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Child Sex Abuse

Preventing Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse is a significant public health problem and an adverse childhood experience (ACE). Child sexual abuse refers to the involvement of a child (person less than 18 years old) in sexual activity that violates the laws or social taboos of society and that he/she:

  • does not fully comprehend

  • does not consent to or is unable to give informed consent to, or

  • is not developmentally prepared for and cannot give consent to

 

How big is the problem?

 

Many children wait to report or never report child sexual abuse. Therefore, the numbers below likely underestimate the true impact of the problem. Although estimates vary across studies, the research shows:

  • About 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys in the United States experience child sexual abuse.

  • Someone known and trusted by the child or child’s family members, perpetrates 91% of child sexual abuse.

  • The total lifetime economic burden of child sexual abuse in the United States in 2015 was estimated to be at least $9.3 billion.

 

What are the consequences?

 

Experiencing child sexual abuse can affect how a person thinks, acts, and feels over a lifetime. This can result in short- and long-term physical, mental, and behavioral health consequences.
 

Examples of physical health consequences include:

  • sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

  • physical injuries

  • chronic conditions later in life, such as heart disease, obesity, and cancer

Examples of mental health consequences include:

  • depression

  • posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms

Examples of behavioral consequences include:

  • substance use/misuse, including opioid misuse

  • risky sexual behaviors, meaning sex with multiple partners or behaviors that could result in pregnancy or STIs

  • increased risk for perpetration of sexual violence

  • increased risk for suicide or suicide attempts

 

Experiencing child sexual abuse can also increase a person’s risk for future victimization. For example, recent studies have found:

  • Females exposed to child sexual abuse are at 2-13 times increased risk of sexual violence victimization in adulthood

  • People who experienced child sexual abuse are at twice the risk for non-sexual intimate partner violence

 

What are the current gaps in child sexual abuse prevention?

Adults are responsible for ensuring that children have safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments. Resources for child sexual abuse have mostly focused on treatment for victims and criminal justice-oriented approaches for perpetrators. These efforts are important after child sexual abuse has occurred. However, little investment has been made in primary prevention or preventing child sexual abuse.  Effective evidence-based strategies are available to proactively protecting children from child sexual abuse, but few have been widely disseminated. More resources are needed to develop, evaluate, and implement evidence-based child sexual abuse primary prevention strategies. These strategies can help ensure that all children have safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments.

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Risk and Protective Factors

Risk factors are characteristics that may increase the likelihood of experiencing or perpetrating child abuse and neglect, but they may or may not be direct causes. A combination of individual, relational, community, and societal factors contribute to the risk of child abuse and neglect. Although children are not responsible for the harm inflicted upon them, certain factors have been found to increase their risk of being abused and or neglected.

Watch Moving Forward to learn more about how increasing what protects people from violence and reducing what puts people at risk for it benefits everyone.

Risk Factors for Victimization

Individual Risk Factors

  • Children younger than 4 years of age

  • Children with special needs that may increase caregiver burden (e.g., disabilities, mental health issues, and chronic physical illnesses)

Risk Factors for Perpetration

Individual Risk Factors

  • Caregivers with drug or alcohol issues

  • Caregivers with mental health issues, including depression

  • Caregivers who don’t understand children’s needs or development

  • Caregivers who were abused or neglected as children

  • Caregivers who are young or single parents or parents with many children

  • Caregivers with low education or income

  • Caregivers experiencing high levels of parenting stress or economic stress

  • Caregivers who use spanking and other forms of corporal punishment for discipline

  • Caregivers in the home who are not a biological parent

  • Caregivers with attitudes accepting of or justifying violence or aggression

Family Risk Factors

  • Families that have household members in jail or prison

  • Families that are isolated from and not connected to other people (extended family, friends, neighbors)

  • Families experiencing other types of violence, including relationship violence

  • Families with high conflict and negative communication styles

Community Risk Factors

  • Communities with high rates of violence and crime

  • Communities with high rates of poverty and limited educational and economic opportunities

  • Communities with high unemployment rates

  • Communities with easy access to drugs and alcohol

  • Communities where neighbors don’t know or look out for each other and there is low community involvement among residents

  • Communities with few community activities for young people

  • Communities with unstable housing and where residents move frequently

  • Communities where families frequently experience food insecurity

Protective Factors for Child Abuse & Neglect

Protective factors may lessen the likelihood of children being abused or neglected. Identifying and understanding protective factors are equally as important as researching risk factors.

Individual Protective Factors

  • Caregivers who create safe, positive relationships with children

  • Caregivers who practice nurturing parenting skills and provide emotional support

  • Caregivers who can meet basic needs of food, shelter, education, and health services

  • Caregivers who have a college degree or higher and have steady employment

Family Protective Factors

  • Families with strong social support networks and stable, positive relationships with the people around them

  • Families where caregivers are present and interested in the child

  • Families where caregivers enforce household rules and engage in child monitoring

  • Families with caring adults outside the family who can serve as role models or mentors

Community Protective Factors

  • Communities with access to safe, stable housing

  • Communities where families have access to high-quality preschool

  • Communities where families have access to nurturing and safe childcare

  • Communities where families have access to safe, engaging after school programs and activities

  • Communities where families have access to medical care and mental health services

  • Communities where families have access to economic and financial help

  • Communities where adults have work opportunities with family-friendly policies

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