What Is Child Sexual Abuse?
Child sexual abuse occurs when an adult or another child in a position of power engages in sexual activity with a minor. It is a form of child abuse.
Child sexual abuse is an abuse of power and trust. By law, a minor under the age of legal consent is unable to give consent to a sexual act. Thus, any sexual activity with said minor is unlawful.
Child sexual abuse can, but does not always involve physical contact between an abuser and a victim. Child sexual abuse may include any of the following sexual acts committed against a minor:
- Sexual communications with a minor via text, phone calls or other digital platforms
- Exposing a minor to pornography
- Taking sexually explicit photos of a minor
- Asking, coercing or blackmailing a minor to take sexually explicit photos of themselves
- Distributing sexually explicit photos of a minor
- Inappropriate touching or groping of a minor
- Exposing oneself to a minor
- Masturbation in the presence of a minor
- Masturbation of a minor
- Sexual intercourse of any kind with a minor
- Trafficking a minor to engage in sexual acts with others
Unlike other forms of sexual violence, child sexual abuse may not involve physical violence or threats. Often, an abuser manipulates a victim through a process known as grooming.
Do you suspect a child is being sexually abused? Are you a current victim of child sexual abuse?
Many adults who sexually abuse children engage in a process called grooming. When grooming a child for abuse, an adult builds trust and an emotional connection with a young person. This trust allows an abuser to manipulate the victim into taking part in sexual acts.
Many groomers also use social isolation as a way to remove the victim from his or her support network. Abusers frequently use this tactic on adolescents and young adults.
Anyone can engage in grooming, regardless of age, race, gender, social rank or religion.
In some cases, abusers may coerce or persuade their victims to marry them to avoid prosecution. Unfortunately, child marriage is permitted in all but four states (Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania). However, marital rape is a crime in all 50 states, so nonconsensual sex with a minor is illegal, even in child marriage.
Sexual abusers may also groom the caregivers of a child in order to gain the caregivers’ trust and increased access to the child. For example, many Catholic priests sexually abused minors while traveling together. The families of these victims willingly entrusted the safety of their children to these abusive clergy members.
Additionally, a victim may use this bond of trust to rationalize the abuse. For example, a victim may view the relationship as romantic rather than abusive. Even adult survivors may struggle to recognize their childhood experiences as abuse.
- Paying special attention to the child
- Giving the child gifts
- Frequently touching or hugging the child
- Listening to the child as a confidant
- Offering help to the family of the child, including offering child care services
- Communicating with the child privately online
Source: Darkness to Light
What Is Child Sexual Exploitation?
Child sexual exploitation refers to an exchange of something valuable for sexual activity with a minor. It may also include a promise to exchange something valuable, even if the exchange does not take place. Child exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It is also commonly referred to as “commercial child sexual exploitation.”
A minor accepting something of value in exchange for sexual favors should not be seen as consent. A minor cannot legally consent to sexual activity.
Common forms of child sexual exploitation include:
- Child sex trafficking
- Taking pictures of a minor for pornographic use
- Asking, coercing or blackmailing a minor to take pictures of themselves for pornographic use
- Inappropriately watching while a minor changes clothes or bathes
- Sex tourism involving a minor
When an adult provides a minor with payment, housing, food, goods or services in exchange for any of the items listed above, they are sexually exploiting a minor.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children offers resources to victims and family members dealing with the trauma of child sexual exploitation. Contact the organization today by calling their 24-Hour Call Center at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).
Child Sexual Abuse Terminology
Child sexual abuse is commonly referred to as “child sexual assault” or “child molestation.” However, depending on the circumstances of the abuse, these terms may not be accurate for every case.
Historically, the term “child molestation” has often referred to the sexual abuse of a prepubescent child. Many victim advocates now prefer the term “child sexual abuse” because it is inclusive of more survivors.
The term “child sexual abuse” is all-encompassing. According to the advocacy organization Darkness To Light, it leaves “no room for misinterpretation or confusion.”
Victims Of Childhood Sexual Abuse
All children face some risk of sexual abuse. But, there are factors that increase a child’s risk.
Child Sexual Abuse Risk Factors
- Girls have a greater risk of sexual abuse than boys.
- Unaccompanied children have a greater risk of sexual abuse.
- Children in foster care have a greater risk of sexual abuse.
- Adopted children have a greater risk of sexual abuse.
- Stepchildren have a greater risk of sexual abuse.
- Children with physical or mental disabilities have a greater risk of sexual abuse.
- Children with a history of past abuse have a greater risk of future sexual abuse.
- Children living in poverty have a greater risk of sexual abuse.
- Children living with a single parent have a greater risk of sexual abuse.
- Socially isolated children have a greater risk of sexual abuse.
- Children whose parents are mentally ill have a greater risk of sexual abuse.
- Children whose parents are dependant on drugs or alcohol have a greater risk of sexual abuse.
