THE 30 MOST FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

30 Most Frequently

Asked Questions

on child sexual abuse

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  • 1.  What is child sexual abuse?

    ​Sexual abuse is any interaction between a child and an adult or older child in which the child is used for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or an observer. Sexual abuse often involves direct physical contact, touching, kissing, fondling, rubbing, oral sex, or penetration of the vagina or anus.

  • 2.  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 neighbourhoods and communities, and in countries around the world.

  • 3.  Who sexually abuses children?

    ​Children are most often sexually abused by someone they know and trust. More than half of all children who are sexually abused are abused by a parent or other relative.  In addition to family members, many abusers can be friends, neighbours or babysitters - many hold responsible positions in society. Some people who abuse children have adult sexual relationships and are not solely, or even mainly, sexually interested in children. Abusers come from all classes, ethnic and religious backgrounds and may be homosexual or heterosexual. Most abusers are men, but some are women. You cannot pick out an abuser in a crowd.

  • 4.  What can you do if a child discloses they are being sexually abused?

    ​If a child discloses abuse, it is critical to stay calm, listen carefully, and NEVER blame the child. Thank the child for telling you and reassure him or her of your support.  It is an opportunity for an adult to provide immediate support and comfort and to assist in protecting the child from the abuse. It is also a chance to help the child connect to professional services that can keep them safe, provide support and facilitate their recovery from trauma. Disclosure is about seeking support and your response can have a great impact on the child or young person's ability to seek further help and recover from the trauma.

  • 5.  What are some challenges you face when you stand up to a family member or relative that has committed sexual abuse  against your child?

    ​If you are a parent whose child has been abused by a spouse, sibling or relative, it can take a great deal of courage to stand up for your child. Some of the challenges you may face include:

     

    • Dealing with family members who don’t believe the abuse occurred or who continue to maintain their relationship with the abuser.

    • The possibility of economic hardship if you are financially dependent on the abuser.

    • Possible loss of friends and acquaintances when they learn your partner is a child abuser.

    • Fear of it destroying the family

    • Making sense of conflicting advice from friends, family, or religious leaders—who may think you should forgive the perpetrator—and child protection and legal authorities who expect you to end your involvement with the perpetrator.

     

    For many parents, the greatest challenge is dealing with their own reactions to the child’s disclosure. If your child tells you that he or she has been sexually abused, your response can play a powerful role in his or her process of healing from the abuse.

  • 6.  What are the effects of interfamilial sexual abuse on the family?

    When children are abused by adults who are supposed to protect them from harm, their ability to trust and rely on adults may be shattered… Sexual abuse of a child by a trusted adult also puts tremendous strain on relationships within the family.  Some family members may find it hard to believe the abuser could do such a thing, and take sides over who is telling the truth. Family members may also struggle with how to manage their divided loyalties toward the abuser and the victim. Even in families that accept that the abuse occurred, reactions to the abuser may run the gamut from “lock him up and throw away the key” to “hate the sin but love the sinner.” Tensions may arise when different family members have different opinions about loyalty, fairness, justice, forgiveness, and responsibility.

    To read more on interfamilial sexual abuse and the consequence / effects it can have on the family, click here.

  • 7.  What are some ways of coping with your own reaction to your child being sexually abused?

    ​If you are struggling with feelings of anger or betrayal towards your abused child or teen, ask yourself the following three questions: 

    • What would it take for me to believe my child? 

    • What would it take for me to not be angry at my child?

    • What would it take for me to not feel betrayed by my child? 

     

    The answer is often revealing. For many parents:

     

    • Believing your child means facing the fact that a person you have trusted and loved has betrayed, lied to, and used you and your child.

    • Letting go of anger means redirecting your anger away from your child and towards the person who perpetrated the abuse.

    • Letting go of feeling betrayed means recognising the real source of the betrayal — the perpetrator.

     

    To move forward, you will need to accept that much of what you believed about this person was not true. By letting go of old beliefs, you can help your child—who has also been betrayed — to heal more fully.

  • 8.  What should a parent do if sexual abuse is suspected?

