Child sexual abuse is perhaps one of the most heinous crimes imaginable.
As a result, people often avoid thinking or talking about it. But pushing such a serious problem under the rug might be doing more harm than good.
It’s always difficult to gather national statistics on the prevalence of child sexual exploitation because so much of it goes unreported. Research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that approximately 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. Whether this number is exactly precise or not, it’s clear that child sexual abuse is more prevalent than we would like to believe.
What is child sexual abuse?
Children cannot consent to any form of sexual activity, period. Child sexual abuse can range from fondling or sexual touch, to any form of oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse, to sex trafficking. Child sexual abuse also does not require physical contact between the abuser and the child. Showing children obscene images, exposing oneself to a minor or convincing the minor to expose themselves in person or over the internet, exchanging sexually obscene messages, are all forms of abuse as well.
So what can a parent, or concerned adult, do to help prevent or intervene in child sexual abuse?
Perhaps one of the simplest and easiest steps is to talk about the subject in an age appropriate way, and to build a foundation of trust and openness.
For an audio discussion about the below content, tune-in to the latest episode of the “Sexploitation?” podcast, available on iTunes, on GooglePlay, and for direct mp3 download. The “Sexploitation?” podcast is an on-the-go weekly education resource provided by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation that decodes sexual harms and provides active solutions in every episode.
Here are four conversations you can have with a child to help guard against sexual abuse:
1) No means no, and nobody is allowed to touch you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable or scared.
Body boundaries are easy to teach even young children. You can start with simple concepts like “this is your body” and “this is my body.”
Build up to discussing consent, and the idea that, “No means no.” This can be applied with simple games. For example, any time you are tickling or kissing or hugging the child you can immediately stop if they ever say no. After you stop touching them, you can reiterate the message by saying something like: “Any time you don’t like the way someone is touching you, you can say no, and they are supposed to stop.”
2) Name the body parts.
This one is fairly controversial.
While some parents may not be comfortable teaching their child anatomically correct terms for their body at a young age, it could one day prove vital to their safety.
We have heard some tragic cases where an abuser targeting children used code words for private parts, such as “cookies.” The child didn’t have the correct language to explain the abuse to a parent or trusted adult, which helped shield the abuser from detection.
Have a conversation with the child about how some parts are “private parts,” and as early as you feel comfortable teach them the anatomical names (breast, penis, vagina). Do not give fake names to the body parts, or imply any body parts are “dirty” or “bad.”
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has tools for teachers, which parents or other adults could easily use, including free downloadable resources to explain “The Underwear Rule.”
3) Sometimes people we think are good guys, act like bad guys.
Tragically, many child abusers are members of the family or a close friend. Other abusers could be police, doctors, neighbors, teachers, etc.
Let your child know that sometimes people who should be good guys act like bad guys. As many as 93% of child sexual abuse victims under the age of 18 know their abuser. So it is vitally importantly to tell them that you will trust and believe them if they ever get hurt by someone—even if that person is your friend, or someone you both love.
4) You can always talk to me, even if you feel embarrassed or scared.
Repeat this message over and over to the child in your life. It is also useful to emphasize that there should never be secrets about where or if someone touched you. For example, sometimes a doctor may need to examine a child during an appointment, but it should never be a secret.
You can reinforce this message by not acting awkward or embarrassed if they have questions about their bodies or sex. Set a foundation of open communication, and let them know that they can come to you with questions at any time.
Also let them know that they can always tell you anything, even if they feel scared that something bad might happen. Many abusers threaten they will physically harm the child or their family. As clearly as possible, let the child know that if someone threatens to hurt them or anyone they love, they should always tell you right away because you have a safety plan that can help, or because you know the best way to protect them.
In addition to having these active conversations with the kids in your life, you can help guard against child sexual abuse by keeping alert to the signs.
StopItNow has developed a Tip Sheet for warning signs that could indicate a child has been sexually abused. Of course, the presence of any of these signs does not automatically mean a child has been sexually abused, but if several of these red flags appear then it may be a good time to ask some questions and consider seeking help.
Behavior you may see in a child or adolescent can include:
- Nightmares or other unexplained sleeping problems
- Trouble focusing or becoming suddenly distant
- Sudden changes in eating habits
- Drawing, dreaming, or playing involving sexual or frightening imagery
Signs more typical of younger children:
- An older child regressing behavior to act like a younger child (such as bed-wetting or thumb sucking)
- Resists removing clothing at appropriate times (bedtime or bath time)
- Wetting accidents unrelated to toilet training
Signs more typical in adolescents
- Self-injury (cutting, burning)
- Inadequate personal hygiene
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Running away from home
- Depression, anxiety
Child sexual abuse is an unspeakably horrific crime, and even attentive parents and adults can miss the signs.
But that’s no reason to remain silent.
In fact, that’s the reason we must speak up.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2005). Adverse Childhood Experiences Study: Data and Statistics. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Retrieved January 12, 2009 from: http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/ace/prevalence.htm
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.