Putting a stop to child sexual abuse before it occurs


Seán Coughlan and Douglas Griffiths


The Covid-19 pandemic has put many children at risk of sexual abuse. School closures and lockdown measures confined some with their abusers and left others open to online exploitation due to more time spent on the internet.[1]

Online child sexual exploitation has already reached epidemic proportions, with 82 million images reported last year in the US, up from one million images a decade ago.[2]

The Global Threat Assessment 2021 finds that one in two respondents experienced online sexual harm during childhood.[3] Meanwhile, few of the resources to combat child sexual abuse go to measures that prevent abuse. More than $5 billion is spent annually to incarcerate people convicted of sex crimes in the US alone. And only five per cent of child sex crimes are committed by people with prior convictions. Yet most perpetrators are never identified: only one in five incidents is reported to the police. In addressing such a small part of the problem, and at such enormous cost, there is growing recognition that arresting perpetrators cannot be the only solution. We are failing children if we don’t also do more to prevent abuse from happening in the first place. That’s why our organisations are calling for others to join us in funding initiatives to stop child sexual abuse before it occurs. 

Fortunately, new research on abuse perpetration and its prevention offers hope. The myth of the lurking stranger has largely given way to the fact that the vast majority of perpetrators are family members, trusted adults, and older children or peers. In the US, for example, studies find that 70 per cent of those who perpetrate harm are teens, not adults.[4] Teens may engage in harmful sexual behaviour with younger children or peers out of ignorance, impulsivity, or inadequate adult supervision.[5]

Research also shows that 97 per cent of teens convicted of sex offences never offend again.[6] Moreover, new studies are finding that treatment can help adolescents refrain from committing abuse, a powerful argument to focus more strongly on prevention.[7]

This emerging body of research is based on promising perpetration prevention programmes in several countries. They are demonstrating results in their pilot phases, but in order for policymakers to allocate significant resources for this work, the programmes need to be evaluated for impact and their ability to be scaled up. This led us at Oak Foundation to invest $10.3 million in a five-year initiative by the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins University and the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group to conduct a worldwide review and to select six programmes for evaluation. Among those likely to be evaluated is Prevent It, an online course developed at Karolinska Institute in Sweden for adults who are concerned about their sexual interest in children and their use of child sexual exploitation material online. Another is Help Wanted, an online programme for young adults who are worried about their sexual attraction towards children. A key aim of this initiative is to get proven solutions into the hands of decision-makers in Europe and the US by summarizing the empirical evidence for policymakers, practitioners, and those looking to implement perpetration prevention programmes.

Still, important gaps in the research remain. As many in the field know, there is inadequate data on both the prevalence of child sexual abuse and on perpetrators. At Human Dignity Foundation, we saw these limitations while funding an initiative with INTERPOL on online child sexual abuse. We asked ourselves how we could respond, and following a scoping study, we recently approved over $10 million to fund two complementary research initiatives. A data institute at the University of Edinburgh will focus on the prevalence of child sexual abuse victimisation and a groundbreaking initiative at the Moore Center, in collaboration with The Royal, will focus on perpetrator prevalence. Both will work with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to incorporate questions of perpetration prevalence and online abuse into their violence against children surveys conducted in dozens of countries around the world.

Other notable investments in perpetration prevention include support from Porticus and Oak to the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, which runs therapeutic programmes for adult offenders, the families of offenders and young people showing signs of problematic behaviour, and support from the World Childhood Foundation to test and evaluate a method developed by the Karolinska Institute to change the behaviour of people who consume online photos and videos of child sexual abuse.

While private donors are taking lead action in this field, governments are also doing their part. Perpetration prevention has been a focus of the European Union and features in the UK Home Office‘s new strategy to tackle child sexual abuse. On a lesser scale, the US government has for the first time created an appropriations line for prevention research, a foothold for future investments.

This new momentum, coupled with new research, gives us hope that it is possible to stop abuse before it harms a child. Through the End Violence Investors Forum, a group of public and private donors, we are actively working together to complement our individual actions and investments in order to increase impact. Through collaboration, we believe we are able to achieve more than any one of us can alone; and by tackling all aspects of child sexual abuse, including potential perpetration, we can help keep even more children safe. We welcome others to join us.

Seán Coughlan is the executive director of Human Dignity Foundation. Douglas Griffiths is president of Oak Foundation. The End Violence Investors Forum can be reached at Jeff@IgnitePhilanthropy.org.


  1. ^ Interpol, Threats and Trends: Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, Covid-19 Impact, September 2020.
  2. ^ National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, available at https://www.missingkids.org/theissues/csam. For more, see The New York Times, The Internet is Overrun with Images of Child Sexual Abuse. What Went Wrong? September 19, 2019.
  3. ^ WeProtect Global Alliance, Global Threat Assessment 2021, including the Economist Impact Global Survey, October 2021.
  4. ^ Gewirtz-Meydan, A., & Finkelhor, D., (2020). Sexual Abuse and Assault in a Large National Sample of Children and Adolescents, Child Maltreatment, Vol. 25(2) 203-214.
  5. ^ Letourneau, E. J., Schaeffer, C., Bradshaw, C. P., & Feder, K. A. (2017). Preventing the Onset of Child Sexual Abuse by Targeting Young Adolescents with Universal Prevention Programming, Child Maltreatment, Vol. 22(2) 100-111.
  6. ^ Caldwell, M. F. (2016). Quantifying the decline in juvenile sexual recidivism rates. Psychology, Public Policy and Law, 22, 414–426.
  7. ^ Taylor, B. G., Mumford, E. A., & Stein, N. D. (2014). Effectiveness of “Shifting Boundaries” Teen Dating Violence Prevention Program for Subgroups of Middle School Students, Journal of Adolescent Health 56 (2015) S20-S26. See also: Ruzicka, A. E., Assini-Meytin, L. C., Schaeffer. C. M., Bradshaw, C. P., & Letourneau, E. J. (2021). Responsible Behavior with Younger Children: Examining the Feasibility of a Classroom-Based Program to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse Perpetration by Adolescents, Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, DOI: 10.1080/10538712.2021.1881858.

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