    ​Although this is not easy for a concerned parent, it’s important to remain as calm and supportive as possible. It is critical that your child feels believed and supported once they have made a disclosure of abuse. Having a caregivers support will promote your child’s emotional stability. A parent shouldn’t grill a child for every detail, or ask numerous questions. Reassure the child that he/she is not to blame and ask a few gentle open-ended questions or prompts (e.g., “Tell me more about that.” “Who did that?” “Where were you when that happened?”).

     

    All child abuse must be immediately reported to officials whether it be Law Enforcement or Department of Family and Children Services. It is important that your child is allowed to communicate about their abuse. However, it is imperative that you not interrogate your child. Reassure your child it is not their fault and validate their feelings.  

     

    Parents may contact a mental health professional with expertise in child trauma, or, alternatively, a paediatrician may help parents determine if their suspicions are reasonable. Also, every state has a child protection agency that will take a report and launch an investigation if warranted. Many states have laws that require persons who have reasons to suspect child abuse to report their suspicions to Child Protective Services.

  • 9.  Who are the most common perpetrators?

    ​The majority are male, although a small percentage is female. Sexual offenders are not “dirty old men” or strangers lurking in alleys. More often, they are known and trusted by the children they victimise.

     

    They may be members of the family, such as parents, siblings, cousins, or non-relatives, including family friends, neighbours, babysitters, or older peers. There’s no clear-cut profile of a sex offender.  Some offenders were sexually abused as children, but others have no such history. Some are unable to function sexually with adult partners and so prey on children, while others also have sexual relations with adults.

     

    Child sexual abuse is so hard for most people to comprehend that we want to believe it only happens when an offender is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, but that’s not usually the case.  Very frequently, abusers are repeat offenders and a significant percent are adolescents.

  • 10. Is there any way to prevent abuse?

    ​There are many actions that we can take as a society to reduce the prevalence of child sexual abuse, although it is probably not possible for any parent or caring adult to guarantee a child’s protection.

     

    Child sexual abuse is a problem that breeds in secrecy, so simply speaking openly and publicly about it will enhance efforts at prevention.  It is critically important to educate our children. They need to know that their bodies are autonomous, it belongs to them and that they don’t have to go along with everything an adult tells them to do. It is important to teach children the proper names for their genitals.

     

    We must encourage them to feel comfortable talking to their parents about their bodies without embarrassment, and teach them what kind of touching is okay between a child and an adult, and what is not. Parents should explain to children that offenders may try to trick them into keeping the “not okay” touching a secret. It is important that we help them to understand the difference between secrets and surprises. We can remind children not to keep secrets and that no matter what an offender might say, it’s okay for the child to tell.

     

    Finally, when children are brave enough to disclose sexual abuse, it is important that we respond by doing everything we can to protect them, enforce the laws against the perpetrators, and offer effective medical and mental health care. We can help children to recover from such experiences and protect other children in the process.

  • 11. What is the biggest myth around child sexual abuses?

    ​Very often the TV, radio and newspaper cover stories about children who are abused, abducted and even murdered, usually by strangers but it is important to know that these are not typical crimes. Sexual abusers are more likely to be people we know, and could well be people we care about; after all more than 8 out of 10 children who are sexually abused know their abuser. They are family members or friends, neighbours or babysitters – many hold responsible positions in society. Some will seek out employment which brings them into contact with children, some will hold positions of trust which can help to convince other adults that they are beyond reproach, making it hard for adults to raise their concerns.

  • 12. How do pedophiles commit child sexual abuse?

    By getting close to children:


    People who want to abuse children often build a relationship with the child and the caring adults who want to protect them. Many are good at making 'friends' with children and those who are close to them. Some may befriend parents who are facing difficulties, sometimes on their own. They may offer to baby-sit or offer support with childcare and other responsibilities. Some seek trusted positions in the community which put them in contact with children, such as childcare, schools, children's groups and sports teams. Some find places such as arcades, playgrounds, parks, swimming baths and around schools where they can get to know children.

     

    By silencing children:


    People who sexually abuse children may offer them gifts or treats, and sometimes combine these with threats about what will happen if the child says 'no' or tells someone. They may make the child afraid of being hurt physically, but more usually the threat is about what may happen if they tell, for example, the family breaking up or father going to prison. In order to keep the abuse secret the abuser will often play on the child's fear, embarrassment or guilt about what is happening, perhaps convincing them that no one will believe them. Sometimes the abuser will make the child believe that he or she enjoyed it and wanted it to happen. There may be other reasons why a child stays silent and doesn't tell. Very young or disabled children may lack the words or means of communication to let people know what is going on.

