What is Childhood Sexual Abuse?

At Defend Innocence we use the following definition: Childhood sexual abuse is when another person (adult or peer) forces or coerces a child or adolescent into sexual activity, physical or non-physical. Physical sexual activities may include fondling genitals, masturbation, oral-genital contact, digital penetration, vaginal intercourse, or anal intercourse. Non-physical sexual activities may include unhealthy sexual exposure, voyeurism, and child pornography.


The sexual exploitation of children knows no boundaries. It happens in every country, ethnicity, race, religion, and economic background. You, as a parent, need to realize that this occurs everywhere and your child is at risk for being sexually abused.


However, you have the ability to protect your children from sexual abuse – to defend their innocence. Knowledge is power. Take the time to learn the facts, how to recognize perpetrators, what factors increase risk, and what tools can minimize risk. This will empower you to significantly reduce your child’s likelihood of being abused. Education is critical, for both you and your child. It will give you both the ability to make choices that will keep them safe.


Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

—Nelson Mandela

Key Statistics

  • 1 in 5 children are sexually abused before the age of 181
  • 90% of sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows2

Sexual abuse thrives in secrecy. Many parents don’t understand the significant risk to their children. Fortunately, parents who educate themselves, and their children, are the best defenders of innocence.


1- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Kaiser Permanente. e ACE Study Survey Data [Unpublished Data]. Atlanta, Georgia: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2016.
2- Finkelhor, D. (2012). Characteristics of crimes against juveniles. Durham, NH: Crimes against Children Research Center.


Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

—Dr. Seuss


Although you can’t completely eliminate the risk of sexual abuse, you can reduce it. With the information below you’ll be able to create a healthy environment for your children, where they feel comfortable talking to you about sexuality, without suffocating their development and innocence.



Prevention and Awareness

There are unlimited ways that a perpetrator may coerce a child, but if parents watch for common patterns they can significantly reduce the risk of sexual abuse. We recommend focusing on four specific principles that reduce the risk.

Principle 1: Dispel the Myths

There are a lot of myths about sexual abuse. For example, most parents believe that teaching their child about “stranger danger” will protect them from potential perpetrators. While it is good to teach about stranger danger, the unfortunate reality is that most perpetrators are in the family circle of trust and not strangers. Dispelling this myth will help you become more aware of where the risks really are.

Read more:
8 Myths of Childhood Sexual Abuse
Danger Isn’t Always a Stranger


Principle 2: Recognize Perpetrator Patterns

Perpetrators are often charismatic and work hard to establish trust with the child they are grooming as well as that child’s family. A parent who recognizes these grooming patterns is better prepared to stop abuse before it happens. An informed parent may be enough of a deterrent to a potential perpetrator.

Read more:
6 Perpetrator Grooming Patterns Every Parent Needs to Know


Principle 3: Understand Factors that Increase Risk

There are certain factors that increase the risk that a child will be targeted. For example, children who have unsupervised access to tech are much easier targets for a perpetrator than children whose online activity is monitored. Perpetrators look to exploit children who are less likely to disclose the abuse.

Read more:
6 Factors that Increase the Risks of Child Sexual Abuse


Principle 4: Learn Tools that Minimize Risk

Specific tools can be used to minimize the risk of your child being sexually abused. A parent who knows and employs these tools can not only reduce the risk, but also increase the overall health and well-being of their children.

Read more:
10 Tools Parents Can Use to Minimize the Risk of Childhood Sexual Abuse


Principle 5: Confront with Kindness

It’s not necessary for you to accuse someone of abuse to get his or her attention. If you see grooming patterns between someone and your child, simply pull the individual aside and let them know that you aren’t comfortable with their behavior toward, and interaction with, your child. If their behavior was innocent, they will likely be very apologetic and respect the boundaries you’re creating. If the individual is a perpetrator, they’ll know that you’ll be watching them closely and thus reduce the risk that they will abuse your child. If you know someone is abusing your child, do not approach the perpetrator. Allow the authorities to do so.

