Sexual Violence Prevention
While the importance of modifying the current offender management approach to increase its effectiveness, and to reduce (1) the enormous financial costs and; (2) the stigmatization of sexual offenders cannot be denied; it is equally important for researchers to consider what can be done to prevent it from occurring altogether. We argue that there are four aspects that should be considered when discussing prevention; specifically, education, behavior, social and mental health.
Education is arguably the most vital aspect of prevention. As multiple studies, have found that a lack of education has been associated with an increased risk of experiencing sexual violence (Putnam, 2003; Finkelhor, & Baron, 1986). Thus, the following sections will discuss some of the necessary education to prevent sexual violence across the lifespan.
Education should start from birth. This can be done by giving parents information about: (1) the signs/symptoms (S/S) associated with sexual abuse; (2) risk factors for perpetration, such as, single-parent households, and unavailable parental figures due to disability and/or illness and; (3) that no “perpetrator profile” exists. Ultimately, both myths, and misinformation among the public hinder any efforts made towards the eradication of sexual violence.
Mendelson, & Letourneau, (2015) assert that the information should be presented to the child by the parent, as parents assert a strong amount of influence because of their role in the child’s life. Furthermore, the authors note the importance of open and positive communication regarding sexual behavior between the parent and child. Lastly, the researchers note that a benefit of this approach is that parents can repeat this process at different stages of a child’s development, matching the information provided with the child’s readiness to receive such information.
There are steps that a parent can take towards protecting their child from experiencing sexual abuse. Specifically, parents should teach their children the difference between “good” and “bad” touch, and what constitute appropriate boundaries. Additionally, parents should also introduce age-appropriate information concerning gender identity, and sexual minorities, as LGBTQIA individuals appear to be at an increased risk of experiencing sexual abuse as children (Alessi, Kahn, & Chatterji, 2016; Zou, & Andersen, 2015). Lastly, early education may also serve to reduce the stigma that these individuals experience in our society.
Adolescence & Adulthood
One of the most important things that should be taught in adolescence, is proper, and in-depth sex education. As, much research exists showing that abstinence only education is largely ineffective in preventing teen pregnancy; and teen pregnancy appears to increase a woman's risk of experiencing sexual violence (Johnson, Scott-Sheldon, Huedo-Medina, & Carey, 2011; Saewyc, Magee, & Pettingell, 2004). Lastly, (Finkelhor, 1980) reports a lack of sex education also appears to increase both male and female individuals risk for experiencing sexual violence.
Lundgren, & Amin, (2015) report that interpersonal violence in relationships can be a strong contributor to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Considering this, the authors advocate for programs that provide education concerning healthy relationship building and maintenance; and state that these programs should be implemented in schools and the community so that both adolescents and adults receive this education.
An often overlooked, yet vital piece of education concerns the availability, location, and access of resources within different communities. Services for social support and mental health services may not be utilized by those who need them due to a lack of awareness that they exist. Similarly, these individuals may be aware of social services, yet fail to utilize them due to a lack of access, or uncertain of the eligibility criteria for them. Therefore, we argue that schools should provide courses for children, and young adults educating them in the: (1) location; (2) eligibility criteria and; (3) navigation of social services.
Behavioral, Social & Psychological Factors
Despite the value of education, it is not the only factor to consider when addressing a social issue. There are other extraneous factors that can have a profound impact on the implementation of any intervention. Thus, the following section will discuss the different ways in which a person’s psychological, social, and behavioral well-being intersect with one another to increase, or decrease their risk of experiencing sexual violence.
Much research has been done concerning the effects of maladaptive coping, and sexual violence. Specifically, substance use appears to significantly increase an individual's risk of experiencing sexual violence (Gilmore, Lewis, & George, 2015). Therefore, an important factor to consider in prevention, is an individual’s coping mechanisms. If unhealthy coping mechanisms exist, they must be addressed, and healthier coping skills adopted if prevention is to be effective.
Affordable, and accessible mental health services are a necessity in the fight to stop sexual violence. Sperry, & Widom, (2013) report that parental mental illness, lack of social support, and substance use are the three most common variables that lead to child abuse and neglect. This fact is important because, if an individual experiences physical, emotional, verbal, and/or sexual abuse during childhood, they are at an increased risk of becoming a sexual offender themselves (Marshall & Marshall, 2000).
Human beings, by their nature, are social creatures; and research has shown that social ostracism is a strong contributor to different mental illnesses, such as, depression, and anxiety as well as having a negative impact on a person’s self-esteem (Leary, 1990). If a parent feels socially isolated, they may become more easily frustrated with their child, and in turn unintentionally turn discipline into abuse.
Abuse, in turn, may increase a child’s aggression, causing them to become socially isolated, which increases their risk of becoming a sexual offender and/or becoming a perpetrator’s target themselves (Vizard, 2013). Clearly, a key part of prevention is to provide parents education concerning appropriate child discipline, as well as the social support necessary to prevent the isolation-frustration-unintentional abuse cycle that is caused by feelings of social ostracism.
How do we ensure that children, adolescents, and adults receive the necessary education to prevent sexual offending? Collin-Vézina, Daigneault, & Hébert, (2015) argue for the implementation of universal education programs because, they are: (1) cost-effective; (2) easy to implement and; (3) accessible to a wide audience while avoiding the stigmatization of a certain population. Therefore, universal education programs should discuss: (1) proper sex education; (2) risk factors for offending; (3) proper discipline; (4) healthy coping mechanisms; (5) sexual orientation and gender identity; (6) healthy relationship building and maintenance and; (7) community resources, to provide the education necessary for prevention. Additionally, these education programs can serve as a means to provide the necessary social networking opportunities for at-risk families; thereby reducing potential feelings of social isolation.
Although, research has shown that education programs are cost-effective, the question of “how will this social program be funded” is always an issue. As mentioned previously, the offender management approach is incredibly expensive, and does not differentiate between lesser and more severe crimes effectively (e.g. public urination vs. child molestation). We propose that policy changes in regards to the severity of the alleged crime should be made to reduce the number of individuals on the registry. With fewer individuals on the registry, the funds that are currently used to manage them should be reallocated to fund: (1) the implementation of universal education programs; (2) existing community mental health providers; (3) the creation of new service agencies and; (4) different community groups. In doing so, we would be better able to address the social, psychological, and educational needs of individuals; and initiate the lengthy process of eradicating sexual violence in our society.
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Author's Note: This paper is part of a larger group project. For the sake of berevity, I am only publishing the section that I wrote for this particular paper.