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Breaking the taboo: will we ever really be able to talk about child sexual abuse?

With the media once again full of stories of a celebrity facing accusations of committing historical child sexual abuse, it is important that we keep sight of the risks young people face today and of realistic…

People need to be able to talk about their urges to commit child sexual abuse. Fiona Hanson/PA Wire

With the media once again full of stories of a celebrity facing accusations of committing historical child sexual abuse, it is important that we keep sight of the risks young people face today and of realistic ways in which we can play a part in preventing child sexual abuse.

Contact offending as it is differentiated from non-contact, often internet-mediated offences, remains a real risk to young people. A study in 2011, for example, found that one in every 20 young persons aged 11-17 had experienced “contact” sexual abuse. We also know however that internet communication brings new risks regarding the way in which sexual offences occur. For example, a very large-scale study of data from 21 European Union member states found that across Europe 15% of 11-16 year-olds (22% of those aged 15 or 16) had received a sexual message online.

What is perhaps most notable is the way in which the internet blurs the lines between perpetrator and offenders. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) – now part of the National Crime Agency – estimates that at least 50,000 known individuals in the UK downloaded or produced child abuse images during 2012. But an emerging risk of cyber harm is the sharp rise in self-taken indecent or inappropriate images of young people that are posted by young people themselves, and then accessed by offenders. The Internet Watch Foundation for example, reported that 88% of indecent images in offenders’ collections have been taken from their original source (often websites for young people) and uploaded to pornographic websites.

So while child sexual abuse remains, rightly, a taboo subject, the fact is a lot of people are both inadvertently and consciously creating, sharing and accessing images online that would be considered child sexual abuse images – and, as such, are committing an offence.

How to Stop It Now

In this light we have to face up to a very difficult truth: that however abhorrent child sexual abuse is, the people who commit it appear often very normal. And we know from research I was involved in published today by a European consortium led by NatCen Social Research that some perpetrators find themselves in a difficult situation, perhaps following a relationship breakdown or period of unemployment, whereby a sexual preoccupation with children becomes problematic. This fills them with shame, disgust and fear and is something they want to avoid not engage in.

Stop it Now! is a campaign and linked helpline, based on the public health premise, that all adults can play a role in preventing child sexual abuse if they are properly aware of the risks and how to respond to them.

This includes people who are worried about their own sexual thoughts, behaviour and feelings, as well as family members, professionals and the public.

Behaviour can change

We interviewed 47 users of the service (in a combination of interviews and focus groups) and 112 also completed an online questionnaire about their experiences. What we found from the feedback received in the research is that for all of the user groups, being able to actually talk about their fears, thoughts and risks regarding sexual abuse, was a first step in learning how to address it.

And, with the advice of call handlers from Stop it Now! they could begin to realise that problematic behaviour such as accessing indecent images of children online, can be changed, if the triggers for it are understood and the individuals involved want to change their behaviour.

This realisation came from both partners of potential offenders, people worried about a child and people who may be at risk of committing an offence themselves (we found two thirds of this group who completed the questionnaire reported they had changed their behaviour and felt more able to manage their sexual behaviour following contact with Stop it Now!)

What does this tell us? First we have to face up to fact that “otherwise normal” people may commit child sexual abuse. And if we do that we also need to face up to the fact that as a community we need to be able to talk about it; it should be condemned of course and it is, rightly, a criminal offence. But if we talk about it openly, about how people with such an interest do not need to be doomed to this deviance but can, in many cases, do something about it to avoid offending, then we will feel more empowered to step in and prevent this risk, if we think it may be occurring, rather than be paralysed by the magnitude of the stigma attached to such accusations.

In my research I have been struck time and again by the long-term harmful impact abuse can have, not only on individuals, but also their families, friends and whole communities. We have to stop this harmful abuse occurring – and to do so, we have to start openly talking about how we can all play a role in doing that.