What is Sexual Abuse?

Child sexual abuse involves an offender and a child victim. The offender may be an adult or an older child. The perpetrator has more power than the child and is in a dominant position, forcing the child into sexual activity. Child abuse is seldom a one-time event and often occurs with regularity. Most victims are familiar with their abusers, who are either family members or trusted family friends or community members. Stranger abuse is less common and occurs more frequently with boys.

Accurate statistics on the prevalence of child and adolescent sexual abuse are difficult to collect because of underreporting. However, mental health and child protection professionals agree that child sexual abuse is a common and serious problem in the United States. The impact of sexual abuse varies depends on the abuse characteristics; for example, the identity of perpetrator, severity of abuse (threat and violence), and how often the abuse occurred. Also important are the coping skills and support resources available to the child. If sexual abuse occurred on one occasion, was perpetrated by a non-family member, and the child entered therapy following the abuse, the child may experience only short-term effects . For children abused over long periods of time by a trusted family member, the consequences are life-long.

Sexual abuse is defined as the use of a child to sexually stimulate or satisfy the sexual urges of the abuser. Child sexual abuse may include fondling a child's genitals, masturbation, oral-genital contact, digital penetration, and vaginal and anal intercourse. However, child sexual abuse is not restricted to physical contact and includes noncontact abuse, such as exposure, voyeurism, and child pornography.   

Some examples of sexual abuse are:

  • Asking a child to engage in sexual activity
  • Exposing genitals to a child 
  • Showing a child pornography or sexually explicit material
  • Touching the genitals, buttocks,or breasts of a child or adolescent
  • Having a child fondle the perpetrator's genitals
  • Masturbating in front of a child 
  • Oral-genital contact
  • Vaginal intercourse
  • Anal sex
  • Penetrating the vagina or anus of the child with an object
  • Having a child perform sexual acts with another child or with another adult
  • Use of a child in pornography production
  • Prostituting a child
  • Adults having sex in front of a child 

There are many myths about child sexual abuse. Read about the Eight Common Myths About Child Sexual Abuse .

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