Monday, June 13, 2016

Primary Prevention Basics

Stop A Moment...

The information that I am about to present will shock you. You will have feelings about it, and I very much doubt that you will like what you are about to read. I doubt you will want to believe it. So please take a moment to relax, and set aside how you feel about the subject of child sexual abuse. Take a moment, and give me the space to present some challenging facts.

The Cold, Hard Truth

Child sexual abuse is an epidemic that we must take steps to reduce. That one-fourth of girls and one-sixth of boys are abused by the time they come of age is pathetic, disturbing, and disgusting. Society has taken many approaches to attempt to curb this epidemic, very similar to the American war on drugs in the 1990's: The main approach is to exact a harsh penalty and hope that the penalty deters people from committing these horrific crimes. The reality that someone can touch the genitals of a child for sexual pleasure is a disgusting, appalling concept just by itself. Then you add to that reality that there are people who are sexually attracted to children the way most adults are attracted to other adults... and you get people getting their pitchforks and nooses ready. People are ready and willing to accept that the people who commit these horrific acts are evil monsters, and that the victims are poor, defenseless children who always tell adults when it happens.

The truth is not nearly as simple as that one paragraph might lead you to believe. Most children do not disclose that they were touched in a private place by anyone, because of the fear, shame, and humiliation that accompanies such a basic boundary violation. And when they do tell an adult, the reaction is typically something like, "But we know and trust that person. Only monsters molest children, and they're not a monster." Most adults who sexually abuse children are not actually attracted to them, but are heterosexual. And most juveniles (a third of sexual abusers are juveniles at the time of the crime) who sexually abuse children are doing so because of abuse they have suffered, which is a stark contrast to the majority of abusers who were never sexually abused as children. The truth is that child sexual abuse is not a simple problem to solve, and even handling a disclosure of abuse can be very, very difficult.

Extremely Controversial

Primary prevention is an extremely controversial area of sexual abuse prevention. Primary prevention involves facts people do not want to believe, and there are many extremely difficult truths to accept, if one is to look at all into what it means to prevent child sexual abuse before it occurs. Some of them are:

  1. Pedophilia, the attraction to children, is separate from the act of sexually abusing a child.
  2. Those who sexually abuse children cannot be profiled, and there is no one common factor that motivates the abuse.
  3. Those who sexually abuse children do not typically repeat their crimes.
  4. Sex offender registration and community notification laws do not prevent children from being abused, and researchers have found extremely limited, if not counterintuitive results from the enaction of such laws.
  5. Victims of child sexual abuse do not disclose the abuse for months or years, if at all.
  6. Mandatory reporting also prevents people who are concerned about their thoughts from seeking out a psychologist for fear of being reported to the police and having their lives ruined.
These truths are controversial in part because the media has butchered the language in stories describing those who sexually abuse. They typically refer to those who abuse as pedophiles, or paedophiles, and their crimes as pedophilia. Pedophiles and sex abusers; pedophilia and child sexual abuse: These terms are used interchangeably, even though they mean very different things to researchers and those who work with these subjects. That difference is probably the biggest hurdle to overcome, because it seems to make sense that the sexual abuse of a child would be motivated by a sexual attraction to them. If you can accept just the first fact as truth, it will become easier to believe the rest. 

Popular Myths, Stigma, And Hype... And Reality

The reality of child sexual abuse is not at all a simple subject. I have seen myths perpetrated by people who are very much against sexual abuse. This weekend, in fact, I was told that, "The subject is as simple as no matter what urges you get you DO NOT HARM AN INNOCENT!!! End of [story]..." when I told someone that the subject of child sexual abuse prevention is not simple at all, due to a myriad of controversial laws that do more harm than good, due to the complexities of what motivate someone to sexually abuse a child, and due to the oversimplifying of the issue by the media and by politicians.

