In the United States, an estimated 1 in 10 children are sexually abused before turning 18.

Abuse occurs in all neighborhoods and communities, regardless of economic class, ethnicity or religion. Unfortunately, only 20 to 40 percent of child sexual abuse is ever reported to authorities.

What is sexual abuse?

Sexual abuse is any sexual activity with a child in which consent cannot be given or is not given. This includes: all sexual contact between an adult and a child; sexual contact between two children if there is a significant difference in age, development or size; and sexual contact with a child that is accomplished by force or threat of force, regardless of the perpetrator’s age.

Sexual abuse can include physical contact (touching the vagina, penis, breasts or buttocks, oral-genital contact or penetration) and non-contact behaviors (exposing the child to pornography, talking in sexually explicit ways to children or inappropriately watching a child undress or use the bathroom). Sexual abuse can occur in person, over the phone or online.

Who are perpetrators?

In over 90% of child sexual abuse cases, perpetrators know the child victim personally. They are family members, teachers, childcare providers, friends or neighbors. These perpetrators gain children’s and caregivers’ trust, and have permission to be around the child on a regular basis.

How does abuse happen?

Abuse most often starts with “grooming,” a series of manipulative behaviors that escalate over time. For example, a perpetrator may begin by giving the child extra attention, such as buying them gifts and playing games. Grooming behaviors establish trust between the perpetrator, the child, and the child’s caregivers. This trusting relationship makes it more likely that the abuse will be overlooked, dismissed, or kept secret.

How to address and prevent sexual abuse?

Preventing child sexual abuse starts with caring adults taking responsibility for protecting children and youth. Know what to communicate to your child, behaviors to watch out for in their children, and steps to take to keep children safe. 

Children often disclose abuse through unusual behaviors or changes in behaviors, not words. Because many forms of abuse are not physically evident, adults should recognize certain behavioral cues as signs of potential abuse.

Coming forward takes courage. If you suspect or know that a child is being abused, respond with compassion and call the child abuse hotline at 1-800-25-ABUSE. If a child is in immediate danger, also call 911.

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