Sexual molestation is the indecent behavior of a dominant, older individual who coerces a child into sexual activity. Today, more than three million American children are victims of sexual abuse, and approximately 300,000 children are molested every year.
Molestation can manifest itself in many forms. The scope of behaviors that a perpetrator can exhibit is great, and includes sensual kissing, inappropriate touching or fondling of the child’s genitals, breast or buttock, masturbation of a child, oral-genital contact, genital-genital contact, penetration with fingers and child prostitution. Sexual abuse accounts for 9.2% of all types of child abuse, following neglect, physical abuse and other undefined types of maltreatment.
Children and adolescents of all races, cultures and socioeconomic statuses are all equally at risk for sexual victimization, however young girls are more commonly sexually abused than boys. An estimate of at least two out of every ten girls, and one out of every ten boys will have been sexually abused by their 14th birthday. The proportions increase as adolescents approach adulthood – approximately one in four girls, and one in six boys are sexually abused before they turn 18. These numbers, however, may be slightly skewed due to the fact that males are more likely to underreport their sexual abuse.
More than 90% of young sexual abuse victims know their perpetrator in some way, and 30% of molesters are family members. In most cases the perpetrator is male, whether the victim is a boy or a girl. Women are the abusers in 14% of cases reported among boys and 6% among girls.
It is important to note that the perpetrator is not adult in every case of child molestation. In almost one quarter of reported sexual molestation cases the abuser is under 18 years old. For a sexual act between two non-adults to be considered child molestation the age difference between the two individuals must be five years. For example, sexual contact between a 12 year old and 7 year old would be regarded as child molestation.
Common characteristics of child molesters include a history of physical abuse, prevalence of alcohol and drug abuse, emotional instability and in some cases mental illness.
Warning Signs of Child Molestation
Children have a hard time compartmentalizing stress, and have a tendency to act out in other ways that may signify the possibility of sexual abuse. There are two separate types of warning signs to look out for that children exhibit, as well as the suspicious behaviors of the suspected molester.
1. Let’s start with the physical signs of the child, as they can be the most apparent:
- Pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection, especially in children under 14 years old
- Blood or discharge in the child’s underwear
- Trouble walking or sitting
- Unusual odors
- Bruising or continuous injuries
- Sudden change in appetite (this may lead to an eating disorder)
2. Next, adults should be on the lookout for emotional and behavioral signs of the child:
- Angry outbursts with little to no provocation
- Severe mood swings
- Statements that he or she was sexually abused
- Uncharacteristically poor performance in sports or school
- Sudden refusal to change for gym or to participate in physical activities
- Child reports nightmares or exhibits regressive behaviors for their age, such as thumb-sucking and bed wetting
- Abuse of other children sexually, displays unusually sexually and seductive behavior with peers
- Excessive masturbation
- Withdrawal and isolation from peers
- Child says he or she has a secret with an adult
- Child has an illogical fear of interpersonal relationships and of being alone with a certain demographic of people, particularly with men or boys.
- Demonstrates bizarre, sophisticated or unusual sexual knowledge or behavior inappropriate for their age
3. It isn’t only the child who can exhibit signs of molestation. Parents, caregivers and other adults in a child’s life can also behave in suspicious manners that can indicate the possibility of sexual abuse. The following are perpetrator’s signs:
- He or she is overly protective of the child or severely limits the child’s contact with other children and adults
- He or she expresses hesitation to seek medical assistance for the child’s injuries, or counseling for troubling behavior. This can also include a severe overreaction to a child who is receiving any type of sex education at school.
- There is a lack of emotional involvement with the child, but excessive physical affection
- He or she makes sexual remarks about the child (even in a joking manner)
- He or she wants to sleep in the same bed as the child
- When in the presence of the child, he or she is secretive and isolates the two of them from everyone else
- He or she is jealous or controlling with other family members
Long-term Effects and Lasting Impacts
Not all victims of sexual molestation show symptoms of their abuse. In fact, about 40% display no signs at all of their victimization. However, short-term and long-term physical, emotional, behavioral and social effects can impact a child’s life forever.
Short-term effects include separation anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, guilt, constant fear, low self-esteem, identity confusion and eating disorders. In the long run, victims of this type of abuse can experience all of the previous symptoms as well as substance abuse, destructive behavior, sexual dysfunction in adulthood, a criminal lifestyle, suicide and learning problems later in life.
Of course, there is no fool-proof way to ensure that your child will always be out of harm’s way, but education is the most important key to keeping your children safe from molestation.
Always keep the lines of communication open between you and your child. Teach your child about his or her body parts and explain that no one is allowed to touch them in their private areas. Be sure they are comfortable with the conversation rather than mortified by it, and understand that they need to inform you of any sexual advances.
Refrain from using language that will make your child embarrassed about their body, and instead teach him or her to respect their body parts. A molester who comes into contact with a child who is self-aware, confident and respectful of their body will be more likely to abandon their attempt and search for another victim.
Many parents make the mistake of using fear to manipulate their child’s emotions and reactions to sexual advances. This can alter their real world perception and prevent them from creating normal, healthy relationships. Rather than scaring your child, you should warn them of actual dangers while reassuring them that most of the world is populated with good people.