Sexual abuse is any sexual activity – visual, verbal, or physical – engaged in without consent. Sexual behavior between an adult and a child is always considered forced, regardless of consent, because a child, including adolescents up to age 18, is never considered capable of giving consent. And to be clear, "forced" doesn't always look forced. In fact, grooming, or the process of gaining trust, lowering inhibitions, and normalizing physical and emotional contact inappropriate to the relationship, is often used as a precursor to abuse. Grooming is aimed at both the young person and their guardians as well, eroding their protective instincts and vigilance as the abuser becomes a "trusted friend." The grooming process may take place over the course of months or years. This is why most sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by a family member or someone known to the child and is such a devastating abuse of trust and power.
At its core, abuse is about power and control. It is one person's attempt to dominate another. It may be sexual, emotional, physical, or spiritual and or any combination of these. The abuser may seek to control his or her "prey" by sexual exploitation, emotional manipulation, physical domination, or even scriptural distortion. The ultimate goal of an abuser is to get their own physical and emotional needs met through the objectification of a more vulnerable person.
- 1 in 4 girls will experience some sort of sexual abuse before the age of 18.
- 1 in 8 boys will experience some sort of sexual abuse before the age of 18.
- 1 in 5 women and 1 in 8 adolescent girls have experienced sexual assault or rape during their lifetime.
- 1 in 5 girls report being solicited for sex on the internet prior to the age of 18.
The impact of abuse in the lives of young people varies widely. Some have nightmares, some have trouble concentrating in school, some become aggressive, some sexually act out. Others appear to have no problems and may even be exceptionally good students and eager to please.*
Lists of behaviors can be easily misinterpreted. Many different problem behaviors result from abuse. Individuals react differently. If you have concerns, contact a counseling professional immediately. See the Web Resources for lists of possible behaviors to be aware of and professionals trained in dealing with the trauma of sexual abuse.
- The Relationship:
Children abused by someone they trust are more harmed than those who are abused by someone they barely know. Abuse by trusted person teaches them not to trust primary relationships. Victims of such abuse are more likely to blame themselves.
- The Age at Which Abuse Occurs:
Children who are young when abused are more affected than children who are older. Children who are completely unable to protect themselves or to put into perspective what is happening to them will have more difficulty in social relationships, with self-esteem, and with overall functioning than do children who are abused after having time to learn that not all relationships are abusive.
- The Duration of the Abuse:
Abuse that continues over a long period of time is more traumatic for children than is abuse that occurs for only a brief period or only once.
People who abuse children cannot easily be characterized. They come from all socioeconomic levels, all races and nationalities, and both genders, though there are some differences based on the type of abuse. The proportion of abusers who are psychotic or crazy is no greater than in the general population. The proportion of abusers who are homosexual is no greater than in the general population. Men are more likely to perpetrate child sexual abuse, but some women do as well.
It is more difficult to say what types of people sexually abuse children. There have been a number of typologies suggested over the years, but there has been little research support for these. Some have suggested that persons who sexually abuse children are inadequate in “normal” sexual relationships. While there may be some perpetrators who are like this, there are many who appear to have good marriages and adequate sexual functioning. Some may abuse a child out of anger and aggression.
*We Won't Let It Happen Here, Preventing Child Abuse in the Church
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