‘You are not guilty because of your sexual desire, but you are responsible for your sexual behaviour.’ A new programme seeks to stop potential child sexual abusers from offending in the first place.

Far too many children in Aotearoa New Zealand are sexually abused, with potentially lifelong damage to their health, relationships and self-esteem.

As many as one in five people may experience child sexual abuse. Yet, it’s preventable, and we can do more to stop it before it happens. 

In Aotearoa and internationally, prevention efforts have largely focused on rehabilitation programmes for those convicted of abuse.

Unfortunately, those programmes are too late for the victims and respond to only a small part of the problem given most cases are not reported and reported cases don’t always result in convictions.

Getting serious about prevention means intervening earlier and casting the net far wider.

The international precedent was set in 2004 by Germany’s Prevention Project Dunkelfeld, a therapeutic service for people to manage their sexual attractions and avoid causing harm.

“You are not guilty because of your sexual desire, but you are responsible for your sexual behaviour,” is one of the project’s statements.

Advertisements in print media and on billboards and television across Germany have had messages such as, “There is help! Don’t become an offender.”

In the UK, Ireland and the US, anonymous helplines are offered under the slogan “Stop it Now!”

The early data on these types of programmes is “promising” but more evidence is needed of their effectiveness, according to an international review published in Current Psychiatry Reports in September.

Calls to helplines and the hundreds who have joined the German programme highlight the demand for treatment from people who want to avoid abusing children.

We are two clinical psychologists in Aotearoa who are undertaking a 12-month pilot programme called Stand Strong Walk Tall, which will be rigorously evaluated.

We launched Stand Strong Walk Tall in June. It is free, available to adults aged 18 or over and accessible online or kanohi ki te kanohi/face to face in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland, Pōneke/Wellington, and Ōtautahi/Christchurch (information about becoming a participant is at sswt.org.nz). It’s open to anyone, regardless of whether they have offended previously or, for example, accessed child sexual exploitation material. Most of the people who sign up will be men, but the service is also available to transgender and nonbinary people and women.

The pilot programme aims to engage 20 people and is on track to meet that target.  

Treatment goals are individualised and may include:

– strengthening commitment to an offence-free life
– managing sexual attraction towards children
– addressing erroneous beliefs
– increasing empathy
– supporting meaningful life goals
– boosting emotional self-regulation and coping with stress
– enhancing skills for adult intimate relationships

Our therapeutic approaches, including the use of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), are drawn from the ‘what works’ literature for people convicted of child sex crimes, and an emerging literature on therapy for people sexually attracted to children.

So how does it work?

To take a hypothetical example, imagine a man who has convinced himself that children in sexual exploitation material exist on the computer only, telling himself that he isn’t harming anyone by viewing the material.

Addressing this type of erroneous belief will be part of therapy.

Similarly, someone struggling to understand the likely effects of sexual abuse on children must learn to genuinely accept the true effects on victims.

Meaningful life goals can aid motivation since the person knows that offending, with the risk of imprisonment, will only make goals more distant or unattainable.

Coping with stress is important since stress can be a trigger for offending.

‘Prehabilitation’ is the term we use to describe the programme, since it tries to replace rehabilitation (for example, in a prison after conviction) with a preventative approach.

Similar to the attitude of the German initiative, we are clear that thoughts, fantasies and urges do not equal behaviour. We also know that people don’t choose to be sexually attracted towards children, since none of us choose our sexual attractions.

For that reason, there is an element of compassion when engaging with people struggling with their sexual attractions. However, preventing harm is paramount. If we learn of an imminent risk to a child or to anyone, their safety becomes the priority. For most people, child sexual abuse is unfathomable. That is exactly why we must work to prevent harm, any way we can, including engaging with people at risk of offending. We must try.

By making the effort, one less child might be abused.

Dr Gwenda Willis, School of Psychology, Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland.

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