For a long time now, child sexual abuse education programs — especially those that focus on children and young people — were assumed to be important strategies for preventing child sexual abuse. But is that assumption right? The National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse (the National Centre) set out to explore the available literature to try and answer this question.
What did we find?
Overwhelmingly, children and young people are the targets of child sexual abuse education, with few programs targeting significant adults in the lives of children.
Child sexual abuse education programs largely focus on building knowledge and skills to promote early identification and help-seeking by children and young people. This includes teaching children to recognise unsafe situations, identify elements of grooming behaviour, seek support and disclose experiences of abuse to trusted adults in their network.
There is little evidence in the literature about the role of child sexual abuse education in the prevention of child sexual abuse. Few programs sufficiently address barriers faced by children and young people when they raise concerns or disclose child sexual abuse. They may be experiencing a complex range of feelings, including reactions to secrecy surrounding child sexual abuse and denial based on shame, distress, ambivalence and fear of the consequences if they do disclose.
Most programs fail to address inclusion and diversity, including the cultural needs of children, young people and families. There is also little evidence to suggest that the insights of children, young people or adults with lived and living experience of child sexual abuse have informed the development of education programs.
Child sexual abuse education programs show some positive effects, like knowledge gains about child sexual abuse by children and young people, but the evidence is far from conclusive. Protective skills as a result of the programs and use of protective networks are not well measured. Are children able to use this knowledge to seek help and make disclosures when faced with a real-life scenario?
There is little evidence that points to the effectiveness of child sexual abuse education in preventing the sexual abuse of children and young people. To position these education programs as child sexual abuse prevention implicates children and young people in carrying the burden for their own safety or as preventers of their own victimisation. Reliance on these programs diminishes the responsibility of adults to protect children from child sexual abuse.
What can we do?
Unlike the prevention of family violence (where organisations like OurWatch have developed a generational theory of change emphasising the importance of increasing gender equity across societal structures), the prevention of child sexual abuse lacks the sharpness of similar theory of change. A unifying rationale with short, medium and long-term goals will enable prevention using programs aimed at changing the behaviour of individuals who are at risk of inflicting sexual harm on children and young people.
Child sexual abuse education would be more effective as an early detection effort rather than prevention of child sexual abuse.
Greater emphasis should be placed on the development of child sexual abuse education programs targeting adults. This may substantially affect the early detection of grooming, thus decreasing recurrence of child sexual abuse. These programs reinforce the responsibilities of adults for the protection and safety of children and young people and strengthen their commitment and confidence to take protective action.
We need to involve children and young people and those with lived and living experience in co-designing programs that seek to empower help-seeking and disclosure.
As described, gaps in the evidence base on child sexual abuse education approaches point to the critical need for us to reframe how we think about, design and evaluate child sexual abuse education programs.
Refer to the National Centre’s website for a more complete Knowledge Summary on this topic.