As much as no one wants to look at the disgusting act of child sexual abuse, it is a massive area of concern around the world. As well as since this is a criminal act it firmly falls under the remit of forensic psychology and the podcast, and it’s important to try to combat dangerous myths that only hurt children and enable the abuse to continue. So if you’re interested in sexual abuse and forensic psychology, you need to keep reading!
This criminal psychology episode has been sponsored by Forensic Psychology. Available from all major eBook and audiobook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
5 Harmful Myths About Child Sexual Abuse
I have spoken briefly about some myths in my Forensic Psychology book, but in this episode we’re going to explore some more myths, and most importantly, why are they harmful to children?
Myth: Sex Offender Registries Prevent Sexual Abuse
This is actually a myth that I fell for because I just presumed that this was a measure that worked to prevent sex crimes. But it turns out that sex offender registries show no effect on re-offending positive or negative.
As a result of a meta-analysis by Zgoba and Mitchell (2021) found that over the past 25 years, which was when sex offender registries were first introduced. There has been no effect on reoffending. Meaning there was no decrease in reoffending for these people on the registry.
In addition, Sanler, Freeman and Socia (2008) found that only 5% of sex crimes were committed by people on the sex offender registry.
In other words 95% of all sex crimes are committed by people not on these registries.
Therefore, it really does beg the question, why do people think they work?
Personally, I think it comes down to people just not looking into it and believing what politicians and the police tell them about how effective they are. But that’s why I love these sorts of myth busting podcast episodes because we get to learn different truths about the world.
Myth: Child Sexual Abuse Is A Spontaneous Crime
I can’t specifically say I’ve ever believed this one but it makes perfect sense why people believe this myth. Since if you watch any crime drama on TV or film they always show you a sex offender grabbing a random kid off the street without any planning or thought behind the act.
However, the truth is many sex offences made against children involve sexual grooming behaviour where the act is planned for days or weeks or even years before the disgusting act happens. And in this time frame the offender is grooming the child, their community and their family (this ties into another myth we’ll talk about in a moment).
In addition, sexual grooming refers to when an offender exercises a process of deceit where they select a victim, gain access to them and isolates the child. They do this by developing a bond of trust with them and the other adults in their life and the would-be offender desensitises the minor to sexual content and physical contact.
Subsequently, after the sexual act (abuse) has happened then the offender could engage in maintenance strategies to facilitate future abuse and/or to prevent the minor telling others about the abuse.
In terms of the sexual grooming literature, there’s evidence (see the references below) from two 2016 studies that show whilst the main literature believed only sexual abuse against children used grooming tactics. These two studies show that sexual abuse against adults and teenagers may use grooming tactics as well.
Additionally, it was commonly believed that only around half of all sexual abuse offences involved grooming tactics but Winters and Jeglic (2021) found 99% of all self-reported sexual offences against children used grooming tactics.
Overall, child sexual abuse is hardly a spontaneous crime.
Myth: Only Strangers Commit Sex Offenses
Whilst I mentioned this in my forensic psychology book, it is very much worth mentioning this myth again. Due to not only is it extremely dangerous as it could cause children not to be believed if they report sexual abuse against them by a family member. But it ties into the myth above.
As a result, only 7% of child sexual abuse and 19.5% of adult sexual abuse is committed by a stranger.
Furthermore, another reason why this is so dangerous is because this is the myth that drives most sexual abuse prevention strategies. So even our prevention strategies are highly flawed and don’t work because of this single myth.
The truth is 34% of children are sexually abused by family members and 59% of them are abused by acquaintances. Then for adults, 39% are sexually abused by an acquaintance and 33% are abused by a former or current partner.
Myth: Only Adult Men Commit Sex Offenses
I should probably combine this myth slightly with the silly idea that only gay people commit sexual offences against children. Both are flat out wrong.
Because it turns out that up to 12% of sex offenders are women and 25% to 35% are under 18s.
Now the reason why this is a dangerous myth is because when it comes to teaching sexual violence prevention, we tend to without a shadow of a doubt identify the perpetrators of sexual offenses are men. And whilst it is completely true that the vast majority of sex offenses are carried out by men a meta-analysis by Cortoni, Babchishin and Rat (2016) found in 12% of sexual abuse cases the offender was female.
As well as in 40% of sexual abuse against men the offender was a woman compared to only 4% in those committed against a woman.
Finally, 33% of people who abuse children and 25% of people who abuse adults are minors and under 18s themselves.
Therefore, none of these are small percentages and by failing to teach people about the risk of female and minors committing sexual abuse. It can only harm innocent people in the long term as it may negatively affect prevention reporting and detection.
Myth: There Is Only A Specific Type Or Profile Of A Person Who Commits Sexual Abuse
At the time of writing this post in early-Mid June 2022, I’ve started researching terrorism and the criminal psychology behind it. And personally I do not understand people’s obsession with finding a specific set of traits, personalities or something to give them a specific profile of a criminal. You just have to read or listen to my Criminal Profiling book to know how stupid that idea is and how much it doesn’t work.
Anyway off my little soapbox, the truth is there is absolutely not one profile of a typical sex offender. If you watch any TV then there is a set profile of a sexual offender that makes it easy to identify based on their behaviours and characteristics, but in the real world it doesn’t work like that.
The people who commit sexual offenses come from all walks of life with different looks, sizes and backgrounds. Some sex offenses come from respectable members of the community like Priests, Teachers and doctors. Other offenders come from less respectable sections of the community (which I think is just harsh to put it like that).
However, what we do know is that teaching our children and young people about healthy sexuality, relationship skills and affirmative consent can go a very, very long way to preventing future sexual violence.
And understanding the myths and the realities of sexual offending is just flat out critical for preventing it, so we know who to target.
But the thing I want to leave you with today is the true damage of myths and misconceptions in all areas of life. Due to with our laws and prevention strategies being based on these myths and misconceptions, we are not only failing to protect ourselves but we could be putting ourselves at an increased risk too.
I really hope you have enjoyed today’s forensic and clinical psychology podcast episode.
If you want to learn more, please check out:
Forensic Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
Have a great day!
Forensic Psychology References:
Cortoni, F., Babchishin, K. M., & Rat, C. (2017). The proportion of sexual offenders who are female is higher than thought: A meta-analysis. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 44(2), 145-162.
Jeglic, E.L., & Calkins, C (2018). Protecting your Child from Sexual Abuse: What You Need to Know to Keep your Kids Safe. Skyhorse, New York
Sandler, J. C., Freeman, N. J., & Socia, K. M. (2008). Does a watched pot boil? A time-series analysis of New York State's sex offender registration and notification law. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 14(4), 284.
Winters, G. M., & Jeglic, E. L. (2021). The Sexual Grooming Scale–Victim Version: The Development and Pilot Testing of a Measure to Assess the Nature and Extent of Child Sexual Grooming. Victims & Offenders, 1-22.
Winters, G., & Jeglic, E.L (2016). Stages of sexual grooming: Recognizing potentially predatory behaviors of child molesters. Deviant Behavior, 1-10. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01639625.2016.1197656
Winters, G., & Jeglic, E.L. (2016). I knew it all along: The sexual grooming behaviors of child molesters and the hindsight bias. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 25(1). 20-36. doi: 10.1080/10538712.2015.1108945
Zgoba, K. M., & Mitchell, M. M. (2021). The effectiveness of Sex Offender Registration and Notification: A meta-analysis of 25 years of findings. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 1-26.
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