: Many sex offenses against children involve sexual grooming behaviors. While many TV shows depict strangers in white vans grabbing children off the street and abusing them, most sexual abuse happens after a period of days, months, and even years in which the perpetrator sexually grooms the child, their family, and the community. Sexual grooming refers to the deceptive process by which a would-be abuser, prior to the commission of sexual abuse, selects a victim, gains access to and isolates the minor, develops trust with the minor, and often other adults in the minor’s life, and desensitizes the minor to sexual content and physical contact. Post-abuse, the offender may engage in maintenance strategies in order to facilitate future sexual abuse and/or prevent disclosure.
While most of the sexual grooming literature refers to the sexual abuse perpetrated against children, there is some evidence that those who sexually abuse teenagers and adults may also utilize sexual grooming strategies. While previously it was believed that up to half of cases of child sexual abuse involved sexual grooming, in our recent study we found that 99 percent of self-reported cases of child sexual abuse involved at least one sexual grooming behavior or tactic, with an average of 15.5 sexual grooming behaviors or tactics per individual who reported child sexual abuse. Thus, it is imperative to learn what behaviors and tactics constitute sexual grooming so they may be detected and the abuse prevented.
Myth: There is a specific profile of those who sexually abuse.
Reality: There is no one profile of a sex offender. The profiling shows on TV make it seem easy to determine who committed a crime based upon their characteristics and behaviors, but that is not true for those who commit sexual offenses. Those who commit sexual offenses come from all walks of life, including respected members of our community such as teachers, clergy, doctors, and coaches. What we do know is that teaching our children and youth healthy sexuality, affirmative consent, and relationship skills can go a long way to preventing future sexual violence.
Understanding the myths and realities of sexual offending is pivotal for prevention, as we need to know what and whom to target. Laws and prevention strategies that are based upon myths and misconceptions about sexual violence not only fail to protect us but can put at us increased risk.
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Jeglic, E.L., & Calkins, C (2018). Protecting your Child from Sexual Abuse: What You Need to Know to Keep your Kids Safe. Skyhorse, New York