Preventing Peer-to-Peer Child Sexual Abuse

The CDC defines peer-to-peer abuse as any sexual act between minors, in which one forces it on another. For the purposes of supervision within youth-serving organizations, however, all sexual acts between minors, even if it seems to be “natural curiosity” is considered to be abuse. It could involve same sex interactions, or interactions between opposite sexes. It might involve youth of similar ages, or there may be a big age difference.

Much like adult-to-child abuse, peer-to-peer abuse can take many forms, including:

  • Physical sex acts or touching between minors
  • Viewing or sharing pornograph
  • Sexting, filming or photography of a sexual nature

Often, these situations escalate from bullying, and involve some form of power imbalance—e.g. age differences, physical size, popularity. Below we have highlighted different ways to prevent peer-to-peer abuse from happening at your organization:

  • Comprehensive, Engaged Supervision: Peer-to-peer abuse tends to be opportunistic and happens when there is a lack of supervision. Be sure that youth are in the presence of staff at all times. That means maintaining ratios and being actively engaged with all youth. Bathrooms, cabins and locker rooms require enhanced supervision, as these high-risk locations can be seen as a more private area that the instigator believes will make it easier to go undetected.
  • Be Aware of Blind Spots and Unstructured Time: Peer-to-peer abuse also tends to occur in “easy-to-cover” locations and during unstructured times. Be aware of blind spots such as, play structures, seats on the bus, and even items of clothing that can all provide cover for acts of abuse. Because of the potential for distraction, relatively unstructured transition times at the beginning or end of programming—or during transportation—also present added dangers.
  • Watch for Red Flag Behaviors: Peer-to-peer abuse often escalates from bullying, so having a robust anti-bullying culture is key. (See below for specific bullying resources.) Address physical aggression or verbal teasing early, especially when repeatedly targeting a specific individual—and intentionally follow-up with the victim to make sure they are feeling safe. It’s also important to watch for any form of inappropriate sexual behavior or language, which may be a sign of abuse.
  • Plan for Power Imbalances: Abuse often occurs when one youth holds some form of physical or social power over another. Whether it’s through planning seating arrangements, how we organize group work, or how we supervise bathroom breaks, we can avoid such imbalances turning into potentially abusive situations. In general, seat youth of similar ages and sizes together, and be sure to break up groups where red flag behaviors have been observed or are suspected.

By creating organizational cultures that model positive relationships—and by actively engaging with program participants—we can help not only to prevent peer-to-peer abuse from happening on our watch, but also to give youth the tools they need to develop and navigate healthy relationships moving forward.

Additional Resources: