Getting an understanding of the true extent of child sexual abuse, in all its manifestations, is a perennial problem. It is the most hidden form of abuse of children and the least spoken about by child victims. It is therefore important to have an understanding of the issues involved in trying to measure the size of the problem. Ever since the late 1970s, there has been a “fervent interest in establishing the true scope of the problem”. National and international research has repeatedly drawn attention to the scale and prevalence of child sexual abuse within and outside the family. Sexual abuse occurs across social classes, geographic areas and ethnic and cultural groups - the vast majority of perpetrators are men, and the majority of victims are girls and young women, although boys and young men are also affected.
The nature of the problem
Efforts to document the scope of sexual abuse can be categorised as two types – “incidence studies” which are attempts to estimate the number of new cases occurring in a given time period (usually a year) and “prevalence studies” that are attempts to estimate the proportion of the population that have been sexually abused in the course of their childhood. Whilst incidence studies have some usefulness for keeping track of the number of cases professionals are called upon to handle, they have a major and widely recognised shortcoming in terms of estimating the true scope of the problem. Most cases of child sexual abuse do not come to the attention of professionals. The nature of the problem – its secrecy and shame, the criminal sanctions against it and the young age and dependent status of its victims – inhibits discovery and discourages voluntary reporting. Far greater reliance needs to be placed on “prevalence” reporting if we are going to ensure that our future policies reflect the extent of the problem
Recent evidence from victim surveys and prevalence studies consistently indicates the number of people reporting abuse in childhood at approximately ten times the incidence rate.
A meta-analysis of studies worldwide, published in 2002 indicates prevalence rates for penetrative child sexual abuse at 5.3% for girls and 1.9% for boys. When considering any form of sexual abuse, the figure is much larger at 25.3% for girls and 8.7% for boys. The results of this last study are quite telling – a quarter of girls and just under a tenth of boy children suffer from some form of sexually abusive experience during their childhood. Thus, to quote Stuart and Baines in their 2004 report “The sexual abuse of children is big business.”
The scale of the problem
When attempting to estimate the scale of the problem relating to children abused via new technologies, we have a paucity of data. The growth in the production of abusive images has been exponential in the past fifteen years. This is due to the introduction of the digital camera and the availability of a fast, international distribution system – namely the internet. How many images cyberspace is host to is difficult to calculate as is the number of children abused in the images.
Very few studies have been carried out regarding the number of children who are abused through grooming online, the nature of such grooming and its impact on the victims. In addition, our understanding of children’s risky behaviours online and the impact on their emotional development needs expanding.
To date, we are unable to give precise figures regarding the prevalence of child sexual abuse mitigated through the internet and mobile phone technologies. The number of cases reported or discovered is increasing but there is currently no uniform approach to the systematic collation of data from a victim perspective. Because of its perceived characteristics (anonymity, speed) the internet and mobile technologies will be welcomed conduits for abuse by those wishing to sexually harm children. It would be naive to contend otherwise - bearing in mind what we know about the extent of sexual abuse before the advent of the new technologies and the difficulties victims face in talking about what has happened to them, many victims of online abuse will remain silent.