What is child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse describes any sexual behavior between an adult and someone under the age of eighteen. It can also describe sexual behavior between two underage people if there is a significant age difference between them or they are developmentally mismatched. While child sexual abuse includes obvious behaviors like touching and penetration, it also includes less obvious behaviors, such as looking at or showing body parts in a sexual manner, sharing pornography, or talking inappropriately about sex.
How common is child sexual abuse?
Unfortunately, child sexual abuse is incredibly common. Up to 40% of all women and 13% of all men in the United States report that they experienced at least one episode of sexual abuse in childhood. Internationally, some regions report that up to 60% of children are sexually abused, making it a problem of pandemic proportions.
Who commits child sexual abuse?
There is a general belief that most child molesters are strangers that take children by force, but this is not true. In actuality, 90% of all sexual abuse is committed by someone the child already knows—30% by family members (such as fathers, stepfathers, uncles and brothers) and 60% by acquaintances (such as teachers, coaches, neighbors, and clergymen). The vast majority of child molesters are heterosexual men.
While some perpetrators will use violence and force to commit child sexual abuse, many don’t. Instead, they groom children for abuse. Grooming is a process by which an abuser slowly and methodically wears down a child’s resistance so that the child actually believes she or he has consented to sexual activities with the adult.
Even though a child or adolescent may feel that she or he consented and was somehow complicit in the sexual behavior, this is never true. Someone under the age of eighteen is too immature, emotionally and legally, to provide consent. Child molesters use this immaturity to manipulate their victims.
What are the effects of child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse can have long-term consequences for victims. Adults who were abused as children are at increased risk for future sexual assaults, depression, anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, substance abuse, self-harm behaviors such as cutting, suicidality, Borderline Personality Disorder, and dissociative disorders. Because sexual abuse happens while a child is still developing, it can permanently alter the victim’s sense of self, as well as his or her ability to trust others, making it difficult to form healthy relationships or enjoy healthy sexuality later in life.
What are remedies for the effects of child sexual abuse?
Many adults who were sexually abused as children do not realize how it may have affected them, so they don’t seek help for the abuse. Instead, they eventually enter psychotherapy for secondary issues like anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and relationship problems. During the course of therapy, victims of child abuse often begin to see a link between their current problems and their past abuse. In remembering the abuse and mourning its damage, survivors can free themselves to lead more fulfilling lives.
Dr. Michelle Stevens is a psychologist, writer, and expert on trauma. She wrote the bestselling book, Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving (Putnam, 2017).