Is it time to take a closer look at the impact of child sexual abuse education programs?

  • Prevention
Dr Joe Tucci, Australian Childhood Foundation

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 Resources section for a more complete Knowledge Summary on this topic.

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Understanding child sexual abuse

Supporting Victims and Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse: Rapid Evidence Reviews
Ngagagee Ngulu Murrup Durra (‘The Ngagagee project’)
Preventing repeat child exploitation material offending: An international evaluation of the CEM-COPE Program
Conceptualising and Estimating the Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation (Phase One of Australian Study into Economic Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation)
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
CHANGE – curtailing harm and navigating growth: evidence for change pathways of young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Amplifying the voices of victim-survivors: Advancing the harmful sexual behaviour evidence base – the Ava project
Reshaping the Conversation: Development of a shared language and preferred definitions guide endorsed by victims and survivors of child sexual abuse
Building a knowledge frame for responding to the needs of children and young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Children and Young People’s Safety Project
Child safe practices using contextual safeguarding strategies
The more I talk, the stronger I get: unlocking our past to free our future
Delivering trauma-informed support for child sexual abuse victims in Victoria: mapping the knowledge gaps and training needs of the specialist sectors
Online child sexual victimisation and associated mental health outcomes
Differentiating adverse childhood experience profiles of male youths who exhibit harmful sexual behaviours

Response to child sexual abuse

Supporting Victims and Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse: Rapid Evidence Reviews
Ngagagee Ngulu Murrup Durra (‘The Ngagagee project’)
Preventing repeat child exploitation material offending: An international evaluation of the CEM-COPE Program
Evaluation of the Multi-Agency Investigation & Support Team
Conceptualising and Estimating the Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation (Phase One of Australian Study into Economic Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation)
Effect of multi-agency deliberation on perceptions of risk in responses to child abuse and neglect
The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
CHANGE – curtailing harm and navigating growth: evidence for change pathways of young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Improving legal, policy and practice responses to the intersection of domestic violence perpetration and child sexual abuse offending
Into the war zone: disclosure and disbelief in the Family Court
Understanding the experiences of child sexual abuse disclosure in Australia in the wake of the Royal Commission
Building trauma-responsive sexual health and relationship education
Learning from victims and survivors about what helps disclosure and responses to child sexual abuse
Amplifying the voices of victim-survivors: Advancing the harmful sexual behaviour evidence base – the Ava project
The dignity by design project: survivor-led system redesign
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Community as experts: investigating the context, needs and help-seeking pathways for child sexual abuse survivors and their supporters in the NSW Bega Valley
Developing and implementing a framework for abuse prevention through culture change and organisational development
Reshaping the Conversation: Development of a shared language and preferred definitions guide endorsed by victims and survivors of child sexual abuse
Building a knowledge frame for responding to the needs of children and young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Australian Child Maltreatment Study
Children and Young People’s Safety Project
Child safe practices using contextual safeguarding strategies
Enhancing the capacity of rural and regional respectful relationship educators
Strengthening relationships and connections for young people in therapeutic residential care
The safeguarding capability of adults in Catholic Church ministries: a global perspective
Creating safer futures: raising public awareness of child sexual abuse among young adults through digital storytelling
Survivor perspectives on institutional use of child sexual abuse material
The more I talk, the stronger I get: unlocking our past to free our future
Delivering trauma-informed support for child sexual abuse victims in Victoria: mapping the knowledge gaps and training needs of the specialist sectors
Online child sexual victimisation and associated mental health outcomes
Differentiating adverse childhood experience profiles of male youths who exhibit harmful sexual behaviours

Needs of victims and survivors

Supporting Victims and Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse: Rapid Evidence Reviews
Ngagagee Ngulu Murrup Durra (‘The Ngagagee project’)
Evaluation of the Multi-Agency Investigation & Support Team
The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
Improving legal, policy and practice responses to the intersection of domestic violence perpetration and child sexual abuse offending
Into the war zone: disclosure and disbelief in the Family Court
Understanding the experiences of child sexual abuse disclosure in Australia in the wake of the Royal Commission
Building trauma-responsive sexual health and relationship education
Learning from victims and survivors about what helps disclosure and responses to child sexual abuse
Amplifying the voices of victim-survivors: Advancing the harmful sexual behaviour evidence base – the Ava project
The dignity by design project: survivor-led system redesign
Supporting continuous quality improvement in safeguarding at Hockey Australia and other national sporting organisations
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Community as experts: investigating the context, needs and help-seeking pathways for child sexual abuse survivors and their supporters in the NSW Bega Valley
Enhancing the capacity of rural and regional respectful relationship educators
Creating safer futures: raising public awareness of child sexual abuse among young adults through digital storytelling
Survivor perspectives on institutional use of child sexual abuse material
The more I talk, the stronger I get: unlocking our past to free our future

Prevention of child sexual abuse

Ngagagee Ngulu Murrup Durra (‘The Ngagagee project’)
Preventing repeat child exploitation material offending: An international evaluation of the CEM-COPE Program
Conceptualising and Estimating the Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation (Phase One of Australian Study into Economic Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation)
The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
CHANGE – curtailing harm and navigating growth: evidence for change pathways of young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Developing and implementing a framework for abuse prevention through culture change and organisational development
Building a knowledge frame for responding to the needs of children and young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Australian Child Maltreatment Study
Strengthening relationships and connections for young people in therapeutic residential care
Differentiating adverse childhood experience profiles of male youths who exhibit harmful sexual behaviours

Identification of child sexual abuse

The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
Supporting continuous quality improvement in safeguarding at Hockey Australia and other national sporting organisations
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Developing and implementing a framework for abuse prevention through culture change and organisational development
Children and Young People’s Safety Project
The safeguarding capability of adults in Catholic Church ministries: a global perspective

Disclosure of child sexual abuse

Ngagagee Ngulu Murrup Durra (‘The Ngagagee project’)
The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
Improving legal, policy and practice responses to the intersection of domestic violence perpetration and child sexual abuse offending
Into the war zone: disclosure and disbelief in the Family Court
Understanding the experiences of child sexual abuse disclosure in Australia in the wake of the Royal Commission
Learning from victims and survivors about what helps disclosure and responses to child sexual abuse
Supporting continuous quality improvement in safeguarding at Hockey Australia and other national sporting organisations
Community as experts: investigating the context, needs and help-seeking pathways for child sexual abuse survivors and their supporters in the NSW Bega Valley