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I want to keep my child safe from abuse − but research tells me I’m doing it wrong

Melissa Bright, University of New Hampshire, The Conversation on

Published in Health & Fitness

Child sexual abuse is uncomfortable to think about, much less talk about. The idea of an adult engaging in sexual behaviors with a child feels sickening. It’s easiest to believe that it rarely happens, and when it does, that it’s only to children whose parents aren’t protecting them.

This belief stayed with me during my early days as a parent. I kept an eye out for creepy men at the playground and was skeptical of men who worked with young children, such as teachers and coaches. When my kids were old enough, I taught them what a “good touch” was, like a hug from a family member, and what a “bad touch” was, like someone touching their private parts.

But after nearly a quarter-century of conducting research – 15 years on family violence, another eight on child abuse prevention, including sexual abuse – I realized that many people, including me, were using antiquated strategies to protect our children.

As the founder of the Center for Violence Prevention Research, I work with organizations that educate their communities and provide direct services to survivors of child sexual abuse. From them, I have learned much about the everyday actions all of us can take to help keep our children safe. Some of it may surprise you.

First, my view of what constitutes child sexual abuse was too narrow. Certainly, all sexual activities between adults and children are a form of abuse.

But child sexual abuse also includes nonconsensual sexual contact between two children. It includes noncontact offenses such as sexual harassment, exhibitionism and using children to produce imagery of sexual abuse. Technology-based child sexual abuse is rising quickly with the rapid evolution of internet-based games, social media, and content generated by artificial intelligence. Reports to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children of online enticements increased 300% from 2021 to 2023.

 

My assumption that child sexual abuse didn’t happen in my community was wrong too. The latest data shows that at least 1 in 10 children, but likely closer to 1 in 5, experience sexual abuse. Statistically, that’s at least two children in my son’s kindergarten class.

Child sexual abuse happens across all ethnoracial groups, socioeconomic statuses and all gender identities. Reports of female victims outnumber males, but male victimization is likely underreported because of stigma and cultural norms about masculinity.

I’ve learned that identifying the “creepy man” at the playground is not an effective strategy. At least 90% of child sexual abusers know their victims or the victims’ family prior to offending. Usually, the abuser is a trusted member of the community; sometimes, it’s a family member.

In other words, rather than search for a predator in the park, parents need to look at the circle of people they invite into their home.

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