Remember that YOU are responsible to protect your child and that can include difficult conversations with people you love and respect.

Read More:
What to Do If You Suspect Your Child has Been Sexually Abused


Recognize and Respond

If you are positive that someone is a perpetrator, do not confront them. Most governments have clears laws on what adults must do if they suspect child abuse. Learn the laws so you know how to respond. Report abuse to authorities and engage a mental health professional to evaluate your child.


Signs of Sexual Abuse

The signs that your child has been sexually abused can manifest in many ways. There’s no absolute checklist that a parent can follow to determine if their child has been abused. There are common signs, however, that indicate the likelihood of abuse.

Note both behaviors and physical signs your child is showing. Some signs are easy to associate with abuse while others are harder to associate.

Don’t be overly alarmed if your child shows some of the hard-to-associate indications listed below as they may come from a variety of sources outside of abuse. If multiple indicators are present though, you should engage professionals to help determine if abuse has occurred. If you notice any of the easy-to-associate indications, immediately have your child evaluated by a professional.

Read More:
What to Do if You Suspect Your Child has Been Sexually Abused

Behavior Indications
Easy to Associate with Sexual Abuse:

  • Reluctance to undress or bathe
  • Fear of being alone with certain people
  • Fear of certain places or objects
  • Uncomfortable with signs of affection such as hugging and kissing
  • Hyper-sexuality that is inappropriate for their age

Hard to Associate with Sexual Abuse:

  • Change in school performance
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Unusually compliant or “perfect” behavior
  • Reverting back to childish behaviors
  • Depression or unexplained crying
  • Loss of interest in extracurricular activities
  • Eating disorder
  • Substance abuse
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal behavior
  • Sudden mood swings and/or personality changes

Physical Indications
Easy to Associate with Sexual Abuse

  • Torn clothing
  • Bleeding in genital or mouth areas
  • Itching, pain, or discharge in the genital areas
  • Swelling, rash, or redness of the genitals

Hard to Associate with Sexual Abuse

  • Difficulty walking or sitting
  • Sudden weight-gain or loss
  • Change in appetite
  • Change in sleeping patterns
  • Unexplained headaches or upset stomach
  • Vaginal, yeast, and urinary infections


Teach Healthy Sexuality

Parents often wonder how they’re going to handle “The Big Talk” with their child. Instead of doing a single big talk, we’ve found little talks over a period of time are much more effective. You can empower your child if healthy sexuality is an ongoing conversation.


Teaching kids to count is fine, but teaching them what counts is best.

—Bob Talber


Teaching children about healthy sexuality might seem overwhelming, but there are important benefits to doing it. When you teach healthy sexuality you’re able to provide correct information at the best time for your child.

Children are bombarded with representations of sex and sexuality on a daily basis – most of which is distorted or unhealthy. When you open a dialogue between your child about sex and sexuality, your child now knows there is a trust source to help guide him/her through the often confusing messages out there.


Age-Appropriate Conversations

Discussing healthy sexuality should start early in a child’s life. You can start with helping them name their body parts and teach them to listen to their feelings about giving and receiving affection, such as hugs and kisses. The conversation should mature as the child matures, allowing you to guide them. Educated parents should be the best source of information about sexuality for every child. It is your job as a parent to discern when a child is best prepared for a particular conversation.

Read More:
Teaching Healthy Sexuality While Your Children Are Young
Teaching Healthy Sexuality to Your Teenager


Addressing Unhealthy Sexual Behaviors

One of the most important moments is when you feel the need to respond to unhealthy sexual behaviors. It’s a risky time because it could easily shut down the communication with your child and engender sexual shame. There are three keys to help make the interaction successful:

  1. Learn to respond instead of react
  2. Make it safe to have open dialogue
  3. Reinforce healthy behaviors and family values

Read More:
5 Ways to Respond (Not React) to Unhealthy Sexual Behaviors

We want to empower you, as parents, to protect your children from sexual abuse. Educate yourself and start defending innocence now.