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As our partners and potential partners become interested in preventing sexual violence before anyone is harmed (primary prevention) there has been a growing interest in what it means to prevent the first time perpetration of sexual abuse. To understand this question, one must be able to talk about those who perpetrate sexual abuse and understand both the risk factors and the protective factors for first time perpetration. This is the core of ATSA’s expertise and this document is developed to help ATSA members bring their unique contribution to the prevention conversation. This document is intended to help ATSA Members actively engage in the prevention movement.
HOW TO APPROACH THE CONVERSATION:
- Acknowledge Fear and Introduce Hope: When the media presents the most horrendous cases of sexual abuse to the public, the public naturally reacts with fear. It is often helpful to acknowledge that fear, acknowledge the pain that is caused by sexual abuse and meet people where they are. At the same time, given what we know about the development of sexually abusive behaviors, we can share the fact that sexual violence is preventable. It is not inevitable. With sexual abuse on the decline over the last decade, we have reason to be optimistic. We can share our knowledge and sense of hope that we can change the very circumstances that allow abuse to continue.
- Primary prevention: To truly stop sexual violence before anyone is harmed, we must look at ways to stop first time perpetration (primary prevention). If we focus exclusively on preventing victimization we are looking at only half the picture. If we prevent first time perpetration, we are stopping the sexual abuse before anyone is harmed.
- Developing new partnerships: To ultimately end all types of sexual harm, we cannot work alone and we cannot work in silos. We need to learn from the practice of different disciplines, listen to those with lived experiences (e.g., victims, survivors, those who caused the harm and those who care about them), and the research from the various allied fields of study. We can also strengthen our own prevention approach by exploring the vast amount of information in other allied fields (e.g., Adverse Childhood Experiences research, bullying prevention studies, etc.) .
- Missing piece of the puzzle: To enter the conversation, we need to acknowledge that we have only one view of this mostly hidden problem – what we know about the people who have been reported, arrested, and convicted of a sex offense. Given the fact that most sexual abuse is never reported, ATSA members do not have a representative view of everyone who has abused.
- However, we do know more about those who are reported and this is an essential view that is often missing from the prevention conversation.
THE CRITICAL INFORMATION ATSA HAS TO SHARE:
- Prevention is Possible!: ATSA members talk about the fact that sexual abuse is not inevitable, it is preventable. It is a series of decisions that someone makes. Therefore, to truly end sexual abuse, we need to talk about how to stop first time perpetration. It begins the conversation about who are the adults, adolescents or even children who sexually abuse.
- Understand those who sexually abuse: ATSA members understand that the term “sex offender” does not describe the complexity of the adults, adolescents and children who abuse. Nor does it explain the various behaviors that are included in this term from violent rape to exhibitionism, to downloading child pornography from the internet. For decades ATSA members have been conducting research and implementing programs targeting this typically hidden population. Information is available to understand those who abuse, those at risk to abuse, and what can be done.
- Not all people who abuse are the same: ATSA members know more about the fact that a “one size fits all” approach to preventing the perpetration of sexual abuse simply won’t work. A caution to ATSA members: our materials often contradict the very point we are trying to make. For example, we can stop using data that encourage this idea that all sex offenders are the same (e.g., talking about the recidivism rate for [all] sex offenders). We can begin to talk about our work and literally tell stories that more specifically describe each population.
- Children and Adolescents: Children and adolescents are still physically and mentally developing and programs to prevent the first time perpetration of sexual abuse should begin at these younger ages. This shift in perspective can be added to existing child safety and bullying prevention programs (e.g., programs that teach children, “no one has the right to touch you” can add a component that “you don’t have the right to touch someone else”). Prevention programs can have the biggest impact on youth and in particular, in changing their developmental trajectory through interventions when problematic sexual behaviors are observed. We can encourage adults to seek help and resources for children and youth who may be showing early indications of problematic thinking that could lead to abuse. We can also share the important information that children and adolescents who have sexually abused can learn to live healthy, happy and safely as adults.
- More than Individual Change!: In the past, ATSA’s focus on assessment, treatment and management of sexual abusers has primarily explored how to change the individual. More recently, ATSA’s policy and prevention initiatives have broadened the focus to work towards changing the environment surrounding the individuals we work with. Efforts to change policies for youth serving organizations, schools and colleges, faith communities, and even how assessment and treatment is provided and funded have the potential to focus society on prevention. This broader focus moves ATSA back to its social change roots and the social change that is deeply needed on this issue.
- Translate our research into practical information. ATSA has a wealth of information, research and practical tools that may have been ignored in the past, but is now in demand. People are beginning to ask: What do we know about sex offenders, how do they operate, how can we identify them, and what can be done. Unfortunately, many have begun to answer these questions by telling the public that “this is what they do” or “this is how a sex offender will groom his victim.” ATSA members can offer an alternative approach that first lets the public know that these general statements about all sex offenders are a red flag that does not recognize the complexity of the situation. ATSA can offer more practical tools about: how to establish clear boundaries and how to respond when someone tries to stretch those boundaries; how to talk directly and specifically with someone when you are concerned about their behaviors; how to report behaviors which may be sexually abusive, and how to create a family safety plan as a universal prevention approach.
- Resources: There are many resources available to the public but many are not aware of these resources. ATSA members can educate themselves about local resources and access ATSA for a full listing of national resources. Whenever we have the opportunity to talk about sexual violence, we need to be sure to link that conversation to existing resources and action. This may be a conversation with a friend or neighbor or if talking with the media, asking them to list some local resources at the end of their article.
- Partnerships: Many different groups are talking about preventing sexual abuse. Consider reaching out to your local victim advocacy organization, starting the conversation about common values, and building a connection. This relationship is helpful in many ways, and especially when you can respond with a consistent and unified voice. It is compelling to media, legislators, and others when they see “unexpected allies” sharing the same message. All of our statements will be more powerful if ATSA members can join with victim advocates when responding to the public or media. When that is not practical, it may be helpful to bring the perspective of victim advocates into the conversation by articulating that important connection. For example, when asked about sex offenders, one part of the response is to also say, “we are working closely with our local victim advocates to make sure that our prevention strategies are comprehensive and effective.”
- Clear Argument for this Worthwhile Investment: Nearly all of the resources in our field are directed towards the small percentage of people who are reported, brought to trial, successfully prosecuted and sentenced. We also know that we can’t arrest our way out of this epidemic. As ATSA members, we have the opportunity to bring prevention into the conversation, talking about how investing even a small proportion of what we put into the management of sex offenders into prevention can significantly impact public safety.