Ending Sexual Abuse of Our Children

The best solutions are coming from families, schools and communities

Posted Jan 24, 2017

It’s remarkable to me that there has been far more research on the causes and rates of child sexual abuse than the ways we can prevent it, or the ways we can help children heal afterwards. Fortunately, that is beginning to change. While sexual abuse during childhood is one of the ten most studied long-term damaging experiences a child can have (what are called Adverse Childhood Experiences), we still know far more about the risk factors for abuse than the conditions in a child’s world that can prevent abuse in the first place.

Solution #1: Stop raising perpetrators. It may seem obvious, but prevention begins with ensuring that the young people we are raising today do not go on to commit sexual abuse when they are older. A recent review of the evidence for effective prevention carried out by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta identified at least four possible ways to prevent young people from becoming sexually abusive as adults:

  • Parental use of reasoning to resolve family conflict
  • Emotional health and connectedness
  • Academic achievement
  • Empathy and concern for how one’s actions affect others

The list is interesting in that it shows clearly that there are things that families and communities can do to ensure that young people are raised to be successful, empathetic members of their future families and communities. The list also makes it clear that a child is in a poor position to prevent sexual victimization on her, or his, own. Children need to grow up in spaces that create safety.

Solution #2: Give our children the supports they need to stay safe. Now, admittedly, preventing child sexual abuse by raising more empathetic people is a ridiculously long-range approach to prevention. Most of us parents want shorter-term solutions that will protect our kids today. I’ve been pleased to see that a small number of people are thinking about Beneficial Childhood Experiences that can help children avoid violence, whether it is sexual or otherwise. Here are a few ideas that seem to be appearing more and more often in the field of child development that could help prevent child sexual abuse as well:

  • Ensure children have access to good programs that teach them about appropriate touch and that show them how to disclose and to whom when they need to. I particularly love programs that put uniformed police officers into elementary schools helping with social studies and other parts of the curriculum. It makes them far less scary to children and much more approachable when something bad happens.
  • Take away the stigma of sexual abuse. The more we adults are embarrassed to talk about it, and the more we blame the victims with silly notions that they somehow invited the abuse, the more children will continue to cover it up.
  • We need to encourage children’s social and emotional learning. We need them to have the skills to assert themselves, to know when to say “No,” and the confidence to turn to an adult for help when they need it. As parents, we need to stop being so protective and start helping our children learn to cope with tough situations themselves. Do we really want our adolescents having to keep themselves safe for the very first time when they’re 16 and out of view? That is too late for our kids to have learned the right way to avoid dangerous situations. Good prevention begins early with children talking about their bodies, trusting adults, and making decisions for themselves (with a parent in the background to help them deal with the consequences when the consequences are still small enough to be fixed).
  • We need to stop sexualizing children in our popular press and on social media. And we need to tell parents who dress their children in sexually suggestive clothing that this is not appropriate. This isn’t a question of morals. It’s simply setting a community standard that says a child is a child and not a sexual object.
  • Finally, whether we like it or not, we need to work with the perpetrators. There is no point just incarcerating someone who has committed sexual abuse. We cannot avoid naming the problem. The scary fact I’ve learned in my clinical practice is that many perpetrators of child sexual abuse have hundreds of victims. We need to identify the risks, jail if necessary, but also ensure proper treatment so that those who are convicted get the support they need to change their behavior. That’s a safety plan that benefits our whole community.

Many programs for families and communities. What has been particularly interesting to me as a social scientist, family therapist, and father, has been the many different programs across so many countries that are working to prevent child sexual abuse at the grassroots level: Girl empowerment projects run by the YWCA; Respectful relationship programs like the Red Cross’ RespectED program that teaches girls and boys about healthy relationships and gives them a language to name abuse when it happens. These are just two that come to mind.

On March 24-25, colleagues of mine like as Dr. Chris Wekele and her team at McMaster University’s Department of Pediatrics, along with facilitators from my research group, will convene a workshop we’ve called Wisdom2Action in Ottawa, Canada. Organized as an alternative to workshops where only researchers or senior clinicians speak, we’ll  look for solutions to child sexual abuse by bringing together community leaders on the front lines of practice, program developers, youth, and even policy makers to share best and promising practices. The strategy is purposeful. Most of what is helping young people avoid sexual abuse is not easy to quantify or evaluate. Hundreds of small programs and community initiatives are hard at work changing how we think about sexual abuse, making it less and less acceptable, while giving victims more and more places to disclose, find support, and get services that are matched to their needs. For example, these days, many children are lucky enough to live in communities with Child Advocacy Centers where police, social services staff and medical personnel work together to create a seamless service delivery model that makes it easier for children to talk about what happened, get treatment, and proceed through the court process when it’s necessary.

Solution #3: Ensure that families, communities, schools and governments work together. Grassroots solutions are wonderful, and plentiful (though seldom well funded), but unfortunately they tend to lack coordination. They will fail unless there are society wide changes. I’m an optimist, mostly because a remarkable amount of attention is being paid to this issue. Take for example the World Health Organization’s World Report on Violence and Health which documents the cruel reality that many women and children, both male and female, continue to experience sexual abuse. Rates vary widely around the world, with many people still afraid to admit they were abused as children, or simply not labeling what happened to them as abuse, but the reported numbers tend to follow similar trends. For example, a US sample of adolescents found that 9% of girls reported that they were coerced into having sex their first time. Globally, it’s estimated that one in three women will, over her lifetime, experience at least one episode of sexual victimization. Boys, too, are often victims of sexual assault, though getting accurate statistics remains difficult. I’ve seen estimates that one in five boys are likely to experience abuse. That makes sense to me based on my clinical experience. For populations in prisons, and other groups engaged in high risk behaviors like drug abuse, that figure is likely much higher.

This is a preventable situation. As parents, educators, communities and governments we can help. Indeed, even the Sustainable Development Goals which are being implemented with a target date of 2030 recognize the need to address the sexual victimization of women and children if we are to succeed at solving other big problems around the world. I can hardly imagine a childhood experience that destroys more children’s lives globally, with a cascade of problems well into adulthood. In fact, according to the WHO’s World Report, a young person who is raped during childhood is twice as likely to be sexually abused as an adult, largely because of how risk factors Velcro together, snowballing into patterns of problems (like low self-esteem and self-harming behaviors) that are entirely preventable. If this problem is going to be addressed it is going to take a comprehensive approach that names the problem and implements solutions that are child-based, support family strengthening, provide better services for children who are abused, addresses the way children are portrayed in the media, and finally, works with perpetrators as early as possible, providing the treatment they need to break the cycle of behavior that will put more children at risk.