Thursday, September 10, 2015

What Is Primary Prevention?


Primary prevention is a term used by the ATSA (Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers) to describe prevention that results in a person at-risk for sexually abusing a child getting help before the act can occur. Okay, I answered the question, end of blog post, right? Not quite.


Primary prevention, at its core, is different from any other prevention method currently in use. The most popular method of child abuse prevention is currently Erin's Law (website and brief biography). This prevention method involves educating children about good/bad touch, the difference between a secret and a surprise, and who to tell if someone is abusing them. In other words, the law requires teachers and educators to be aware of the above-mentioned education and teach it in an age-appropriate way to children. It also requires that parents and guardians be given information about warning signs for abuse, and resource information for victims and their families

The difference is that the expectation that children- yes, children- put this education to use, and tell a trusted adult who can intervene and report if abuse happens. It places the burden of telling on and stopping the abuse onto the child, and identifying the abuse on an adult's end once the abuse has already occurred. This method relies on being able to spot the abuse after it happens.

What Parents Are Told

Most recommendations for parents include this same information: Talk with your child, learn the warning signs, tell children the differences between what is appropriate and not appropriate, know who to trust, etc. Only recently has it become common for parenting sites and advice columns to teach the warning signs of a potential abuser. The biggest recommendation for parents, of course, is to know where registered offenders are in their area. In some cases, teachers and parents are taught that sex offenders are the people who abuse children. Not only do known/registered sex offenders make up a very low percentage of sex abuse crime, only 10% of abuse victims actually report it. Part of current prevention focuses on ensuring that children will report abuse when it happens.

Why Current Prevention Fails

All of the prevention methods discussed above are great for building a child up. It is excellent to teach a child boundaries, as Erin's Law does, because it means they will be more mentally healthy and able to stand up for themselves. I am far from convinced that this actually leads to children being able to fight off a would-be abuser. In the words of Stop It Now, "Children cannot be responsible to determine what is abusive or inappropriate." These prevention methods fail at what they are designed to do: Prevent harm from coming to children. What they do accomplish is stopping that harm where it does occur. While there is certainly value in stopping existing abuse, calling it prevention is neither accurate or wise.

Challenges to Primary Prevention

Primary prevention is a great idea: Child abuse, frankly, sucks. Children should have the right to live abuse-free lives. However, practically making primary prevention happen is extremely difficult for several reasons. The current attitudes towards sexual offenders have also been directed at and felt by true pedophiles- those with attractions to children, not just those who have harmed a child. Most sex offenders who are caught are being caught for the first time. The majority are not repeat offenders, yet parents are still being told and the government is still perpetuating the idea that sex offenders, because they are sex offenders, are dangerous to children. Even the 19-year-old sex offender who had consensual sex with a 14-year-old, someone viewing sex abuse images, or the guy that was caught urinating behind a bush.

The severe attitudes towards sexual offenders have been well-documented. Many justices have struck down residency requirements of sex offenders, and many states and cities are having discussions about how helpful it is to require all offenders in their area to be a certain distance away from schools, parks, and child care facilities. Many believe that by punishing sexual offenders, a deterrent for sexual offenses is created. However, this relies on victims in order to work. The idea behind prevention is to reduce victims.

These attitudes make it extremely difficult for anyone to seek out help, even if they want it and are concerned by their thoughts. The risk of being exposed is extremely high, and the fear of facing the attitudes towards sex offenders makes it very unlikely that someone with attractions to children or concerns about their sexual thoughts will get help.

There are also many myths regarding sex offenders that prevent otherwise rational people to concluding that help is possible for people with deviant sexual thoughts or attractions. One example the idea that all sex offenders are psychopaths with no empathy (I believe reading my blog you will find that I have empathy), or the idea that offenders cannot take responsibility, or that sex offenders cannot be cured (horrible way to put it). Then there are the stereotypes, like stranger danger, white vans, mustaches, and homeless people.

While Wikipedia has accurate information on the subjects, the myths and attitudes still persist. I believe that as long as these myths and attitudes exist, child abuse will remain a serious issue and continue to happen. In order for primary prevention to happen, people must come forward- on their own- for help, and in order for that to happen, education must be available in the right circles.

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