Child Sexual Abuse

What Are The Signs?

Because most children cannot or do not reveal sexual abuse, it is up to concerned adults to recognize the signs. None of these behaviors alone indicates abuse, however a combination of these over a period of time may strongly indicate that the child is being sexually abused.

The following is a list of several common signs of child sexual abuse:

  • Physical complaints; "stomach ache"
  • Fear or dislike of certain people or places
  • Extreme changes in behavior
  • Depression and withdrawal
  • Sleep disturbances; nightmares
  • Regression to infantile behavior
  • Age-inappropriate interest in sexual matters
  • Excessive masturbation
  • Frequent genital infections or irritation
  • Difficulty with bowel movements, urinating, or swallowing

In older children you may see additional behaviors, such as:

  • Self-mutilation
  • Eating disorders
  • Suicide attempts
  • Discipline problems
  • Running away
  • Infection
  • Promiscuity
  • Pregnancy
  • Sexually victimizing other children

Persons under 18 years of age account for 67% of all sexual assault victimization reported to law enforcement agencies. Children under 12-years-old account for 34% of the cases, and children under six years old account for 1 of every 7 victims (14%) of the cases. Snyder, Howard. "Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics." U.S. Department of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. July 2000.

Who Sexually Abuses Children?

Despite the stereotypes of a stranger in a trench coat hanging around the playground, the sex offender is most likely someone the child knows and trusts. Based on police-recorded incident data, in 90% of the rapes of children younger than 12, the child knew the offender. Greenfeld, Lawrence, A., 1997 "Sex Offenses and Offenders: An Analysis of Data on Rape and Sexual Assault," Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.

Sexual abusers are fathers, mothers, step-parents, grandparents, uncles, cousins, neighbors, babysitters, coaches, and spiritual leaders. Offenders may be heterosexual or homosexual (though statistics show that most are heterosexual); they may be married or single. The majority of offenders are not mentally ill.

Some offenders are physically attracted to children, some were victims of abuse as children themselves, and some abuse children so they can feel the power and control they do not feel in relationships with adults. No matter what the reason for the abuse, it is a crime, and the effects on the victim can last a lifetime.

What Should I Do If A Child Discloses?

Keep Calm. It is important to remain calm. Children may interpret anger at the perpetrator as anger against them.

Believe the Child. In most cases, children do not lie about sexual abuse. Let the child know that you believe her/him. Reassure the child that the abuse was not her/his fault.

Listen to the Child. Let the child tell you what happened in her/his own words. Expect that the story may not be complete and that more details may come out as time goes by.

Seek Medical Attention. The child may be suffering internal injuries that are not noticeable. A medical exam can also provide valuable evidence.

What Shouldn't I Do?

Overwhelm the Child. Do not stand over or invade the child's personal space. This may make the child feel powerless. Do not pressure the child to talk if she or he is not ready.

Make Promises. Don't make any promises that you are not sure you will be able to keep. Don't promise things like: you will never be hurt again or the offender will go to jail. The child has put all her/his trust in you-you don't want to break that trust.

Confront the Offender. Confronting the offender, especially in front of the child, may be harmful or even dangerous. Leave this to the proper authorities.

Why Don't Children Tell?

Just because a child does not disclose or initially denies sexual abuse does not mean it is not happening. Sexual abuse is a secret crime, one that usually has no witnesses. Shame, secrecy, and fear keep a child from disclosing the abuse. Victims of child sexual abuse are often unable to trust, which contributes to secrecy and non-disclosure. Often, children do not tell about sexual abuse because they:

  • Are too young to recognize their victimization or put it into words
  • Were threatened or bribed by the abuser
  • Feel confused by fearing the abuse but liking the attention
  • Are afraid no one will believe them
  • Blame themselves or believe the abuse is punishment for being "bad"
  • Feel guilty for consequences to the perpetrator