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Sexual Abuse

How Biases and Stereotypes Can Prevent Recognition of Sexual Abuse

Understanding bias in sexual abuse detection and what we can do about it.

Key points

  • Institutions often fail to identify and respond to cases of sexual abuse properly. 
  • The ability to detect sexual grooming behaviors may be hindered by the hindsight bias, in-group bias, and other cognitive biases.
  • Training, self-awareness, mentorship, and actively countering stereotypes can help prevent sexual violence.
Pixabay License. No attribution required
Source: Pixabay License. No attribution required

Over the past 20 years, we have been rocked by child abuse scandals in youth serving organizations such as the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, schools, youth clubs and sporting organizations (Jerry Sandusky, Larry Nassar). Research, investigations, and inquests have been conducted to understand how such egregious crimes could have, in some cases, been going for decades without detection. Many of the failures to detect the abuse were due to a lack of adequate policies and practices, poor organizational culture, and the inappropriate handling of allegations of child sexual abuse. Since that time, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has published a document entitled "Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Within Youth-serving Organizations: Getting Started on Policies and Procedures," which provides best practices and guidelines and on how to protect youth within institutional settings. A summary of these guidelines can be found here.

While it is imperative that such guidelines and policies are put into place to protect children, much of the guidance such as the appropriate screening of candidates, developing prevention policies and procedures, and developing environmental protections (i.e. open-door policies, windows into all rooms etc.) are contingent on being able to identify high-risk behaviors, signs of child sexual abuse and boundary violations. Many of these historical cases of child sexual abuse show that institutions have failed to identify and respond to cases of sexual abuse properly. It has been speculated that one reason for this is that the biases and stereotypes that we each hold about sexual abuse prevent us from accurately detecting these high-risk behaviors and boundary violations.

For example, there is a stereotype that a sex offender is a man who is a stranger. However, the evidence suggests that only 7% of those who offend against minors are strangers and up to 14% of all sex crimes are perpetrated by a woman. So, when an upstanding member of our community or a woman is engaging in boundary violations, we may not pay close attention, or we may discount it because we feel that they are not threatening.

Similarly, there is some research suggesting that our ability to detect sexual grooming behaviors may be subject to the Hindsight Bias in which once we know the outcome (i.e. the abuse has happened) we overestimate the likelihood that we would have been able to detect it before it occurred. For example, when Sandusky was charged with child abuse, people came forward to say that they witnessed behaviors and boundary violations that were either not reported or taken seriously.

There is also what is known as the In-Group Bias where we have more positive feelings for those that are in our in-group and more negative feelings for those in the out-group. This means that when there is an allegation or suspicion of someone from our in-group—like a long-term colleague—we are less likely to believe it, especially if the allegation is from someone in an outgroup. Children belonging to minoritized racial, ethnic, ability and sexual identity groups are at higher risk for sexual abuse, and it is possible that their allegations are discounted, or warning signs ignored resulting from the in-group bias.

Finally, there is the Confirmation Bias in which we take in the information that falls in line with what we believe, and we ignore or fail to process information that does fit our preconceived notions. For example, pretend you have a long-time colleague that you know to be a social, friendly, and caring person, and then you see them taking a child into a room by themselves which is a clear violation of policy. You may tell yourself that your colleague just wanted some privacy to talk to the child alone and thus you may not report this boundary violation.

No one is immune to developing stereotypes and biases and many of them develop over time and are based upon our learning experiences. As such, most of our biases do not operate at a conscious level which makes them hard to change. However, there are some strategies that have been found to be helpful in targeting racial biases that can also be applied to address biases and stereotypes related to sexual abuse as delineated below.

Strategies to Target Biases Related to Sexual Abuse

1. Get Training: While most organizations have some sort of training regarding sexual abuse and sexual harassment prevention (especially minor serving organizations), these trainings generally review the basics—who, what, when and where. Few individuals are aware of how stereotypes and biases may impact the detection of sexual abuse. Learning about myths and misconceptions regarding sexual abuse and examples of how biases can impact the identification and reporting of abusive situations and behaviors are integral to sexual violence prevention.

2. Reflect and Be Self-Aware: We all have our own biases and stereotypes and as such it is important that we are aware of them. Our personal biases may not be addressed in a one-size-fits-all generic training. To make sure that our own personal biases do not impact our judgements when it comes to sexual abuse, it is important to have checklists and procedures in place that are followed so that we do not overlook key risks or warning signs. Further, it is crucial to be willing to take in new information and if an error in judgement was made (i.e. we failed to report a boundary violation), we work to recognize the role of bias in the error, and how it can be addressed going forward.

3. Question and Actively Counter Stereotypes: We develop stereotypes and biases because it makes it easier for us to process information quickly. However, these processes are usually ingrained and automatic so unless we actively question and counter them, they will not go away on their own. The first step is identifying the stereotype or bias, then questioning it and the role it serves (good and bad), and then using all information we have gathered to choose to reject or modify the biased belief in order to change our biased attitudes and behaviors.

4. Seek Mentorship: Preventing sexual abuse is a communal effort and thus it is something that should not be done alone. Actively seeking out mentorship or creating a mentoring model within your organization enables individuals to get seek and receive feedback which reinforces a culture of prevention.

Understanding the role of stereotypes and bias in the detection and reporting of child sexual abuse is essential for sexual violence prevention.


Jeglic, E.L., & Calkins, C (2018). Protecting your Child from Sexual Abuse: What You Need to Know to Keep your Kids Safe. Skyhorse, New York

More from Elizabeth L. Jeglic Ph.D.
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