To prevent child sexual abuse, we need to change our thinking — and stop exploitation before it happens

Every year, thousands of children are victims of sexual abuse in Canada. The impacts of abuse can be long-lasting, with psychological and physical consequences for victims, and significant economic impacts on our society.

Recent research has shown a troubling rise in online sexual offences and abuse against children in Canada, particularly during the pandemic.

In a 2022 report, Statistics Canada found the number of online sexual offences against children reported to police had tripled compared to the previous six-year period. Statistics Canada compiled research from 2014 — the year when Canadian cybercrime data first began to be compiled nationwide — to 2020.

The numbers paint a worrisome picture. According to the research, police-reported incidents of online child sexual exploitation and abuse climbed to 9,441 in 2020 from 3,080 incidents in 2014 — a three-fold increase.

Statistics Canada reports that in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the rate of online child sexual abuse material (CSAM) reported to police grew to 101 incidents per 100,000 population — a 35 per cent increase from 2019.

The rate of online sexual offences against children, which include luring a child and distributing images without consent, also grew. In 2020 there were 30 incidents per 100,000 population, a 10 per cent increase over the previous year.

The urgent need for prevention

But we know these numbers don’t even come close to telling the full story. Sadly, many experiences of childhood sexual abuse go unreported. Around 93 per cent of childhood sexual and physical abuse experiences are not reported to the police or child protective services for a host of reasons, as Statistics Canada acknowledges in its study.

The increase in reported abuse and exploitation online is likely only the tip of the iceberg. But these rising incidence numbers underscore the dire need to do more to prevent child sexual abuse in Canada. It is critical that we take action to intervene early, providing individuals at risk for offending with support through an anonymous helpline, as well as therapy, to prevent abuse.

It also underscores that traditional ways of stopping child sexual abuse may not be enough to prevent child sexual abuse from happening.

Historically in Canada, counselling programs for individuals who are concerned about their sexual interest in children are only made available after abuse has already happened. People who have committed a sexual offence can change their behaviour. Appropriate treatment is effective at reducing sexual re-offending, and there are ways to make treatment as effective as possible.

But intervening after a child is hurt is intervening too late, especially when prevention is possible.

Talking for Change

To make a difference in preventing child sexual abuse in Canada, it’s essential to acknowledge that child sexual abuse is a public health problem that requires a public health solution, including various prevention strategies.

I recently led the development of a program focused on stopping child sexual abuse before it happens. Talking for Change, launched in August 2021 at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, is the first government-funded national program that provides treatment options and anonymous support to youth and adults who are concerned about their sexual interest in children, their risk to sexually abuse a child or their use of child sexual abuse material.

With the support of a team of psychologists, psychotherapists, social workers and academics, the program provides an anonymous national helpline for anyone concerned about their attraction to children or who are worried about engaging in online or offline offending involving a child.

Talking for Change also provides therapy directly and leverages an extensive referral network to offer suggestions for fee-for-service therapy outside the jurisdictions where coverage is provided. The program’s free therapy service is provided only to people who do not have current legal involvement for a sexual offence, who want to remain offence-free and who are ready to take the next step in identifying themselves to receive service.

Close-up rear view of young man in streaming on videocall on a tablet
The free therapy service provided by Talking for Change is offered only for people who do not have current legal involvement for a sexual offence, who want to remain offence-free and who are ready to take the next step in identifying themselves to receive service.

While the helpline is national, the (often virtual) therapy program is currently available in Ontario, Atlantic Canada, Québec, Nunavut and Yukon, with plans to expand to additional provinces.

Over the past 18 months, our team has received more than 250 contacts from individuals seeking counselling or information to prevent child sexual abuse. We provided them with a safe space to talk. We listened and communicated, without judgment or stigma. We helped them realize they are not alone and that they are not doomed or destined to offend.

Most importantly, we developed strategies to prevent them from hurting anyone.

International prevention efforts

Talking for Change is not the only prevention program. In the United Kingdom, Ireland and the United States, the program Stop it Now! provides similar prevention through an anonymous helpline.

In Germany, the Troubled Desire program aims to provide prevention techniques through self-guided digital intervention. Early data indicates that prevention programs are a promising technique to reduce child sexual abuse.

In fact, an assessment study of the United Kingdom’s “Stop it Now!” program showed that there is a clear demand for confidential helplines providing information, advice, support and guidance to people concerned about preventing child sexual abuse.

This includes people concerned about their own thoughts or actions as well as individuals concerned about a child or adult’s behaviour or a child who may be at risk.

The study found that:

“the helplines can provide cost effective, quality advice and support to protect children directly, and to prompt behaviour change in adults and strengthen protective factors which can reduce the risk of offending.”

Breaking the silence

Child sexual abuse is such a dark and taboo subject that it may be difficult for many people to extend the focus beyond the victims and try to understand what leads someone to offend against a child or to use child sexual abuse material.

People may prefer not to think about it, and find it easier to avoid difficult conversations. Sadly that means the problem may continue to grow worse in the silence.

The people we counsel in the Talking for Change program often tell us that they wish they didn’t have these feelings or urges. And they tell us that they do not want to hurt anyone, and that in many cases they want to help prevent child abuse in Canada.

Talking for Change has only begun to scratch the surface of this problem. But we’re confident, based on the impact we’ve made in our first year, that prevention is not only possible, it’s happening.

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