We tend to look at child sexual abuse (CSA) in terms of something that will happen or has already happened. We should be thinking in terms of prevention. Our first priority regarding CSA is to make it not a foregone conclusion but rather, the result of doing too little to prevent it. There’s a lot of good news on this front. To start, there are three simple steps that set the stage for prevention:
1. Comprehensive sex ed that includes pleasure, consent, chronophilias, fetishes, etc.
2. Free, anonymous, stigma-free support for all.
3. Social services for teens including housing and cash benefits.
These steps fall within a framework that sees CSA and prevention as a public health issue. In fact, CSA is a public health issue far more than a criminal justice issue, especially when you consider that law enforcement isn’t needed if a crime is never committed.
Comprehensive sex education
Possibly the most obvious public health approach to preventing sexual harms, is comprehensive, intersectional sex education that includes a curriculum on consent, bodily autonomy, pleasure, chronophilias, fetishes, as well as supporting sexual and cultural identity. It must meet people where they are.
Most sex ed curriculum is centered on abstinence, and some only teach abstinence. Most people realize, whether they can admit it out loud or not, that this is about as effective as cleaning up a flood with a tissue. It’s flimsy, meaningless, and will not work. There is nothing new under the sun, some people will find abstinence effective for them personally, but as a blanket concept, it’s not enough.
Sex education centered on sex positivity and consent gives students a much better chance of leading ethical and satisfying sex lives. Sex positivity, in essence, is the idea that whatever comes naturally to you sexually, is OK so long as you and any partners consent. This can’t be said enough but whatever the local age of consent, err on the side of people who are under 18 being unable to consent.
So why do kids need to know so much about sex? Well, current data suggests that sexual interest begins to make itself known around the time puberty starts – 13-14 years being about average. So it makes sense to lay the groundwork well before that and to continue reinforcing it well after. Comprehensive sex education is not about introducing kids to sex or encouraging them to have sex. It’s about recognizing that most people will have sex sooner or later and it’s best if they are armed with knowledge when they do. If a minor is going to have sex with another, similarly aged minor, I want them to know everything they can possibly know about how to do it safely.
Anatomy is important, STI information and prevention is absolutely necessary, and a clear understanding of how pregnancy happens and what to expect during pregnancy are also paramount to understanding the possibly real-world ramifications of having sex. But that’s all supposed to be baseline.
What is less obvious but still incredibly important, is teaching kids that things like pleasure, fetishes/kinks, chronophilias, and sexual identities and attractions can fall outside straight and binary. These subjects have been made taboo, but there is no reason kids can’t know about them and teaching needn’t be explicit. Many seem to picture children being shown inappropriate materials in an effort to “corrupt” them. The reality is much more boring and educational.
For those who enjoy and have sex, pleasure can be part of sex. When it isn’t part of sex, there is often a lack of education and communication involved. But kids should be allowed to know that sex can and should feel good. The fear seems to be that if they know, they’ll immediately seek it out. Kids are allowed to know that candy tastes good even though it should not be consumed too often, video games are allowed to be pleasurable and satisfying even though they include violence, we encourage the playing of sports for fun even though they can be dangerous.
Sex comes with risk, but those risks can be mitigated with education.
Bodily autonomy and consent
A clear understanding of consent sets the stage for ethical and enjoyable interactions with other people. Consent goes way beyond sex and the principles can be applied to almost anything you do in life.
Bodily autonomy is consent’s best friend. Consent is about making sure everyone says yes (or no) of their own accord, with full knowledge of what they are consenting to. Bodily autonomy is the concept that you get to set the boundaries for your body. Consent and bodily autonomy can be taught in the early stages without including any mentions of sex at all. Starting in toddlerhood, you can begin allowing children to give or withdraw consent when it comes to toys they want to play with or toys they don’t want to share. You can ask if hugs and touching of any kind are OK and give them space if they indicate they need it.
A common and fairly succinct way of explaining both consent and bodily autonomy is to think about hugging relatives during the holidays. By letting children decide who they will hug and when, we give them respect they deserve and cement these concepts early. These foundations aren’t just groundwork for sex later on, they are the beginnings of making kids feel safe and confident. It is giving them the tools to maintain their safety and boundaries in all situations.
Identities and sexualities
Now, let’s talk about why non-mainstream sexualities and identities outside the binary are important to learn about. Firstly, identities need to be respected and one of the best ways to make that happen, is to teach everyone about them. But also, trans and nonbinary kids will not benefit much from sex education that sticks to a male/female binary based on anatomy rather than identity and sexual orientation. LGBTQIA students aren’t going to get the information they need from curriculum that only covers the basics of straight sex. No one benefits from not knowing these differences exist.
All that said, there is one taboo that many don’t even know about until it becomes part of their lives. Chronophilias are not well known and not well understood by most, but they are simply a scientific way of talking about how for some people, they are sexually attracted to others in a particular age-range, which may not match their own age. When we do talk about chronophilias at all, we typically only talk about one of them: minor attraction, and specifically pedophilia (attraction to prepubescent minors). But the fact of the matter is that the best science we have on hand right now is that minor attraction is something you are born with and can’t change. It functions very much like other sexual attractions.
One could argue pretty easily that if someone discovers they are minor attracted, but they are armed with knowledge of sexuality, consent, boundaries, and feel supported rather than shunned, there is no reason they need ever cross a boundary sexually.
