Child Sexual Abuse: Prevention or Promotion?

By Bolen, Rebecca M. | Social Work, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Child Sexual Abuse: Prevention or Promotion?


Bolen, Rebecca M., Social Work


School-based programs are the primary means of addressing the prevention of child sexual abuse in the United States. These programs were originally developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s during a time of increased awareness of the problem of child sexual abuse. Originally, this awareness was largely the result of writings by feminists such as Florence Rush (1980) and Judith Herman (1981), who suggested that dynamics in society as a whole were a primary cause of the prevalence of abuse. Feminists believed that child sexual abuse was symptomatic of a patriarchal society in which men had power over girls and women. Abuse was conceptualized as an extension of socially normative behavior between men and women. One effect of this literature was to bring the problem of child sexual abuse to public awareness.

Russell's (1983) prevalence study, the first random community prevalence survey ever done, contributed to a sense of urgency concerning child sexual abuse when she reported that 38 percent of all female respondents in her sample had experienced contact sexual abuse as a child. In the 1980s, professional literature on the problem of child sexual abuse also began to expand rapidly. At the same time, high-profile cases started to be sensationalized in the media, especially abuse in day care centers, contributing further support for a sense of urgency.

Pressured to respond within this highly charged public and political arena, schools and other community organizations moved to develop programs directed at teaching skills to children so that they could avoid abuse (Finkelhor, 1990). At the same time, dynamics of offenders were poorly understood. The prevailing model for understanding offenders divided them into fixated and regressed (Groth, Hobson, & Gary, 1982). Fixated offenders, with their pedophilic tendencies toward abusing multiple children, both strangers and acquaintances, were considered to be the more dangerous offenders. In reaction, stranger danger programs were implemented.

At the same time, the developing knowledge base was recognizing that children were at even greater risk of being abused by individuals they already knew--even relatives. Answering this concern, programs expanded to include other types of potential offenders, although programs almost exclusively remained targeted at elementary school-age children. Thus, these early, but palliative, programs targeted only the reduction of victimization instead of reduction of the offending behavior itself. Although there were some early calls for prevention programs directed at potential offenders (Swift, 1979), these programs were never implemented and, over time, programs targeting potential victims became the central method by which prevention strategies were taught to children.

Today prevention programs are available, for some age level, in almost all school districts (Daro & Salmon-Cox, 1994). These programs have three objectives: (1) to teach children the concept of sexual abuse, often described as "bad touching" in private places; (2) to teach children that they can refuse such overtures and to get away from the person; and (3) to encourage children to tell an adult about overtures that occur (Finkelhor & Strapko, 1992). The central goal of these techniques is to prevent abuse by relatives, known others, and strangers by reducing the "vulnerability of children to abuse and exploitation" (Kohl, 1993, p. 139).

Child abuse prevention programs are, for the most part, successful at teaching children concepts about sexual abuse and skills in self-protection (Finkelhor & Strapko, 1992; Rispens, Aleman, & Goudena, 1997). Numerous evaluations of prevention programs also note an increase in the number of disclosures of abuse (Finkelhor & Strapko). Although these are important and encouraging findings, other studies have found that these benefits are not without cost. Finkelhor and Dziuba-Leatherman (1995) found that some children, because of the information presented in the programs, reported being more worried about the possibility of abuse and had a greater fear of adults. …

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