Research so far has shown that sexual abuse prevention programs are effective in teaching children self-protection strategies, which is the main objective of most school-based programs. However, whether children who are exposed to prevention programs are also at decreased risk of becoming victims of sexual abuse is a much harder question to answer.
Knowing the true extent of child sexual abuse is limited by low disclosure and reporting rates; however, we do know that in 2013, the Florida Abuse Hotline received 2,373 reports of child sexual abuse, comprising 4.9% of total reports (Children’s Bureau, 2013). In 2014, the Children’s Advocacy Centers in Florida provided services to 12,580 child victims of sexual abuse, which accounts for 37% of their total services (retrieved from http://www.fncac.org/cac-impact-on-child-abuse.html.)
Being a child is the greatest risk factor for sexual victimization. A study based on law enforcement data reported in the National Incident-Based Reporting System found that 67% of sexual offenses involved victims under the age of 18. For victims under the age of 12, four-year-olds were at greatest risk for sexual assault. Eighty-six percent of reported sex offenses involved a female victim, with risk for girls increasing with age; whereas, boys are at greatest risk for sexual assault at age 4, after which their risk steadily declines (Snyder, 2000). Given the risk young children face of becoming victims of sexual assault, knowing the effectiveness of sexual abuse prevention programs in averting such abuse is essential.
To date, two studies have sought to answer this question. Gibson and Lettenberg (2000) conducted a retrospective study of 825 undergraduate women. The students filled out the Childhood Sexual Experiences scale and were also asked to report if they had participated in a “good touch-bad touch” type of program when they were in school. The results indicated that 62% of the student sample had participated in such a school-based program and 39% had not.
Analysis of the data showed that study respondents who attended a sexual abuse prevention program were 50% less likely to report having been sexually abused than those who did not participate in such a program. The study also revealed a trend towards earlier disclosure and shorter duration of sexual abuse in the prevention group. Overall, the study findings provided a direct suggestion that sexual abuse prevention programs were associated with a decreased occurrence of sexual abuse.
However, an earlier study (Finkelhor, Asdigian & Dziuba-Leatherman, 1995) based on a two-wave national telephone survey of children aged 10 to 16, found no difference in childhood sexual assault rates between those who attended a sexual abuse prevention program and those who did not. The study did find, however, that children exposed to sexual abuse prevention programs more likely to utilize self-protection strategies when threatened or victimized, more likely to feel they had protected themselves, and more likely to have told someone after an attempted victimization.
We will have to wait for more rigorous and comprehensive studies to be conducted before knowing the true extent of sexual abuse prevention programs’ deterrence capacities. Nevertheless, the programs’ proven value in empowering children with strategies for self-defense such as “yelling and telling,” their effectiveness in reducing self-blame and their ability to promote bystander behaviors (Finkelhor, 2009) argue for their ongoing and expanded use in schools. Children will continue to benefit from the knowledge gains and personal self-efficacy provided by sexual abuse prevention programs.