Child Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is an inappropriate sexual behaviour towards a child. Child Sexual Abuse occurs when a child under 16 years of age is used by an adult or older child in a sexual way. The abuser is usually someone 3 or more years older or physically more developed than the survivor. It can be an older child.

Sexual Abuse can be non-contact abuse (e.g., exhibitionism, voyeurism) or contact abuse (e.g., genital/anal fondling, oral sex). This may include: touching genitals; penetration of the genitals with fingers, penis or objects; rape; tongue kissing; genital exposure; the viewing of pornographic videos; and/or coercion into nudity and masturbation for the adult’s gratification.

Sexual Play between children of the same age is not likely to be harmful because of the children’s equal power and development.


Incest is legally defined as: sexual intercourse between (a) parent and child; (b) brother and sister, whether of whole or half blood; or (c) grandparent and grandchild.

  • Incest is overt sexual behaviour that is imposed on a child by an older family member.
  • Incest is using a child for one’s own sexual purposes.
  • Incest is depriving a child of the right to a loving, nonsexual relationship with a family member.
  • Incest is the adult’s responsibility, no matter who initiates the behaviour.
  • Incest is not nurturing physical closeness, which is one of the most tender and basic expressions of human love.
  • The offender is usually the child’s father, stepfather, grandfather, uncle, or brother.
  • 85% of sexually abused children are female
  • 96% of offenders are male
  • Incest happens in the family. It happens in families from all classes, races, economic, and social backgrounds.

With incest, there is an imbalance of power and knowledge between the aggressor and the survivor. Incest is not love or consensual sexual activity. The motivations behind incest are power and domination, and incest thrives in the privacy and dependency of the family.

How does the child feel about the abuse?

  • A child may immediately have misgivings or a feeling of repulsion when the abuse begins. In other cases, initially the abuse may not be frightening at the time. It is often portrayed by the abuser as a “secret” or “game”.
  • The child often does not realise the inappropriateness of the behaviour. The child may participate willingly because it fills their need for:  attention (special), love, physical contact.
  • Initially the offender seldom uses threats and physical forces, because:
    • physical harm leaves visible evidence that could lead to discovery
    • the offender is someone the child has been taught to trust
    • children are taught to be obedient and that adults know what is best for them
  • When a child realises the inappropriateness of the abuse, the child may feel:
    • betrayed by the trusted offender
    • betrayed by the rest of the family who have failed to stop the abuse
    • guilt and responsibility for letting the abuse go on; they may blame themselves.

Why doesn’t the child end the abuse by telling someone?

There are many reasons why a child may not tell. Some of these include:

  • Often when the child realises that the abuse is wrong, the child may start to resist the abuser. The abuser will then usually begin to use threats and physical force. The threats are usually guilt-laden, with consequences if the child tells.
  • The child may not tell because of their own sense of guilt.
  • The child may not tell because they feel they want to protect their family, especially younger siblings.
  • The child may be embarrassed and not know where to turn.

Indicators of Child Sexual Abuse

Statements by children concerning sexual acts committed upon them are the most reliable indicators of sexual abuse. Children do not usually make up stories about sexual abuse.

Physical signs (evident in only a small percentage of cases):

  • presence in the mouth, vagina, or rectum of some type of sexually transmitted disease
  • anal/oral/genital tissue damage
  • presence of foreign objects in some orifice of the body
  • pregnancy
  • bloodstains on underwear
  • itching due to thrush
  • bruising on genital areas
  • pain experienced in urination or elimination

Behavioural indications:

Behaviours are not always indications of sexual abuse. However, they are signs of distress in a child and a professional evaluation may be helpful.

  • eating, sleeping, and bowel/bladder disturbances
  • regressive behaviour (acting like a much younger child e.g., bedwetting)
  • excessive crying
  • excessive masturbatory behaviour in small children
  • irritability, crankiness, short-tempered behaviour
  • too sophisticated knowledge about sexual acts for the child’s age
  • excessive attempts to manipulate the genitals of others
  • psychosomatic complaints (physical diseases having a psychological origin)
  • school problems e.g., change in behaviour at school
  • phobias, fears
  • secretive behaviours
  • lack of friends
  • stealing, lying
  • manipulative and seductive behaviours
  • compulsive behaviours (e.g., taking an excessive number of baths)
  • acting-out behaviours (e.g., truancy, running away etc.)
  • promiscuity
  • prostitution
  • self-destructive behaviours (e.g., drug/alcohol abuse, suicide gestures)
  • depression
  • alienation from other family members

If signs go unheeded, the child can be left feeling betrayed, not only by the abuser but also by the adults who failed to recognise and stop the abuse.

