What is child sexual abuse?

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Child Sexual Abuse Definition

Child sexual abuse, sometimes called child sex abuse or CSA, is defined by the ACE study as “an adult or person at least five years older than you touching or fondling you or having you touch their body in a sexual way, or trying to or actually having oral, anal, or vaginal sex with you.” There is no perfect definition of child sexual abuse, but this is pretty close. 

Child sexual abuse is among the most common ACEs, and it is the only one frequently perpetuated by someone outside the child’s family. Child sexual abuse is almost always committed by someone the child has a relationship with, and because of that, children can experience very complex and confusing traumas; they may become intensely afraid of the perpetrator, or they may care about the perpetrator very deeply and see the abuse as something worth enduring to maintain that relationship. The abusive acts themselves may be painful or may not be, which can cause massive confusion and shame in the child. Sexually abused children may become deeply fearful of anything that reminds them of sexual contact, or they may become sexually precocious, possibly to the point they are sexually offending against other children (some estimate that minors commit 40% of sexual abuse). And this broad spectrum of painful behaviors and consequences is further masked by a deep stigma and ignorance, often willful. 

Physical evidence of child sexual abuse is rare, and because of the complexity of the trauma and relationship with the abuser, victims seldom disclose the abuse until adulthood. 

What causes someone to abuse a child sexually? There is no one simple answer, and there is also some disagreement among experts. We do know that one significant contributing factor is sexual attraction to children. The word “pedophile” is a medical term that refers to a consistent, significant sexual attraction to prepubescent children. The term is often misused to refer to someone who has sexually abused children. The percentage of pedophiles who will go on to sexually abuse children is unknown. Besides the arousal at the sight of children, other factors contributing to someone’s willingness to harm them sexually are an attraction to the power imbalance inherent to a relationship with a child and the innocence and adoration children bring into relationships. With minors who sexually offend, there is a robust connection to their sexual abuse; with adults, this link is more disputed. 

All children are at some risk of being sexually abused, regardless of what zip code or tax bracket they live in, but some factors appear to make children at higher risk. Children who are disabled, particularly in ways that impair their communication ability, appear to be at higher risk of sexual abuse, as do children living in rural and inner-city areas. The causes of these correlations are unclear; disabled children are likely more appealing victims and likely to have more trusted adults around them in the form of aides, therapists, etc. The correlations between children in urban and rural areas could be related to limited options for child care, a more significant cultural tendency to rely on extended family and peers rather than vetted institutions to watch children, it could be related to parental trauma that limits the parents’ ability to move from economically depressed areas, or it could be something else entirely. 

With as many gaps in our knowledge of child sexual abuse as there are, it seems logical that there are also gaps in our knowledge of how to prevent it. Child sexual abuse is illegal, but prosecution is tricky. Children don’t always present in court the way a judge or jury expects them to, and there is rarely medical evidence. Since most victims don’t disclose while they are still children, statutes of limitation on the crime can be a significant barrier to prosecution. These two factors combined help to create the startling statistic that 85% of the people who sexually abuse children will never see a day behind bars. Educating adults about child sexual abuse increases their knowledge and the odds that they will talk about it with people in their community. Maternal home visitation programs decrease the rates of child sexual abuse, as documented by CPS. Still, since that is a tiny percentage of child sexual abuse, we don’t know how well the programs work at preventing sexual abuse. It appears that offenders convicted, incarcerated, and going through specific, intensive, long-term therapy and intensive post-release monitoring are unlikely to re-offend. Still, none of the evidence considers how long it typically takes survivors to disclose their abuse. Similar programs exist for minors who have sexually offended but who aren’t arrested. There are some resources to connect people who are aware of and unhappy about their sexual attraction to children with the specific types of therapy that will teach them to manage that attraction. Still, there is no research as to how well that works. 

Despite all our knowledge gaps, there are still a few things experts agree on that will help parents protect their kids. 

  • Avoid one-child, one-adult situations behind closed doors as much as possible. Most parents will find it impossible to avoid them altogether, but at the very least, they should insist that schools, daycares, youth sports, etc., all have policies forbidding these situations.
  • Forbid secrets. Sex offenders often “test” prospective victims on their ability to keep secrets by asking them to keep inconsequential ones, then escalate to more consequential ones. Don’t get in the habit of asking your children to keep secrets, and tell them to tell you if someone asks them to.
  • Know the warning signs. Demographically, those who want to abuse children sexually look like the rest of us. It’s their behavior that sets them apart. If someone is more interested in spending time with kids than adults, if someone refers to a child as their “special friend,” if someone is showering a child with gifts, money, or outings, this can be a red flag. If there is someone in your neighborhood who always comes out of the woodwork to babysit at a moment’s notice, don’t let them babysit. And if someone seems more fond of your child than you are, you need to be concerned.
  • Teach anatomy. Teach children the correct names for their genitals. Teaching them that sexuality is something that they can talk about with you. Some sex offenders say they prefer abusing children without the knowledge of sexuality. Suppose a child knows the correct names for sexual body parts and acts. In that case, they will also be able to describe sexually inappropriate acts they witnessed or any abuse committed against them.

Two varieties of child sexual abuse warrant a brief explanation: child pornography and child sex trafficking. Child pornography is images of a child being sexually abused. It is usually produced by the person sexually abusing the child as a sort of “memento” of their exploits, and there are many sites where uploading original images of child pornography allows them to download other images. These images can also be sold. Child sex trafficking refers to someone providing sexual access to a child for money. In the United States, most trafficked children are teenagers who often were in foster care or have run away from home or been kicked out. Trafficking will have the same emotional dynamic as child sexual abuse; the victim forms a very strong relationship with them and often provides the victim with shelter and gifts. Teenagers are also trafficked by their families and guardians. The most significant risk factor for a child being sexually trafficked is an ACE score of 6 or more, with sexual abuse being one of the ACEs. A very small percentage of sexually trafficked children are prepubescent; an annual FBI raid documented a two-year-old. These children are almost always trafficked

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