Academic journal article The International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy

Why Prevention? Why Now?

Academic journal article The International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy

Why Prevention? Why Now?

Article excerpt

Only in the last 30 years has U.S. society begun to fully recognize the extent of sexual violence in America. In these last few decades, research has documented the lifelong impact of sexual abuse, state and federal legislators have enacted policies and funded programs to both protect victims and hold offenders accountable for their crimes, and the media has begun to portray the trauma of sexual violence in the news, movies, and on television. There has also been an explosion of personal stories and blogs about sexual violence that has begun to shift how people think and talk about the issue. Yet as awareness of sexual abuse and those who abuse has grown, there has been little focus on--and even less funding for--how to prevent the perpetration of sexual violence. The lack of funding for prevention is in stark contrast to the amount of funding available for other community safety programs, such as civil commitment, prison, GPS bracelets, and other management strategies.

A landmark 2010 study showed a 58% decrease in the number of substantiated cases of child sexual abuse in the U.S. between 1992 and 2008 (Finkelhor, Jones, & Shattuck, 2008). Finkelhor et al. suggest that the decline highlights the possible impact of two decades of prevention, treatment, and criminal prosecutions. However, even with this good news, questions remain about which prevention programs are having significant and meaningful impact and how the impact of prevention programs can be measured effectively.

In 1999, James Mercy, a senior scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published an important call to action: Imagine a childhood disease that affects one in five girls and one in seven boys before they reach 18; a disease that can cause dramatic mood swings, erratic behavior, and even severe conduct disorders among those exposed; a disease that breeds distrust of adults and undermines the possibility of experiencing normal sexual relationships; a disease that can have profound implications for an individual's future health by increasing the risk of problems such as substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, and suicidal behavior; a disease that replicates itself by causing some of its victims to expose future generations to its debilitating effects.

Imagine what we, as a society, would do if such a disease existed. We would spare no expense. We would invest heavily in basic and applied research. We would devise systems to identify those affected and provide services to treat them. We would develop and broadly implement prevention campaigns to protect our children. Wouldn't we? Such a disease does exist.... it's called child sexual abuse" (Mercy, 1999, p. 317)

Others have echoed the importance of investing in preventing sexual violence. Just as Mercy so eloquently describes the need for a comprehensive response to childhood sexual abuse, Aldinger et al. (2011) echo the importance of investing in prevention. These authors describe how sexual violence affects a large proportion of the population, threatens the lives and physical and mental health of millions of people, and overburdens health systems. These studies also suggest that violence, and especially interpersonal violence, undermines the ability of people to thrive (human capital formation), impacts the social fabric of our communities, and ultimately slows economic and social development.

The reasons to invest in prevention are compelling. Michael Seto (personal communication, July 23, 2013), a well-respected researcher in forensic psychology, recently commented:

   I'm swayed by the overwhelming evidence and logic
   behind the idea that it is better to intervene early
   than it is to intervene late, whatever the problem
   or target might be. Better in terms of more effective,
   more cost-efficient and morally superior (enhancing
   human potential instead of making the
   best of a bad situation). … 
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