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Journal Issue: Preventing Child Maltreatment Volume 19 Number 2 Fall 2009

The Prevention of Childhood Sexual Abuse
David Finkelhor

Decline in Incidence: Implications for Prevention

Although the field of child sexual abuse cannot yet point to many proven prevention strategies, it can take considerable encouragement and learn lessons from recent trends. Sex crimes against children appear to have declined dramatically in recent years. Sexual abuse substantiated by state child protection authorities declined 53 percent between 1992 and 2006. Sexual assaults reported by teenagers declined 52 percent in the National Crime Victimization Survey between 1992 and 2005.91 A victim survey of sixth, ninth, and twelfth graders statewide in Minnesota found declines of more than 20 percent from 1992 to 2004 in sexual abuse by family and non-family perpetrators.

The fact that the evidence for declines comes from victim self-report studies as well as official data tends to confirm that these trends are real and not due simply to reporting or other artifacts.92 Other analyses of the data also discount the argument that trends are artifacts.93

Several salient features of the declines are worth highlighting to identify possible lessons for prevention. The declines occurred, not alone, but in the context of large reductions in crime in general and in physical abuse as well, and at a time when many other child welfare indicators, including teen pregnancy, teen suicide, running away, and drug abuse, were improving. The sex abuse declines, like some of the other positive trends, began between 1992 and 1995 after a worsening trend during the late 1980s. The declines did not appear to be specific to type of victim, or offender (family, acquaintance, stranger, juvenile, or adult), or confined to certain regions.

A recent review noted four explanations consistent with the timing and breadth of the trends.94 The first was the economic boom, job growth, and economic optimism of the 1990s. The second was an increase in the number of police, child protection workers, and other agents of social intervention. The third was enhanced efforts to identify, arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate offenders. And the fourth was the widespread diffusion of new psychopharmacology, starting in the early 1990s, to deal with depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, and aggressive behavior in both children and adults.

No evidence as yet causally connects any of these developments with the declines in sexual abuse, but the declines themselves have possible implications for prevention policy. First, they suggest some questions that might be worthy of additional attention—for example, whether and how treatment for mental health problems (such as the psycho-pharmacology developments) might have prevention effects in the sex crime area. Second, they suggest the need for caution in abandoning interventions, such as the enhanced school-based prevention education that became fairly widespread before and during the 1990s, because they may be connected with the improvements. Finally, the declines encourage us to recognize that sexual abuse is not an intractable problem, but one whose incidence can, under appropriate circumstances, be dramatically reduced relatively quickly.