  • 13. Why don't children tell on their abuser?

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

     

    • Fear of not being believed

    • Threats of bodily harm (to the child and/or the child’s family)

    • Fear of being removed from the home

    • Fear of it destroying the family

    • Shame or guilt

    • Self blame

     

    Knowing that the abuser is liked—or even loved—by other family members makes it all the more difficult for children to tell others about the abuse.  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.

  • 14. What is the long term impact of sexual abuse?

    ​Research has repeatedly shown that child sexual abuse can have a very serious impact on physical and mental health, as well as later sexual adjustment.  Depending on the severity of and number of traumas experienced, child sexual abuse can have wide reaching and long-lasting effects on an individual’s physical and mental health. Sexual abuse also tends to occur in the presence of other forms of child maltreatment and life adversity. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study documents that the more traumatic experiences one has, the more likely one is to have problems with substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and some chronic physical conditions.

  • 15. What stops us from seeing abuse?

    ​Many people have experienced someone close to them abusing a child. When something is so difficult to think about, it is only human to find ways of denying it to ourselves. One of the common thoughts that parents in this situation have is: "My child would have told me if they were being abused and they haven't - so it can't be happening."

     

    Other statements people have said to themselves to deny what is happening include:
     

    • “He was the perfect father; he was involved with the children, he played with them and when our daughter was ill, he looked after her so well.”

    • “I thought they were just fooling around. He couldn't be abusing anyone at 14.”

    • “My brother would never do that to a child. He has a wife and children.”

    • “My friend has had a longstanding relationship with a woman. So how can he be interested in boys?”

    • “She was their mother: how could she be abusing them?”

    • “He told me about his past right from the start. He wouldn't have done that if he hadn't changed and I'd know if he'd done it again.”

    • “He told me about his past right from the start. He wouldn't have done that if he hadn't changed and I'd know if he'd done it again.”

  • 16. What are the warning signs in children or adolescents of possible child sexual abuse?

    ​Children often show us rather than tell us that something is upsetting them. There may be many reasons for changes in their behaviour but if we notice a combination of worrying signs, it may be time to call for help or advice.

     

    What to watch out for in children:

    • Acting out in an inappropriate sexual way with toys or objects.

    • An increase in nightmares and/or other sleeping difficulties.

    • Becoming withdrawn or very clingy.

    • Personality changes, seeming insecure.

    • Regressing to younger behaviours, e.g. bedwetting.

    • Unaccountable fear of particular places or people.

    • Outburst of anger.

    • Signs of depression and / or anxiety

    • Changes in eating habits.

    • Physical signs such as unexplained soreness; bruises around genitals; sexually-transmitted diseases.

    • Becoming secretive.

     

    Although many children who have experienced sexual abuse show behavioural 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.

  • 17. What are the signs that an adult may be using their relationship with a child for sexual reasons?

    ​Signs that an adult is using their relationship with a child for sexual reasons may not be obvious. We may feel uncomfortable about the way they play with the child, or seem always to be favouring them and creating reasons for them to be alone. There may be cause for concern about the behaviour of an adult or young person if they:

     

    • Refuse to allow a child sufficient privacy or to make their own decisions on personal matters.

    • Insist on physical affection such as kissing, hugging or wrestling even when the child clearly does not want it.

    • Are overly interested in the sexual development of a child or teenager.

    • Insist on time alone with a child with no interruptions.

    • Spend most of their spare time with children and have little interest spending time with people their own age.

    • Regularly offer to baby-sit children for free or take children on overnight outings alone.

    • Buy children expensive gifts or give them money for no apparent reason.

    • Frequently walk in on children/teenagers in the bathroom.

    • Treat a particular child as a favourite, making them feel 'special' compared with others in the family.

    • Pick on a particular child.

  • 18. How are children groomed?

    ​Grooming is a word used to describe how people who want to sexually harm children and young people get close to them, and often their families, and gain their trust. They do this in all kinds of places – in the home or local neighbourhood, the child’s school, youth and sports club, the local church and the workplace.

