Child Sexual Abuse: More Prevalent Than You Think

Research indicates crimes involving the sexual abuse of minors are greatly underreported, and many organizations that serve youth aren't doing a good job of addressing, let alone preventing, them.

Illustration: Ron RennellsIllustration: 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.[PAGEBREAK]

CS: Is a hug appropriate?

Anderson: I'm on the side that part of the problem is we have a lot of touch-starved children, and the no-touch policies in reaction are never what we wanted. We know that children need appropriate and caring touch. If they are deprived of that, they are far more vulnerable to this kind of manipulation. When children are craving emotional and physical attention, there are very appropriate ways to do that, and it's about meeting the child's needs, not the adult's.

I could be hugging somebody, and they could say 'I'm not comfortable with that,' and it's important for me to say 'OK, I heard that,' and I stop. A child can say 'I'm no longer comfortable with this behavior' if it pushes their boundaries and especially if the behavior moves from appropriate to inappropriate for them.

We also need to understand that [asking someone to stop a behavior] is not easy because the person [who is being sexually inappropriate] is pretty skilled at manipulation and often has power and authority over the child.

CS: How can schools and/or parents encourage victims to come forward?

Anderson: Our discomfort in just talking about sex and sexuality is a challenge.

Very often children don't come out and say it; they'll hint at it. If we aren't thinking [that child sexual abuse is a possibility], we're not going to pick up on it. If they are talking about someone we really like and trust, we aren't going to think anything of it.

How could such a great person [coach, teacher, minister, theatre director, choir director] also be abusing children? The reality is, all of that often goes together in one package, and it is often how the person [abuser] deludes himself. They have their own distorted thinking that justifies it.

That's hard for people because we want to believe we can see it.

Child Sexual Assault Victims Statistics

  • 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys under the age of 18 are victims of sexual abuse. (2) (Note: The accuracy of these numbers is hotly debated. Most sexual assaults on children are never reported, especially if the offender is a family member or acquaintance).
  • The median age for reporting abuse is 9. (2)
  • 20% of victims are under age eight. (2)
  • Children tell of their abuse an average of nine times before someone believes them. (3)
  • Only 1 in 3 victims will tell anyone about the abuse. (4)
  • Juveniles (youth ages 17 and younger) make up 12% of all crime victims known to police, including 71% of all sex crime victims. (5)
  • Youth who are emotionally insecure, needy and unsupported may be more vulnerable to the attentions of offenders. (7)

Who Are Child Sexual Assault Perpetrators?

  • 90% are male. (1)
  • Approximately a third (29-41%) are juveniles. Among adult perpetrators, young adults who are under the age of 30 are overrepresented. (1)
  • Half of offenders are acquaintances, and family members constitute a quarter to a third of offenders. (1)
  • Strangers make up the smallest group of offenders (from 7% to 25%. (1)
  • Perpetrators are often drawn to settings where they can gain easy access to children, such as sports leagues, clubs and schools. (2)
  • Child abusers have an average of 76 victims whereas a rapist has an average of seven victims. (6)
  • An average serial child molester may have as many as 400 victims in his lifetime. (8)

(1)Crimes Against Children Research Center
(2)Darkness to Light
(3)U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
(4)National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
(5)U.S. Department of Justice
(6)The Abel and Harlow Child Molestation Prevention Study
(7)Child Sexual Abuse: New Theory & Research (Finkelhor D.)
(8)Child Sexual Abuse Prevention: What Offenders Tell Us

Vetting Campus Staff and Volunteers Who Work With Children

  • Conduct background checks on current staff, as well as on all adults and adolescents who are applying to be teachers, coaches, band leaders, club sponsors and volunteers. Some people with criminal records will attempt to gain access to children through schools, campuses and other programs aimed at children. Be mindful, however, that these checks can provide a false sense of security because many offenders don't have criminal histories.
  • Check references.
  • Rigorously screen applicants who will have more autonomy.
  • Consider more in-depth written applications and personal interviews for adolescents. Background checks probably won't reveal anything on these applicants.
  • Do not make exceptions for people you know or have worked with in the past.
  • Let applicants know your organization is serious about protecting youth, and let them know about your policies and procedures. This might deter some at-risk individuals from applying.
  • Ask applicants if they have any issues with any of your organization's policies and procedures.
Page 1 of 2334
Next Page