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Violence against women

Sexual assault
Learn about rape trauma syndrome, date rape, and the impact of rape on relationships

Domestic violence
Learn why it happens and how to get help.

Child sexual abuse/incest
Learn how to spot child sexual abuse and how to report it.

Child sexual abuse/incest

What is child sexual abuse/incest?

Incest is said to have occurred when sexual contact or sexual relations occur between people in an extended family. Incest may include inappropriate touching, forced object penetration of the vagina and/or rectum, exposing one's genitals, forced sexual and/or anal intercourse and forced oral sex. Incest may also occur in cases where there is an imbalance of power, such as between a student and a teacher or between a stepparent and a stepchild. Incest affects both male and female children, although many people are reluctant to talk about it because it happens in the family and family is supposed to be a safe place for children.

Child sexual abuse occurs when an adult or an adolescent uses a child for their own sexual gratification. In addition to fondling, open exhibitionism, forced sexual and/or anal intercourse, and forced oral sex, child sexual abuse may also include juvenile prostitution, photographing nude children, sexual exploitation through child pornography, and masturbating in front of a child.

Incest and child sexual abuse each represent a betrayal of trust by someone who has power over the child. Children cannot give informed consent to sexual activity because they cannot fully understand adult-child sexual contact and because they cannot predict its consequences. For this reason, incest and child sexual abuse represent serious crimes. Nevertheless, these are largely hidden crimes and both adults and children, for any number of reasons, may be reluctant to report sexual abuse. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to estimate the prevalence of child sexual abuse; statistics can only yield figures from reported cases.

Victims of child sexual abuse and victims of incest are found in all socio-economic backgrounds, all ethnicities, and all races. Those with physical or mental disabilities are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. Also vulnerable are children with little contact with friends, siblings, or adults whom they can trust; abusers are able to take advantage of children who are already isolated.

Undoubtedly, sexual abuse is inherently emotionally abusive. In the case of incest, the child may feel additional distress because the abuse is a family member. This distress is further amplified when the abused child does not receive support from his or her non-abusive parent. Long-term consequences of sexual abuse are worse also if force or threat of force was used to coerce the victim or if there were many incidents of abuse over a long period.

Facts about incest and child sexual abuse

Consider the following facts about incest and child sexual abuse, as outlined in the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence's publication, Child Sexual Abuse:

Victims Abusers

Children of all ages, from babies to adolescents, may be sexually abused. Child sexual abuse may occur once or many times over a period of months or years.

Children find it difficult to tell anyone they have been abused. They often feel shame and are told by their abusers that they willl be hated, rejected, or disbelieved if they tell. Also, if the abuser threatens the child or someone the child loves, the child may not question the abuser's power to carry out the threat.

Children want to tell about their abuse so it can stop, but they often fear they will not be believed or protected. It's not uncommon for children to delay reporting their abuse for a year or more after it has happened. Victims are more likely to come forward if another victim discloses abuse by the same offender or if asked direct questions about the possibility of abuse.

In the case of incest especially, victims may not disclose their abuse until they become adults and many may never tell. Abusers manipulate their victims by enforcing secrecy; they create in the child a sense of fear of destroying privacy and security provided by family.

Less than 2 percent of all allegations are false; in cases where children appear to have made false accusations, it was usually the result of adult manipulation.

False denials of sexual abuse (claiming abuse did not happen when it did) and recanting disclosure (denying abuse after having told someone about it) is far more common than false allegations.

Because they fear the impact that disclosure will have on the family, children often recant truthful allegations of abuse.

Adults' reactions to disclosure significantly impact how the child comes to view his/her abuse and his/her role in it. (See The Effects of Sexual Abuse.)

Adult women sexually molested as children are more likely than non-victims to suffer both physical and psychological problems.

Adult men who were sexually abused as children are prone to depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Those who were repeatedly sexually abused and who also suffered emotional abuse often have poor mental health and report interest in or sexual contact with children.

Sexual abuse victims who were also physically and emotionally abused as children are the most likely to suffer health problems and further abuse as adults.

Most offenders are known to their victims. It's estimated that about 25 percent of offenders are adolescents.

Adolescent males who sexually abuse younger children are likely to continue to do so into adulthood without assessment and appropriate treatment.

Most abusers are male.

It is abusers who initiate sexual activity and who are solely responsible for the abuse, regardless of a child's actions or participation.

A recent Canadian study revealed that in excess of 40 percent of convicted child molesters where themselves sexually abused as children. These abusers tended to choose victims close to the age at which they were first abused.

Abusers use various forms of physical and psychological coercion to ensure their victims' silence, including threats and bribery.

Some offenders abuse more than 70 children before the victims disclose their abuse. In cases where the offender has abused a large number of victims, the abused children are more likely to be male.

Abusers are found among all ages, ethnocultural communities, and social classes.

Most sexual abuse takes place within the context of an ongoing relationship between the abuser and the child (e.g., teacher/student, coach/player, parent/child). These types of relationships allow the abuser to exploit the child's desires and fears.

Child sexual abuse/incest

Web resources

These are third-party resources and links will open a new browser window. As these are third-party resources, Women's Web claims no responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the information provided.

Little Warriors
Little Warriors is a charitable organization with a national focus that educates adults about how to help prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse. Little Warriors also provides information about the prevalence and frequency of child sexual abuse and information about healing and support resources.

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