What is child sexual abuse?

The sexual abuse of children is a difficult concept to grasp and can be especially challenging to talk about. Experts say that 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused by the time they are 18 years old. Imagine that 10% of all children were getting severely injured on playground equipment. Wouldn’t adults react to solve the problem? If our communities live under a blanket of denial and fear, this is a major problem for our children.

What is child sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse is any sexual act between an adult and a minor or between two minors when one exerts power over the other. Besides sexual contact, it also includes non-contact acts such as:

  • exhibitionism (exposing one’s genitals on purpose to attract attention or to cause sexual interest in another person)
  • exposure to pornography (viewing or recording of sexual act)
  • voyeurism (getting sexually aroused from looking at others’ naked bodies and genitals or at others sexual acts from a hidden location) and
  • communicating in a sexual manner by writing, phone calls or internet

You can learn more about the definition of child sexual abuse here.

Another critical fact to understand is that the sexual abuse of children happens EVERYWHERE. It crosses ALL ethnic, religious, economic and regional boundaries. The offender is often an adult, but can be another (often older) child, too.

The vast majority of sexual offenders are someone the child and his or her family already knows and trusts, which is why it is so critical that parents and other caregivers know about prevention and signs of abuse.

How can I RECOGNIZE child sexual abuse?

1. Physical signs of sexual abuse are not common, but bleeding, redness, rashes or other ailments in the genital area as well as urinary tract infections can occur. Other physical signs include trouble sitting or walking. If a child DOES have physical signs you suspect to be caused by abuse, have them examined by a doctor immediately.

The more common physical signs are actually symptoms associated with anxiety and trauma, such as headaches, stomachaches, insomnia, nightmares and bedwetting.

2. Emotional/behavioral signs are much more common than physical signs, and can vary greatly. Some children become depressed and withdraw, often acting clingy or anxious. Others act out or regress developmentally and seem to lose abilities they once had, such as potty training and language skills. Some become perfectionists, while others begin to do poorly in school or in activities such as sports.

Keep in mind that any drastic behavior changes can be a sign that something is bothering a child, whether it is sexual abuse or any number of other types of trauma. The important thing is these changes are a cry for help and should be addressed.

3. One of the most obvious signs of sexual abuse can be sudden sexual behaviors in a child, such as use of sexual language, promiscuity, or knowledge of adult sexual behavior that’s not appropriate for the child’s age.

Also be aware if your child suddenly exhibits a fear of certain places, activities or–especially–certain people. Ask them about their feelings, listen to their concerns and talk openly about it.

4. Remember that some children show NO SIGNS of sexual abuse, which is why it is critical for adults to be alert and pay close attention to where their children are, whom they are with and how they behave after these activities.