Keeping children and young people safe from sexual abuse

The phenomenon of child sexual abuse is cause for worry all over the world. Finland is not immune from it either.

According to WHO (1999), sexual abuse is defined as the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable, or informed, or not developmentally prepared to give consent to, or that violates the laws or social taboos of society. Child sexual abuse is activity between a child and an adult or another child who by age, or development, is in a relationship of responsibility, trust, or power, that intends to sexually gratify or satisfy the needs of the other person. This may include but is not limited to:

  • the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity;
  • the exploitative use of a child in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices;
  • the exploitative use of children in pornographic performance and materials.

Finnish data indicate that nearly 1800 child sexual abuse cases were investigated by the police in 2019, an increase of 31% from the previous year. Even if not all the investigations resulted in a conviction, we know that for every reported child abuse case many more will never be discovered and addressed. At the same time, data show that eight out of ten times a child can be a victim of repeated sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse is traumatic for the victims and their families. Families very often feel vulnerable, exposed, and guilty. Children and young people might suffer from depression and low self-esteem, face problems at school or in typical social encounters. They might have flashbacks or intrusive thoughts or suffer from nightmares and panic attacks. Many sexually abused young people engage in self-harm practices. Finally, it is not uncommon that the victims blame themselves for what had happened to them, as a result of their grooming experience.

Sexual grooming is a process through which the offender seeks to build trust with the child or the young person to sexually abuse them. Offenders build and exploit a trusting relationship with the child and use that trust to exercise manipulation, coercion, and control. They might gain access to the family, becoming someone who the family trusts to spend time with the child. They could take the role of mentor or advisor. They might even persuade their victims that they are engaged in a romantic relationship with them. Grooming can be facilitated by technology.

Nowadays a great number of sexual abuse cases of children and young people have started from online encounters. Only recently (August 2019) the Espoo city authorities had to address the case of a single man who contacted 52 girls through social media, aiming to sexually exploit and abuse them. For sure, the Internet has not created the child abuse phenomenon. Nevertheless, it provides a widely accessible communication platform for sex offenders to make contact with their victims. In the online world, it is easy for a predator to be anonymous or to adopt a decisive profile, to manipulate young people. In addition, the predator online can reach a great number of potential victims simultaneously.

When contacting a child online an offender’s objective might be to meet them face to face to abuse them. However, many offenders abuse children without meeting them, by persuading or forcing them into producing and sharing sexual images or videos. They might also succeed in engaging them in sexual activity on webcams or live streams, acts that could be recorded and shared with others for fun or money.

As adults responsible for the well-being of children, as parents, guardians, and educators we need to ask ourselves: how is it possible for a child or young person to be safe from sexual predators online or in real life, if issues of sexual abuse, privacy, inappropriate contact and inappropriate relationships between minors and adults, as well as, how to be safe online and in the physical world, have not been thoroughly and systematically discussed in the school or the family.

Children should be informed about their bodies, the anatomy, and the physiology of their genitals. It is important from a very young age to understand the difference between private and other parts of the body, as well as their rights over their bodies. It is crucial to make them understand that no one, not even someone from their family or social environment - as it happens in the vast majority of sexual abuse case - has the right to engage in any sexual behavior with them. We need to teach them how to recognize unwanted sexual attention online or in the real world and situations that they might have been groomed.

However, the most important element while discussing with children and young people about sexual abuse is to emphasize that no matter what, sexual abuse is never their fault. Moreover, there are individuals and institutions that can protect them when in danger. Of the 52 abused girls in the case of Espoo, only one reported the inappropriate contact. This is an astonishing finding which should be seriously taken into consideration.

Children and young people will often be involved in risky situations. Taking risks is part of growing up and it has always been. However, at the same time as parents and educators, we need to find ways to support them and keep them as safe as possible, throughout this developmental journey. Our response should come through education. That is, through the systematic, organized, and scientifically documented implementation of Sex Education programs. The purpose of Sex Education is to promote sexual health. For sure, this is an endeavor that requires patience, perseverance, vision, and faith. But building knowledge on sexual issues and developing dialogue and decision-making skills prepare the ground for a healthier lifestyle, and that is exactly what we wish and seek for our children.

Margarita Gerouki is a sexuality educator, author, and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Jyväskylä. She lives in Helsinki with her Finnish-Greek family. Her son attends Etelä Tapiola IB Lukio in Espoo. She participates in the “Turvassa” project, organized by Trapesa / Filoksenia ry. The goal of the “Turvassa” project is to enhance, through educational interventions, those factors that will contribute to the prevention of child sexual abuse. www.margaritagerouki.net