Myths and Facts About Childhood Sexual Abuse

Disclaimer: We acknowledge that there are many different words that individuals use to describe themselves after experiencing sexual assault. In this article we use the term “victim” for the sake of consistency. We acknowledge that there are many different ways of processing sexual violence, and we believe each individual person should choose the language that they are most comfortable with.

Childhood sexual abuse is a topic widely regarded as taboo. For this reason, there are many misconceptions concerning why children are sexually abused, who abuses children, and the effects that sexual abuse can have on children. Below are some common myths about childhood sexual abuse and facts to dispel these misconceptions.

A boy holding his hands to his face.

Myth: Childhood sexual abuse is rare.                                                           

Fact: Childhood sexual abuse is not a rare occurrence. One in nine girls and one in fifty-three boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or sexual violence at the hands of an adult. Of all victims under 18, 2 out of 3 are ages 12-17.1


Myth: Most victims of sexual abuse do not know their victim.

Fact: Among cases of child sexual abuse reported to law enforcement in the United States, 7% are strangers, 59% are acquaintances, and 34% are family members.1 The younger the victim, the more likely it is that the abuser is a family member. Of those molesting a child under six, 50% were family members. Family members also accounted for 23% of those abusing children ages 12 to 17.2


Myth: Most child sexual abusers use physical force or threats to gain compliance from their victims.

Fact: In the majority of cases, abusers gain access to their victims through deception and enticement, seldom using force. Abuse typically occurs within long-term, ongoing relationships and escalates over time. This is a process called “grooming”. Grooming behaviors can include filling the child’s unmet needs, treating the child as if he or she is older, giving the child special attention, isolating the child from others, and using secrecy, blame, and threats to maintain control.3 


Myth: Most child sexual abusers find their victims by frequenting places such as schoolyards and playgrounds.

Fact: Most victims are abused by someone they already know. Sexual abuse of children often occurs in a residence, typically that of the victim or perpetrator – 84% for children under the age of 12 and 71% for children aged 12 to 17.3


Myth: Childhood sexual abuse is restricted to physical abuse.

Fact: Childhood sexual abuse is not restricted to only physical abuse. Sexual violence toward children can include abusive comments, threats, and other noncontact abuse, such as exhibitionism, voyeurism, and child pornography.


Myth: Physical injuries are the main sign of child sexual abuse.

Fact: Emotional and psychological injuries are often the first consequence of child sexual abuse and can cause harm lasting much longer than physical wounds. Children who are sexually abused are at a greater risk for posttraumatic stress, anxiety, depression, and suicide attempts. Mental health issues can have significant impacts on childhood development and lead to distress in adulthood. High levels of risky behaviors such as substance abuse and unprotected sex are also associated with child sexual abuse.3


Myth: Most children will tell an adult that they have been abused.

Fact: Child sexual abuse is seriously underreported. One in five (19.1%) of child abuse incidents are reported to the police and 21.8% are reported to a teacher. Some children never disclose their abuse: 63% of child abuse incidents among 10- to 17-year-olds are not reported to parents or adults.5


Myth: Family structure does not play a role in a child’s chances of being sexually abused.

Fact: Family structure is the most significant factor in a child’s risk of sexual abuse. Children who live with both of their biological parents are at a low risk of being abused. Children living without either parent are 10 times more likely to be sexually abused than children that live with both biological parents. Children who live with a single parent that has a live-in partner are at the highest risk. Children with this family structure are 20 times more likely to be victims of child sexual abuse than children living with both biological parents.3


Myth: Victims of childhood sexual abuse are harmed only when offenders use physical force.

Fact: Several types of sexual abuse do not involve physical force, but all are capable of causing psychological damage to victims of childhood sexual abuse. For example, online child sexual abuse is not the only cause significant psychological damage, but psychological health is not as commonly brought up in court verdicts regarding only online child sexual abuse. Victims often express self-harming and/or suicidal behavior and internalized self-loathing. They may also suffer from impaired relationships. Victims reported not feeling as though they had any other choice but to perform the sexual act(s) and recalled the experience as painful.6

A person facing a door and wearing colorful clothing.

Myth: If a victim does not report their sexual abuse, he or she is making it up.

Fact: Victims of child sexual abuse are often coerced through manipulation and surprise, which can lead them to feel guilty and self-blame. As a result, victims may not report their abuse because they believe it fails to meet society’s idea of sexual abuse. Shame and stigma about sexual abuse can result in an extreme fear of telling others.5

Concluding Remarks

Child victims of sexual abuse are never to blame for the assault, regardless of their behavior. Due to their inability to give consent, child victims are often made to feel like willful participants, which further contributes to their shame and guilt. If you suspect that a child is being sexually abused, try talking to the child and then seeking outside help from authorities. For more information on sexual abuse indicators in children, click here.


Resources

RAINN: National Sexual Assault Hotline Confidential 24/7 Support

  • Online.rainn.org
  • 800-656-4673

Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline

  • Childhelphotline.org
  • Text: 1-800-422-4453
  • Call: 1-800-422-4453

References

  1. Finkelhor, D., Shattuck, A., Turner, H. A., & Hamby, S. L. (2014). The Lifetime Prevalence of Child Sexual Abuse and Sexual Assault Assessed in Late Adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Health, 55(3), 329-333. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.12.026
  2. Snyder, H. N. (2000). Sexual assault of young children as reported to law enforcement: Victim, incident, and offender characteristics. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/saycrle.pdf
  3. Child Sexual Abuse Statistics. (n.d.). Darkness to Light. http://www.d2l.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/all_statistics_20150619.pdf
  4. Child Sexual Abuse Statistics. (n.d.). National Center of Victims of Crime. https://victimsofcrime.org/child-sexual-abuse-statistics/
  5. Gewirtz-Meydan, A., & Finkelhor, D. (2020). Sexual Abuse and Assault in a Large National Sample of Children and Adolescents. Child Maltreatment, 25(2), 203–214. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077559519873975
  6. Joleby, M., Landström, S., Lunde, C., Jonsson, L. (2021) Experiences and psychological health among children exposed to online child sexual abuse – a mixed methods study of court verdicts, Psychology, Crime & Law, 27(2), 159-181. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1068316X.2020.1781120

Last Updated 27 May 2021.