     

    Grooming may also occur online by people forming relationships with children and pretending to be their friend. They do this by finding out information about their potential victim and trying to establish the likelihood of the child telling. They try to find out as much as they can about the child’s family and social networks and, if they think it is ‘safe enough’, will then try to isolate their victim and may use flattery and promises of gifts, or threats and intimidation in order to achieve some control.


    It is easy for ‘groomers’ to find child victims online. They generally use chat rooms which are focussed around young people’s interests. They often pretend to be younger and may even change their gender. Many give a false physical description of themselves which may bear no resemblance to their real appearance – some send pictures of other people, pretending that it is them. Groomers may also seek out potential victims by looking through personal websites such as social networking sites.

     

    For more information on sexual offender tactics and grooming, read this great article!

  • 19. How are adults groomed?

    ​Child sex offenders will often seek out adults and groom them in order to get access to their children. By “bonding” with adults in this way, the sex offender can create a relationship either built on trust or dependency and gain access to the children through it.

  • 20. Do children sexually abuse other children?

    We are becoming increasingly aware of the risk of sexual abuse that some adults present to our children and there is growing understanding that this risk lies mostly within families and communities. But very few people realise that other children can sometimes present a risk.

     

    A third of those who have sexually abused a child are themselves under the age of 18.  Many children are abused by other children or young people, often older than themselves. Unless the problem is recognised and help provided, a young person who abuses other children may continue abusing as an adult.

     

    This is an especially difficult issue to deal with, partly because it is hard for us to think of children doing such things, but also because it is not always easy to tell the difference between normal sexual exploration and abusive behaviour. Children, particularly in the younger age groups, may engage in such behaviour with no knowledge that it is wrong or abusive. For this reason, it may be more accurate to talk about sexually harmful behaviour rather than abuse.

  • 21. When is sexual activity between two children considered abuse?

    Activity in which there is a clear power difference between them and one child is coercing the other—usually to engage in adult-like sexual behaviour—generally would be viewed as abuse. This is very different from behaviour in children of about the same age that reflects normal sexual curiosity and mutual exploration (such as playing doctor).

  • 22. Why do some children sexually abuse other children?

    ​The reasons why children sexually harm others are complicated and not always obvious. Some of them have been emotionally, sexually or physically abused themselves, while others may have witnessed physical or emotional violence at home. For some children it may be a passing phase, but the harm they cause to other children can be serious and some will go on to abuse children into adulthood if they do not receive help. For this reason it is vital to seek advice and help as soon as possible.

  • 23. Is it considered sexual abuse if the abuser is female?

    Popular culture mythologises the young boy being introduced to sex by an experienced older woman.  But if that boy is under 16 it’s still a crime and in younger children the effects are the same as if the perpetrator is male.  In some cases, for example where the abuser is the mother of the child, it creates even bigger obstacles to coming forward as young children have a strong instinct to protect their mothers.  There may also be a greater fear that they will not be believed as society finds it difficult to accept that women (especially mothers) do commit sexual assaults against children.

  • 24. Will being sexually violated make me an abuser?

    The vast majority of men who have experience childhood or adult sexual violation do NOT go on to sexually offend against children or other adult men.  Statistical analysis is unreliable and current thinking is that the figure is around 10%.

  • 25. What is the psychological impact of child sexual abuse?

    In the short term, it’s not unusual for a child to develop some post-traumatic stress reactions that will respond to treatment. Others—particularly those who have suffered multiple traumas and received little parental support—may develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. Their ability to trust adults to take care of them may also be jeopardized. Sadly, when children do not disclose sexual abuse and/or do not receive effective counseling, they can suffer difficulties long into the future. As one child expressed it, “Abuse is like a boomerang. If you don’t deal with it, it can come back to hurt you.” On the other hand, children who have the support of an understanding caregiver and effective treatment can recover without long-term effects.

  • 26. What are the signs of post-traumatic stress reactions?

    ​Three types of symptoms occur with post-traumatic stress reactions:

    Hyper-arousal means that the child is nervous and jumpy, has a heightened startle response, and may react more strongly to any anxiety-producing situation.

