Eradicating child sexual abuse – what does the world think?

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By Donald Findlater

Director of Research and Development at Lucy Faithfull Foundation and Stop it Now! UK & Ireland

On the 30th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child last November, Dr Elizabeth Letourneau of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the US addressed the UN in Geneva. Her topic – the prevention of child sexual abuse. She noted the following: -

In the US about half of all sexual offenses against children are committed by other children under the age of 18, mostly under the age of 15. Indeed, the peak age for committing a sexual offense against a prepubescent child is 14. This may seem surprising, but it makes sense if you consider that children who are just beginning to engage in sexual behaviours are vulnerable to making mistakes and bad decisions. Some of the reasons, she explained, are that: - they don’t understand consent; they don’t realise that their younger friends and family members are off-limits; they don’t know that sexual images of children are illegal; and we don’t teach them.

The good news is that, pretty quickly, children do figure these things out.  There is a steep drop in the number of sex crimes committed by older youth. A meta-analysis based on more than 33,000 juvenile sex crime cases found a five-year sexual recidivism rate of less than 3%. 

She suggested that, rather than waiting for children to figure out the complicated rules of sexual behaviour on their own, it makes more sense to give children — and their parents and educators — the knowledge and skills to successfully navigate early sexuality without causing harm to themselves and others. She then described the school-based perpetration prevention programme Responsible Behavior with Younger Children,  which teaches kids what they need to know to avoid making mistakes and bad decisions in the first place. Early findings from a randomised controlled trial of this programme are very promising. This is the kind of programme we would implement if we treated child sexual abuse as a public health problem.

What if we could prevent some, or even most, sex crimes in the first place?  Spending enormous resources on punishment and almost none on prevention is a choice. Children are harmed by this choice.Every year, the US spends about $7 billion to lock up people who have already committed sex crimes and almost no money to prevent people from engaging in sexually abusive behaviour in the first place. And like the US, almost every other country in the world spends more on punishment than on prevention. 

So why do we do this?  Why do we put nearly all our time, money, and resources into after-the-fact responses and almost none into prevention?

Dr Letourneau believes that it’s because most people - and perhaps some of you reading this now - don’t really believe that child sexual abuse perpetration can be prevented. This is simply not true.

Within four weeks of that UN event, 400 people from 94 different countries attended another global event in Addis Ababa. Government ministers, UN representatives, inter-governmental organisations, Interfaith Alliance and civil society organisations participated in the WePROTECT Global Alliance Summit to Tackle Online Child Sexual Exploitation.

The global threat assessment soberly announced that the scale, severity and complexity of online child sexual abuse and exploitation is increasing at a faster pace than those aiming to tackle the activity can respond to. This creates an urgent need for governments, law enforcement organisations, the technology industry and third sector organisations to work together to step up their collective response. The growing availability of advanced anonymization tools and end-to-end encryption peer-to-peer file-sharing networks is enabling offenders to have easier, more secure access both to vulnerable children and to networks of other offenders.

Increasing device ownership and unsupervised internet access by children increases the risk of exploitation and abuse online. This is compounded by their maturity levels, limited understanding of online risks, and changing attitudes to online behaviour, with one in four teens having received sexually explicit texts and emails, and one in seven having sent them. We should not be surprised, then, that the proliferation of indecent images and videos of children online vastly exceeds the capacity of organisations to identify and remove this material. These threats and challenges will continue to grow without decisive, collective action.

Delegates at the summit were presented with descriptions of the individual and collective actions being taken in response to this threat. Examples of the detection, prosecution and punishment of offenders. Evidence of children being rescued, cared for and made safe - including two powerful and moving testimonies from two such individuals. Examples of “upstream” prevention involving awareness raising, education and resilience-building in children, their parents and other protectors; and of smart technology solutions that can operate at scale, attempting to meet current threats and even prepare for those yet to emerge.

But there was one notable omission from these platform speeches to the 400 delegates from across the world. Not one single mention of the possibility of perpetrator prevention.  Little surprise then that, when I mentioned to some delegates over coffee that I worked with perpetrators and potential perpetrators to prevent harm to children, I met with incredulity that such a thing was possible or that anyone would want to waste their time on such an endeavour.

The sexual abuse problems in the US are not identical to those elsewhere - there are similarities but also differences. We need to learn about what these are and adapt the effective solutions developed and deployed in one setting and cultural context to work in another. That’s the aim of the new ECSA website launched today – I hope it’s an important step forward in this journey.

It is imperative that solutions pay attention to facts and evidence, not sentiment. Children deserve no less. If there is growing evidence that we can prevent perpetrators – both youth and adult - from acting on their (transient or stable) deviant sexual interests, surely such solutions need applying at scale. Sustainable Development Goal 16.2, agreed by the UN General Assembly in 2015, looks to “End abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children” by 2030. Any child sexual abuse prevention strategy – global, national or local – that fails to include perpetrator prevention is guaranteeing that SDG 16.2 will not be achieved.