The danger and folly of sex ed for young children

This piece was submitted by a friend (and reader of these pages), Federico Genoese-Zerbi, who has done research on the value (or lack thereof) of sex education for young children. Senator Obama, in his recent suggestion that sex education be provided to kindergarten aged children, was referring at least in part to child protection programs based on touch identification. Without entering the debate about whether this is a constitutional role for the federal government (it’s not) I want to review the data about these programs, now in wide use across the country. The point, and one that nobody seems to focus on, is that these programs: (a) haven’t been shown effective; (b) may be harmful; and (c) cost a lot of money. If these programs were a vaccine against child sexual abuse, the FDA would not approve them and the public would be aghast if they were used. Touch training child protection programs were developed during the 1970s and early 1980s to combat child sexual abuse – certainly a worthwhile goal. The effectiveness of these “touch” programs is predicated on three hypotheses [1] [2]: (1) Child based prevention programs can effectively provide information that children will retain about abusive touching; (2) Children so trained will be able to apply their knowledge and recognize abusive touching, situations or events; (3) Children will successfully use their training to thwart attempted sexual abuse. In order for these programs to reduce victimization all three hypotheses must be true. Much research conducted since these programs were first introduced has therefore attempted to validate one or more of these hypotheses. The first hypothesis has been substantially validated. [3] Children are able to mechanically retain the information presented in these programs. Validation of the second hypothesis is less settled and (in a turn of events that should not surprise anybody) results vary by age and maturity. Consistently across all experimental scenarios, children eight years old and older are able to recognize abusive situations based on their training. [4] [5] [6] Obviously, children do not mature at an equal pace. Rather, their ability to master this material grows with their age: the older the group, the larger the percentage of children able to apply these lessons. Based on the data available it is extremely unlikely that a significant majority of children can successfully learn to apply this training before the third grade. So, training kindergarten age students (which is what sen. Obama suggested) appears irrational on this single fact. The reality is worse; the third hypothesis is the least studied and most problematic. Those studies I reviewed show that children who are trained are no better able to avoid victimization when it is attempted [7] [8]. In fact, I could not find a single analysis showing that children who are trained are more successful at warding off abusers than children who are not. Some proponents cite a handful of anecdotal retrospective reports during follow-up interviews with trained children. Anybody with even a passing understanding of experimental technique and data analysis can tell you how weak this evidence is; its flaws include: lack of a control group, lack of comparison to non trained children, inability to generalize to a larger population, edge effects, lack of peer review, and lack of confounding factor elimination. Of course one could hypothesize that even though the foundational assumptions for the training are invalid, the training is nevertheless effective due to some unknown mechanism. If this were the case, then given how long these programs have been around and the fact that a large percentage (over 70% as of the end of 2004) of children in our nation’s schools undergo this training, epidemiological data should show a decrease in the victimization rate of trained children (or even overall, unless the training merely shifts predator attention – see further analysis below). There is no such epidemiological support. To the contrary, some evidence suggests that (even after correcting for methodological differences) the incidence of child sexual abuse is increasing. [9] I have found a single study suggesting positive value in these programs’ ability to reduce sexual abuse, a retrospective survey of nearly 1000 college age women.[10] This study does show a statistically significant lower rate of victimization among women who reported having been trained on a touch identification program in school. Unfortunately, the study has serious limitations. Specifically, the data were based on recollection of training, the study reviewed a single, limited demographic, and results were inconsistent with larger scale epidemiological reviews. Because of these concerns the authors themselves find the results unconvincing; they recommend additional research cutting across multiple demographic groups, verifying retrospective data and, most importantly, creating controlled groups for comparison. [11] In addition to recommending additional research, the authors advance a hypothesis to reconcile their data with studies that show children are not able to thwart attacks. They suggest that the training itself is not effective but the mere act of having been trained changes abuser behavior to target children who have not been trained. This hypothesis (which is documented in the literature in other papers but never proven) would account for a reduction in the victimization rate for trained children while at the same time not reducing the victimization rate for the population overall (untrained children would become targets and suffer an increase in their abuse rate.) If this hypothesis were correct (and, as I pointed out, there’s no reason to believe it is other than this circumstantial evidence) then any value of training will disappear as training coverage approaches 100%. Further, any abuse prevention program must include two features to protect children: (1) Any documentation of which children participated and which children did not participate in training must be destroyed. Not to do so would amount to painting a virtual bull’s eye on the children known to be untrained. (2) Content is irrelevant. Since any positive effect is not due to the training itself (but rather to changes in predator behavior in response to perceived target hardening) then any material would serve the same purpose. Show the children Looney Tunes cartoons; cheaper, more fun, and just as effective. It is interesting but unremarkable that based on my review of all this research I concluded that child based abuse prevention programs have not been shown to be effective in reducing sexual abuse. What is remarkable is that professionals in the field generally agree with my position yet still advocate this training! For instance, I found an article printed in the Virginia Child Protection Newsletter supporting my position but mentioning that “despite concerns raised by experts and professionals, there has been widespread support from parents…” [12] I suspect parents are not told the programs don’t work. Further, the article authors argue in favor continuing these programs (instead, say, of telling the parents that the programs don’t’ work) [13]. They cite two reasons [14]: (1) They believe child based abuse prevention programs are harmless and may yet deliver some effectiveness that has not been documented; (2) The cost of administering these programs is low on an absolute scale. The authors cite $7.00 per student in California. The first reason may be false; the second reason is false and also bad public policy. In fact, several kinds of negative, unintended, results have been documented (albeit weakly) in relation to child based prevention programs (parents, think about this when you review your children’s kindergarten and elementary school curricula). Some studies documented affective changes in trained children causing them to have negative response to touching associated with non abusive situations such as bathing and tickling [15]. Other studies have documented an increase in fear and apprehension in children who have been trained, [16] including anxiety about becoming victims of child sexual abuse and growing fear of adults. [17] Don’t get me wrong: these data are not definitive. Nevertheless they do suggest harm and it seems irresponsible to expose children to it with no clear and convincing benefit to be gained. The second argument advanced in the Virginia Newsletter, that these programs are cheap, must be examined in the context of limited resources. $7.00 per student may seem low, but when multiplied by millions of children nationally it becomes a significant sum that could be left to taxpayers or spent on programs known to deliver better value (for instance, improving reading skills). This is entirely too high to pay for a service which has not been shown to be effective. In conclusion, I am shocked to find how widespread these programs are in light of such dearth of positive supporting data. I’ll reiterate the point I made in my opening paragraph: if these programs were a vaccine against sexual abuse, the FDA would never approve them and most parents would never consent to them. Instead, the great liberal [18] social engineers (whose can apparently claim sen. Obama as one of their own) have no problem administering them to the nation’s unsuspecting public; our children are their guinea pigs. REFERENCES [1] D. Finkelhor, A Sourcebook on Child Sexual Abuse (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1986). [2] C. Wooley and T. Gabriels, "Children's Conceptualisation of some child sexual abuse prevention concepts as taught by 'Keeping Ourselves Safe', a New Zealand Prevention Programme," The Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies 1999-1 (1999). [3] P. Church, et al., "The Prevention of Sexual Abuse: Examination of the Effectiveness of a Program with Kindergarten-Age Children," Behavior Therapy 19 (1988): 429-35. [4] Neil Gilbert, Protecthing Young Children from Sexual Abuse: Does Preschool Training work? (Lexington, Mass.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1989). [5] M. De Young, "The Good Touch/Bad Touch Dilemma," Child Welfare 67 (1988): 60-68. [6] Wooley, Supra. [7] D. Finkelhor et al., "The effectiveness of victimization prevention instruction: an evaluation of children's responses to actual threats and assaults," Child Abuse and Neglect 19 (1995): 141-53. [8] D. Finkelhor et al., “Victimization prevention programs for children: A follow-up,” American Journal of Public Health 85 (1995): 1684-1689. [9] R. Bolen and M. Scannapieco, “Prevalence of child sexual abuse: A corrective metanalysis,” Social Service Review, 73 (1999): 281-313. [10] L. Gibson et al., “Child sexual abuse prevention programs: do they decrease the occurrence of child sexual abuse?” Child Abuse & Neglect 24-9 (2000): 1115-1125. [11] Id. at 1122, 1123 [12] ..., . "Preventing child sexual abuse." Virginia Child Protection Newsletter (Summer 2002): 1-16, at 13. [13] Id. [14] Id. at 16 [15] Gilbert, Supra. [16] J. Garbarino, “Children’s response to a sexual abuse prevention program: A study of the Spiderman comic,” Child Abuse & Neglect 11 (1987): 143-48. [17] D. Finkelhor and J. Dziuba-Leatherman, “Victimization prevention programs: A national survey of children's exposure and reactions,” Child Abuse & Neglect, 19 (1995): 129-39. [18] By the word “liberal” I mean those driving to changes in status quo. This particular brand of snake-oil has been bought by school boards in politically liberal and conservative school districts, as well as by socially liberal and conservative organizations.
  • Dawn
    Comment from: Dawn
    07/23/07 @ 05:29:17 am