Source: World Health Organization (WHO)
These risk factors increase a child’s risk of sexual abuse, but they don’t guarantee it. The best way to counteract these risk factors and prevent abuse is individual and societal vigilance.
How Often Does Child Sexual Abuse Occur?
According to one estimate, roughly 1 in 10 children in America will be sexually abused before turning 18 years old.
Several major studies have estimated the prevalence of child sexual abuse based on surveys and official crime reports. However, determining the incidence of child sexual abuse is much more difficult.
In crime, the term “incidence” refers to how many crimes took place within a certain period of time. “Prevalence” refers to how many people experience the crime in their lifetimes.
Child sexual abuse is an underreported crime, and often survivors won’t report the crime for several months or years afterward. This makes it nearly impossible to estimate how often children are sexually abused in a given amount of time.
Where Does Child Sexual Abuse Take Place?
According to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the majority of sexual assault cases involving minors take place in a residence. This residence is often the home of the victim, the abuser or a third-party individual.
The DOJ report identified a correlation between the age of a child victim and the location of abuse. Victims between the ages of 12 and 17 were more likely to experience sexual assault outside of a residence than victims under the age of 12.
Common Non-Resident Locations Of Child Sexual Assault Or Abuse
Juvenile victims abused outside of a residence were most commonly abused in:
Perpetrators of child sexual abuse often hide in plain sight. They are neighbors, teachers, relatives, church leaders or parishioners, coaches, youth organization volunteers or other acquaintances of the victim.
Contrary to popular belief, only a small percentage of child victims are sexually abused by a stranger. The vast majority of child sexual abuse is committed by someone the victim knows.
A victim may also be sexually abused by another minor. Typically, this abusive juvenile is older or in a position of power over the victim.
Gender Of Child Sexual Abusers
Women are often thought to be incapable of violent sexual crimes, especially those against minors. However, this gender stereotype may endanger a child by underestimating a predator based on gender and outdated beliefs. Women sexually abuse children.
What Are The Short And Long-term Effects Of Child Sexual Abuse?
Child sexual abuse is a traumatic experience. It can leave physical and emotional scars on a person for many years.
Understanding the possible impacts of child sexual abuse may help some survivors seek help in their healing journey.
Health Consequences Of Child Sexual Abuse
Physical Health Consequences
- Unwanted or unplanned pregnancy
- Physical injuries
- Chronic health conditions (e.g., obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Low self-esteem or self-image
- Cognitive impairment
- Eating disorders
- Increased risk of substance abuse
- Increased risk of unsafe sexual behaviors
- Increased risk of self-harm
- Increased risk of suicide
- Relationship problems (including intimacy issues in future relationships)
An Increased Likelihood Of Revictimization
Some studies estimate survivors of child sexual abuse are 2 to 13.7 times more at risk of sexual victimization in adulthood. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), victims of child sexual abuse have twice the risk of non-sexual intimate partner violence as those who have not been abused.
There are a couple of reasons why survivors of child sexual abuse may fall prey to future victimization:
- Child sexual abuse may affect a survivor’s development and decrease his or her sense of danger.
- Child sexual abuse may falsely lead a survivor to believe that coercion or domineering sexual behaviors or advances are normal.
The Long-term Effects Of Child Sex Abuse On Male Victims
Child sexual abuse survivors often experience similar long-term consequences, regardless of gender. However, boys or men who were victims of sexual violence may experience additional consequences based on society’s stereotypes around masculinity.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), male victims of child sexual abuse may feel additional shame, guilt or self-doubt. They may blame themselves for being “too weak” to stop the abuse or attack.
Additionally, if a male victim gets an erection or ejaculates during the abuse, it may cause the victim further confusion around the experience. Victims may confuse their bodies’ physiological reactions with consent.
To be clear, a victim of child sexual abuse experiencing arousal or physical pleasure during the abuse does not mean the victim is consenting. It is still an act of abuse against a child.
Common Effects Of Abuse Experienced By Male Victims
- Experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety or depression
- Avoiding recollection of the abuse or assault
- Questioning sexual orientation
- Fearing a shortened future
- Feeling a loss of masculinity
- Unable to relax
- Trouble sleeping
- Withdrawing from relationships
- Fearing judgment or disbelief if someone finds out about the abuse
On the path of healing, it is important that male victims recognize they are not alone. According to the organization 1in6, at least 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused or assaulted in their lifetime.
Adult Survivors Of Child Sexual Abuse
Many adult survivors of child sexual abuse may still be dealing with the long-term effects of their abuse. In some cases, it can take years for survivors to even understand that they were sexually abused. Other victims may suppress or deny their experiences only to face their memories years later.
Whatever the case may be, it is perfectly normal for an adult survivor to still be recovering from abuse in childhood. There is no time limit on recovery or healing from a trauma such as child sexual abuse.
Many adult survivors find emotional support to be an effective way to heal. For some, this may include therapy and counseling. Many adult survivors will also turn to support groups such as those led by Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) to find comfort from other survivors of abuse.
