Forty percent of Utahns disagree child sexual abuse is a problem in their communities, new study shows

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A research summary focused on collecting Utahns’ perspectives of child sexual abuse was published earlier this year by the Utah Women and Leadership Project.

The summary was based on data from the CDC and Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which found one in seven children in Utah will be a victim of sexual abuse. This is higher than the national average of one in nine.

Utah and other religious conservative societies have higher levels of child sexual abuse, UWLP founder Susan Madsen said, and more than 50% of cases are perpetrated by another minor or peer.

In 2008, Madsen was asked by Utah’s Commissioner of Higher Education to investigate the “troubling status” of women and education in Utah. Her research led her to start the UWLP in 2013.

This year’s research summary on child sexual abuse comes from a much larger statewide survey that was conducted last fall. The 80-question survey covered perceptions of domestic violence, the wage gap and sexual harassment.

65% of respondents were either neutral or disagreed that child sexual abuse was a problem in their community. Three other questions about people’s understandings of child sexual abuse were a part of the survey. (Data courtesy of UWLP)

When asked whether child sexual abuse is a problem in their immediate community, 40.8% of respondents disagreed that it was a problem.

For many people, it’s hard to believe that something like this could be a problem in Utah, Madsen said.

“If we’re going to change this in the state of Utah, which should be such a top priority for the state, we need to make sure people understand it,” she said.

Knowing the exact numbers is difficult because only a small percentage of people report cases, Madsen said.

“People are nervous to report because they don’t believe they will be believed. So that’s one thing that needs to change,” she said.

BYU’s Title IX office is charged with preventing and responding to incidents of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct at BYU, Title IX coordinator David Rasmussen said.

“We respond to reports of sexual harassment by providing the impacted parties with supportive measures where appropriate,” Rasmussen said.

Through collaborations with local and national organizations, the office attempts to ensure that the campus community is getting the best service possible, he said.

Rasmussen said the office strives to educate the community through in-person trainings, awareness campaigns, workshops and more.

Surveys like the one published last fall are intended to gauge the public’s awareness of issues like child sexual abuse and spark conversation, Madsen said.

“This is part of a bigger movement,” she said. “We’ll be doing a similar study every fall to see what kinds of progress we’re making and where we need to shift.”

UWLP launched A Bolder Way Forward in 2023 as a statewide initiative intended to help Utah women and girls thrive. There are already hundreds of organizations in Utah that have been working together with A Bolder Way Forward, Madsen said.

A Bolder Way Forward is composed of 18 spokes, Madsen said. These spokes are individual areas that demonstrate where a change needs to take place. (Graphic courtesy of A Bolder Way Forward)

“We have lots of groups, and now 16 coalitions have been formed in 16 of the counties. By May, we’ll have all 29 counties,” Madsen said.

The coalitions disseminate basic information about issues in Utah, Madsen said. Each of these coalitions will have goals of where they want their community to be by 2030.

“We’re not looked at as a place that is kind and inviting to women,” Madsen said. “So women that come to Utah to interview for jobs, they’re always a little leery to come because they know that we have the biggest pay gap. They know that there’s challenges in terms of women’s voices and you know, they hear things — some of them are not true, some of them are true.”

Those who are interested can read UWLP’s recently published research summaries on the pay gap, childcare and more here.

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