Harm happens in digital spaces. Visual records of child abuse, coercion of explicit photos of young people and non-consensual sharing of explicit photos are all serious acts of harm and violence. EARN IT is a win for cops – not victims of violence.
The EARN IT Act offers nothing to survivors of violence – no expansion of services or support and no investment in protections. We know that prevention of violence is about expansion of support before harm happens – through effective, consent-based sexual education and support for families and individuals who are most vulnerable to harm. But all of these remain neglected and under-funded. EARN IT is a win for law enforcement, who have more opportunities for surveillance, and a catalyst for digital platforms to see vulnerable people as adversaries for liability.
Invest in preventing violence instead of asking victims to sue after it happens.
We don’t have to accept abuse as inevitable. We can invest in the tools we already know will prevent violence. Prevention programs include education, comprehensive sex education, familial support, and fostering communities. Congress can support all of these interventions, but funding remains paltry. When we are rely on tech platforms to police for child abuse instead of preventing it, we are failing victims.
Further, civil remedies like the ones championed in EARN IT ask survivors of harm to overcome many hurdles for redress. Survivors must retain private legal council, a financial impossibility for many, and go through long, traumatic legal cases in the hopes of financial remedy. This options leaves behind the majority of survivors of childhood violence.
Expand community systems and individual support.
Expanding community support means expanding the care and support that every child has access to. Many young people experiencing violence are able to identify their experiences and look for support, but find few resources. We must invest in the safety of every child thought school counsellors, comprehensive health care – including mental health care – and social support. If we are relying on websites to identify child abuse, we have already failed that person at every other step.
Non-carceral approaches to ending and healing from child sexual abuse are essential, and these conversations should not be sidelined. Generation Five sought to use transformative justice mechanisms to end child abuse within five generations. Love With Accountability is an anthology on surviving, and healing from, child sexual abuse perpetrated by family members. The HEAL Project seeks to end and address child sexual abuse through fundamentally changing the conversation on sexual oppression, abuse and liberation.
What about the Invest in Child Safety Act?
Sen. Wyden Introduces the Invest in Child Safety Act, A First Step in Focusing on Harm, not Platforms
On May 6, 2020, Sen. Wyden introduced the Invest in Child Safety Act, an attempt to address child sexual abuse by focusing on the abuse enacted, and not the mechanisms used. We commend the investment in prevention and outreach, and mental health support for those who are tasked with confronting these harms, but we caution against the expansion of carceral systems. While this is a step in the right direction, we want to push everyone one step further, and invest not in police but in communities, not in prosecution but in prevention.
We reject the premise that child sexual abuse is inevitable. When we focus exclusively on prosecution and investigation, we divest from prevention and invest in the assumption that violence is an inherent part of our society. Decades of divestment from communities and familial support, paired with prioritizing a carceral approach to interventions on gendered violence and the further criminalization and isolation of the most marginalized, have contributed to conditions that increase vulnerability to child sexual abuse.
Many sex workers come to this issue as people who have experienced different forms of harm and violence, including child sexual abuse. Our identities as sex workers and survivors of violence are not in conflict, and neither are the solutions that we propose for building safety. It is our due diligence to prioritize the prevention of violence — through education and resources — and for our focus and our funding to reflect that priority.
We support affirmative policy solutions to prevent abuse and support survivors of harm including:
Provide comprehensive sex education with a focus on consent and autonomy. Abstinence-only education continues to be federally funded despite its consistently negative outcomes as well as calls from youth advocates and educators to stop such funding. Inadaquate sex education has led to increased rates of teen pregnancy, STI and HIV transmission, and a pervasive fear and stigma around sex that promotes non-disclosure and shame.
Expand non-carceral, community-based options, emphasizing non-involvement with the child welfare system, and centering transformative justice. Changing the conditions which create violence and harm is one of the most powerful and least attempted forms of justice. Transforming conditions means preventing child abuse, and investing in community programs that prioritize this transformation must come before investing in policing. Our responses to child sexual abuse must center the needs of communities and families, not the criminal legal system.
End mandatory reporting or expand non-mandatory reporting options for young people to access support. When young people’s words trigger forcible intervention, those young people are put in a cruel catch-22 while losing even more control over a situation in which they have been victimized. Young people are often thoughtful about their decisions and have well-founded reasons for not wanting to involve law enforcement or other state actors. Sometimes, they simply want support and to stop the harm. We must allow young people to decide how to involve outside actors. By doing so, we can honor their needs, deepen their understanding of consent, and allow them to be more in control of their lives and healing, not less.
Provide economic and social investment in communities and families. Economic and social instability increase child abuse and familial violence. Financial stability of families and caregivers is an investment in preventing family violence, including intimate partner violence. We need more housing, not more police.
Implement comprehensive healthcare for all, including parity in mental health care options. Survivors of harm should not have to disclose anything to access healthcare. Mental health support should be available to everyone, including survivors of harm who never tell another person beyond their medical provider and wish to keep it that way.
Re-authorize and fully fund The Family Violence Prevention Act (HR 5401) This important source of funding is currently left un-authorized, and remains at levels woefully inadequate to fulfill FVPSA’s important functions of preventing and responding to family violence and child abuse.
We appreciate Senator Wyden for putting forward legislation aimed at countering child sexual abuse while not undermining the tools and mechanisms which some of those very same survivors use to stay safe. Youth who experience child sexual abuse and all people who are trafficked deserve full, rigorous support, not to be used as political footballs to advance anti-encryption and anti-sex agendas. We hope that this bill and our response serves as a catalyst for a broader discussion of child sexual abuse prevention, support for survivors, and the widespread impact of interventions.