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Child Sexual Abuse and Assault (Rape)

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Puberty is a time when sexual feelings emerge. Some youth may willingly engage in sexual activity as they explore their sexuality despite their parent's explicit wishes or instructions to the contrary. Such exploration, and the parental worry that naturally accompanies it, is developmentally normal and not in of itself cause for alarm.

no violence signNormal pubescent sexual exploration needs to be differentiated from child sexual abuse and from rape. Sexual abuse occurs any time a sexual act occurs between a child and an adult, or a significantly older child. Rape or sexual assault, an especially invasive and awful form of sexual abuse, occurs whenever children are forced or coerced into physical sexual activity without their express consent, regardless of the perpetrator's age.

Sexual abuse includes a wide range of physical sexual behaviors, from passive inappropriate touching or fondling all the way to forced sexual intercourse. Sexual abuse also may occur without any physical touch having occurred, such as when children are forced to look at pornography, or to observe the sexual activity of others. Forcing to children to participate in the making of pornography is still another form of sexual exploitation. Often, older youth or adults may coerce younger youth into participating in these acts by threatening them, or the people they care about.

Sexual assault or rape can occur between youth of the same age whenever one partner forces or coerces another into any form of undesired sexual activity. These sorts of "peer" rapes are sometimes termed "date rape" or "acquaintance rape", when the victim is forced into sexual activity by someone they trust such as a friend or dating partner. Acquaintance rape may involve violence, with the victim verbally protesting the sexual act and physically attempting to fight back. However, acquaintance rape victims may also give in to the rape without violence or significant protest because they feel unable to say "no" for social or emotional reasons, or because they have been manipulated or intimidated. In such cases victims may not want to participate, but believe they cannot safely disagree or fight back. Alternatively, victims may have been drugged, or encouraged to use drugs to excess so as to intentionally render them less able to protest.

Sexually abused or assaulted youth often (but not always) find themselves emotionally damaged or even traumatized by their victimization. There are both short and long term effects which may result from such abuse, including intense shame, lowered self-esteem, grief, anger, depression, anxiety and difficulty forming new loving and sexually healthy relationships. We strongly recommend that all sexually abused or victimized children be given the opportunity to meet with a professional counselor who can help them learn to cope, keep themselves safe and put their victimization into a perspective that enables them to move forward in a healthy manner. Though not perfect, professional help can go a long way towards limiting the effects of this harm.

Children May Not Talk About Sexual Abuse

Children often feel unable to talk with their parents about sexual abuse or rape. They may fail to bring the topic up, or may delay reporting that a rape or abuse has occurred for months or years. Many reasons motivate children's withholding of information including threats of harm against them or family members, intense shame, or an incorrect but common perception that they must somehow be at fault and have caused the abuse or attack to have occurred.


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