Sexual Abuse Fact Sheet |
Amy Naugle, Ph.D.
National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center
Medical University of South Carolina
What Is Childhood Sexual Abuse?
abuse is broadly defined as any type of sexual activity with a child that
either involves force or coercion, or that occurs between the child and
someone much older. Specific laws regarding the age at which someone can
consent to sexual contact with an adult varies by state. Usually, the age
of consent is between 14 and 18 years of age. Sexual activity includes both
sexual contact as well as noncontact sexual experiences, such as being exposed
to pornography or exhibitionism.
How Common Is Childhood Sexual Abuse?
exact rates of childhood sexual abuse in the general population are not
known for certain, in large part because incidents are not often reported
at the time they occur. In 1997, there were more
than 98,000 substantiated cases of childhood sexual abuse in the United
States. Sexual abuse cases accounted for approximately 12% of all substantiated
child maltreatment cases. These statistics suggest that 1.4 per 1000 children
have sexual abuse experiences that are considered substantiated by law
enforcement or other child protection agencies. In population surveys
that assess for childhood sexual abuse experiences, the rates are significantly
higher. In a national survey of adolescents(1), 13% of females and 3.4%
of males reported being sexually assaulted before the age of 18. These
rates vary some across studies and are dependent on how childhood sexual
abuse is defined and the sample of individuals who are assessed. In general,
approximately 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men report a history of some form
of childhood sexual abuse(2). Multiple incidents of abuse are relatively
common, and occur in 50-75% of cases.
What Are the Characteristics of Sexual Abuse Offenders?
abuse can occur by persons known to the child, such as teachers, ministers,
coaches, siblings, and other family members; as well as by strangers(3).
Most commonly, the offender is someone known to the child. Surveys of
the general population indicate that in approximately 16% of childhood
sexual abuse cases the offender is a parent or stepparent. In approximately
39% of cases, the offender is a non-relative who is known to the child.
A relatively small proportion of sexual abuses cases (about 11%) are perpetrated
by a stranger(4). The majority of childhood sexual abuse offenders are
male, however boys are more likely than girls to be abused by a female(5).
Who Is At Risk for Sexual Abuse?
A number of variables have been investigated to determine what, if any,
factors are associated with increased risk for childhood sexual abuse.
Females are three times more likely to be sexually abused during childhood
than males. In general, children who live away from both of their natural
parents have been found to be at increased risk for being sexually victimized(3).
Families in which there is a stepparent living in the household have been
associated with increased risk. In addition, specific characteristics
of families with a child who has been sexually abused have been given
some attention in the literature. For example, families of child sexual
abuse victims have been found to be less cohesive, more socially isolated,
and generally more dysfunctional than families of nonabused children(6).
Children who have a physical disability are almost twice as likely to
be sexually abused than children without a disability are. Socioeconomic
status and race have not been found to be risk factors.
What Are the Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse?
Research investigating the effects of childhood sexual abuse has found
a number of both short and long term psychological and interpersonal consequences
that are associated with a history of sexual victimization(7, 8). Much
of the information we have regarding the longer term impact of childhood
sexual abuse is provided by adults who report a history of childhood sexual
abuse. The information we have regarding the impact sexual abuse has on
children is obtained primarily from clinical samples. In general, children
who are sexually abused display signs of fear, anxiety, and concentration
problems consistent with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
They tend to be more aggressive and difficulties in peer relationships
than nonabused children. In addition, sexually abused children are reported
to have more behavioral problems in comparison to nonabused children,
and specifically have been found to display more sexual behavior problems(9).
A history of childhood sexual abuse is also associated with a number of
longer term difficulties in adult life(2). Depression is the most commonly
reported symptom by adults who report childhood sexual abuse experiences.
Sexual abuse victims may have four times greater risk to have symptoms
of major depression than individuals without such a history. Sexually
abused individuals are also five times as likely to be diagnosed with
an anxiety disorder than nonabused individuals(10). These individuals
also report chronic irritability and difficulty controlling their anger.
Along with increased risk of PTSD, adult survivors of sexual abuse have
been found to have higher levels of dissociation, higher rates of suicidal
ideation and suicide attempts, as well as higher rates of tension-reducing
self-injurious behaviors such as cutting or burning oneself. Women who
report a history of childhood sexual abuse also report more difficulties
in sexual functioning and are at increased risk for being revictimized.
