Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Does rise of feminism explain decline of child-sex abuse?

Two high-profile sex-abuse prosecutions out of Pennsylvania - of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky and a Catholic official, Msgr. William Lynn who shielded perverted priests from accountability - have generated a minor media frenzy over the past few months. But the New York Times reported last week (June 28) that:
if the convictions of Mr. Sandusky and Monsignor Lynn represent a success story, the furor surrounding them tends to obscure what may be an even more significant achievement, albeit one that receives little publicity: The rates of child sexual abuse in the United States, while still significant and troubling, have been decreasing steadily over the last two decades by several critical measures.
Overall cases of child sexual abuse fell more than 60 percent from 1992 to 2010, according to David Finkelhor, a leading expert on sexual abuse who, with a colleague, Lisa Jones, has tracked the trend. The evidence for this decline comes from a variety of indicators, including national surveys of child abuse and crime victimization, crime statistics compiled by the F.B.I., analyses of data from the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect and annual surveys of grade school students in Minnesota, all pointing in the same direction.

From 1990 to 2010, for example, substantiated cases of sexual abuse dropped from 23 per 10,000 children under 18 to 8.6 per 10,000, a 62 percent decrease, with a 3 percent drop from 2009 to 2010, according to the researchers’ analysis of government data. The Minnesota Student Survey charted a 29 percent decline in reports of sexual abuse by an adult who was not a family member from 1992 to 2010 and a 28 percent drop in reports of sexual abuse by a family member. The majority of sexual abuse cases involve family members or acquaintances rather than strangers, studies have found.

At the same time, the willingness of children to report sexual abuse has increased. In a 2008 survey, Dr. Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, found that in 50 percent of sexual abuse cases, the child’s victimization had been reported to an authority, compared with 25 percent in 1992.
Remarkably, though, some advocates have been slow to accept the data, clinging to the mumpsimus of an ever growing child sex abuse epidemic:
Mark Chaffin, a professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, had one possible explanation for why it was hard for some people to accept the numbers. “The child abuse field has always been one that felt like there was not enough public policy attention, so the narrative reflected that. It’s at crisis proportions; it’s getting worse every year; it’s an epidemic,” he said. “So when people hear that the rates are going down, it really is sort of a challenge.” 

Lucy Berliner, director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress in Seattle, notes that many child advocacy groups depend on government financing, and good news always brings mixed feelings. One of them is the fear that if the issue does not seem dire enough, the money might dry up.
“It is very risky to suggest that the problem you’re involved with has gotten smaller,” she said.
Yet she and others in the field have embraced the decline as evidence that their work has made a difference.

“What we’ve arrived at is celebrating the success and using that to argue that the investments that government has made have been very worthwhile,” Ms. Berliner said.
When good news brings "mixed feelings," it's a sign one's goals have become muddied. While it's understandable for advocates to claim their efforts are responsible for this remarkable reduction, particularly when that meme helps secure public funds, Grits finds it curious that child sex abuse rates declined seemingly in tandem with crime rates generally, even as reporting rates for this particular offense ostensibly doubled.. Some of the reduction, certainly, stems from longer prison sentences and harsher punishments for child molesters pushed for by such advocates. But as with the large declines in other crimes, there's more going on.

Some of it may stem from much more public attention to the issue: Hollywood and TV have made an archetype of the abused-child-become-broken-adult. And revulsion toward scandals in the Catholic church beginning in the late 1980s could have created something of a tipping point in public awareness and parental vigilance. But IMO it would be a mistake to attribute too much to media influence, just as I don't think long prison sentences explain it all.

Indeed, Grits suspects a major cultural shift unmentioned by the Times may account for much of the decline: The rise of the women's rights movement in the 1970s and the resulting transformation of American family life. While cases like Sandusky and Lynn get most of the headlines, in reality the overwhelming majority of child-sex abuse occurs in the home, which to me indicates it's being stopped in the home. Though this hypothesis is pure speculation, perhaps a major difference stems from women embracing and living out their hard-won equality, not just in the workforce but in the home.

