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Sexual Abuse: Overview

What is sexual abuse?

Any sexual activity, even if the child agrees, between a child and an adult may be sexual abuse. Sexual abuse may include:

  • Touching a child’s genitals or rubbing of the adult's genitals on the child
  • Intercourse or oral sex
  • Showing genitals to a child
  • Showing sexual pictures to a child
  • Using the child to make pornographic pictures or videos

It is never okay for an adult to have sex with a child, even if the child seems to agree or even seems to want it. The adult is always the one in the wrong. Most abusers get the child to trust them rather than forcing the child to have sex. Many abusers do not believe that they are doing anything wrong. They may seem to love children.

Most abusers are people that the child knows, such as relatives, friends, or neighbors. Most child sexual abusers are male but there are females who engage in abuse as well. Do not trust a child to someone just because she is a woman. Both abusers and abused children come from all incomes, from the very rich to the very poor.

What are signs of sexual abuse?

Children may not tell anyone that they are being abused. They may be afraid or unsure that the abuse is wrong. The child may not tell anyone what has happened, because the abuser threatened the child or told them to keep it secret. Signs of sexual abuse may include:

  • Having vaginal or rectal bleeding, pain, itching, swelling, or discharge.
  • Having trouble walking or sitting.
  • Being depressed or withdrawing from friends or family.
  • Being very secretive.
  • Either avoiding or being unusually interested in things of a sexual nature, acting sexual, or drawing sexually related pictures.
  • Having sleep problems or nightmares.
  • Having stomach pain, bedwetting, urinary tract infection, or a sexually transmitted disease.
  • Refusing to go to school.
  • Saying that their bodies are dirty or damaged, or being afraid that there is something wrong with them in the genital area.
  • Trying to run away.
  • Trying to commit suicide.

Can sexual abuse be prevented?

Even small children can be taught how to avoid abuse. Body parts should be given the proper names. Children must know that their bodies belong to them, and that no one has a right to touch or hurt them in any way. This applies to strangers as well as people they know. They must know that it is okay to say "NO" to anything that makes them uncomfortable, even if it is a friend or relative.

Talk to your kids about possible problems they may find online, such as sex and violence. Be honest and specific. This helps them know what it is when they see it. Help them talk about what they didn't understand, what scared them, or what upset them. Teach your children that people online may not be who they seem. Someone saying they are a 13-year-old girl could actually be a 50-year-old man. If your child receives any type of child pornography while online, immediately report this to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-843-5678.

Teach children to tell someone such as a parent, a trusted teacher, school nurse, or guidance counselor if someone asks them to keep a secret. Children should be taught to respect adults and caretakers, but they should not be told to do something just because an adult tells them to do it.

It is best not to talk about good touch and bad touch, as the child may think a bad touch is only something that hurts them such as scraping their knee. Sexual contact may not hurt, or may even feel good to a child.

What if I think a child might be abused?

If you suspect a child is being abused, carefully and calmly ask the child about it. Tell the child that it is not their fault and that they will be protected from the abuser. If a child tells you that they have been abused, take it seriously.

If you suspect child sexual abuse, contact the local police or child protective services, no matter who the abuser is. If a child you care about has already been abused, get help for the child. The parent of an abused child may also need help. It is very painful to know that your child has been abused.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-08-03
Last reviewed: 2012-05-07
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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