Child Sexual Abuse

See Also: S.A.F.E. Information
What is Child Sexual Abuse?
Your browser may not support display of this image. There is no universal definition of child sexual abuse. However, a central characteristic of any abuse is the dominant position of an adult that allows him or her to force or coerce a child into sexual activity. Child sexual abuse may include fondling a child’s genitals, masturbation, oral-genital contact, digital penetration, and vaginal and anal intercourse. Child sexual abuse is not solely restricted to physical contact; such abuse could include noncontact abuse, such as exposure, voyeurism, and child pornography. Abuse by peers also occurs.

Accurate statistics on the prevalence of child and adolescent sexual abuse are difficult to collect because of problems of underreporting and the lack of one definition of what constitutes such abuse. However, there is general agreement among mental health and child protection professionals that child sexual abuse is not uncommon and is a serious problem in the United States.

The impact of sexual abuse can range from no apparent effects to very severe ones. Typically, children who experience the most serious types of abuse—abuse involving family members and high degrees of physical force—exhibit behavior problems ranging from separation anxiety to posttraumatic stress disorder. However, children who are the victims of sexual abuse are also often exposed to a variety of other stressors and difficult circumstances in their lives, including parental substance abuse. The sexual abuse and its aftermath may be only part of the child’s negative experiences and subsequent behaviors. Therefore, correctly diagnosing abuse is often complex. Conclusive physical evidence of sexual abuse is relatively rare in suspected cases. For all of these reasons, when abuse is suspected, an appropriately trained health professional should be consulted.

Who are the Victims of Child Sexual Abuse?

Children and adolescents, regardless of their race, culture, or economic status, appear to be at approximately equal risk for sexual victimization. Statistics show that girls are sexually abused more often than boys are. However, boys’ and, later, men’s, tendency not to report their victimization may affect these statistics. Some men even feel societal pressure to be proud of early sexual activity (no matter how unwanted it may have been at the time). It is telling, however, to note that men who have been abused are more commonly seen in the criminal justice system than in clinical mental health settings.

Who are the Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse?

Studies on who commits child sexual abuse vary in their findings, but the most common finding is that the majority of sexual offenders are family members or are otherwise known to the child. Sexual abuse by strangers is not nearly as common as sexual abuse by family members. Research further shows that men perpetrate most instances of sexual abuse, but there are cases in which women are the offenders. Despite a common myth, homosexual men are not more likely to sexually abuse children than heterosexual men are.

Can Children Recover from Sexual Abuse?
Your browser may not support display of this image. In an attempt to better understand the ill effects of child abuse, psychologists and other researchers have studied what factors may lessen the impact of the abuse. More research needs to be done, but, to date, factors that seem to affect the amount of harm done to the victim include the age of the child; the duration, frequency, and intrusiveness of the abuse; the degree of force used; and the relationship of the abuser to the child.

Children’s interpretation of the abuse, whether or not they disclose the experience, and how quickly they report it also affects the short- and long-term consequences. Children who are able to confide in a trusted adult and who are believed experience less trauma than children who do not disclose the abuse. Furthermore, children who disclose the abuse soon after its occurrence may be less traumatized than those children who live with the secret for years.

Some researchers have begun to look at the question of whether someone can recover from sexual abuse, and, if so, what factors help in that recovery. Children and adults who were sexually abused as children have indicated that family support, extra-familial support, high self-esteem, and spirituality were helpful in their recovery from the abuse.

It is important for victims of abuse to relinquish any guilt they may feel about the abuse. Victims also report that attending workshops and conferences on child sexual abuse, reading about child sexual abuse, and undergoing psychotherapy have helped them feel better and return to a more normal life. Research has also shown that often the passage of time is a key element in recovery.

Counseling and other support services are also important for the caregivers of abused children. One of the strongest predictors of the child’s recovery from the abuse experience is a high level of maternal and family functioning. (This, of course, assumes that the abuser was not a member of the immediate family or, if so, is not still living within the family.)