Throughout our lives we are, from time to time, confronted with information that challenges our conventional way of thinking. For example, our changing attitudes about "secondhand smoke" has changed public policy regarding smoking in public areas. Public education has also helped Americans understand that AIDS is not a "homosexual disease," but one that can infect everyone through a variety of sexual behaviors and through intravenous drug use. Consider the following.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the federal agency responsible for the prevention of health problems, has been working on violence prevention for more than 12 years. The CDC's focus has been on changing the way people think about preventing violence. On November, 6,1996,theAmerican Medical Association (AMA) issued a statement calling sexual assault a public health problem, labeling sexual assault a "silent violent epidemic in the United States today." The World Health Assembly (WHA) also considers violence, and the prevention of violence as a public health priority. WHA has declared that violence is a leading worldwide public health problem. The American Psychological Association (APA) has also declared violence to be a serious societal problem and recognizes the need for addressing the violence problem from a different perspective. The APA states; "Societal attitudes and practices regarding violence also have an influence on the risk of family violence." These efforts by these esteemed organizations are a wake-up call to America.
Legislators and the public repeatedly turn to the criminal justice system to solve the violence in America. However, the series of tougher laws padded each year to address violence, passed each year to guide the criminal justice system, do not address the underlying causes of violence or sexual abuse. The continued rise in sexual abuse suggests that a criminal justice model is not preventing sexual abuse of our children.
During the past two years, we have seen legislation regarding sexual abusers that 1) mandates public notification of sexual offender release, 2) mandated use of Depo-Provera ("chemical castration") for child sexual abusers, and 3) indefinite commitment of "predatory" sexual offenders. We cannot effectively apply these laws, based on extreme cases that are not representative of the majority of sexual abusers, to all sexual abusers. Recently, reports suggest that these laws have resulted in a decrease of sexual abuse reporting victims. These mandated, and in some cases unfunded, laws are examples of "feel good" legislation and are not effective with all sexual abusers. Occasionally, these laws may cause more harm than good as they drive the sexual abuser further into secrecy.
In this light, we must also come to grips with the unfortunate reality that sexual abuse commonly has its onset in childhood adolescents. For example, 45% of child sexual abuse cases in Vermont are perpetrated by children and teens. Early identification and intervention by adults with these children would reduce, almost by half, the number of children sexually abused in Vermont! That is prevention.
The AMA states, "Society as a whole must become better informed about the problems and realities of sexual assault. Special attention must be directed to correcting misconceptions and myths about rape and sexual assault."
Now is the time for all of us to begin changing the way we think about sexual abuse. From a prevention standpoint we can do several things. First, the most important action we can take to prevent the sexual abuse of our children is to educate ourselves and other adults about this most serious social problem.
Because of the media's focus on high-profile sex crimes, and sex murders, these sensationalized news stories give the American public a biased, distorted, and unrealistic view of sexual abuse. In addition they foster an angry public who wants to castrate, use public notification, or imprison for life, sexual abusers regardless of what type, the frequency of their crimes, or the risk they pose to the community. Not all sexual abusers are alike, nor should they all be handled in a similar fashion. Public surveys show that the media misinforms most Americans about what is sexual abuse, and who is the sexual abuser. The CDC and the AMA recognize the need to educate the public, including adults and children, in these programs.
Second, we must focus on early intervention and prevention of sexual abuse. For every individual we lock up in prison, there are at least one or more children at risk for acting out sexually. The same amount of money we spend to incarcerate one person for one year could also fund state-of-the-art identification, intervention, and treatment for at-risk youth.
Third, I believe that sexual abuse prevention requires a national campaign to acknowledge sexual abuse as a public health problem. If society expects people who are prone to act out sexually and abuse others to get help for their problem and stop their behavior, then society must offer the opportunity for sexual abusers, and persons prone to sexually act out, to step forward and get help. All of the other prevention campaigns mentioned above have provided hope and the opportunity for treatment, even when there is not a "cure" for the particular problem. To prevent sexual abuse from becoming a more widespread epidemic, we must provide the potential abuser, and active abusers, the same opportunities for hope and recovery.
Few people disagree with the statistics that suggest that criminal sexual abuse has reached epidemic proportions in our country, however, there is much disagreement and debate about what are the most effective ways to address this serious social problem and how we can best prevent it in the future.
I encourage you to look at the past twenty or thirty years and decide for yourself if our current methods and strategies of creating tougher laws and punishing sexual abusers are resulting in a decrease in criminal sexual abuse. I believe the answer to this question is "no," and therefore, I believe we must rethink what directions we need to take in the future.
What we must keep in mind is that punishment is not prevention. I believe the criminal justice system must play a role in sexual abuse prevention and treatment, and that we must hold criminal sexual abusers accountable for their behavior. I do not believe that all sexual abusers should be handled alone because not all sexual abusers are the same. Some sexual abusers may need to be imprisoned for life, however, others can be safely and effectively treated in the community, once they have been assessed and determined to be a low risk, and by using a restorative justice model.
We must educate ourselves about the issue of sexual abuse and sexual violence, its origins, and measures we can take to get at the root of the problem, if we are going to commit ourselves to preventing it. Prevention is not punishing a behavior after it occurs. Prevention is stopping the problem before it occurs.
Sexual Abuse In America: Epidemic of the 21st Century
by Robert E. Freeman-Longo & Geral T. Blanchard
1998 Safer Society Press; Brandon, Vermont USA