An estimated 1 in 5 children is sexually abused before age 18.1

That’s approximately 1,035,0002 children in the United States who are abused each year.

Educating yourself is the first step to preventing—and ultimately eradicating—this epidemic.

What Is Child Sexual Abuse?

Child sexual abuse is when another person (adult, older sibling, peer, etc.) forces or coerces a child or teen into sexual activity. This activity may include fondling genitals, masturbation, oral-genital contact, digital penetration, vaginal intercourse, and/or anal intercourse. Child sexual abuse is also not restricted to physical contact—it can include unhealthy sexual exposure, voyeurism, or child pornography.

What Can Lead to Child Sexual Abuse?

While all children are at risk of becoming a target, there are factors that can increase their risk of being sexually abused. A few of these risk factors include:

  • Age.

    Children are most vulnerable to sexual abuse between ages 7 and 13.3

  • Disabilities.

    Children with disabilities are three times4 more likely to be victims of sexual abuse.

  • Technology.

    34%5 of youth internet users experience unwanted exposure to sexual material.

Children know their abuser in around 80%6 of sexual abuse cases—60% are acquaintances to children, 20% are family members, and only 20% are strangers.

Additionally, between ages 9 and 16, children are abused more often by other juveniles than by adults; in fact, youth are responsible for about half of sexual offenses against other children7

Learn How to Reduce the Risk

What Impact Does Child Sexual Abuse Have?

The effects of child sexual abuse last long after childhood and long after the abuse has stopped.

Most abuse survivors don’t talk about the abuse until adulthood.8 As they carry this weight throughout adolescence and into adulthood, many experience a variety of trauma symptoms that can lead to devastating challenges. For example:

  • Sexually abused youth are 5 times9 more likely to be hospitalized for a mental or physical health problem. Children who experience sexual abuse are at least three times more likely to attempt suicide later in life. As they age, the risk of suicide attempts increases.12

  • Survivors of child sexual abuse are at higher risk for low social competence, low learning competence, academic performance, and educational attainment. High school dropout rates may increase as much as 40%10 for them.

  • Child sexual abuse can lead to an increased risk of substance abuse. In one study,  20% of survivors of child sexual abuse developed an alcohol dependence by age 30;9 twice the rate of those who had not been abused. 

  • Survivors are at a higher risk of having unhealthy relationships. They are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior and are also at higher risk of sexual aggression victimization or perpetration.11

How Can You Help a Child Who Has Been Sexually Abused?

The best thing you can do for a child who has been sexually abused is believe them.

Studies consistently show that children who are sexually abused can heal. Survivors who receive support from a caregiver and who participate in treatment—such as therapy—have fewer negative outcomes related to the abuse.13

Each child who is sexually abused is unique and has their own needs. As such, responding to the abuse will vary in every situation. We have dozens of blog posts, videos, graphics, and other resources designed to help you respond to child sexual abuse in a healthy way.

Learn How to Respond to Abuse

What Can Be Done to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse?

For ways to lessen the likelihood of children being sexually abused, learn about protective factors like:14

  • Supportive family environment and social networks 

  • Concrete support for basic needs

  • Nurturing parenting skills

  • Stable family relationships

  • Household rules and child monitoring

  • Parental employment

  • Parental education

  • Safe, adequate housing

  • Access to health care and social services

  • Caring adults outside the family who can serve as role models or mentors

At Defend Innocence, we believe frequent, age-appropriate conversations about open communication, emotional regulation, and sexual development can reduce the risk of sexual abuse. These conversations not only strengthen the relationship between parents and children, but empower youth to recognize signs of non-consensual sexual situations and how to avoid them.15

Learn about Age-appropriate conversations

1. Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., . . . Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245-258.
3. Finkelhor, D. (1994). Current Information on the Scope and Nature of Child Sexual Abuse. The Future of Children, 4(2), 31.
4. Jones, L., Bellis, M. A., Wood, S., Hughes, K., Mccoy, E., Eckley, L., . . . Officer, A. (2012). Prevalence and risk of violence against children with disabilities: A systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. The Lancet, 380(9845), 899-907.
5. Wolak, J., Mitchell, K., & Finkelhor, D. (2006). Online Victimization of Youth: Five Years Later. PsycEXTRA Dataset.
6. Finkelhor, D., & Ormrod, R. (2000). Characteristics of crimes against juveniles. PsycEXTRA Dataset.
7. Finkelhor, D., Shattuck, A., Turner, H.A., Hamby, S. L. (2014) The lifetime prevalence of child sexual abuse and sexual assault assessed in late adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Health.
8. Canadian Centre for Child Protection. Child Sexual Abuse: It Is Your Business.
9. Daigneault, I., Esposito, T., Bourgeois, C., Hébert, M., Delaye, A., & Frappier, J.-Y. (2017). Health Service Use of Sexually Abused Adolescents Aging Out of Care: A Matched-Cohort Study. International Journal of Child and Adolescent Resilience (IJCAR), 5(1), 53-66.
10. Fergusson, D. M., McLeod, G. F. H., & Horwood, L. J. (2013). Childhood sexual abuse and adult developmental outcomes: Findings from a 30-year longitudinal study in New Zealand. Child Abuse & Neglect, 37(9), 664-674.
12. Angelakis, I., Gillespie, E. L., & Panagioti, M. (2019). Childhood maltreatment and adult suicidality: A comprehensive systematic review with meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine, 49(07), 1057-1078.
13. Yancey, C. T., & Hansen, D. J. (2010). Relationship of personal, familial, and abuse-specific factors with outcome following childhood sexual abuse. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15(6), 410-421.
14. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Risk and Protective Factors.
15. Tolman, D. L., & Mcclelland, S. I. (2011). Normative Sexuality Development in Adolescence: A Decade in Review, 2000-2009. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21(1), 242-255.

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