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Question: What is sexual offending?

Sexual offending refers to illegal sexual behaviours that occur when there is no consent for sexual activity. Sexual offences can happen to anyone (e.g., children, adults). Sexual offences can involve physical contact (e.g., sexual assault), no physical contact (e.g., exposing genitalia to others without consent), and behaviours that occur using the internet (e.g., accessing child sexual exploitation material—often called child pornography—and sharing private sexual images without consent).

Question: How often are children sexually abused?

In Canada, 55% of sexual offences were against children and adolescents under the age of 18 [1]. Sadly, many experiences of childhood sexual abuse go unreported. Around 93% of childhood sexual and physical abuse experiences are not reported to the police or child protective services [2].

Question: Do men or women sexually abuse children?

Canadian data suggests that 97% of sexual offences against children and adolescents were committed by males [1]. Despite this statistic, females also commit sexual offences, including sexual offences against children. For example, 12% of people impacted by sexual abuse reported that the person who abused them was a female, even though females represent only 2% of police-reported sexual offences [3]. These statistics suggest that sexual offences by females are underreported to police. Our services are open to anyone seeking help to prevent abuse.

Question: Are strangers most likely to sexually abuse children?

In Canada, 88% of cases of sexual abuse against children and adolescents are committed by someone who is not a stranger [1]. This means that children are most at-risk of being sexually abused by someone known to them, such as a trusted loved one. Just as it is important to talk to children and adolescents about what to do if someone they do not know crosses a sexual boundary with them, it is just as important to talk to them about what to do if the person is someone they know.

Question: Do boys also experience sexual abuse?

Both girls and boys can experience sexual abuse in childhood. Worldwide, 18% of girls and 8% of boys are impacted by sexual abuse [4]. In Canada, 12% of girls and 4% of boys reported experiencing childhood sexual abuse [5]. It is important to understand that anyone can experience sexual abuse and we need to create safe spaces for children who have been impacted to ask for help.

Question: Are all sexual offences committed by adults?

Children can be sexually abused by adults, their peers, or other children. Canadian data suggests that 30% of childhood sexual abuse is committed by adolescents under 18 [1]. These statistics suggest an important aspect of prevention involves teaching children and adolescents about topics like sexual boundaries, consent, and healthy sexuality.

Question: Are rates of childhood sexual abuse increasing in our society?

Sexual abuse has been decreasing since the 1990s [6]. Although this decline is seen for sexual offences involving physical contact, there is an increasing number of individuals accessing online child sexual exploitation material (referred to as child pornography in Canadian law). There was a 233% increase in Canada in the use of online child sexual exploitation material between 2006 and 2016 [7]. There is some concern that online and offline sexual abuse of children has increased with the COVID-19 pandemic. Europol [8], a law enforcement agency in the European Union, reported an increased number of individuals accessing blocked online child sexual exploitation material. There is a need for increased research on the impact of the pandemic on rates of childhood sexual abuse and whether they represent a signficiant change from the past several decades.

Question: Do all people who sexually offend reoffend?

On average, the rate of sexual reoffence for someone who committed a sexual offence is 14%. That means that of about 100 people who committed a sexual offence, 14 will sexually reoffend [9]. Lots of people believe that “once a sex offender, always a sex offender”; however, the longer an individual who committed a sexual offence lives offence free in the community, the less likely they are to sexually reoffend [10]. These results suggest that many people who sexually offend successfully live offence-free after serving their sentence.

Question: Does treatment help people who have sexually offended?

People who have committed a sexual offence can change their behaviour. Treatment is effective at reducing sexual reoffending and there are ways to make it as effective as possible [11]. Effective treatment starts with a professional assessment of the person who has offended by someone who is trained in this work. Treatment is most effective when the frequency, content, and the way it is delivered best matches information learned about the person during the assessment [11].

Question: Do all people who sexually offend against children do so for the same reasons?

The reasons that people commit sexual offences, including sexual offences against children, is complex [12]. Not all people who sexually offend against children do so for the same reasons. It is important to understand these differences if we want to develop prevention efforts that address the root causes of sexual offending against children.

Question: Are all people who sexually abuse children pedophiles?

Sexual offending against children and pedophilia are not the same. Sexual offending against children is a behaviour, while pedophilia refers to a sexual interest in children. Among adults who sexually offend against children, 50 to 60% have a sexual interest in children. People who choose to sexually offend against children may do so for reasons other than sexual interest in children. These other reasons may include, sexual preoccupation, impulsivity, or antisociality [12]. Even if a person has a sexual interest in children and offends, there are additional factors that contribute to someone’s choice to engage in sexual offending behaviour. We must address all these factors if we wish to prevent sexual offending against children.

Question: Does everyone with a sexual interest in children require therapy to prevent them from offending?

