Clearing Up Common Misunderstandings

Child sexual abuse can be a very confusing topic, both to adults and to children. Below are six clarifications of common misunderstandings many adults have articulated on our Helpline while attempting to make sense out of confusing situations.

Child sexual abuse does not have to involve physical contact.

Child sexual abuse does not always involve touching. Many people don’t realize that non-touching behaviors including taking photographs of a child in sexual poses or exposing your genitals to a child for sexual arousal are child sexual abuse. In addition, many other non-touching behaviors, such as routinely “walking in” on children while they are dressing or using the bathroom, can be inappropriate and harmful even though they may not be illegal. It is important both for the sake of the child and for the person who is acting harmfully or inappropriately that adults intervene to protect the child and prevent the person from committing a crime.

Child sexual abuse does not have to include penetration.

To be considered child sexual abuse there does not have to be penetration to the vagina or anus. It is a common misunderstanding that so long as there has been no penetration, we don’t have to worry too much. Yet, to be considered child sexual abuse, behaviors do not have to involve penetration to the vagina, anus, or mouth (by penis, tongue, finger or object), or involve force.  Any touching of a child’s or teen’s genitals for the needs or sexual pleasure of an adult or older child is sexual abuse, and while it may not cause immediate physical harm to the child, it is abusive.

Children cannot give permission.

A child can willingly participate in sexual behaviors with older kids or adults, and it is still sexual abuse. Even if a child doesn’t say no, it is still sexual abuse. You might have heard someone say “they never said no” or “I thought they liked it” to explain why they behaved sexually with a child. Sometimes children who have been exposed to sexual situations that they don’t understand may behave sexually with adults or with other children. They may kiss others in the ways that they have seen on TV, or they may seek physical affection that seems sexual. Sometimes adults will say the child initiated the sexual behaviors that were harmful to the child. Legally and morally, it is always the adult’s responsibility to set boundaries with children and to stop the activity, regardless of permission given by a child or even a child’s request to play a sexual game. Children cannot be responsible to determine what is abusive or inappropriate.

Children can be legally charged for criminal sexual conduct.

The laws in each state vary, but in some cases children can be charged criminally for sexual behaviors with other children. Depending on the severity of the activity, the behavior could fall under the legal definitions of abuse and a child could be charged. If you are uncertain about whether the sexual behavior could be considered criminal, learn the statutes by consulting your Attorney General’s office or get a sex-specific evaluation from a specialist. If you see children engaging in sexual behaviors, it is important for you to set clear boundaries and to closely supervise them to be sure that behaviors don’t escalate or become harmful. If you are having difficulty setting or enforcing boundaries between children, you should seek specialized help. Intervening early is very important for the benefit of the sexually aggressive child – as the legal risk only increases as they get older.

Children are sexually abused in the making of child sexual abuse material.

Child pornography, now called child sexual abuse material or CSAM is not a victimless crime. Sometimes, people put child sexual abuse material in a different category than child sexual abuse. Someone might rationalize it by saying “the children are participating willingly,” but these images and videos depicting children in sexual poses or participating in sexual behaviors is child sexual abuse caught on camera, and therefore the images are illegal. Some refer to them as “crime scene photos” since the act of photographing the child in this way is criminal. Additionally, viewing child sexual abuse material creates a demand for this form of child sexual abuse. In some cases a fascination with child sexual abuse material can be an indicator for acting out abuse with a child.

Adults diagnosed with pedophilia are not destined to sexually abuse a child

Many individuals who meet the criteria for the psychiatric diagnosis of pedophilia (having feelings of sexual attraction to young children, typically those 11 and under) do not sexually abuse a child. There are many people who have sexual thoughts and feelings about children who are able to manage their behaviors, often with help and support. Additionally, not every person who has sexual thoughts about children will fit the criteria for pedophilia, and there are also many people who have sexually abused children who do not identify an attraction to children or carry a diagnosis of pedophilia. There are many reasons why someone would sexually harm a child, and children are kept safer when we are informed about what increases risk in their relationships and environment. We are better prepared to speak up whenever someone is acting unsafely around a child, regardless of what we know about their mental health or attractions.