How does incest affect the child?

Children’s feelings and incest

Incest causes the child to have conflicting feelings. These feelings can be:

  • Fear: The offender tries to pledge the child to secrecy. The child is told not to tell or something bad will happen. The child is afraid to tell because the consequences might be punishment, blame, abandonment, or not being believed.
  • Power: Sometimes the child feels responsible for keeping the family together. The burden of this power interferes with experiences of a normal childhood.
  • Guilt: The child knows something is wrong and blames themselves. The child sometimes feels like a “bad” person.
  • Warmth: The child is often singled out for special attention or favours. Children often love their parents even if they are abusive. The offender can be a good parent in other ways.
  • Isolation: Incest survivors feel different from other children. They usually must be secretive.

Adult survivors’ feelings of child sexual abuse

  • Betrayed: Lost a father, lost the sense of being able to go to your father.
  • Disillusioned: Doesn’t trust men.
  • Tricked: My innocence was used. I was coerced into doing something I did not want to do. And they called it love. They used to say to me: “You love me, don’t you?”. But they had all the control; I had none, and they used force to take control.
  • Old: Because of not being able to tell anyone I felt distanced from other children and distanced from other people. I felt a sense of responsibility older than my years. Had to guard my tongue.
  • Different: Had to pretend everything was all right. Had to smile when I wanted to say I hated him.
  • Sick: Literally as well as emotionally. When he backed me up against the wall to fondle my breasts I wanted to vomit.
  • Bewildered: I did not understand what was happening for a long time.
  • Insecure
  • Separated
  • Lost and alien
  • Guilty: Thought it was my fault. I thought I had done something to make it happen, that everyone must know what had happened and must think I was dirty.
  • Ashamed
  • Vulnerable
  • Fear: Afraid of being in the room alone with him. Afraid, knowing the person might visit. Afraid of games, that they would go on for longer than they should and become something else. Afraid of my mother leaving or dying. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of strangers. Afraid of open spaces with nowhere to hide. Afraid in bed.

Problems in later years caused by incest

  • development of a negative self-image
  • difficulty in developing relationships which involve trust and caring
  • difficulty in forming satisfying sexual relationships
  • difficulty in expressing feelings openly
  • development of behaviours such as truancy, prostitution, drug abuse

Many survivors reported:

  • feeling cut-off and detached from their sexuality
  • not wanting to be touched
  • not wanted to be sexually touched
  • not wanting to be sexually touched unless it is absolutely under their control
  • not knowing for a long time why they were feeling so detached
  • knowing that sexuality is a part of loving but unable to accept that and not knowing why they were feeling that way

How Sexual Abuse Affects Women and Children


  • Confusion
  • Fears
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Nightmares
  • Sleeplessness
  • Self-blame
  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Feeling dirty
  • Anger
  • Hostility towards men

Loss of:

  • confidence
  • self respect
  • dignity
  • self esteem
  • trust in men
  • trust in people
  • trust in family
  • childhood


  • Problems with physical contact
  • Sexual difficulties
  • Sexually over-active
  • Sexually disinterested
  • Phobias (e.g. agoraphobia)
  • Suicidal thoughts/attempts
  • Excessive dependency on others
  • “Survivor” mentality
  • Emotionally “cut off”
  • Powerlessness
  • Meaninglessness
  • Denial
  • Lack of “get up and go”


  • General deterioration
  • Medication needed
  • Gynaecological problems
  • Injuries
  • Long-term disabilities
  • Frigidity
  • Drug dependency
  • Psychiatric admissions
  • Self inflicted injuries
  • Weight gain
  • Weight loss
  • Eating disorders (e.g., anorexia, bulimia)
  • Sleeping disorders
  • Tiredness/exhaustion


  • Restrictions on activity
  • Financial losses
  • Schooling difficulties
  • Career affected
  • Job loss
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Broken marriage
  • Affects all/some relationships with men
  • Have to shift house
  • Loss of virginity
  • Unable to have children
  • Pregnancy
  • Survivorised by community
  • Blame from others
  • No income from father (jailed/left home)
  • Family members illness/suicide
  • Further abusive relationships
  • Goes in for counselling
  • Trains in self-defence, martial arts and assertiveness
  • Uses experience to support others heal

Many of these affect all aspects of life e.g. pregnancy, alcohol dependency, sexual difficulties etc. There are stages in the healing process; no reaction is “abnormal” to being refused control over one’s body and the right to decide.

Many of the most serious effects are the result of being unable to start the healing process quickly.