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Fighting the "Stranger Danger" Myth

It is critical to refocus sexual abuse prevention efforts.

Source: Coyot/Pixabay

Children are the most vulnerable members of our society, and it is a global priority to keep them safe. One of the greatest dangers faced by children today is sexual abuse. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that one in four girls and one in 13 boys will experience sexual abuse by the time they reach adulthood. Furthermore, longitudinal research now shows us that the negative impacts of childhood sexual abuse are far reaching and continue well into adulthood.

Given this, why do our sexual abuse prevention efforts continue to focus on stranger danger? Stranger danger is the belief that someone unknown to the child and family (aka “an adult male stranger”) will be the one to perpetrate the abuse. However, this belief is misguided and can in fact be harmful as the large majority of those of individuals who abuse children are known to them. In fact, it is estimated that only 7% of all child abuse is perpetrated by a stranger. One report found that of children who were sexually abused:

34% were sexually abused by a family member

59% were sexually abused by someone known to them

7% were sexually abused by a stranger

Furthermore, focusing on stranger danger neglects to include the fact that one third of all sex crimes against minors are perpetrated by another minor and that up to 12% of individuals report that they were sexually abused by a woman.

By basing our prevention strategies upon antiquated stereotypes of who a perpetrator is (i.e. the adult male stranger in the white van) – we put our children at risk. It is easier for everyone to believe that those who could harm our children are horrible monsters that are easily identifiable – but the truth is that those who abuse our children live among us. Consequently, parents and guardians can fail to recognize red flag behaviors such as those involved in sexual grooming because the potential perpetrator is someone they know, likely trust and perhaps even love.

For example, some parents rely on the sex offender registry to keep their children safe. While it is probably good practice for parents to know if there are any individuals with sex offense convictions living near them, research shows that only 5% of all sex crimes are perpetrated by someone on the sex offender registry – meaning that 95% of all sex crimes are committed by someone who was not previously convicted of a sex crime.

With laws such as Erin’s Law and Jenna’s Law – schools are now required to teach sexual violence prevention in schools including specific trainings for parents, children and teachers. While this is a big step forward, the content of the trainings by state still needs to be reviewed. One study of mandated reporter trainings in the U.S. found that only about one third (36%) of state protocols included parental indicators of sexual abuse and 11% discussed sexual grooming.

While we do not know exactly what parents are telling their children (if anything) about sexual violence prevention, existing research suggests that parents who do talk to their children about sexual abuse prevention still largely base their discussions on stranger danger.

So how do we change this?

1. Make sure that all sexual violence prevention materials address the stranger danger myth and educate parents, minors (at age-appropriate levels), and those working in youth serving organizations about the characteristics of those who perpetrate sexual abuse.

2. Include education about sexual grooming – what it is and behaviors that may be indicative of sexual grooming in all educational materials.

3. Provide resources for parents to guide them through sexual abuse prevention discussions with their children, especially focused on how to discuss the characteristics and tactics used by perpetrators at age appropriate levels.


For more information, see: Jeglic, E.L., & Calkins, C.A. (2018). Protecting Your Child from Sexual Abuse: What you Need to Know to Keep your Kids Safe. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.