What you (probably) don’t know about preventing sexual violence

Don’t worry, this won’t be a hard read, and it won’t be uncomfortable. In fact, you’ll walk away feeling empowered. You’ll learn why focusing on one aspect of sexual violence isn’t enough, why multiple solutions are needed, and most importantly, that there are concrete steps we can take to make prevention a reality.

I know, that’s a bold claim: assuming what you know about sexual violence, and what you know about stopping it. Just a year ago, I was right there with you. I believed that only monsters perpetrate sexual violence, and that once someone hurts someone sexually, they’re likely to continue. Changing that belief was hard, and if not for my grounding in social sciences and psychology, I’d probably never be writing this. A lot of what I’ve learned in studying this issue — from news articles, research, the #MeToo movement — has been challenging to accept.

Preventing sexual violence is a broad topic to cover, and it’s hard to know where to begin. So, let’s start with you, and what you’ve probably been told. Before I continue, this isn’t new information, it’s just a new perspective: a new lens through which you can see an issue you’ve already heard all about. But before that, let me talk about our current lens.

It’s all about individuals

Yes, that’s right. It’s all about the individuals who hurt people. They’re monsters, sexual perverts who revel in causing harm and pain to others. They’ll never change. They’re the ones responsible for sexual violence, and if we just punish them harshly enough, others will take their example and avoid following their footsteps. After all, most of them are victims of sexual violence themselves, bound to continue the cycle of violence they were made to be a part of, or born into.

But what if the issue is much broader than that? What if there’s something that we’re doing that assists those who commit sexual violence in perpetrating their crimes? What if it’s more than the individual? Could the issue be so broad and so nuanced that covering it in a single article is just too difficult? Might we be wrong, and prevention is not only possible, but something everyone can be a part of?

Ponder those questions for a moment, and you’ll likely feel just as overwhelmed as I felt asking them for the first time. It’s not easy to think about, and on a topic as emotionally loaded as child sexual abuse, you might want to just stop there. I wanted to stop too.

Big questions, broad answers

For me, the biggest question I had after another #MeToo story was… why did she wait so long to talk about this? I’ve talked about it before, but that one question is what got me so interested in this topic. I had to understand why, and unfortunately, there isn’t an easy or brief answer. For many victims, the shame of what they experienced is too much to bring into the eye of the public. Many didn’t think anyone would believe them. For most, it was someone they trusted to keep them safe, someone with power.

Regardless of the fine-tuned answers for specific individuals, I can tell you one thing: answering the big questions isn’t easy or simple. It took me months of digging into each specific question to understand that what I knew before, and what I know now, are a night-and-day difference. It wasn’t easy to read studies about researchers looking into the pasts of child molesters and rapists to figure out if there really is a “cycle of sexual violence,” and it was even harder to reach the conclusion that there isn’t one. I think the hardest barrier for me was the idea that sexual violence is inevitable, that some people are simply going to abuse kids, no matter what we do. It turns out that idea isn’t accurate either.

Obviously, that’s a problem. We like easy solutions to things: Lock them up, give them the death penalty, and anything in between. If there are many big questions behind the problem of sexual violence, how can we expect to come up with a single solution?

Is it all hopeless then?

No, it isn’t, nor do you have to spend months doing research to understand the issue and its solutions. All you must do is shift your perspective. I know, easier said than done, right?

In one of my favorite books, the author gives the example of a student trying to learn about every living thing in the area around him. The master tells the student to come back when he learns everything he can. So, the student told the master all about a specific ant colony, and the master asks what else he learned. Of course, the student is stumped because he was only looking at the ants.

That’s part of what we’re doing: We’re focused on either the victims or the people who commit sexual violence. We’re not focusing on their environment. We’re not focused on why individuals make the choices they do, or whether they continue to make their choices. For example, we’re not focused on the fact that 35% of those who commit child sexual abuse are juveniles, or that 97–98% of them never reoffend sexually. We see the people involved as static, expected patterns in the puzzle of sexual violence, rather than the entire picture of how that violence happens. We expect that sexual violence arises from deviance, rather than a series of decisions that could be prevented.

