Child Sexual Abuse: the Hope and Promise of Prevention

By Emily Austin, Peace Over Violence

April is not only Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Denim Day USA, but Child Abuse Prevention Month. No issue captures the intersection quite like child sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse, incest, and molestation are traumas and terrors that affect millions of children, adults and communities. No one claims to justify the sexual abuse of children, but still we’d prefer to not talk about this angry, hurtful, and damaging blight. Why? Because it is too scary? Because it is too close to home? I believe that we can change the invisibility of child sexual abuse if we commit to prevention.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure—we know this, but still don’t prioritize prevention. Child sexual abuse continues to exist because of silence and vulnerability. Prevention brings voice and listening. Prevention nurtures individual agency and promotes protection. Awareness of the issue is a first and critical step, but we must challenge ourselves and each other to be part of the solution, part of the prevention of child sexual abuse. In Los Angeles, we promote an idea of community ownership and responsibility in the prevention of child sexual abuse through a multidisciplinary group, the Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Advisory Council. It is a group with perspectives from child protective services, education, law enforcement, advocacy agencies, and therapists. Together we take a wide view of what prevention looks like in our communities. Through community dialogues, monitoring and weighing in on our systems policies and protocols, and consistently raising the issue of prevention from an afterthought to the forefront, we have been able to mobilize action in the community to hold educational events, pass prevention legislation, and build community advocates. Our work often involves challenging the crisis-only response. Institutions and systems tend to address child sexual abuse only when the scandals, investigations and criminal charges are too big to ignore. We must demand that prevention is an ongoing priority, not a public relations Band-Aid.

What does the prevention of child sexual abuse look like? It means socializing and caring for all children: helping them establish clear communication of what healthy boundaries are and have trusted adults in every child’s life that will listen. It means having a trauma-informed and resiliency-focused lens: recognizing that trauma exists and intersects throughout the life span, and that humans are incredibly resilient, strong and in need of social supports. And it means changing our systems (schools, child protective services, criminal justice systems): holding our systems accountable for their role not only in intervening and responding to the crisis, but in preventing child sexual abuse.

 I see child sexual abuse as a fulcrum issue—the eradication of child sexual abuse would have lasting and far-reaching ripple impacts in society. This intimate abuse, most often at the hands of someone the child trusts or relies on, disrupts healthy development and has life-long influences. There is hope in prevention; there is world-altering hope in resourcing a vision for the future where all children are treasured and supported in their curiosity, play, and healthy development, a future where although vulnerable, children are not taken advantage of. This future can exist if we have the courage to demand it.