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Community Views of Child Sexual Abuse

A recent review of public perceptions of sexual offenders in the United States revealed prominent institutional myths surrounding sexual offending and offenders. The literature reviewed in this study highlighted 4 primary myths that are prevalent in public perception – 1) the myth of stranger danger: that most perpetrators of sexual violence do not know their victims; 2) the myth of “crime on the rise”: that sexual offences are becoming more prevalent and that men who commit sex crimes are more dangerous than other types of offenders; 3) the myth of offender homogeneity: that all sexual offenders make up a homogenous group of “specialist” criminals; and 4) the myth of unreformability; that sexual offenders always recidivate at high rates and that treatment is ineffective. While the literature reveals that attitudes towards sex offenders are generally negative, more negative beliefs about offenders are held by females than by males. The authors also found that myths are generally supported by and perpetuated through the media, with one-third of the articles reviewed relating to sexual offence portrayal in the media including at least one sexual offender myth (Zatkin, Sitney, & Kaufman, 2021).

Research published by the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (2020) has found that the top two concerns relating to online safety of children and young people held by parents/carers and other key influencers are: viewing of inappropriate content (22%) and cyberbullying (16%), while just 3% reported online grooming as a concern. Almost one quarter (21%), meanwhile, felt that it was likely that online child exploitation could happen to their child or a young person they know; although the majority (89%) assumed that their child would tell them if something occurred to them online (ACCCE, 2020).

A number of research studies have suggested that while the public are supportive of treatment for sex offenders, including child sex offenders, they are doubtful about the efficacy of treatment – the opinion that child sex offenders are untreatable has been described as “probably the most deeply entrenched belief about sex offenders” (Federoff and Moran in Thakker, 2012:160; cited in Richards, 2018).

A study of victims’ attitudes to sex offenders and sex offender legislation found that victims of sexual abuse reported more positive attitudes toward sex offenders than did non-victims. Additionally, while victims and non-victims did not differ in their attitudes towards sex offender treatment, those who were victimised more often agreed that sex offenders should receive mandated treatment compared with those who did not report sexual abuse (Spoo, Kaylor, Schaaf, et al., 2017).

An analysis of newspaper coverage of child sexual abuse from 2007 to 2009 found that stories primarily focused on criminal justice details of specific cases rather than potential solutions, with prevention rarely being addressed. Almost one-third (30%) of newspaper articles referred to possible solutions, however the majority of these (82%) were interventions, policies and programs designed to address specific instances of abuse that had already occurred, with just 18% detailing potential methods to prevent future assaults. The results were discussed in terms of how news media impacts community perceptions of child sexual abuse, with the lack of visibility of prevention suggested as influencing the public to view child sexual abuse as a largely unpreventable problem (Mejia, Cheyne, & Dorfman, 2012).

A 2010 public opinion poll conducted in the US found that the majority of the respondents (72%) presumed that most convicted sex offenders would commit additional sex crimes in the future. In regards to recidivism-reduction measures, 79% believed that public registers and community notification reduce recidivism, while 64% believed specialised treatment, and 63% believed residence restrictions were effective measures to reduce recidivism rates (Center for Sex Offender Management, 2010).

In 2009, the Australian Childhood Foundation conducted the latest in their series of national community attitude tracking studies about child abuse and child protection (previous surveys were conducted in 2003 and 2006). Key findings from the 2009 survey included:

• 1 in 3 Australians would not believe children if they disclosed the were being abused
• Greater than 1 in 4 Australians do not feel confident enough to recognise the signs of child abuse and neglect
• 1 in 5 lacked the confidence to know what to do if they suspected that a child was being abused or neglected
• Unless they come face to face with the issue, collectively Australians rate petrol prices, public transport and roads as issues of greater concern than child abuse
• 90% of adults surveyed believed that the community needs to be better informed about the problem of child abuse in Australia
• 86% of Australian believed that Commonwealth and State Governments should invest more money in protecting children from abuse and neglect (Tucci, Mitchell & Goddard, 2010).

The results of the 2009 study reflected earlier findings from the 2003 and 2006 surveys – there was little change in community attitudes to child abuse and child protection over the six years (Tucci et al., 2010).

1 in 4 adults had identified a case of child abuse or neglect in Australia in the past 5 years. Just under half of these cases involved physical abuse (26%) or sexual abuse (21%) of children. 60% of the cases identified involved children 8 years old and younger. Of those who had identified a case of child abuse or neglect, 44% were so worried about the child’s safety that they had made a report to child protection authorities or the police. A further 21% had discussed their concerns with a professional. However, 1 in 6 (16%) had done nothing. Of those who took no action, 24% were unwilling to become involved and 53% were not certain about what to do or who to contact (Tucci et al., 2010).

Almost a third of respondents (32%) believed that children make up stories about being abused. A further 24% of respondents could not make up their minds whether or not to believe children’s stories about being abused. Paradoxically, 88% of respondents believed that children would be negatively affected if adults did not believe them when they disclosed abuse (Tucci et al., 2010).

Australians ranked child abuse 13th on a list of community issues, behind rising petrol prices and problems with public transport (Tucci et al., 2010).
Almost 1 in 5 (17%) of Australians believed that children were unlikely to know the person who abused them (i.e. abuse is perpetrated by strangers) (Tucci et al., 2010).

REFERENCES

Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (2020). Online child sexual exploitation: Understanding community awareness, perceptions, attitudes and preventative behaviours. Canberra: ACCCE.

Center for Sex Offender Management (2010). Exploring public awareness and attitudes about sex offender management: Findings from a national public opinion poll. Silver Spring, MD: Center for Sex Offender Management.

Mejia, P., Cheyne, A., & Dorfman, L. (2012). News coverage of child sexual abuse and prevention, 2007-2009. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 21(4), 470-487.

Richards, K. (2018). Born this way? A qualitative examination of public perceptions of the causes of pedophilia and sexual offending against children. Deviant Behavior, 39(7), 835-851.

Spoo, S., Kaylor, L.E., Schaaf, S., Rosselli, M., Laake, A., Johnson, C., Jeglic, E.L. (2017). Victims’ attitudes toward sex offenders and sex offender legislation. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 62(11), 3385-3407.

Tucci, J., Mitchell, J., & Goddard, C. (2010). Doing nothing hurts children: Community attitudes about child abuse and child protection in Australia. Ringwood, Victoria: Australian Childhood Foundation.

Zatkin, J., Sitney, M., & Kaufman, K. (2021). The relationship between policy, media and perceptions of sexual offenders between 2007 and 2017: A review of the literature. Trauma, Violence & Abuse, DOI: 10.1177/1524838020985568.