Most people think that not abusing a child is as simple as knowing the difference between right and wrong, or that abusing a child is always perpetrated by adults who are sexual predators and monsters. But the reality is that those who abuse a child... are us. They are human. One-third of them are juveniles, not adults. Over 90% of sexual abusers are known and trusted by the victim and the victim's family. Most sexual abusers do not have a psychological drive to molest children, the child was just an available outlet for a powerful emotion that distorted the person's thinking and decisions, similar to the way someone desperate enough can commit murder under the influence of powerful emotions like rage, jealousy, or fear. As such, the motivations that lead to an abuser's decision to sexually abuse a child are complex to foresee, treat, or prevent, let alone be believed by the general public.

Accusations Against Researchers, Therapists, And Advocates

If I had a dime for every time I have been accused of being a sex offender just for pointing out facts and statistics about sex offenders, I would have plenty of money. This is a very common accusation against anyone who delves very deeply into the realm of preventing child sexual abuse: That we are coddling sexual offenders, sexual abusers, and child molesters. Or worse, that we are child molesters who just want to make the act acceptable. I have even been called creepy. The amount of this same pathetic logic leveled at researchers, advocates, and therapists is astounding to me. Here we are, attempting to educate people about the subject, but we are constantly being accused of coddling abusers or worse. Who are some of these experts?

I would like to showcase two researchers: James Cantor, and Elizabeth Letourneau:

Dr. Letourneau is the current director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, and the former president of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. Her work is primarily in researching ways that sexual abuse can be prevented, studying and working with those who have committed sexual crimes, and helping form public policy so that these crimes can be prevented. She posts frequently on Twitter, but is rarely liked or retweeted, except by a handful of colleagues and advocates like myself.

Dr. Cantor is a Canadian sex researcher that studies sexual disorders, known as paraphilias, for a living. He gets paid to figure out why people are sexually attracted to what they are sexually attracted to. He has authored many research studies, spoken and written for many news organizations, and done a lot to prevent child sexual abuse. He simply wants people to know and understand his subject matter. Yet, I have seen him accused of attacking abuse victims, being arrogant, and other petty insults.

The public response to these experts is frightening, and by reading many of these responses you would think that the public are the experts, and these people are just hacks who make stuff up for their own amusement. But as you can see by their profiles and their work, they have dedicated their entire lives to contributing to a solution to the epidemic of child sexual abuse.

Tying It All Together

You may not realize it, but your opinion matters. What you know and what you think you know about the subject of child sexual abuse has a very real impact to the epidemic of child sexual abuse. If what you think you know are actually myths, stereotypes, and misinformation about the subject, then you can actually contribute to the epidemic rather than its solutions. The truths of child sexual abuse, and the facts in the realm of primary prevention are indeed counterintuitive. However, believing the myths and misinformation over the facts on the issue means that we can blind ourselves to the reality that our neighbor, our friend, our family member, or our own children could be struggling with an issue that could, or already has, led to a child being abused. Believing the myths and misinformation mean that we deny the truth, and even attempt to cover it up.

The biggest reason that children do not disclose their own sexual abuse is to protect their abuser, and to protect their loved ones from the knowledge that they are being sexually abused. Adults do not disclose abuse for very similar reasons: They do not want the atrocious decision to haunt the abuser for the rest of their lives, and they know that will happen with the laws we have formed and the public opinion on these issues. That is one of the reasons why navigating a disclosure of abuse is so complex. Our knee-jerk reactions may be to just tell the police, but the reality when it happens is not nearly that simple for most people.

When this topic comes up, please take a deep breath, in, and out. Please take a moment to center yourself, and think rationally. Take a moment to realize that your reactions are not only normal, they are expected. But also take a moment to realize that it is emotional reactions that can contribute to the epidemic of child sexual abuse rather than contributing to a solution to that epidemic. We have already formed policies and laws based on the passionate reactions to this issue, and research has shown many times that these policies are not doing what they intended to do, and they can even increase crime. It may sound like it makes sense to try to keep sex offenders away from schools and parks, or to put them on a list, or do any number of other endless punishments.

However, these methods are only effective once a sex crime has already happened.

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