Child sexual abuse (also called child molestation) is a form of child abuse that includes sexual activity with a minor. A child cannot consent to any form of sexual activity, period. When a perpetrator engages with a child this way, they are committing a crime that can have lasting effects on the victim for years. Child sexual abuse does not need to include physical contact between a perpetrator and a child. Some forms of child sexual abuse include:
Exhibitionism, or exposing oneself to a minor
Masturbation in the presence of a minor or forcing the minor to masturbate
Obscene phone calls, text messages, or digital interaction
Producing, owning, or sharing pornographic images or movies of children
Sex of any kind with a minor, including vaginal, oral, or anal
Any other sexual conduct that is harmful to a child's mental, emotional, or physical welfare
Stranger danger is a MYTH.
Research shows that the greatest risk to children doesn’t come from strangers, but from friends and family. People who abuse children look and act just like everyone else. In fact, they often go out of their way to appear trustworthy, seeking out settings where they can gain easy access to children, such as sports leagues, faith centers, clubs, and schools.
How do you define child sexual abuse?
There are 2 different types of child sexual abuse. These are called contact abuse and non-contact abuse.
Contact abuse involves touching activities where an abuser makes physical contact with a child, including penetration. It includes:
sexual touching of any part of the body whether the child's wearing clothes or not
rape or penetration by putting an object or body part inside a child's mouth, vagina or anus
forcing or encouraging a child to take part in sexual activity
making a child take their clothes off, touch someone else's genitals or masturbate.
Non-contact abuse involves non-touching activities, such as grooming, exploitation, persuading children to perform sexual acts over the internet and flashing. It includes:
encouraging a child to watch or hear sexual acts
not taking proper measures to prevent a child being exposed to sexual activities by others
meeting a child following sexual grooming with the intent of abusing them
online abuse including making, viewing or distributing child abuse images
allowing someone else to make, view or distribute child abuse images
showing pornography to a child
sexually exploiting a child for money, power or status (child exploitation).
What do perpetrators of child sexual abuse look like?
Perpetrators are someone the child or family knows. A perpetrator does not have to be an adult to harm a child. They can have any relationship to the child including an older sibling or playmate, family member, a teacher, a coach or instructor, a caretaker, or the parent of another child. Child sexual abuse is the result of abusive behavior that takes advantage of a child’s vulnerability and is in no way related to the sexual orientation of the abusive person.”
Abusers can manipulate victims to stay quiet about the sexual abuse using different tactics. Often an abuser will use their position of power over the victim to coerce or intimidate the child. They might tell the child that the activity is normal or that they enjoyed it. An abuser may make threats if the child refuses to participate or plans to tell another adult. Child sexual abuse is not only a physical violation; it is a violation of trust and/or authority.
How can I protect my child from sexual abuse?
Recognize the signs
The signs of abuse aren’t always obvious, and learning the warning signs of child sexual abuse could be life-saving. You might notice behavioral or physical changes that could signal a child is being abused. Some of these warning signs include:
Behavioral signs: Shrinking away from or seeming threatened by physical contact, regressive behaviors like thumb sucking, changing hygiene routines such as refusing to bathe or bathing excessively, age-inappropriate sexual behaviors, sleep disturbances, or nightmares
Physical signs: Bruising or swelling near the genital area, blood on sheets or undergarments, or broken bones
Verbal cues: Using words or phrases that are “too adult” for their age, unexplained silence, or suddenly being less talkative
Talk to the child
If you are concerned about abuse, talk to the child. Keep in mind a few guidelines to create a non-threatening environment where the child may be more likely talk.
Pick your time and place carefully. Choose a space where the child is comfortable or ask them where they’d like to talk. Avoid talking in front of someone who may be causing the harm.
Be aware of your tone. If you start the conversation in a serious tone, you may scare the child, and they may be more likely to give you the answers they think you want to hear—rather than the truth. Try to make the conversation more casual. A non-threatening tone will help put the child at ease and ultimately provide you with more accurate information.
Talk to the child directly. Ask questions that use the child’s own vocabulary, but that are a little vague. For example, “Has someone been touching you?” In this context “touching” can mean different things, but it is likely a word the child is familiar with. The child can respond with questions or comments to help you better gauge the situation like, “No one touches me except my mom at bath time,” or “You mean like the way my cousin touches me sometimes?” Understand that sexual abuse can feel good to the child, so asking if someone is “hurting” them may not bring out the information that you are looking for.
Listen and follow up. Allow the child to talk freely. Wait for them to pause, and then follow up on points that made you feel concerned.
