Written by: Rebekkah Witten, LCSW, TF-CBT Certified
If there’s one thing people don’t want to talk about, it’s child sexual abuse. This issue is so deeply uncomfortable that most people would prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, ignoring it does not make it stop and does not help the people affected by it. In this three-part blog series, we will be discussing this sensitive topic, starting with what it is and how to identify warning signs in a child.
The sad fact of the matter is, child sexual abuse happens a lot more than we would like to acknowledge. The most recent statistics show that:
- 1 in 10 children are sexually abused before their 18th birthday, and 90% of victims know their abuser.
- Children are more likely to be sexually assaulted than adults: each year, about 70% of reported sexual assaults occurred to children age 17 and under.
- Only 1 in 3 of these crimes are reported to the authorities (and only about half of those are investigated).
- Only about 4-8% of child sexual abuse reports are made up.
So what can we do about this problem?
First, we need to know what it is so we know what to watch for. According to the law, a child cannot consent to sexual activity, so the most simple definition of child sexual abuse is: sexual contact with a minor. This might be an adult towards a child or an older child or teenager towards a younger child, and can include touching or non-touching activities, such as:
- Touching a child’s private parts, or making a child touch someone else’s private parts for sexual pleasure
- Making a child insert objects or body parts into their body
- Showing pornography to a child or allowing them to witness (see or hear) adult sex acts
- Photographing a child in sexual poses
- Masturbating in front of a child, or forcing a child to masturbate
- Exposing adult genitals to a child
- Inappropriately watching a child undress, bathe, or use the bathroom (dependent upon age)
Children who have been victims of child sexual abuse may or may not report their abuse. As a parent or caregiver, do you know the warning signs that a child might be experiencing abuse?
While one or two of these warning signs are certainly not proof that abuse is occurring, any significant change in a child’s personality or behavior is worth investigating. Watch for signs like:
- Recurring nightmares or trouble sleeping
- Becoming withdrawn, clingy, insecure or secretive
- Displaying fear or refusing to go to a specific place or spend time (especially alone) with a specific person
- Regressing to a “younger” stage of behavior (especially bedwetting or soiling themselves when it was not previously a problem)
- Sudden mood swings or angry outbursts, or evidence of self-harm (cutting, burning, etc)
- Having a new, older friend or suddenly having gifts/money without an explanation
- Sudden knowledge of sexual acts or new names for genitals
- Showing sexual themes in play or a preoccupation with sex
- Masturbating in public
- Touching younger children in a sexual manner
- Physical signs like pain, discoloration, bruises or swelling around the child’s mouth, genitals, or anus, or sexually transmitted diseases
- Pain during urination or bowel movements; bleeding or unusual discharge
Now that we know what to watch for, what can you do if your child has been the victim of sexual abuse? Thankfully, we have years of research to show us what best helps survivors of child sexual abuse to heal. In the next part, we will discuss what to do if your child has been sexually abused. And in the third part of this series, we will address different ways to protect your family from child sexual abuse.