Chapter Eight: What is the difference between Sexual Molestation and Sexual Abuse? How Can I Prevent It?

There is much debate and confusion about the difference between sexual molestation and sexual abuse. This chapter will differentiate between the two and describe warning signs and what to do about them.

Sexual Molestation vs. Sexual Abuse

The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) found that in 2005, around 9.3% of confirmed or substantiated child abuse and neglect cases involved sexual abuse. The term "sexual abuse" generally involves sexual intercourse or a deviation of intercourse. Even if an offense doesn’t fall under this exact definition, any wrongdoing that involves touching a child sexually, or even exploiting a child sexually without touching them, can be just as harmful and devastating to a child’s well-being. Touching sexual offenses include "fondling, making a child touch an adult’s sexual organs, or penetrating a child’s vagina or anus no matter how slight - with a penis or any object that doesn’t have a valid medical purpose. Non-touching sexual offenses include: engaging in indecent exposure or exhibitionism; exposing children to pornographic material; deliberately exposing a child to the act of sexual intercourse; and masturbating in front of a child."

Sexual abuse can happen across all ages, but molestation is strictly limited to younger children. Because a child’s penis or vagina is too small for physical penetration, molestation occurs when the child is "forced to perform oral sex, touched in an inappropriate manner, and/or made to watch the adult masturbate." Sexual abuse happens over a longer period of time and involves actual physical penetration, in addition to everything that is included in molestation.

It is important to pay attention to any warning signs of sexual abuse are present in your child’s behavior. Remain alert with the adults that are in your child’s life, as there may be adults who use their relationship with your child for sexual reasons. Adults who are in positions of power with your children, such as in school, and even those who are family friends or relatives have a higher chance of sexually abusing children they know. Children, in turn, are less likely to report these familiar adults and more likely to "go along" with the abuse.

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Some signs that an adult is using their relationship with a child for sexual reasons include:

  • Constant physical affection when addressing your child: giving them kisses, hugs, or even wrestling with them often when it seems as though they don’t want this attention.
  • Wanting an unreasonable role in deciding what your child is allowed and not allowed to do. Someone who doesn’t want your child to make their own decisions on personal matters is a red flag.
    • This may be used as an authoritative and controlling tactic, leaving the child fearful with no choice but to abide by the perpetrator’s decisions.
  • Being abnormally interested in your child’s sexual development as they grow older.
    • The abuser gets a sense of the child’s development and how far along in puberty they are. Some sexual abusers specifically target pre-pubescent children.
  • Insisting on spending time alone with your child with no disruptions.
    • If an adult is insisting on time alone with a child for no apparent reason, be alert regarding their behavior as well as the child’s. If it is someone you do not know well, do not allow this person to be alone with your child. Even if it is someone you personally know, do not allow your child to be alone with a person who is so insistent on spending alone time with them, as that is never a good sign.
  • Constantly asking and offering to babysit your child or take them on overnight outings and refusing to take money for it.
    • When it is an adult offering to babysit children for free, there is usually some "payout" they are getting somewhere else. In abusers’ minds, this payout may be in sexual acts and/or sexual gratification with the child. Never allow your child to be taken on overnight outings alone with any adult, unless it is a trusted grandparent or parent.
  • Always showing up with expensive gifts for your child or giving them money for no reason.
    • This could be a sign of grooming your child to build a trusting relationship with the perpetrator.
  • Having an obvious "favorite" child in your home and making that child feel special in comparison to other siblings or members of the family.
    • Sexual abusers tend to target those children who are most vulnerable. If a potential perpetrator is beginning to treat a child with exceptional love and affection as compared to others, it could be the beginning signs of potential sexual abuse or molestation. The special treatment of a child makes the perpetrators seem more trusting and more of a parental figure, with whom the child feels more comfortable with the adult as someone they can go to for comfort.

Since many parents believe that their family is "invincible" from sexual abuse, many adults tend to overlook obvious signs of abuse. It is difficult to believe that a family member or close friend can be capable of such acts, so many parents may minimize or overlook allegations of abuse.

Physical and Psychological Child Reactions to Sexual Abuse

Some common reactions of a child if they are being sexually abused include, but are not limited to, "withdrawal, depression, self-mutilation, psychosomatic symptoms (stomachaches, headaches), guilt, and school problems (absences, drops in grades)." Their reactions are different from behavioral signs, which include having knowledge about sexual topics that are inappropriate for their age, their behavior around other children, significant weight changes/major changes in appetite, self-harming, suicide attempts, sudden shyness, fear of physical contact, or signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. The most telltale signs of all if a child is being sexually abused are, of course, physical signs. Some of these signs include, but are not limited to, "difficulty walking or sitting, bloody, torn or stained underclothes, pain, itching, or burning in genital area, bleeding bruises, or swelling in genital area, and Sexually Transmitted Infections, especially if under 14 years old."

It is always important to remember to be open with your children and pick a time and place to talk about sensitive issues carefully. Predators sense a vulnerable child, so showing a child love, respect and understanding helps children with their self-esteem and makes them less likely to be sexually abused because they are instilled with a sense of confidence and support that will last a lifetime.