Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse is sexual activity between an adult and a child or between two minors if there is a significant age, size or power difference between them. It can include a range of activities such as sexual touching, sexualized talk, exposure to genitals, rape and involvement in pornography or prostitution. It is nearly always perpetrated by individuals acquainted with the child, may occur over short or long periods of time and may be accompanied by varying levels of coercion or physical violence.

Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Toolkit

How Sex Offenders Groom Children

In over 90 percent of child sexual abuse cases, the offender is known and trusted by the victim. Grooming is the process used by the offender to recruit and prepare a child for sexual victimization. It starts when the offender targets a specific child. While all children are at risk for victimization, certain factors make some children more vulnerable to sexual abuse than others. For example, a child is especially susceptible if he or she feels unloved, has low self-esteem, has little contact with committed adults or regularly spends time unsupervised.

Sex offenders commonly engage children by spending time with them, playing games with them, showing them special attention or giving them gifts. Older children or teens may be offered drugs or alcohol. Offenders forge an emotional bond through frequent contact, positive interactions and by conveying to the child or teen that they "understand" or can appreciate their interests and concerns. They become adult friends or confidantes.

In time, the emotional bond leads to non-sexual physical contact which can take the form of physical play such as wrestling, affectionate touching, giving back-rubs etc. In this way the offender tests the child's boundaries and gradually desensitizes the child to overt sexual touch. Usually secrecy is introduced during the grooming process and as the child starts to become uncomfortable or fearful of the sexual activity, offenders typically use threats to keep the child from speaking up (e.g., if you tell, I will hurt you, you will get into trouble, no one will believe you). Most child victims are caught in a web of fear, guilt and confusion as a result of sex offender grooming and manipulation. Sadly, many child victims remain silent about their abuse.

Indicators of Child Sexual Abuse

Indicators of child sexual abuse are varied and should always be considered in the context of what else is happening in a child's life. Any one indicator, on its own, is but one sign that something may be impacting a child's well being.

Behavior Indicators

  • Unexplained change in a child's comfort level (either attachment to or fear of) around a family member, an adult close to the family or any person in a position of trust or authority for the child.
  • Abrupt changes in performance in school or work.
  • Abrupt changes in how the child socializes, either being out with friends or being in the house more often.
  • For younger children, a sudden loss of skills, like a child who is toilet trained starts wetting the bed.
  • Extreme avoidance of someone the child once liked or avoidance of a certain house or room in a house.
  • Sexualized behavior, often in front of others; such as self-exposure, excessive masturbation, touching other people's private parts, sexually charged language. In older children or teens this might be seen as promiscuous behavior.
  • Language and knowledge, especially specific details, which are not appropriate to the child's age or has not been taught or shown in school or the child's household.

Physical Indicators

  • Bruises, scratches, irritation/itching around genitals that are not consistent with explanations of how they happened.
  • Signs of any sexually transmitted diseases or infections such as crabs, herpes, gonorrhea, etc. for those who are not sexually active.
  • Unexplained pregnancy.
  • Tenderness or soreness around areas of penetration.
  • Blood in stool or urine that is pervasive and not explained by other conditions. Underwear is often where proof of abuse may exist.