Women today are marrying at older ages: In 1980, the average age at which US women first married was the same as in 1890 (22), with steady increases since then. In 2010, the average age of women entering their first marriage was 26. Meanwhile, women enter parenthood today with more education under their belts (most mothers of newborns (54%) had at least some college education in 2006, an increase from 41% in 1990). So first-time mothers in the 21st century arguably enter that phase of their life with more maturity and self-confidence that better enables them to defend themselves and their progeny.

Perhaps just as important (though certainly, just as speculative), many more women are having children out of wedlock, frequently without the father's involvement. Whereas women once had to climb a mountain of societal disapproval to stop an abusing husband, today she can throw the bum out with both personal and official support. Being able to leave the jerk who threatens your kids rather than feeling obligated to co-habitate could have a big preventive effect, eliminating opportunities for abuse on the front end. Though the growing number of single mothers is oft lamented, this could be an unacknowledged upside to the trend.

Grits suspects such large reductions in child abuse signal these sort of deeper cultural changes as much or more than the success of any specific anti-crime policies.

16 comments:

Lone Star Ma said...

That's very interesting. Hard to say for sure,but it makes sense. I hope it's true.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I'd buy into the theory that increased independence on the part of women decreases the overall incidence of child sexual abuse. The overwhelming majority of intra-family child molestation is committed by male paramours in the house who are not the natural fathers of the victims. If anything, the increase in the number of single mothers increases the likelihood of someone other than the real daddy being in the home.

With that said, I don't think the impact of increased public awareness and more agressive law enforcement over the last two decades can be overstated. Here again, as you note, increased incarceration rates coincides almost perfectly with the decline in reported cases of abuse. What you frequently gloss over, however, is the likelihood that the increased incarceration rates, more lengthy sentences and decreased parole opportunities for sex offenders also has a significant DETERRENT effect. I know liberals like to "poo poo" this idea, but in reality the likelihood of getting caught and having to serve a lengthy prison sentence can, and frequently does, result in a significant degree of behavior modification.

Finally, I think increased awareness and education programs for children in schools and daycare regarding "good touch/bad touch" is also contributing to a generation of children who know how to resist and avoid predatory sexual advances. In other words, kids are learning to say no. Most convicted pedophiles have expressed in research that well adjusted kids who are capable of offering some degree of resistance are not attractive victims. They are also more likely to report the abuse which, in and of itself, might have some deterrent effect.

Whatever the reason, this is very good news.

Anonymous said...

It must be a slow issue day. I did notice you were able to work in the word mumpsimus.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

9:35, I don't gloss over the deterrent effect, I acknowledged the impact of increased incarceration and do so every time we discuss declining crime, and indeed have discussed much of the research surrounding the topic at length. The real question is: Will you acknowledge that most offenders - child molesters or otherwise - don't consult their handy pocket copy of the Penal Code before committing their crimes and frequently act on impulse without considering the consequences?

Also why do you only want to credit the government (adding schools, etc.) but seem unwilling to acknowledge the role of parents in reducing abuse? This phenomenon of conservatives who think government is utterly incompetent at everything else while expressing blind faith in the justice system is just as puzzling a mumpsimus as those who won't acknowledge crime reductions.

9:41, not really a slow news day, this is just the topic that struck my fancy this morning. Plus, as you pointed out, it let me use the word "mumpsimus," which I'll admit was a big draw. :)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Kind of reminds me of the argument from a documentary on Showtime called Freakonomics that legalization of abortion lowered crime 20 years later by reducing the number of unwanted children. They said women still had kids at about the same rate but delayed having them till they were older and ready for them, which plays into what you're saying.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:19, Freakonomics is actually a book on which the documentary was presumably based.

Anonymous said...

