What is child sexual abuse?

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Child Sexual Abuse Fact Sheet (Child Sexual Abuse Committee of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

What is child sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse is any interaction between a child and an adult (or another child) in which the child is used for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or an observer. Sexual abuse can include both touching and non-touching behaviors. Touching behaviors may involve touching of the vagina, penis, breasts or buttocks, oral-genital contact, or sexual intercourse. Non-touching behaviors can include voyeurism (trying to look at a child’s naked body), exhibitionism, or exposing the child to pornography.

Abusers often do not use physical force, but may use play, deception, threats, or other forms of coercion to engage children and maintain their silence. Abusers frequently employ persuasive

and manipulative tactics to keep the child engaged. These tactics—referred to as “grooming”—may include buying gifts or arranging special activities, which can further confuse the victim.

Who is sexually abused?

Children of all ages, races, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds are vulnerable to sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse affects both girls and boys in all kinds of neighborhoods and communities, and in countries around the world.

How can you tell if a child is being (or has been) sexually abused?

Children who have been sexually abused may display a range of emotional and behavioral reactions, many of which are characteristic of children who have experienced other types of trauma. These reactions include: An increase in nightmares and/or other sleeping difficulties

■ Withdrawn behavior

■ Angry outbursts

■ Anxiety

■ Depression

■ Not wanting to be left alone with a particular individual(s)

■ Sexual knowledge, language, and/or behaviors that are inappropriate for the child’s age

Although many children who have experienced sexual abuse show behavioral and emotional

changes, many others do not. It is therefore critical to focus not only on detection, but on prevention and communication—by teaching children about body safety and healthy body boundaries, and by encouraging open communication about sexual matters.

Why don’t children tell about sexual abuse?

There are many reasons children do not disclose being sexually abused, including:

■ Threats of bodily harm (to the child and/or the child’s family) Fear of being removed from the home

■ Fear of not being believed

■ Shame or guilt

■ If the abuser is someone the child or the family cares about, the child may worry about getting that person in trouble. In addition, children often believe that the sexual abuse was their own fault and may not disclose for fear of getting in trouble themselves. Very young children may not have the language skills to communicate about the abuse or may not understand that the actions of the perpetrator are abusive, particularly if the sexual abuse is made into a game.


Reference: call the Childhelp®National Child Abuse Hotline at 1.800.4.A.CHILD (1.800.422.4453) or visit the federally funded Child Welfare Information Gateway at:

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