Witt, A., Rassenhofer, M., Allroggen, M., Brähler, E., Plener, P. L., & Fegert, J. M. (2018). The Prevalence of Sexual Abuse in Institutions: Results From a Representative Population-Based Sample in Germany. Sexual Abuse. iFirst
The lifetime prevalence of sexual abuse in institutional settings in Germany was examined in a sample representative of the general adult population (N = 2,437). Participants completed a survey on whether they had ever experienced such abuse, its nature (contact, noncontact, forced sexual, intercourse), the type of institution (e.g. school, club), and the relationship of perpetrator to victim (peer, caregiver, staff member). Overall, 3.1% of adult respondents (women: 4.8%, men: 0.8%) reported having experienced some type of sexual abuse in institutions. Adult women reported higher rates of all types than did men, with rates of 3.9% versus 0.8% for contact sexual abuse, 1.2% versus 0.3% for noncontact sexual abuse, and 1.7% versus 0.2% for forced sexual intercourse. We conclude that a remarkable proportion of the general population experiences sexual abuse in institutions, underscoring the need for development of protective strategies. Especially, schools seem to represent good starting points for primary prevention strategies.
Could you talk us through where the idea for the research came from?
The idea for this article has a long history. Since the “so called” abuse scandals in 2010, the topic of child sexual abuse has gained a lot more public and political attention in Germany. Until this point there had only been a few studies on the prevalence of sexual abuse and other types of maltreatment in Germany. So there was clearly a need for data. Interestingly, those who came forward in the “so called” abuse scandals in Germany were men who had experienced sexual abuse in institutions. Additionally, one of our colleagues, Dr. Allroggen had conducted a survey with adolescents that were living in institutions and found tremendously high rates for experiences of sexual abuse. We were therefore interested in the prevalence in the general population of sexual abuse institutions but also leisure activities. Luckily, our department had the chance to participate in a large survey, so we took the chance and included questions about sexual abuse in institutions and leisure activities in the survey.
What kinds of challenges did you face throughout the process?
A big challenge in research on sexual abuse is whether it is ok to ask people for such experiences. Institutional review boards are sometimes hesitant to approve such research due to concerns that asking participants about sexual abuse will induce extreme distress. Fortunately, research on reactions of participants exists that helps to adequately address these concerns. For example Jaffe et al. (2015) report in their meta-analysis that trauma-related research can lead to some immediate psychological distress, however this distress is not extreme. In general, individuals find research participation to be a positive experience and do not regret participation, regardless of trauma history or PTSD. To present those findings helped that the IRB approved our research.
The other issue that we were facing was how to ask individuals about their experiences of sexual abuse. There is no questionnaire that especially assesses sexual abuse in institutions. Therefore, we had to be careful in selecting the questions, as we needed the questions to be non-judgmental. Additionally, when we were designing the questions we were interested in a range of related topics and would have liked to include a lot more questions but resources are limited and so we had to narrow our questions to the essential ones.
What do you believe to be the main things that you have learnt about the prevalence of Sexual Abuse in institutions?
One of the most compelling findings is the amount of people that are affected by sexual abuse within institutions. We also find that experiences of child sexual abuse, as with other types of child maltreatment, is very common in the general population. When we investigate specific populations, such as children living in institutions the rates are even higher. Our findings also suggest that sexual abuse may occur in a wide variety of settings and that adult caregivers or staff, as well as peers have to be considered as potential perpetrators. Clearly, efforts have to be taken to prevent sexual abuse in different settings and also in regards to perpetrators.
Now that you’ve published the article, what are some implications for practitioners?
Sexual abuse in institutions is an issue. The results of our study indicate that a substantial number of people are affected. Therefore asking about such experiences is necessary, to understand peoples behaviors and health, because we know about the negative and lasting potential of such experiences. Additionally, our results suggest that prevention programs should be established. Especially schools seem to be a good setting for such programs. Additionally, such programs should also address peers as potential perpetrators.