9:35, if you want to claim crime went down because of "increased incarceration rates, more lengthy sentences and decreased parole opportunities" then you have to explain far greater crime declines in New York, where "While the rest of the country, over the same twenty-year period, saw the growth in incarceration that led to our current astonishing numbers, New York, despite the Rockefeller drug laws, saw a marked decrease in its number of inmates." Do you "poo poo" crime declines in New York, or do you have an explanation for that?

Prison Doc said...

Interesting blog post with gratifying data, though I am not sure I can agree much with your causality opinion...feminism, or the women's rights movement, has been ascendant since the 1960s and I have difficulty singling it out as the single important cultural factor.

The overall cultural factors you highlight are more persuasive. In any event, the end result of fewer crimes--if true--is a happy one.

Unfortunately for me, when I hear "child sex abuse" the first words that come to my mind are Wenatchee, Fells Acres, McMartin, Country Walk and other instances of abuse hysteria and prosecutors gone wild. Given your interest and involvement with IPOT, I'm surprised you didn't mention this aspect.

Very good post.

Anonymous said...

@11:15, I sure do have an explanation for New York's declining crime rates. It's called a declining population. By some estimates, since 1980 that state's population has decreased at the rate of 130,000 to 160,000 per year. That's why their U.S. Congressional delagation was reduced after the last census. Many of the people moving out of New York were also at the lower end of the ecomonic scale in search of jobs or better opportunities. That particular demographic, I'm sure Grits will tell you, also accounts more than its fair share of reported criminal activity.

While New York's population has been going down over the last few decades, Texas has seen its population go up--dramatically. That increase in population alone explains a lot of the increase in Texas incarceration rates. In any event, there is one essential purpose of government that most conservatives support, Grits, and feel like we're doing pretty well. It's that responsibility of protecting citizens "from all enemies, foreign and domestic." There are lots of things that government does very ineffectively. I shudder to think of what is going to happen to our health care system. With that said, I think most conservatives feel that we have a very strong and good military in this country. In Texas, we also feel like the government does a pretty darn good job of locking the criminal element up.

Anonymous said...

@Prison Doc,...I wonder how the victims in the Sandusky case feel about "instances of abuse hysteria and prosecutors gone wild."

gravyrug said...

Prison Doc, whether or not it's the "single important cultural factor," feminism, is certainly at least one very important cultural factor, for all the reasons Grits mentioned.

Good thinking there, Grits. I'd love to see more research into this idea.

Anonymous said...

"This phenomenon of conservatives who think government is utterly incompetent at everything else while expressing blind faith in the justice system is just as puzzling a mumpsimus as those who won't acknowledge crime reductions."


Your tax dollars going to the government is a bigger gamble than a few bucks spent on the lottery. For example, if they are are going to shut down the lottery, they should shut down the government as well.

John David Galt said...

I strongly suspect the apparent decline is because courts have begun to catch on to False Memory Syndrome.

D said...

If child sexual is indeed going down, I wish someone would inform the sensationalist media, I see at least three a week from one source (Not Faux {sic}News)/

Anonymous said...

Once again I'd like to take this opportunity to remind everyone that more police officers are convicted of child sex crimes than all other professions combined. It's law enforcement's "dirty little secret", and one we are committed to exposing. Police officers use their positions of trust to violate our children. Their victims are threatened with physical harm and told no one will believe their word over that of a police officer. Please visit our Facebook pages and learn why all cops are predisposed to becoming child molesters at some point in their lives and what you can do to help prevent your child from becoming one of their victims: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Tribute-to-survivors-of-child-sexual-assault-by-law-enforcement-officers/180584842010594http://www.facebook.com/pages/Tribute-to-survivors-of-child-sexual-assault-by-law-enforcement-officers/180584842010594

Vagilantes said...

Thank you, Grits, for this excellent post and logical responses to several comments.
Perhaps the numbers have gone down because women are solving the problems in other ways that don't show up in police reports. http://vagilantes.com/