    The way you right wing nuts only extrapolate what you want to hear, why can't the rest of us be fortunate enough to have you all in one place at the same time when a message comes on to flee, but you don't listen to it fully in run left, in the direction of danger, rather than right to safety. Senator Obama made clear in the same statement that these decision are NOT federal matters, but should be left to the local school boards and schools. He was merely responding to a question not making a policy statement. As to your position that only parents are fit to teach about inappropriate touching, whatif it's the parent, as most child abuse cases are, who is dong the touching? What if it's the foster parent? What if it's the group s home supervisor where so many poor and Black children are warehoused in large urban cities like Balimore?

  • Comment from: Rossputin
    07/23/07 @ 07:20:02 am

    Dawn, I will offer a response to your comment even though it doesn't deserve one after starting off by calling the author and myself "right wing nuts". While it is true that I would argue against any Federal involvement here (and against NCLB for the same reason), the article you are commenting on here does not talk about governmental authority. It discusses efficacy of such programs. If you can write something as well researched to offer a different point of view, I'll run it on my site. In the meantime, keep your ad hominems to yourself as any regular reader of my site would know that I am clearly not a "right wing nut". But, that's what I expect from people (usually on the left) who have no rational argument so have to resort to name-calling.

  • Federico Genoese-Zerbi
    Comment from: Federico Genoese-Zerbi
    07/23/07 @ 08:39:16 am

    Dawn, Actually nowhere in my article did I suggest that only parents are fit to teach children about touching. I simply made the argument that these broadly used programs don't work. Until policymakers (like senator Obama) read the research and check the data, the country will continue to throw good money after bad and possibly hurt our children. Oh, by the way, it is true that most child abusers are people the child knows. In fact, however, parents are not the highest category and the single greatest threat to a child is a step-parent or boyfriend/girlfriend of the biological parent. If I were to really generalize based on rough statistics, I'd say beware the single mom's boyfriend. Biological parents are pretty safe. Cheers.

  • Laura
    Comment from: Laura
    02/15/08 @ 09:40:28 am

    I work for one of 'these "touch" programs' and I would love for you to come and witness how non threatening they can be. Our goal is to empower children not scare them. We cover good touches as well as 'bad' touches. We use role plays that are age appropriate. The children can feel safe asking questions about topics that are never discussed because people like you are afraid to treat them like equals. Knowledge is Power! Laura