In the wake of a recent disinformation campaign in the media that spurred attacks on a center dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse, here are three reasons why prevention research matters now.
Source: Vertigo 3D/Getty Images
I’m a public health scientist who works to prevent child sexual abuse; Much of my work focuses on preventing the onset of abusive behavior. For example, my colleagues and I work to better understand and support people who have a sexual attraction to children and choose not to act on their attraction.
Preventing people who are attracted to children from acting on their attraction is an important part of child sexual abuse prevention. Perhaps you’re curious about this approach and want to learn more, or maybe you think this is an important issue but find it hard to read about. Some people react more strongly—they’re angry I would try to understand “those people,” and assume that because I do, I must be a pedophile, “groomer,” or “sicko” myself.
We saw these reactions play out recently when the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse announced the hiring of a new postdoctoral fellow, a promising early career researcher who, like me and others in the field, studies perpetration prevention. The response was strong and swift—as soon as certain media outlets weighed in with criticism, some people made hateful comments and threats against us, while others recognized the value of not waiting until kids get hurt to respond.
Now that the extreme reactions have subsided, let’s take a moment to examine the great strides we’ve made to protect children. I’ve spent more than 30 years seeking to effectively prevent and address child sexual abuse. Here are three reasons this work matters:
1. Too many kids are being hurt, and this hurt can last a lifetime.
Child sexual abuse is a huge problem. Nearly 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys will become victims of child sexual abuse in the United States, and as a result of that abuse, face an increased risk of mental, physical, and behavioral health problems that can reduce their quality of life . My colleagues and I estimated the US economic burden of child sexual abuse was $9.3 billion in 2015, and that victimization cost each survivor more than $280,000 in lost earnings and other economic impacts over their lifetime.
Our new research shows that by their late 30s, men and women who experienced child sexual abuse had lower educational attainment, lower odds of being financially stable, and a decrease in household income compared to their non-abused peers. A law enforcement approach is necessary, but it only comes into play after the damage is done.
2. Many people who may be at risk of perpetrating child sexual abuse never do so. Understanding why can help us develop effective prevention programs.
Sexual attraction to children is just one risk factor associated with child sexual abuse. Until recently, we did not understand that many people with a sexual attraction to children never act on that attraction. Collaborating with these individuals to identify how they keep themselves and others safe is essential to building effective prevention strategies.
Promising prevention interventions are emerging. Help Wanted, the Moore Center’s online self-help intervention for people with a sexual attraction to children, received over 220,000 visits in its first 24 months, including more than 10,000 people who accessed intervention content designed to support safe, healthy, fulfilling lives. Funded by a CDC grant, we are now working to optimize the program and evaluate its efficacy in a rigorous randomized controlled trial.
There are other risk factors for child sexual abuse perpetration. Identifying and understanding them is critical as we seek to build, validate, and disseminate effective prevention programming. For example, children on the brink of puberty are at risk of problem sexual behavior due to lack of knowledge (eg, regarding sexual consent or understanding that younger children are off-limits), lack of adult supervision, and impulsivity. To address this, we’ve developed promising middle-school-based prevention programs to prevent the onset of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and physical abuse.
3. We are not spending enough to prevent child sexual abuse from occurring.
The US spends more on punishment for child sexual abuse than it does on prevention research. Since 2019, thanks to advocacy by research centers and prevention-focused groups, the US has included funding for child sexual abuse prevention research in the federal budget. While it’s promising that this funding grew from $1 million in 2020 to $2 million in 2022, it’s still not enough to ensure that we research, develop, and evaluate enough prevention strategies to effectively keep kids across the US safe from sexual abuse.
By comparison, the US annually spends an estimated $5.4 billion to incarcerate adults convicted of sex crimes against children, our research found. Child sexual abuse is a criminal justice problem and a public health problem, and we need reactive and preventive solutions to get ahead of this crisis. We seek to secure at least $10 million in annual prevention research funding—less than 0.002% of what we invest in incarceration—to help ensure we develop an array of effective, efficient prevention strategies.
The overarching reason my colleagues and I do this work is that we believe every child has the right to grow up free from sexual abuse. We collaborate with, and are sometimes fortunate to hire, other talented scientists whose efforts will accelerate and advance our research to achieve this goal.
Child sexual abuse is preventable, not inevitable.