child sexual abuse

1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthdays, and the median age for reported child sexual abuse is 9. If you thought child sexual abuse was something rare in our society, we hope these numbers prompt you to think again. The American Medical Association defines child sexual abuse as “the engagement of a child in sexual activities for which the child is developmentally unprepared and cannot give informed consent.” Child sexual abuse is applied by deception, force and intimidation, and may consist of fondling, genital exposure, intimate kissing, forced masturbation, oral, penile or digital penetration of the mouth, vagina or anus. Child prostitution and pornography are also included in the definition of child sexual abuse.

We often impress upon our children the danger of talking to strangers, but the statistics prove that very rarely will a child be abused by a stranger. Children who are sexually abused are most often exploited by someone they know and trust. In fact, 90% of of abused children KNOW their abuser, and 40% of abused children are abused by a FAMILY member. A relative, childcare provider, friend of the family, a neighbor, teacher, coach, babysitter, or a clergy member are all potential abusers. Though it isn’t healthy to be suspicious and expect the worst of people, it is important to be conscious that sexual abuse can happen anywhere, and anyone can be a perpetrator. Perpetrators are typically normal people you personally know and trust. Anyone that has access to children can be a perpetrator.

The emotional damage caused by child sexual abuse is powerful and far reaching. Children almost always believe that the abuse is their fault, they feel extreme shame and guilt, and worry that no one will believe them or that they will be in trouble if they tell.

Signs of child sexual abuse may include:

  • Behavioral signs: A child might display knowledge of sexual acts that are inappropriate for their age. A child might appear to avoid certain people, or display either very aggressive or very passive behavior. Older children may engage in damaging behaviors such as alcohol and drug abuse, self-mutilation, or attempting suicide.
  • Physical signs: A sexually abused child may have trouble walking, sitting or standing normally and may have stained, bloody or torn underclothes. Any rash, swelling, bruising or bleeding in the genital area, or urinary tract infections are red flags. A very strong cause for concern would be an STD or pregnancy, especially in a child under the age of 14. Remember that physical signs are rare,
  • Caregiver signs: Caregivers who seem unusually controlling and over-protective of a child, who limits contact with other children and adults, is cause for concern. As with other types of abuse, a neglectful caregiver may not show outward signs of concern.

Things you can do as an adult to prevent child sexual abuse

Talk about it!

  • Teach your children about their bodies and they they get to decide how others touch them. Abusers take advantage of children’s innocence about their bodies and sexual behaviors.
  • Many Abusers will tell children that the abuse is a game or that it is normal; that it happens to every child, or that this is a special reward because they are loved more than other children. This is one of the big reasons why children don’t disclose abuse. Other times, the abuser has threatened them or another family member if they tell. Often, the abuser will try to make the child feel ashamed, that it was their fault that this happened or that their parents will be very upset if they told.
  • If a child discloses sexual abuse, BELIEVE THEM. False reports are very rare. Remain calm. Your reaction means a lot of this child.
  • Teach your children when they are young that they should never have to keep a secret from you, especially if someone is hurting them.

Minimize Opportunity

  • Reduce one-adult/one-child situations. Do not foster an environment of privacy that could potentially allow sexual abuse to happen. Choose groups settings as much as possible. Set an example by not being alone with a child that isn’t your own.
  • One-on-one time with a trusted adult can help build healthy relationships in children, so when you know that your child will be alone with an adult, drop in unexpectedly, even on trusted family members. Always ask the adult about the specifics of planned activities before your child leaves with them. Make sure outings can be observed by someone. Most importantly, talk with your child when they return. Can they tell you specifics about how they spent their time?
  • Insist that all organizations that you and your child are involved in have policies in place to prevent child sexual abuse. Do your homework. Does your school, church, sports leagues, or other organizations require background checks, personal interviews, and recommendations for all their staff? Have the members or employees been trained in how to prevent or recognize child sexual abuse?

Be conscious

  • Learn and be aware of some of the signs of child abuse in children.
  • Be aware that some children will not exhibit any signs of abuse at all.

Trust Your Gut

  • Trust yourself enough to respond to your suspicions. Remember, you might be saving the life of a child.
  • Report any suspicions to law enforcement or Child Protective Services. Unless you are a mandated reporter (someone whose profession puts them in contact with children-doctors, teachers, school administrators, etc) you are able to make this report anonymously.
  • If a child discloses abuse to you, make sure the let them know that it is NOT their fault, that you BELIEVE them, and that they are BRAVE for telling someone. However, make sure NOT to ask specific or leading questions about the abuse. It is important to seek professional help right away.