Kylie Hunter

On March 21-22, 2019, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) held a National Symposium titled “Out of the Shadows: Confronting the Rise of Child-on-Child Harmful Sexual Behavior” at Catholic University in Washington DC. This is the NCOSE’s third “Out of the Shadows” symposium, which focus on underrepresented issues in sexual exploitation. Thirteen speakers from various organizations covered a variety of aspects of child-on-child harmful sexual behavior including the language we use around it, current policies that affect children with problematic sexual behavior, how we assess and treat this behavior, what is contributing to the rise of it, and steps we can take to combat it.

Some speakers described how deeply intertwined the pornography industry is with the social media platforms that are most popular among youth, including Instagram and Snapchat. Lisa Thompson, Vice President of NCOSE, noted that in the past, if one wanted to view sexually explicit content, they would have to seek it out, like in an adult bookstore or adult section of a video store. Through social media and the Internet, children are seeing sexually explicit content whether they are looking for it or not. Panelists advocated for a change in our culture to educate parents, teachers and the public about this growing issue in order to protect our children from negative effects that porn can have on their social, emotional and cognitive development.

Several speakers also provided a large focus on the language that is commonly used around children with problematic sexual behavior. Jane Silovsky, Director of National Center on the Sexual Behavior Health Sciences Center, stated the importance of seeing them as children first and getting away from language like “perpetrator” and “offender”. Silovsky, along with Heidi Olson, Cordelia Anderson, Paul Stern and Melissa Grady proposed using person first language in these contexts, such as “child with problematic sexual behavior”.

Melissa Grady, National Catholic School of Social Services gave a presentation on the unintended impacts of putting adolescents on sex offender registries. She talked about the Adam Walsh Act, Title I of which (SORNA) required all states and territories to have sex offender registries. Dr. Grady focused on the unintended impacts of these registries and better possible solutions to deal with crimes of sexual nature when it involves adolescents. As a retired prosecutor from the state of Washington, Paul Stern discussed these unintended impacts and potential alternate solutions in his presentation, as well. Due to registration, many adolescents are kicked out of school, unable to access resources they need, have trouble finding housing due to residency restrictions and suffer from isolation. Importantly, Dr. Grady also noted that SORNA is not even proven to decrease the number of sex crimes. Instead, she believes we should be focusing our resources on rehabilitative intervention strategies, such as circles of support, which are evidence-based.

There was agreement that a rise of child-on-child sexual harmful behavior can no longer be ignored. It is affecting countless children and families, our friends and our neighbors. In order to protect our children’s presents and futures, we must combat this issue head on.