But chronophilias go beyond minor attraction, there are age related sexualities on the other side as well. Minors can have little to no attraction to those in their own age group while being attracted to adults in general (though the onus is always on the adult to say no.) There is attraction to middle aged and older adults. And there is fluidity in the same way other sexualities are more of a spectrum. It’s also possible to have a chronophilia, whether it’s minors or adults, but not be exclusively attracted.
It seems to me that making sure people understand what a chronophilia is and how they can present is a really good way of preparing people for what may not be the straightest path.
When we consider the possible ramifications of some sexual interests, it makes a lot of sense to backstop education with support services for anyone who is worried about their sexuality.
We all know what can go wrong when someone has a sexual thought that could cause harm and they are afraid to talk about it with others. Sexual harm, however, is never inevitable. No one is doomed to offend and support can go a long way towards prevention.
But for the few who are in danger and for the many who need to understand their attraction to manage it, we need to make support readily available. Knowing you’re not alone is a big deal when isolation and fear are dangerous for everyone, especially minor-attracted persons. All the taboo and false narratives around minor attraction leave MAPs in danger of self-loathing and the mental health issues that come with that, including depression and suicidality. But there’s good news here too! Peer and professional support are incredibly useful tools for combatting danger to both MAPs and children, some of whom are MAP’s themselves and are discovering their attractions.
The thorniest thing about seeking help is that most mental health professionals are not chronophilia informed and are therefore not able to really understand and help. They also often feel compelled to report minor attraction despite the absence of a crime, which can very quickly ruin someone’s life. Again, sexual harms are never inevitable. And when someone reaches out for help in managing their mental health or, in a small number of cases, help to not offend, we have to be responsive.
It’s hard to seek care and support when you are afraid that reaching out could end in losing your job, your friends and family, your home, and so on. So support has to be free, it has to be easily accessible, and it has to be given by people who are informed in the subject and able to offer rational ways to cope and flourish.
How social supports prevent abuse
What society assumes are the main causes of CSA—such as sex trafficking rings and stranger abuse by pedophiles—are thankfully much rarer than we image. So let’s talk about what actually leaves young people vulnerable. Lack of resources leaves kids wide open to a lot of dangerous scenarios when they are left to fend for themselves. Social safety nets, housing, and cash benefits go hand in hand with support and education to reduce these risks.
You can’t get the full effect of support and education without having your basic needs met.
More than 90% of CSA is committed by someone close to the child and/or the child’s family. Financial, food, and daycare assistance for families creates opportunities for parents to be more involved and provide adequate supervision.
Just as important, however, are safety nets specifically for young people who find themselves without safe homes or homes at all. Few demographics are more vulnerable than LGBTQIA youth of color. Queer kids are often kicked out of conservative and/or religious families because of stigma and bigotry. Some are allowed to stay but the home environment becomes toxic and abusive, forcing young people to flee for their safety. There are very few options for minors without family support and it doesn’t get that much better once they turn 18; if anything, services drop off.
We see the drop-off in services commonly for kids who end up in the foster care system and then age out. Kids in foster care start out with a deficit, they are stuck in a system that is heavily over-taxed and unable to provide proper care for a large portion of the kids in the system. The foster care system is also rife with CSA. Positions of authority are often used to intimidate and manipulate minors into sexual situations that would not be consensual even if minors could consent.
It’s not just adults, though. Minors can offend against other minors and this is far more likely to happen when no parent or responsible adult is present to supervise. Abuse begets abuse, kids who are abused learn abusive behavior. Add in a lack of widespread, comprehensive sex education, with emphasis on consent, and we’re setting kids up for traumatic experiences.
All of these circumstances can lead to minors being forced into survival sex work. A minor forced to trade sex for their survival is non-consensual, illegal, and cruel. This comes with a whole other set of problems involving law enforcement punishing minors for having been forced into sex work or trafficked. This is more commonly how trafficking happens when desperate minors are forced into terrible situations and adults take advantage of their lack of options.
The public health approach to these problems is creating safety nets for minors and young people who have been left without resources. Rather than forcing them into profit-driven troubled teen programs, it is better to simply give these kids cash directly. Literally, just give kids cash. Cash is harm reduction, financial resources are prevention. Any young person who is thrown out of their home, forced to live in an abusive environment, or otherwise in need of access to basic necessities, deserves cash and housing and these resources need to be readily and nonjudgmentally available. We should be erring on the side of giving more than is needed.
While CSA prevention is a nuanced topic, it is not nearly so complicated as we make it out to be. It takes time and hard work for social changes to happen, but it’s possible. Stigma and fear are currently how we approach CSA prevention and this generally fails to prevent much. Luckily, we have experts in this field to guide us in creating prevention strategies. The experts tell us that education, support, and resources are what keep people from offending and also keep minors out of harm’s way in the first place.
Prevention has to come from a place of acceptance that different sexualities exist and are not inherently dangerous, absent other risk factors for offending. Fear born of stigma clouds prevention and even robs survivors of their voices. Stigma causes well-meaning (and some not so well-meaning) people to attack prevention experts and question the science behind evidence-based methods.
Approaching CSA as a systemic problem helps us understand what truly contributes to abuse, what circumstances leave kids vulnerable, and what we can do to mitigate these. We have traditionally focused most of our child protection efforts on punishing people who have offended. However you feel about the ways we deal with offenders, we should all agree that by the time there is someone to punish, we have completely failed our mission.
CSA is not inevitable, no one is doomed to offend, and prevention is always possible.
If you or someone you know is a survivor of child sexual abuse, you can find resources and support here.