It takes a village

The reality is, sexual violence — both the acts themselves, and all the choices leading up to those acts — are not simple, and we cannot solve the issue of sexual violence by only looking at the “ants.” We must look at other factors as well: the families of the victims, the families of those who commit these acts, where the abuse took place, who committed the act of abuse, why they made those choices, if help was available, and much more.

Child sexual abuse isn’t an issue that we can solve by only looking at those who perpetrate sexual violence — the ants — we must look at ourselves, our perspectives, and most importantly, how “the ants” interact with the environment around them. Maybe we’re not interested in answering all the questions, but if we are interested in protecting children, we must at least be conscious of the questions that we are choosing to leave unanswered. The questions we as Prostasia are trying to answer include, “How can we protect children in a way that is accurate to the realities of sexual violence? How can we respect people’s privacy and liberties while also protecting children?”

Multiple solutions, no quick “cure”

One great example of a concrete things we can accomplish to protect children is using technology to prevent illegal images of children from being uploaded on platforms for distribution by using unique codes for existing images we’ve identified and preventing them from being distributed further. Another is informing parents and communities on what they can teach and model to make children less at risk for sexual violence. A third example is funding and doing research on what is most effective in preventing sexual violence and heeding the results by forming policies accordingly.

Each concrete step we can take brings us one step closer to ensuring that children have adequate protection from sexual violence. However, we must be careful which steps we take. Adding a filter to every browser that scans uploaded images and uses AI to flag images that might be exploitative of children sounds good. That’s until you realize that someone’s family vacation on the beach might end up in a child pornography database by mistake. One way to make flagging images easier is by making reporting easier and more widely known, where currently you need to know which agencies you can report it to or search for it.

Another popular example is warning families of children against a nearby sex offender: while this might seem to make sense, it does not reflect the reality found in research that the person may have been registered as a juvenile and isn’t likely to harm anyone… or their offense has nothing to do with children at all. A better approach would be teaching parents and caregivers how to spot risky situations and avoid or intervene, and who to talk to when they have concerns. We want to keep children safe, but we must make sure that we are not making the problem worse with our solutions.

Child sexual abuse is a public health problem

We used to view intoxicated driving as an inevitable thing, not just because it’s so addicting for some, but because of our culture. We enjoy driving cars, we enjoy drinking. Just 4–5 decades ago, we thought it was inevitable for people to do both at the same time. Now, messages about taking a sober ride and hearing from mothers of victims are commonplace. We all know the dangers of drinking and driving. It’s now normal to call the police when we see a drunk driver.

Seeing messages like these has now become normal. 50 years ago, they weren’t.

Why did that happen? It didn’t happen because we tried a criminal justice approach and just arrested people. We tried that too, during Prohibition, and that single-prong approach to solving the issue didn’t work well. Change happened because we started seeing excessive drinking as a public health issue. We started tackling it from multiple angles: in advertisements, in school, college, at home, and beyond.

That’s what we need to realize about sexual violence towards children: it has lasting health impacts for victims, they are acts that don’t happen in isolation. Something happened to those who commit sexual violence to lead them to those choices, and if we can identify what that something is, we can form interventions that could go a long way in reducing sexual abuse. Already there are projects underway — mainly overseas — to tackle these issues. Our goal at Prostasia is to get those projects going here in the United States and beyond.

That’s what you probably don’t know about preventing sexual violence: It’s possible, and there are concrete steps we can take to see that it happens. Those concrete steps can’t just involve the criminal justice system, it’s going to take a team effort across many disciplines. It starts by looking at sexual violence as a public health issue, not just a criminal issue.

So, are you willing to shift the lens through which you view sexual violence? Can we all agree that sexual violence is an important issue to tackle?

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