What is sexual abuse of children?

Sexual abuse of children occurs when an adult uses a child for sexual purposes or involves a child in sexual acts. It also includes when a child who is older or more powerful uses another child for sexual gratification or excitement. Sexual abuse of children includes:

Non-contact abuse
  • making a child view a sex act
  • making a child view or show sex organs
  • inappropriate sexual talk
Contact abuse
  • fondling and oral sex
  • penetration
  • making children perform a sex act
  • child prostitution
  • child pornography

Sexual abuse is unwelcomed, unwanted, inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature towards another person. Where children are involved, they are not always able to identify these behaviors as abuse. Abusive behaviors can be speech (talking 'dirty') or physical behaviors (touching, probing, and actual intercourse).  

Because the abusers are usually known to the child, it is even more difficult for a child to identify this as abuse and tell someone about it. Parents need to be aware of their children's behaviors and changes in those behaviors. These may be the signals of abuse that may be occurring to the child. As a parent, it is hard to know exactly what the right balance is between making children too scared of everyone or too trusting. It depends on the child and their level of development what and how much information is appropriate. Establish and keep open lines of communication with children so that they are more likely to come to you if a problem arises.


Jan L. Shifren, MD
Reproductive Endocrinology
Experts define sexual abuse as occurring when a person engages in sexual activity for which she or he did not give consent, is unprepared for developmentally, or can't understand. Any sexual interaction with a child is by definition abuse, as a young child is not prepared for, can’t understand and can’t truly consent to these encounters. It includes fondling and all forms of sexual contact with the child, even if the child is clothed. Abuse that doesn't involve touching, such as exhibitionism, voyeurism, or involving the child in pornography, is also included. Experts have stated that about 20% of girls and 9% of boys are involved in inappropriate sexual activities, but these figures are probably an underestimate because children often keep sexual abuse a secret.

One common form of violence against children is incest, which is defined as sexual contact between family members. Incest can be perpetrated by adult male or female relatives against male or female children. Sexual abuse can be perpetrated by friends, coaches, teachers, babysitters, or the clergy. Unfortunately, people in such positions can use the child's trust and dependence to initiate sexual contact and often to ensure that the relationship continues and remains secret.

The extent of incest and childhood sexual abuse is hard to measure because of lack of reporting and uniform definitions and the limitations of memory. Incest and sexual abuse of children take many forms and may include sexually suggestive language; prolonged kissing, looking, and petting; vaginal and/or anal intercourse; and oral sex. Because sexual contact is often achieved without overt physical force, there may be no obvious signs of physical harm.

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Howard Fradkin, PhD

Males and females can be survivors of sexual victimization. This is a broad term that includes sexual abuse, sexual assault or rape. Sexual victimization consists of any overt or covert sexual behavior (s) by which the abuser–who could be male or female-chooses to take advantage of a power differential with a dependent or vulnerable victim in order to satisfy the abuser’s needs without the consent of the victim. I emphasize the word “chooses” because it squarely places the responsibility for the abuse on the abuser.

In most cases, a person known to the victim commits sexual victimization; therefore another very important aspect of the abuse is the betrayal of trust between the victim and the abuser. This is especially true when the sexual victimization is committed by a person who holds some role of protection for the victim, such as parents, older siblings or relatives, babysitters, coaches, religious leaders, and organizational leaders.

Whereas sexual abuse in the past was a term used to describe victims under legal age, and sexual assault or rape were terms used for adult victims, these distinctions are currently changing. Rapes can be done by people known to the victim, or they may be total strangers. Rape and sexual assault may involve physical violence as well.

Although sexual victimization involves sexual behavior, it is not an act of sex, as sex is a mutually consensual activity. Overt sexual behaviors include any penetration, no matter how slight, of the mouth or anus with any body part of the abuser or any object used by the abuser. Covert sexual behaviors consist of non-penetration behaviors, and cover a wide gamut. Included behaviors are inappropriate hugging or kissing, showing pornography, taking sexually explicit or erotic pictures or movies of vulnerable victims, inappropriate touching of a victim’s genitals or body, and making sexual comments. Covert incest, or mother-son or father-son enmeshment, can also include behaviors when parents make their children into their romantic partners in place of an adult.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.