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Child Sexual Abuse: More Prevalent Than You Think

Know the signs of abuse and the common behaviors of offenders so you can protect the children in your organization.

January 31, 2012  |  by Robin Hattersley Gray

Illustration: Ron Rennells
Illustration: Ron Rennells

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the January issue of Campus Safety Magazine.

Research indicates crimes involving the sexual abuse of minors are greatly underreported, and many organizations that serve youth aren't doing a very good job of addressing, let alone preventing, them. What can a campus do to keep its youth safe? To find out, Campus Safety spoke with Cordelia Anderson who operates her own prevention consultation business and is the immediate past president of the National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation.

Campus Safety Magazine: What are the signs of child sexual abuse?

Anderson: There are often no visible signs, unless or until there is some type of bodily injury: a sexually transmitted disease or, with girls, a pregnancy. But very often there are no physical symptoms.

We encourage people to watch for too much attention [toward a child] from an adult in a position of authority or caring adult: expensive gifts, alone time, physical/emotional boundary issues.

We also may see in children sexually reactive behavior. They are suddenly saying or doing things that don't fit. They have been exposed to or taught something, and they are reacting. Sometimes there are shifts in their emotional state where they are more angry, depressed, anxious or fearful. They may go from really enjoying someone's company to really not wanting to be left alone with them.

CS: You say that the term "sexual predator" gets in the way of victims being able to recognize that what is happening to them is abuse. Please explain this.

Anderson: [The offender] is someone you know and trust, so very often they are showing [the child] what a child needs and deserves: attention, affection, making them feel very special, making it seem as though [the offender] cares about them and loves them. It often includes touch that begins perfectly appropriately and changes to something that begins to violate boundaries and then is sexually exploitive.

It may also include sexualized discussions that have nothing to do with education. It can include showing a child pornography in order to make them think that some of the things [the offender] wants them to do are OK or to arouse them.

Related Article: Vetting Campus Staff & Volunteers Who Work With Children

It could include getting the child to take photos of themselves, which can later be used for blackmail or silencing them. It can include alcohol or other drugs, including over-the-counter medication that makes a child less resistant.

It then often moves to threats or blaming the victim. 'You wanted this. You liked it before. This is our special secret. No one is going to believe you.'

CS: So this is how someone grooms a child. How does an offender groom the parents?

Anderson: Those who know how to do this know how to pick vulnerable children. Part of the grooming process is to test the kids to see how far [the offender] can manipulate them. They prey on your trust, and part of that is getting other adults [in a child's life] to totally trust them so they are beyond question.

For example, they may look for children who are particularly needy for male attention: children with single mothers, absent fathers. With special needs children they take a special interest in the child. The parents are so thankful for the attention to their child. They're so thankful that someone sees their child as special and has all these opportunities.

CS: Please give examples of what types of behaviors between an adult (or older child) and child are acceptable and what are not.

Anderson: Paying attention to a child's needs and complimenting them is appropriate. Private questions about sexuality, such as what color of underwear they have on are not. It is OK to spend time with a child, but giving expensive gifts or treating some children differently than others with sexualized affection and attention is not. Walking through a shower room is appropriate. Showering with a child is not. [It's also appropriate for there to be two adults monitoring the shower room since a significant portion of child sexual abuse is peer-to-peer.] Taking appropriate photos is OK but not nude photos taken by or for an adult in the position of authority.

For coaches, giving a massage for sore muscles that is healing, appropriate and in public can be OK but not if it moves to a more sexualized touch.

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