We’re all horrified by the recent accounts of child sexual abuse—from the conviction of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky to stories about serial abusers at the elite New York prep school Horace Mann. So it may help to keep in mind this rarely reported fact: child sexual abuse has been dropping for the last 20 years. University of New Hampshire professor David Finkelhor, widely considered the premier researcher on crimes against children, reports that substantiated cases of child sexual abuse have declined 53 percent since 1990. Numbers are still obscenely high: Finkelhor finds that 21 percent of all girls and at least 3 (but more likely 10) percent of boys are sexually victimized by age 17. But it used to be worse.
Finkelhor believes the drop isn’t primarily because of stricter laws and harsher punishments. Rather, he points to increased awareness and better offender treatment.
With each scandal, more Americans have realized how serious the problem is. Churches, teams, and schools all now specify the rules of engagement for adults and children. We’re alert to the signs of abuse and know to report them immediately. We’ve learned that the stigma should be on the offender, not the victim, and that offenders can appear to be upstanding fathers, priests, and teachers. And so abusers are stopped earlier—and more children are saved from the cycle of shame, reducing the risk they’ll become abusers themselves.
All that awareness has a second benefit: catching offenders sooner means they can be helped more effectively. Finkelhor notes that the drop in child sexual offenses began in 1990, just as SSRI antidepressants came on the market. SSRIs, of course, are widely known to inhibit sexual impulses. Could Prozac be bringing down child sexual abuse more effectively than Megan’s Law? Finkelhor thinks so. And SSRIs are only the beginning. Researchers have identified effective treatment and therapies for teenagers who act in sexually predatory ways, helping them change their behavior before they become lifelong offenders.
Megan’s Laws and offender-free zones, on the other hand, can create a false sense of security. Most such laws target “stranger danger,” even though molesters are usually relatives, friends, and trusted figures.
Esta Soler, founder of Futures Without Violence, also wants a greater focus on treatment. “I’ve had many conversations with legislators who want to enhance penalties. It’s harder for them to get their heads around programs that actually interrupt the behaviors. But now that we have programs that appear to be working, we should support them.”
The publicity around Sandusky and Horace Mann probably will protect children—by alerting still more people to watch for abuse. The more often someone blows the whistle, the more children are kept safe. And the more likely that the offender will get help. Because the stranger is rarely the danger. It’s the depressed, impulsive uncle or teenager or dad next door.