Child sexual abuse prevention isn’t a soft option

Wouldn’t it be great if we could eliminate child sexual abuse (CSA) with a pill? But it’s a more complicated prospect than it seems. Who would you administer it to? Most child sex offenders are unknown to the police before they offend, and by then, it’s too late for their victims. So would you just administer this pill to everybody, to be on the safe side? And if you did, what if it had side effects?

Thinking that we can eliminate CSA with a law is the same sort of wishful thinking. Even in the best case scenario, it would be impossible for a law targeted at the most visible perpetrators of CSA—child sex traffickers, in the case of the recently-passed FOSTA/SESTA—to prevent more than a tiny, tiny fraction of the number of cases of abuse, most of which take place in the home.

Such a law, like the hypothetical pill, also comes with many side effects for those who aren’t involved in CSA at all, such as adult sex workers and Internet users. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need laws; but we already have most of those that we need. If anything, we have too many of them, and they are not targeted enough; they ensnare those they were meant to help. (Not coincidentally, new child protection laws have a history of being found unconstitutionally broad.)

Primary prevention

Some new laws are still needed. But they should be part of a broader program of CSA prevention. Because it’s impossible to know who will abuse a child, the focus should be on what’s called “primary” prevention, which is like the hypothetical pill discussed earlier: you administer it to everybody, just to be on the safe side. Primary prevention can include legal, technical, and what we can call social measures:

  • Legal: An example of a law that acts as a form of primary prevention of some CSA would be a ban on child marriage—which you might be surprised or shocked to learn is still broadly legal in the United States, with parental or judicial consent.
  • Technical: Many Internet platforms, including most of the major ones, will filter out known images of child sexual abuse (child pornography) when they detect it being uploaded by a user. This is effectively a form of primary prevention of the further dissemination of illegal images.
  • Social: Social methods of primary abuse prevention include advertising campaigns warning the general population about the harms and risks of CSA, as well as sex education programs administered to all school children to help them recognize and escape unsafe situations.

Secondary prevention

Since there’s such a thing as primary prevention, it follows that there is also something called secondary prevention. Rather than being targeted at the entire population, secondary prevention measures are targeted at groups that have an elevated risk of being involved in CSA.

Statistically, an elevated risk of offending exists within a broad range of groups [PDF], although the causes of these correlations, and their interrelations, are various and complex. These include foster families, broken families, families with unemployed parents or whose socioeconomic status is low, those working with children, CSA survivors, and particular racial and ethnic groups.

Laws don’t tend to have much role to play in secondary prevention; indeed, there is obvious potential for civil rights violations in laws and enforcement policies that simplistically profile certain social groups as harboring potential offenders. For the same reason, technical secondary prevention measures are also ethically tricky, because they can result in members of target groups being unfairly stigmatized. Imagine being targeted by an ad on Facebook because an algorithm decided that you fitted the profile of a potential child sex offender because of your race, family structure, and socioeonomic status.

Social secondary measures, by comparison, are a much more workable idea, and they tend to revolve around providing education and support services to target groups, without stigmatizing particular individuals within those groups as abusers.

Secondary prevention and pedophiles

One of the least problematic social groups at whom secondary measures can be targeted — because they are not a protected class, and already face significant social stigma — are those who are sexually attracted to minors, such as pedophiles. Targeting pedophiles is by no means a perfect way to reach potential offenders, because a large majority of all sexual offending against children is committed by those who aren’t pedophiles. But, it’s a starting point.

While laws putatively designed to punish child sex offenders tend to be enormously popular (regardless of whether they are evidence-based or not), secondary prevention programs to steer pedophiles away from offending are far less so. On the contrary, many people find it a repulsive idea that pedophiles and other minor-attracted persons should be offered any support at all, even if it’s support to avoid offending.

Although this makes no sense intellectually, on an emotional level, it’s completely understandable. The idea that people who are attracted to children can even exist is disgusting to most people on a visceral level. So it’s important to realize that helping pedophiles avoid offending doesn’t mean accepting that pedophilia is OK, or “normalizing” the attraction. You can still believe that it is innately evil to think about children sexually, even if those thoughts are never acted upon. That’s not a scientific question, it’s a moral one.

Even so, it should be possible to accept the simple proposition that if it is indeed possible to be a pedophile and not offend, and if there are interventions that we can make as a society to make fewer pedophiles offend, then this is better than not making those interventions, and allowing children to be hurt. Or to put it more plainly, if the right of a child to not be sexually abused is worth anything at all, it has to outweigh our disgust at having to work with pedophiles to help them avoid offending.

This means supporting research into what secondary prevention initiatives have the best prospects of success with pedophiles, which in turn depends upon learning as much as we can about them. How many pedophiles are there? Do they choose to be attracted to children? Can they be cured? If not, can they at least avoid acting on their feelings? How can they be helped to do so? Does peer support play a role? How about the availability of legal outlets for their sexual fantasies?

These are questions that science can answer, which will have important implications for child protection law and practice. Although we have some of these answers already (for example, pedophilia seems to be both unchosen and incurable, but it doesn’t have to lead to offending), there are many other questions we don’t yet know the answers to, because sufficient research hasn’t yet been done.

Tertiary prevention

In addition to primary and secondary prevention, there’s also tertiary prevention, which are interventions targeted at those who have already abused against children. Once again, these can be legal, technical, or social measures. Sex offender registries are an example of a legal measure to prevent child sex offenders from reoffending, although their effectiveness is questionable at best. Social measures, based around a holistic program of treatment of ex-offenders, are considered by professionals to be a more effective approach [PDF].

In developing the appropriate tertiary interventions, it’s important to recognize the differences between groups and sub-groups of offenders. For example, there are hands-on offenders, and there are those who view child sexual abuse imagery. (Although there is overlap between the two, multiple scientific studies have found that there are also significant differences between them.)

Within the group of hand-on offenders, there are those who offended when they themselves were children or teens, and those who offended as adults. Within the group of adult offenders, there are situational offenders, and paraphilic offenders. Within the latter category there are pedophiles who are primarily attracted to prepubescent children, and hebephiles and ephebophiles who are primarily attracted to adolescents… and so on. For each of these groups, different interventions are indicated.

Unfortunately, funding the research needed to develop effective primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention programs doesn’t seem to be a priority for policymakers, whose approach tends to be driven instead by popular stereotypes about child sex offending, rather than by evidence. Compounding this, it is difficult for professionals even to undertake such research without suffering their own stigma by association.

Prostasia Foundation exists in part to address this problem, by helping to fund sound scientific research on CSA prevention, and communicating the results of that research to policymakers, platforms, and the public. Our hope is that by promoting CSA prevention using a balanced and scientific approach that is also rights-based and sex-positive, we can not only save children from harm, but can also avoid reduce the separate harms that flow to others from our society’s current reactive child protection agenda. If that is a mission that you can support, please consider supporting us with a donation.