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by Joan Tabachnick

Acting Director, STOP IT NOW!

One in five children will be sexually abused in America before they reach the age of 18. It is hard to truly take in the horror of that statistic. Since 90 percent of abuse is committed by someone the child knows, we must accept that 20 percent of all Americans have had their trust in a family member or friend shattered by sexual abuse.

Focus groups of survivors of child sexual abuse and recovering sex abusers have said it was the silence that allowed the sexual abuse to continue. In conversations with recovering sex abusers, they often said "all of the signs of abuse were there, but no one bothered to ask." In fact, abusers count on us not to deal with their abuse, not to speak up about what makes us uncomfortable.

If we are asking our children to say something when they are sexually approached or harmed, then we also need to learn how to speak comfortably ourselves about sexual abuse. If we adults don't feel comfortable using words like "penis," "vagina," and "penetration," how can we train our daughters and sons to protect themselves sexually, and to tell us when they are sexually threatened or harmed? Our silence with each other and with our children is the greatest block to our stopping the sexual abuse of children.

By taking action, we can get help for everyone involved in the situation -- for the child who is the victim of abuse, for the adult or older child who is abusing, and for ourselves as the ones who speak up and act. But we need to know what to look for. As important, is knowing how to respond. If you are unsure about what behaviors to look for, how to talk about these behaviors, or what resources are available, this article will provide you with a good starting place.

What Exactly is Child Sexual Abuse?

If we expect our children to report child sexual abuse we need to be able to define it ourselves and be able to say the words out loud that describe sexual abuse of a child. Experts define child sexual abuse as sexual activity with a child by an adult, an adolescent or older child. When any adult engages in any sexual activity with a child, he or she is committing child sexual abuse, which is a crime in all 50 states.

Touching behaviors between adults and children considered sexual abuse include:

  • Touching a child's genitals
  • Making a child touch someone else's genitals
  • Playing sexual ("pants-down") games
  • Genital, oral, or anal penetration

Non-touching behaviors between adults and children considered sexual abuse are:

  • Showing pornography to a child
  • Exposing oneself to a child
  • Photographing a child in sexual poses
  • Encouraging a child to watch or hear sexual acts
  • Voyeurism ("peeping Tom")
  • Verbal or emotional abuse of a sexual nature (that is, making fun of a child's body parts, calling a child a "slut," etc.)

What Are Some Warning Signs Of Sexually Abusive Behavior?

Have you ever seen someone playing with a child and felt uncomfortable with it? Your response might have been to think, "Oh, I am overreacting," or, "He doesn't really mean that." In cases like this it is best not to ignore the behavior. Learn how to ask more questions about what you have seen. You will either understand the behaviors and feel more comfortable or learn that this is an opportunity to intervene. The following questions will help you notice some behaviors that you should question.

Do you know someone who:

  • Refuses to let a child set any of his or her own limits?
  • Insists on hugging, touching, kissing, or holding a child, even when the child does not want this "affection"?
  • Is overly interested in the sexuality of a particular child or teen, such as talking repeatedly about her/his developing body or interfering with dating?
  • Manages to get time alone with a child with no interruptions?
  • Has too much interest in children or activities with children or teens without an interest in adult activities?
  • Is an older child who spends most of his/her time with younger children?

If you answered "yes" to some of these questions, talk to that person. You do not need to accuse him or her of anything. Depending upon the situation you may simply need to ask them to stop, to ask them if they notice a child is clearly uncomfortable, or let them know that you are uncomfortable and do not want that behavior in your house or with your child.

Do you know someone who:

  • Shows pornography to children?
  • Except for clear health reasons, touches a child's genitals or gives enemas to a child?
  • Performs sexual acts in front of children (that is, leaves doors open on purpose so the child will watch)?
  • Photographs children in sexual poses?
  • Performs sexual acts with children?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, it is abuse. Call your state's child protective services. This number is listed in your telephone book. If you can not find a number to call, you can call your local police department or your personal physician and they will be able to help you.

What Can We Look For In Someone With Sexual Behavior Problems?

Someone you love may be acting in a way that gives you some concern. Showing you these behaviors may be a way he or she is asking you for help. Many people with sexual behavior problems wish that someone had asked them what was going on or had told them where to call for help. Do you know someone who:

  • Asks again and again about the sexual activities of children or teens?
  • Masturbates excessively or compulsively (that is, interrupts other activities to masturbate)?
  • Talks about sexual fantasies with children and is not clear about what is appropriate behavior with children?
  • Was abused as a child and refuses to deal with it in any way?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, talk with your friend or family member about your concerns. If it is difficult for you to talk about this subject practice with a friend. Remember, your friend or family member may be waiting for someone to reach out to help.

What Signs And Symptoms Of Sexual Abuse Can We Look For In Children?

If you are concerned that a child may have been abused, here are some things you can look for in a possible victim. Please keep in mind, though, that some of these behavioral signs can show up at other stressful times in a child's life, such as divorce, the death of someone close, or problems in school.

Do you notice any of the following behaviors?

  • Nightmares, trouble sleeping, fear of the dark, or other sleeping problems
  • Extreme fear of "monsters"
  • "Spacing out" at odd times
  • Loss of appetite, trouble eating or swallowing
  • Sudden mood swings: rage, fear, anger, or withdrawal
  • Fear of certain people or places; for example, a child may not want to be left alone with a baby-sitter, a friend, a relative, or some other child or adult; or a child who is usually talkative and cheery may become quiet and distant when around a certain person
  • Stomach illnesses all of the time, with no identifiable reason
  • An older child behaving like a younger child, such as bed-wetting
  • Sexual activities with toys or other children, such as simulating sex with dolls or asking other children to behave sexually
  • New words for private body parts
  • Acting uncomfortable about a "secret" he/she has with an adult or older child; the child may be evasive about the secret or may refuse to talk about it
  • Making drawings that are scary or use a lot of black and red
  • Talking about a new older friend
  • Suddenly having money
  • Cutting or burning herself or himself as an adolescent

Again, any one of these symptoms does not necessarily indicate that a child has been sexually abused. However, if you see such signs in a child, it would be good to investigate further to learn if, in fact, abuse may have occurred.

Do you notice any of the following physical signs in a child?

  • Unexplained bruises, redness, or bleeding of the child's genitals, anus, or mouth
  • Pain at the genitals, anus, or mouth
  • Genital sores or milky fluids in the genital area

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, bring your child to a doctor. Your doctor can confirm these physical signs and test for sexually transmitted diseases.

A Call For Help

If you do not know how to approach someone with sexual behavior problems or you simply want to talk anonymously with someone first, there is a toll-free helpline to call for confidential information. STOP IT NOW!'s toll-free helpline: 1-888-PREVENT. The helpline is open Monday through Friday, 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM eastern standard time.

If you know that someone is sexually abusing a child, please call your local police or child protective services. We recognize that taking the initiative and reporting sexual abuse of a child can be an emotionally difficult thing to do. However, we have heard from many families that in the long run, the report was the best thing that could have happened to them. Reporting allows everyone in the family, including the child, the person who is abusing, and others affected by the trauma to get the help they need.

If you suspect child sexual abuse or know it is happening, please have the courage to take some action. Thank you for doing what you can to help our children grow up free from sexual violence.


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