Educating everyone who might potentially be involved in a sexual assault — whether as health care provider, victim, offender or bystander — can help prevent sexual assault against children, according to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center.
“These are complicated situations for people to report about, and for investigators to find out what's going on. Frequently, there's tremendous allegiance, even on the part of victims, to the offenders,” Finkelhor told participants in an April webinar hosted by the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE). “What we really need is a fully integrated safety and health curriculum for young people that is developmentally informed.”
Preventing sexual assault requires four areas of focus, Finkelhor said:
- Reduce the motivation to abuse in potential offenders
- Strengthen potential offenders’ inhibitions against abuse
- Make it harder for potential offenders to get access to kids
- Help children be more resistant to abusive overtures
While cases of abuse by authority figures such as former House of Representatives speaker Dennis Hastert are in the news, children also experience abuse by family members, peers, older youths or others they meet through social networks. Or they can be sexually exploited for profit. Statutory rape, which is considered assault even though a minor may claim to have consented to sex with an adult, can be especially difficult to identify and prevent. The variety of abusers, victims, and contexts can make it difficult to classify a situation as sexual assault, Finkelhor said.
“It is important to reflect on the very diverse kinds of situations in which sexual abuse can occur and not to stereotype it as one kind of thing,” he said.
The Internet has facilitated many types of sexual assault, Finkelhor noted, in part because the offenders’ interactions with victims are nearly invisible to law enforcement or others who might intervene.
“One of the debates in the field is whether the Internet has really created a different kind of environment for sexual abuse. I would say that, for the most part, what we're seeing is replication of other kinds of sexual abuse that now have Internet forms,” he said.