We have to stop child sexual abuse before it happens

CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses multiple forms of serious trauma, including assault, child sexual abuse and suicide, as well as the effects of this trauma on mental health.

In March this year, child sexual abuser Peter De Mouilpied was jailed for three years and five months (out of a possible 10 years) for charges including the solicitation via webcam of the live rape of a four-year-old child by an adult male.

But do the consequences for De Mouilpied match those for the four-year old child victim? Do the consequences for De Mouilpied have any impact for the child victim’s safety at all? Or do the adults – who are meant to keep that child safe – continue to perpetrate and exacerbate the crime by sharing it online?

While I’m not advocating an overhaul of sentencing laws for these types of crimes, it is important to talk about perpetrator-focused prevention – or stopping the crime before it happens.

As an Australian researcher with a focus on child sexual abuse prevention and response, I felt a sense of despair as I read of De Mouilpied’s sentencing.

Firstly, about the seemingly small consequences for De Mouilpied in comparison to those experienced by many victim-survivors, and secondly, about the likelihood that the child abused via webcam wouldn’t be rescued. That even if they were, exploitative adults would replace the child with another one and the abuse would just continue.

It can feel hopeless.

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) has been investigating for some time this form of abuse, known as ‘child sexual abuse live streaming’, which is when a perpetrator pays for the sexual assault of children in real time.

In 2020, the AIC published a report called Australians who view live streaming of child sexual abuse: An analysis of financial transactions which analysed data provided by the government’s financial intelligence agency, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC).

The report found that 256 Australians had spent $A1.3 million between 2006 and 2018 soliciting child sexual abuse live streaming in or from the Philippines, and that the Philippines has become a “hub” for child sexual abuse live streaming, driven by poverty.

This sample is just a drop in the ocean compared to the pool of unidentified offenders, which experts estimate to be large and growing even though there’s no general population prevalence data available.

But the potential scale of the problem is indicated by a 2014 Dutch study from the child protection organisation Terre des Hommes. Researchers posed as pre-pubescent girls on 19 different online platforms and, shockingly, 20,172 people from 71 different countries asked for the performance of a live sex show over a period of 10 short weeks.

As part of my own ongoing research into child sexual abuse, I recently interviewed 16 victim-survivors about their perceptions of perpetrator-focused prevention initiatives.

I asked victim-survivors what message they would like perpetrators of child sexual abuse to hear. One said:

“We’d be better off to tell all these perpetrators to kill their victim afterwards, after they’ve finished playing with them. A bit like how a cat plays with a mouse … because being the walking wounded is worse. Absolutely worse.” (Victim-survivor, Interview Six).

Statements like this tell us some victim-survivors feel that the impact of child sexual abuse is worse than death. And I don’t see how the seemingly small consequences for De Mouilpied can help victim-survivors feel any sense of justice.

But there’s help and hope. Not all victim-survivors feel this way and many get to a point in their recovery journey where they take up the position of “expert by experience”. This means they are able to reflect upon the abuse and provide advice to policymakers and researchers about how to best prevent and respond to child sexual abuse.

But essentially, intervening after abuse occurs is too late – children are already damaged for life.

We, as a society, must do better at preventing and intervening early in child sexual abuse perpetration and this means building a prevention agenda with a focus on perpetrators and potential perpetrators.

When I use the term ‘perpetrator’, I am referring to adults who sexually abuse children. Children and young people under the age of 18 years can also sexually abuse, but we refer to them as having ‘harmful sexual behaviour’ in recognition of their developmental stage and the trauma histories that often sit behind their behaviour.

Child sexual abuse is not a problem we can arrest our way out of. The sheer number of online child sexual abuse perpetrators means that arrests represent a tiny proportion of offenders.

Six years ago, Victoria Police reported that 4,000 Victorian people were sharing child abuse material online at any moment in time. But only 237 people were charged with offences relating to online child sexual abuse across the entirety of Australia in 2021.

The number of people viewing and sharing online child sexual abuse, as well as those soliciting child sexual abuse live streaming, has likely increased over the course of the pandemic during which time this kind of offending soared.

There are a number of potential approaches Australia could consider to prevent perpetrators from abusing in the first place, including respectful relationships and sexuality education focusing on consent; public messaging aimed at perpetrators or potential perpetrators about the unacceptability of child sexual abuse and how to seek help; and engaging online platforms known for facilitating sexual abuse, as well as the pornography industry, in prevention and intervention efforts focused on perpetrators.

The National Strategy for Preventing and Responding to Child Sexual Abuse has dedicated an entire area to perpetrator-focused prevention and there are likely to be further developments in this approach.

Perpetrator-focused prevention offers a small glimmer of hope for what sometimes feels like an impossible task – ending child sexual abuse.

Ultimately, perpetrators must be stopped before they offend so that children can thrive in safe and loving environments – no victim-survivor should feel like the “walking wounded” especially when many perpetrators face no, or very minimal, consequences at all.

If you have urgent concerns, please call the police on 000. If you need support or more information, please contact organisations including 1800Respect on 1800 737 732 (24/7) or Lifeline on 13 11 14 (24/7). For more help and advice, visit the National Office for Child Safety website.

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