Sexual Abuse: Overview
What is sexual abuse?
Sexual abuse of children is not just an adult having sex with a child. It may involve the adult fondling or touching the child, exposing adult genitals to a child, or rubbing of the adult's genitals on the child. Other forms of abuse may include showing the child pornographic or "dirty" pictures or videotapes, or using the child as a model to make pornographic pictures or videos.
It is never okay for an adult to have sex with a child, even if the child seems to agree or even seems to want it. The adult is always the one in the wrong. Most abusers get the child to trust them rather than forcing the child to have sex. Many abusers do not believe that they are doing anything wrong. They may seem to be people who love children.
Most abusers are people that the child knows, such as relatives, friends, or neighbors. Most child sexual abusers are male but there are females who engage in abuse as well. Do not trust a child to someone just because she is a woman. Both abusers and abused children come from all incomes, from the very rich to the very poor.
Care must be taken if a child, no matter what age, uses the Internet. Child abusers know how to contact children through the Internet, even children they do not know.
What are signs of sexual abuse?
Children may not tell anyone that they are being abused. They may be afraid or unsure that the abuse is wrong. The child may not tell anyone what has happened, because the abuser threatened the child or told them to keep it secret. There may not be any physical signs of abuse.
There are certain ways a child may act that may give clues that abuse has occurred. The child may be unusually interested in sexual things or avoid all sexual things. There may be sleep problems or nightmares, depression, withdrawal from friends or family, seductive behavior, refusal to go to school, secretiveness, unusual aggressiveness, or suicidal behavior. Children may talk about their bodies being dirty or damaged, or they may fear something is wrong in their genital area. These behavior problems are especially seen in boys who have been or are being abused. The child's games, drawings, and fantasies may become sexual.
Can sexual abuse be prevented?
Even small children can be taught how to avoid abuse. Body parts should be given the proper names. Children must know that their bodies belong to them, and that no one has a right to touch or hurt them in any way. This applies to strangers as well as people they know. They must know that it is okay to say "NO" to anything that makes them uncomfortable, even if it is a friend or relative.
Teach children to tell someone such as the parent, a trusted teacher, school nurse, or guidance counselor if someone asks them to keep a secret. Children should be taught to respect adults and caretakers, but they should not be told to do something just because an adult tells them to do it.
It is best not to talk about good touch and bad touch, as the child may think a bad touch is only something that hurts them such as scraping their knee. Sexual contact may not be painful or may even feel good to a child.
What if I think a child might be abused?
If you suspect a child is being abused, carefully and calmly ask the child about it in an understanding way. Tell the child that it is not their fault and that they will be protected from the abuser. If a child tells you that they have been abused, take it seriously.
If child sexual abuse is suspected, contact the local police or child protective services, no matter who the abuser is. If a child you care about has already been abused, get help for the child. The parent of an abused child may also need help. It is very painful to know that your child has been abused.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-02-10
Last reviewed: 2009-12-07
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes
available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical
evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.