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.
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.
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.