Public opinion about child sexual exploitation abroad – Out of sight, out of mind?

Public opinion about child sexual exploitation abroad – Out of sight, out of mind?

No crime is as widely condemned as child sex offences. But does the public’s level of outrage depend on where in the world such offences take place? A revealing experiment suggests so.

A condemned crime

Eleanor Roosevelt once said: ‘we are one world, and that which injures any one of us, injures all of us’. This seems especially true for the protection of children. Even inside prisons, child sex offenders are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. This shows a near-universal norm: ‘don’t harm a child’. But does the condemnation of sexual abuse and exploitation of children extend to all children equally? Or do we, the public, find it less serious when it happens (to paraphrase a Dutch proverb) ‘far from our bed’?

A study using vignettes

I set out to investigate this question through a vignette experiment in which I asked a representative sample of the Dutch population to answer questions about a story they had read. The story describes the (fictitious) case of a 45-year-old Dutch man, who develops a sexual desire for young girls. During one of his business trips, he contacts an agency and arranges a sexual meeting with a 12-year-old girl. At the end of the story, participants were asked several questions about the story they had read: How did they feel about the man? How serious did they think the event was? What did they think about the girl?

Unknown to the participants, they did not all read the same story. Behind the scenes, the location of the incident was randomly ‘manipulated’ in the experiment: some participants read that the man travelled to Amsterdam (the Netherlands), while others read the exact same story but the man travelled to Los Angeles (U.S.), or Bangkok (Thailand), or Bucharest (Romania).

The selection of these four locations allows comparisons between countries that are similar or different to each other socioculturally, based on previous work about global culture zones by Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel. I was able to compare two countries geographically relatively close to each other, to two that are a long flight away from the Netherlands. In this way, I wanted to find out whether people’s opinions would be different depending on the crime location presented to them in the story.

And they were.

The results

Even though, on average, public opinion was condemning in all four scenarios, the statistics show a significant difference between the Netherlands and U.S. group on the one hand, and the Romania and Thailand group on the other hand. Specifically, the Dutch public rates the seriousness of the story as higher when the crime takes place in their home country or the United States, while in the two countries which are considered socioculturally different from the Netherlands, the crime was on average rated as less serious. Since no differences were found between countries that are geographically close by or far away, it is not just distance in general, but specifically social distance that influences public opinion.

A challenge for practitioners

This finding is worrisome for governments and NGOs trying to combat transnational child sexual exploitation. Especially for a crime type as hidden as child sexual exploitation (abroad), how the public perceives these issues is very important. After all, the police needs information from NGOs and the public to get information about crime locations and suspects. With that in mind, public awareness campaigns such as the international Don’t Look Away initiative - you may have seen their posters at the airport - try to stimulate travellers to report suspicious signals of potential child sexual exploitation when traveling abroad. Going forward, government measures and educational campaigns against child sexual exploitation need to account for this dynamic, since it poses a serious threat to their effectiveness.

A universal dynamic?

Lastly, it is worth noting that the Dutch public is not unique in these findings. Earlier research from the U.S. demonstrates that Americans also rate child sex crimes committed in the U.S. and the Netherlands as more severe than when they occurred in Thailand. Decades of psychological research has found that people judge injustice more harshly when it happens to people who they feel more kinship towards, compared to those who they view as socially distant, ‘out-group’, or ‘other’. These new findings suggest that this dynamic is also found with regard to perceptions about child sexual exploitation. It appears that even with an issue that is as universally condemned as child sexual abuse, in the eyes of the public, transnational child sexual exploitation is to some degree still an issue that is ’far from our bed’.

To read more about the other findings from this study, the full article is available free and open access here.


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