In recent years, more adult survivors have sought healing through the legal justice system. Many states have expanded the statute of limitations (legal deadline) around child sexual abuse crimes.
Additionally, several states have opened legal “look back” windows. During these windows of time, all expired civil cases of child sexual abuse are revived. Victims can file a case no matter when the abuse took place. This has allowed many adult survivors who were abused decades ago to file a claim.
States With Recently Expanded Rights For Child Sexual Abuse Survivors
Adult survivors have used their expanded rights to file civil lawsuits against abusers and institutions that hid or perpetuated the abuse.
Responding to known or suspected child sexual abuse allegations can be overwhelming. It helps to know the signs of abuse, how to speak with a potential victim and how to report abuse.
Many victims of child sexual abuse will exhibit signs of abuse. These signs are not always easy to spot. But, identifying these warning signs may save a child’s life and prevent the abuse of future victims.
Parents, guardians and voluntary reporters (e.g., friends, neighbors, community members) should always be looking for signs of abuse. Any sudden changes in behavior may be a sign that something is amiss.
Emotional Signs Of Sexual Abuse
Victims of child sexual abuse are more likely to exhibit changes in their behavior or emotions than show physical signs of abuse. Common emotional signs of child sexual abuse include the following:
- Change in eating habits
- Mood or personality changes
- Poor self-esteem or self-image
- Trouble sleeping or frequent nightmares
- Anxiety or depression
- Hesitancy to be left alone with a certain individual or to be away from a primary caregiver
- Decreased interest in school, activities, and/or friends
- Changes in mentality that promote self-harming behaviors
- Exhibits runaway behaviors
- Regressive behaviors (e.g., thumb sucking, bedwetting)
- Excessive discussion of sexual topics
- Excessive knowledge of sexual topics
- Overly compliant behavior
- Avoids physical contact with others
- Avoids changing clothes, dressing or bathing
Physical Signs Of Sexual Abuse
Depending on the circumstances of the abuse, victims may have physical symptoms. Sexual abuse victims may exhibit the following physical warning signs of abuse:
- Bruising, bleeding, swelling or scabs around the mouth, genitals, or anus
- Pain, itching or burning in the genital region
- Frequent pain during urination or bowel movements
- Urinary tract infections (UTIs)
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Unexplained health problems (headaches or stomach aches)
- Abnormal vaginal or penile discharge
What To Do If You Suspect A Child Is Being Sexually Abused
Studies show that the majority of victims will not disclose their abuse. Thus, child sexual abuse is an underreported issue, and thousands of children suffer in silence. If you suspect a child is being sexually abused, you could make a positive difference in their life. In some situations, you may save a child’s life.
If you suspect abuse, observe the child closely for signs of sexual abuse. If your observations further support your suspicion, you may consider speaking with the child directly before reporting the situation.
Whether you initiate a conversation with a suspected abuse victim or the victim chooses to confide in you, there are certain recommendations to keep in mind.
How To Talk To A Suspected Victim Of Child Sexual Abuse
- Choose a quiet location where the child feels comfortable talking.
- Avoid holding the conversation around a suspected abuser.
- Use a casual, non-threatening tone to keep the child at ease.
- Sit next to the child or drop down the child’s eye level.
- Do not overreact or appear shocked to anything the child tells you.
- Avoid judging or blaming the abuser or the child.
- Avoid negative comments about the abuser.
- Use simple open-ended sentences to ask questions.
- Avoid questions that begin with who, what, when or where.
- Listen patiently to the child’s response.
- Confirm what he or she said by repeating the child’s statements as questions back to the child.
- Reassure the child that he or she has done nothing wrong. Emphasize that you are concerned for his or her safety and wellbeing.
- Don’t make any promises to the child, including keeping the conversation confidential.
It is important to understand that if you speak with a child you suspect is being sexually abused, you are not an investigator or interrogator. Leave the investigation to the trained law enforcement agency that will handle the case once the abuse has been reported.
Mandatory Reporters Of Child Sexual Abuse
Each state legally requires certain individuals to report suspected child abuse. Many states designate certain professionals as mandatory reporters, such as health professionals, teachers or law enforcement. In some states, all citizens are mandatory reporters.
If a mandated reporter fails to report suspected abuse, he or she risks legal consequences.
However, not being a designated mandated reporter should never stop a person from reporting suspected abuse.
How Do I Report Child Sexual Abuse?
Depending on the laws in your state, you should report suspected child sexual abuse to your local law enforcement agency or Child Protective Services. You do not need proof of the abuse to report it. Reasonable suspicion is enough to report and launch an investigation.
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Meneo Group managing partner: Ron Meneo
Ron Meneo is the managing partner of The Meneo Law Group. With more than 40 years of experience, he represents clients across the country on a variety of complex legal matters, including personal injury due to institutional sexual abuse, unsafe pharmaceutical drugs and other practice areas. He is a recipient of Martindale-Hubbell’s prestigious AV® Preeminent Rating. He has also served as an editor and contributor for several legal journals.