Defining Child Sexual Abuse

Touching and Non-Touching Behaviors

If you are not exactly sure what sexual abuse is, you’re not alone. All sexual touching between an adult and a child is sexual abuse. Sexual abuse does not have to involve penetration, force, pain, or even touching. If an adult engages in any sexual behavior (looking, showing, or touching) with a child to meet the adult’s interest or sexual needs, it is sexual abuse.

Some of examples of non-contact sexual abuse (sexual abuse that does not involve physical contact) includes an adult exposing their genitals to a child, showing pornography to a child, inapparopriately peeking in on a youth when they’re changing or showering, and masturbating in front of a child. Contact sexual abuse (sexual abuse that involves physical contact) can include making a child touch another youth or adult sexually, putting objects, body parts or a mouth on or in a child’s sexual organs, and any other sexual touching from an adult to a child. Child sexual abuse also includes the manufacture, distribution and viewing of child pornography, now called child sexual abuse material (CSAM). 

Sexual touching between children can also be sexually harmful or abusive when there is a significant age difference (often defined as 3 or more years) between the children, if the children are very different developmentally or size-wise, or if it involves adult-like sexual behavior from an older child to a younger child. For more information see our FAQ: Can child sexual abuse also involve a child sexually abusing another child?

A Gradual Process

Most often child sexual abuse is a gradual process and not a single event. By learning the early warning signs and how to effectively step in and speak up, sexual abuse can be stopped before it starts and a child is harmed. Adults must take the primary responsibility for preventing child sexual abuse by addressing any concerning or questionable behavior which may pose a risk to a child’s safety. For more information on identifying warning signs, planning for safety and having conversations with other adults, check out the Prevention Tools section of our website.