Prevention gets a weird look from most people when it comes to child sexual abuse. Most people and politicians firmly support reactive measures such as arresting and punishing perpetrators, while they view education and prevention initiatives as ‘soft’ options. So, for most people, the issue of preventing abuse needs to be framed in concrete, practical terms so that the uninitiated laypeople can understand the value of preventing abuse and why it’s more effective than reactive measures.
We all know that preventing an issue from becoming one is valuable, but because we don’t want to understand the subject – we just want it dealt with – we aren’t sure how prevention is possible. So let’s take a look at this without understanding the uncomfortable parts of why prevention works better than reaction.
First, let’s start with Bob. Bob grew up in a rural area, and he’s great at mechanics and loves the local sports team, but Bob isn’t great at academics. Bob’s 20 years old and he works for the local auto repair shop. Let’s talk about Bob’s life a little. Bob’s mom died when he was little, and aside from a few girlfriends, he hasn’t had much interaction with women or even with children. At 20, he’s frustrated because he enjoys fixing cars, but doesn’t want to do it for the rest of his life. He longs for something more and wants to settle down with a woman someday, but he doesn’t really know what he wants or how to work towards it. He feels lost.
This is where we need to pause, because there are two options for what happens next (among many others but this is an illustration). Bob becomes frustrated with adult women, who never seem to respect him and he feels like he deserves that respect and his only role model is his dad, who drank heavily after his mom’s passing. So he meets a teenage girl who brought her car in, and they get along, and he gets to know her family and in an effort to show the teenager he cares, gets to know her siblings and does nice things for them. That’s the starting point for both options Bob has.
One option Bob has is what we would call prevention because there are risk factors here and Bob may make bad choices from this point. In this option, Bob talks about his frustrations and why he likes this teenager with the girl and her parents and siblings, and they understand him and want to help him. They look into resources that can help him because they notice he’s rough around the edges and he’s struggling, and they find a peer support group – a men’s hangout at the local sports bar – and he fits right in. He gets the support he needs and he eventually marries the girl.
Another option is not prevention, with the same frustrations and the same family, but without discussing them or asking for help because his dad taught him that only sissy boys ask for help and he doesn’t want to be a sissy boy. He buries his feelings, drinks, and makes uncomfortable comments about females. He becomes involved in men’s rights and some of the right-wing conspiracy philosophies, and starts to believe he deserves to have women take care of his needs. He’s eventually caught abusing the teenage girl’s younger sister and sentenced to twenty years in prison.
I don’t think anybody needs any specialized knowledge to figure out that the first scenario is more ideal than the second. There are a few different factors that were inside of Bob’s control and outside of it. Inside Bob’s control was the choice to reject or accept his father’s attitudes about masculinity and getting help, choosing to drink, and choosing to expose himself to attitudes that objectify females. Outside of Bob’s control was the family’s desire to help someone who’s struggling and the resources they were aware of to help Bob.
The basic premise of primary prevention is that people make good choices when they have the tools with which to make them – when they know of social groups, organizations, tools, learning materials, etc that fit their situation. The premise of a focus on reactive policies is that even with those resources, some people still make bad, hurtful choices. So logically, people tend to think we need more reactive policies in place. This is where the disconnect happens, because the premise of reactive policies – while partly true – doesn’t acknowledge the whole picture.
There’s no attention paid to how many people still make bad choices vs people who make good choices. There’s no experiment to reference where a group of people is given more resources and options than another and then both groups are monitored for good or poor decision-making. There is real life. We know that crime is more prevalent in poorer areas with fewer resources, and we know recidivism rates of varying types of crime along with what is most effective at reducing recidivism. We know that people generally make good choices when they have proper resources.
That’s what our policies should reflect – some resources dedicated to reactive policies, but the bulk of them directed towards prevention and ensuring people have the supports they need.