The Prevention of Childhood Sexual Abuse

By Finkelhor, David | The Future of Children, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The Prevention of Childhood Sexual Abuse


Finkelhor, David, The Future of Children


Megan's Law. Jessica's Law. The Adam Walsh Act. These high-profile, recent public policy initiatives aimed at protecting children from sex crimes have all focused on how to manage known sex offenders. The initiatives include efforts to control where such sex offenders can live and work, how they are registered and monitored, and the length and terms of their incarceration. (1)

Bluntly put, this policy area has been discouraging for practitioners and social scientists favoring evidence-based prevention. None of these high-profile strategies has been built on empirical evaluation, and virtually all have gone to national scale without research or even much pilot testing. (2) Several have been legislated and implemented over the objections of sex-offender management authorities. They may yet be shown to have some positive effects, but they also appear to be creating many serious fiscal, bureaucratic, and legal problems, as well as having other unintended negative consequences. (3) It will be years before this is all sorted out.

Meanwhile, another less visible stream of prevention strategies that derive from the 1980s focuses on education and consists mostly of programs that teach children, families, and youth-serving organizations how to prevent and respond to sex offenses and risky situations. (4) These initiatives have been subjected to more evaluation research, though results are as yet inconclusive. The findings are generally positive, suggesting that educational programs achieve certain of their goals, but the research has not demonstrated unambiguously that the programs reduce victimization. (5) These programs have considerable, though not universal, support among practitioners, but their implementation has languished in recent years.

As a whole, it would have to be said that, as yet, no true evidence-based programs or policies exist in the area of preventing child sexual abuse.

Yet in spite of the evidentiary chaos, philosophical disagreement, and meager evidence base in this policy area, sex crimes against children have declined dramatically since the early 1990s, in concert with overall crime declines and other child welfare improvements. This is undeniably good news, suggesting that something is helping. But it is hard to ascertain whether any of the organized prevention initiatives have contributed to this decline.

The Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse

In this article I will briefly review organized prevention efforts, both those relating to offender management and those related to educational programs, as well as several other initiatives, noting in particular the evaluation evidence relevant to each. I will also discuss some developing areas for prevention, try to draw implications from the sex crime decline, and conclude with some recommendations.

Definitions

For purposes of this review, I define child sexual abuse to include the entire spectrum of sexual crimes and offenses in which children up to age seventeen are victims. The definition includes offenders who are related to the child victims as well as those who are strangers. It includes offenders who are adults as well as those who are themselves children and youth. It includes certain kinds of non-contact offenses, such as exhibitionism and using children in the production of pornography, as well as statutory sex crime offenses, in addition to the sexual fondling and penetrative acts that make up a majority of the cases. I will refer to the offenders variously as child molesters, sexual abusers, and child sex offenders.

Basic Epidemiology

According to widely cited meta-analyses based on surveys of adults, sizable proportions of U.S. adults report a history of sexual abuse--30-40 percent of women and 13 percent of men in one analysis, (6) 25 percent of women and 8 percent of men in another. (7) In light of evidence that sexual abuse rates have declined in the past fifteen years, however, these estimates should probably not be applied to current cohorts of children. …

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