It should be noted that some individuals with a reported history of sexual
abuse do not report any significant problems as adults.
What Is Physical Abuse?
definitions of child physical abuse vary widely and it is often difficult
to come to a consensus as to what is meant when we talk about physical
abuse. There is often a fine distinction between what constitutes physical
abuse and extreme or harsh parental discipline practices (Kolko, 1996).
The onus is often on individual child welfare professionals to determine
when parental behaviors are sufficiently excessive and dangerous to be
considered abusive. According to Snyder and Sickmund (1999), "physical
abuse includes physical acts that caused or could have caused physical
injury to the child." In general, there are four different, but not wholly
unique, types of child physical abuse: 1) intentional infliction
of physical injury on a child; 2) examples of "discipline gone wrong"
which results in unintentional physical injury to the child; 3) negligence
that results in physical injury (e.g., the child is not given proper supervision
and falls from a high place); and 4) negligence that presents a risk
of physical injury.
How Common Is Childhood Physical Abuse?
Because of the difficulties in defining physical abuse, the incidence
and prevalence rates of childhood physical abuse vary somewhat. In 1997,
approximately 24% of the substantiated cases of child maltreatment were
physical abuse cases. Thus, approximately 197,500 cases, or 2.7 per 1000
children, had childhood physical abuse experiences that warranted child
protective services. In a national population survey(1), 9.4% of adolescents
surveyed reported experiences of severe physical abuse that occurred in
the context of parental discipline. Extrapolating these findings to the
general population suggests that approximately 2.1 million adolescents
have been physically abused. Additional survey methods(11) have found
that 7.5% of youth have experienced a serious family physical assault
and 74.5% report corporal punishment discipline practices in their homes.
The rates of physical abuse are relatively equal across girls and boys.
What Are the Characteristics of Physically Abusive Parents?
The research literature suggests that males and females are equally likely
to commit acts of physical abuse. It has been hypothesized that excessive
punishment in childhood is associated with increased risk of using aggressive
parenting practices with one’s own children. Indeed, an estimated 30%
of physically abused children become abusive parents. However, it should
be noted that most children who are physically abused do not grow
up to use abusive parenting practices(12). Single parent homes are only
at marginally greater risk for child physical abuse than dual parent homes.
In one study investigating characteristics of offenders in infant maltreatment
deaths(13), 84% of the offenders were male, 23% reported being abused
as children themselves, and they were typically young, married, first-time
parents. In addition, it has been noted that abusive parents often exhibit
inconsistent child-rearing practices and are more likely to use critical
or aggressive behavior management strategies with their children. Heightened
levels of stress, depression, and substance abuse have also been identified
as risk characteristics of abusive parents.
Who Is At Risk for Physical Abuse?
Children who have an early history of medical problems may be at particular
risk for physical abuse. Although medical, intellectual, and development
problems among children are characteristics of physically abusive parent-child
interactions, it is not clear whether these are causes or consequences
of abuse. Indeed, such problems may contribute to stressful family environments,
which may result in harsh parenting practices. However, such problems
may occur or be exacerbated by physically abusive interactions. Similarly,
while difficult temperament and conduct problems among children are specific
characteristics of children who are physically abused, it is not clear
whether these problems precede or follow physically abusive discipline
What Are The Effects of Childhood Physical Abuse?
The effects of childhood physical abuse are seen across a variety of domains.
First, the definitional features of what is meant by "physical abuse"
imply that one of the significant consequences is physical harm or injury
to the child. Children with a history of childhood physical abuse are
more likely to have neonatal problems, head injuries, serious physical
injuries, and skin markings or scars than children who are not abused(15).
Death is another potential outcome for children in physically abusive
home environments. In 1997, 1,196 childhood deaths were attributed to
physical abusive parenting practices.
addition to these physical outcomes, there are additional potential effects
for child physical abuse victims. Children who are raised in physically
abusive environments are more likely to have attachment problems, which
may be a basis for longer-term adjustment problems(14). Physically abused
children have more academic-related difficulties, including intellectual
deficits, poorer academic achievement, and lower test scores(16). Additionally,
there are several psychological and emotional/behavioral problems that
have been associated with a history of child physical abuse. These include
depression, chronic and excessive fear and anxiety, recurring anger, aggressive
behavior, hyperactivity, and difficulty establishing and maintaining friendships.
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