Avoid judgment and blame. Avoid placing blame by using “I” questions and statements. Rather than beginning your conversation by saying, “You said something that made me worry…” consider starting your conversation with the word “I.” For example: “I am concerned because I heard you say that you are not allowed to sleep in your bed by yourself.”
Reassure the child. Make sure that the child knows that they are not in trouble. Let them know you are simply asking questions because you are concerned about them.
Be patient. Remember that this conversation may be very frightening for the child. Many perpetrators make threats about what will happen if someone finds out about the abuse. They may tell a child that they will be put into foster care or threaten them or their loved ones with physical violence.
Sexual abuse can happen to children of any race, socioeconomic group, religion or culture. There is no foolproof way to protect children from sexual abuse, but there are steps you can take to reduce this risk. If something happens to your child, remember that the perpetrator is to blame—not you and especially not the child. Below you’ll find some precautions you can take to help protect the children in your life.
Be involved in the child’s life.
Being actively involved in a child’s life can make warning signs of child sexual abuse more obvious and help the child feel more comfortable coming to you if something isn’t right. If you see or hear something that causes concern, you can take action to protect your child.
Show interest in their day-to-day lives. Ask them what they did during the day and who they did it with. Who did they sit with at lunchtime? What games did they play after school? Did they enjoy themselves?
Get to know the people in your child’s life. Know who your child is spending time with, including other children and adults. Ask your child about the kids they go to school with, the parents of their friends, and other people they may encounter, such as teammates or coaches. Talk about these people openly and ask questions so that your child can feel comfortable doing the same.
Choose caregivers carefully. Whether it’s a babysitter, a new school, or an after school activity, be diligent about screening caregivers for your child.
Talk about the media. Incidents of sexual violence are frequently covered by the news and portrayed in television shows. Ask your child questions about this coverage to start a conversation. Questions like, “Have you ever heard of this happening before?” or “What would you do if you were in this situation?” can signal to your child that these are important issues that they can talk about with you.
Know the warning signs. Become familiar with the warning signs of child sexual abuse, and notice any changes with your child, no matter how small. Whether it’s happening to your child or a child you know, you have the potential to make a big difference in that person’s life by getting involved.
Encourage children to speak up.
When someone knows that their voice will be heard and taken seriously, it gives them the courage to speak up when something isn’t right. You can start having these conversations with your children as soon as they begin using words to talk about feelings or emotions. Don’t worry if you haven't started conversations around these topics with your child—it is never too late.
Teach your child about boundaries. Let your child know that no one has the right to touch them or make them feel uncomfortable — this includes hugs from grandparents or even tickling from mom or dad. It is important to let your child know that their body is their own. Just as importantly, remind your child that they do not have the right to touch someone else if that person does not want to be touched.
Teach your child how to talk about their bodies. From an early age, teach your child the names of their body parts. Teaching a child these words gives them the ability to come to you when something is wrong.
Be available. Set time aside to spend with your child where they have your undivided attention. Let your child know that they can come to you if they have questions or if someone is talking to them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. If they do come to you with questions or concerns, follow through on your word and make the time to talk.
Let them know they won’t get in trouble. Many perpetrators use secret-keeping or threats as a way of keeping children quiet about abuse. Remind your child frequently that they will not get in trouble for talking to you, no matter what they need to say. When they do come to you, follow through on this promise and avoid punishing them for speaking up.
Give them the chance to raise new topics. Sometimes asking direct questions like, “Did you have fun?” and “Was it a good time?” won’t give you the answers you need. Give your child a chance to bring up their own concerns or ideas by asking open-ended questions like “Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?”
What are the warning signs?
Child sexual abuse isn’t always easy to spot. The perpetrator could be someone you’ve known a long time or trust, which may make it even harder to notice. Consider the following warning signs:
· Bleeding, bruises, or swelling in genital area
· Bloody, torn, or stained underclothes
· Difficulty walking or sitting
· Frequent urinary or yeast infections
· Pain, itching, or burning in genital area, and more
· Changes in hygiene, such as refusing to bathe or bathing excessively
· Develops phobias
· Exhibits signs of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder
· Expresses suicidal thoughts, especially in adolescents
· Has trouble in school, such as absences or drops in grades
· Inappropriate sexual knowledge or behaviors
· Nightmares or bed-wetting
· Overly protective and concerned for siblings, or assumes a caretaker role
· Returns to regressive behaviors, such as thumb sucking
· Runs away from home or school
· Shrinks away or seems threatened by physical contact, and more
If you need help
Visit ONE PLACE Family Justice Center at 530 S. Lawrence Street, Montgomery, Alabama or call 334.262.7378 or if you are in immediate danger Call 911.