     

    Re-experiencing means that the child may keep seeing mental images linked to the abuse, or relive some aspects of the experience, either while awake or during sleep in the form of nightmares. A child may have other sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or frequent awakenings. Younger children are more likely to have generalized fears or nightmares about other scary things, such as monsters chasing them. With an older child, the nightmares are more likely to be directly related to the trauma.

     

    Re-experiencing also includes reactions to traumatic reminders: any thing, person, event, sight, smell, etc., connected to the abuse. For example, if the perpetrator had a beard, the child might start to feel frightened and uncomfortable, usually without knowing why, around any man with a beard. Even being touched by another person may become a traumatic reminder.

     

    Avoidance means that a child avoids exposure to traumatic reminders, and sometimes avoids thinking about the abuse altogether. So, for example, if the abuse occurred in the basement, the child may avoid going into any basement. Reactions to—and avoidance of, traumatic reminders—can become generalized. A child may begin with fear of one particular basement that generalizes to reactions to and avoidance of all basements, and from that to any room that in any way resembles a basement. Avoidance can seriously restrict a child’s activities–an important reason to seek help early.

     

    In a very young child you might see traumatic play in which the child re-enacts some aspect of the experience. For example, a child may act out running away from a “bad man” over and over again.

    The play may or may not be specific to the sexual abuse. You might see other signs of stress, an increase in oppositional or withdrawn behaviour, tantrums, or nightmares. The child might engage in age inappropriate sexual behaviour such as trying to engage another child in oral-genital contact or simulated intercourse. The child might talk about her body as being “hurt” or “dirty.” Of course, children may have these problems for other reasons, so you cannot assume they mean the child has been abused.

  • 27. Is the impact of abuse different in adolescents?

    The basic symptoms of post-traumatic stress are similar, but as children grow up and develop more autonomy, the difficulties they can get into may be more serious. Teenagers have more access to substances, so to cope with hyper-arousal and re-experiencing, they might be more likely to abuse substances. High-risk behaviours might also include indiscriminant sexual behaviour. A teenager avoiding traumatic reminders may withdraw socially.

    Self-cutting and suicidal behaviours are also more common among adolescents. However, with parental support and effective treatment, adolescents can avoid or overcome these problems.

  • 28. What is the long term impact of sexual abuse?

    Research has repeatedly shown that child sexual abuse can have a very serious impact on physical and mental health, as well as later sexual adjustment.  Depending on the severity of and number of traumas experienced, child sexual abuse can have wide reaching and long-lasting effects on an individual’s physical and mental health. Sexual abuse also tends to occur in the presence of other forms of child maltreatment and life adversity. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study documents that the more traumatic experiences one has, the more likely one is to have problems with substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and some chronic physical conditions.

  • 29. Does childhood sexual abuse lead to homosexuality?

    There are different theories about how sexual orientation develops, but experts in human sexuality do not believe that sexual abuse or premature sexual experiences play a significant role. There is no good evidence that someone can “make” another person be homosexual (or heterosexual). Sexual orientation is a complex issue and there is no single answer or theory that explains why someone identifies himself as homosexual, heterosexual or bi-sexual.

    It is common, however, for boys and men who have been abused to express confusion about their sexual identity and orientation. Some guys fear that, due to their experiences as boys, they must “really” be homosexual or that they can’t be a “real man.” Even men who are clearly heterosexual, and men who others see as very masculine, may fear that others will “find them out” as gay or not real men. (See How It Can Be Different for Men.)

    Also, many boys abused by males believe that something about them sexually attracted their abuser and will attract other males. While these are understandable fears, they are not true. One of the great tragedies of childhood sexual abuse is how it robs a person’s natural right to discover his own sexuality in his own time.

  • 30. How do we hold pedophiles accountable? 

    Holding abusers accountable is important because it sends a message to others that abuse of any kind will not be tolerated in our community.  Unfortunately, there are still many barriers to justice in the criminal justice system, and when professionals do not understand the dynamics of domestic violence, it can make it difficult to adequately identify and prosecute abusers.  In addition, many women cannot rely on the criminal justice system due to institutional barriers, including discrimination or homophobia. Therefore, it is important for us to hold abusers accountable on an individual level as well.  Do not blame the survivor. Teach your children that violence is never the answer to a problem, and that controlling another person is wrong.

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