There is increasing awareness that there are individuals with sexual interest in children who are committed to not offending [13]. Some of these individuals express that they are doing well and do not have a need for mental health services. Others may want to find mental health services to help them manage their sexual interest or for other reasons (e.g., depression or anxiety). Individuals with a sexual interest in children face significant difficulty accessing all types of mental health services. Our program aims to make it easier for people to access support and help.

Question: Is it a waste of time and resources to help people who identify a concern about their risk to offend?

The aim of prevention programming (and our program) is to prevent child sexual abuse from occurring in the first place. Too often professional help is only offered after abuse has occurred. There are many great programs and resources that help children (and their caregivers) to identify and report uncomfortable and abusive behaviours. Our program aims to support and help those individuals who are concerned about their own thoughts, feelings, or behaviours to take control over their own actions in order to prevent abuse.

Question: Should people who are at-risk of sexually abusing children be excluded from society to protect children?

It is understandable that there is a strong desire to protect children from harm. Sometimes this leads to a belief that certain people should be excluded from society. Stigma may increase the risk to children in our communities in several ways. Individuals at-risk of engaging in abuse may not seek treatment due to fear that a treatment provider will report them to the police or a child protection agency (even when there is no reason to). As well, the stresses caused by stigma may contribute to at-risk individuals coping in ways that might increase the likelihood of offending (e.g., using alcohol or drugs, feeling emotionally unstable, or isolating) [13, 14, 15, 16]. Stigma may increase a person’s risk to offend by causing more problems in their lives that are themselves risk factors for sexual offending.

References

[1] Cotter, A. & Beaupré, P. (2014). Police-reported sexual offences against children and youth in Canada, 2012. Juristat. Retrieved from: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/pub/85-002-x/2014001/article/14008-eng.pdf?st=plURBZo9

[2] Burczycka & Conroy, (2017). Family violence in Canada: A statistical profile, 2015. Juristat. Retrieved from: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/pub/85-002-x/2017001/article/14698-eng.pdf?st=-Zyf7J47

[3] Cortoni, F., Babchishin, K. M., & Rat, C. (2017). The proportion of sexual offenders who are female is higher than thought: A meta-analysis. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 44, 145–162.

[4] Stoltenborgh, M., van Ijzendoor, M. H., Euser, E. M., & Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J. (2011). A global perspective on child sexual abuse: A meta-analysis of prevalence around the world. Child Maltreatment, 16, 79-101. doi: 10.1177/1077559511403920

[5] Burczycka, M. (2015). Section 1: Profile of Canadian adults who experienced childhood maltreatment. Juristat. Retrieved from: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2017001/article/14698/01-eng.htm

[6] Brennan, S., & Taylor-Butts, A. (2008). Sexual assault in Canada 2004 and 2007. Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics Profile Series, 19, 1–20. Retrieved from http://nipawinoasis.com/documents/sexual%20assault.pdf

[7] Keighley, K. (2017). Police-reported crime statistics in Canada, 2016. Juristat. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X.

[8] Europol (2020). Exploiting isolation: Offenders and victims of online child sexual abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic. Retrieved from: https://www.europol.europa.eu/publications-documents/exploiting-isolation-offenders-and-victims-of-online-child-sexual-abuse-during-covid-19-pandemic

[9] Hanson, R. K., & Morton-Bourgon, K. E. (2005). The characteristics of persistent sexual offenders: A meta-analysis of recidivism studies. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73, 1154-1163. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.73.6.1154

[10] Hanson, R. K., Harris, A. J. R., Letourneau, E., Helmus, L. M., & Thornton, D. (2018). Reductions in risk based on time offense free in the community: Once a sexual offender, not always a sexual offender. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 24(1), 48–63. https://doi.org/10.1037/law0000135

[11] Hanson, R. K., Bourgon, G., Helmus, L., & Hodgson, S. (2009). The principles of effective correctional treatment also apply to sexual offenders: A meta-analysis. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 36(9), 965-891. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854809338545

[12] Seto, M. C. (2018). Pedophilia and sexual offending against children: Theory, assessment, and Intervention, second edition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

[13] Cantor, J. M., & McPhail I. V. (2016). Non-offending pedophiles. Current Sexual Health Reports, 8, 121–128. doi:10.1007/s11930-016-0076

[14] Jahnke, S., Schmidt, A. F., Geradt, M., & Hoyer, J. (2015). Stigma-related stress and its correlates among men with pedophilic sexual interests. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(8), 2173–2187. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-015-0503-7

[15] Abracen, J., Looman, J., & Ferguson, M. (2017). Substance abuse among sexual offendwers: Review of research and clinical implications. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 23(7), 235-250. https://doi.org/10.1080/13552600.2017.1334967

[16] Mann, R. E., Hanson, R. K., & Thornton, D. (2010). Assessing risk for sexual recidivism: Some proposals on the nature of psychologically meaningful risk factors. Sexual Abuse, 22(2), 191–217. https://doi.org/10.1177/1079063210366039