The Cold Hard Facts on Child Sexual Abuse

Statistics show most victims are molested by someone they know

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Child sexual abuse is such a devastating crime because its victims are those least able to protect themselves or speak out, while those who perpetrate it are most likely to be repeat offenders. Many pedophiles follow career paths—including the clergy, athletic coaches, and counselors of troubled youth—that provide them with a steady stream of underage victims, while simultaneously and ironically, earning them the trust of other adults. The following facts and statistics, drawn from the National Center for Victims of Crime "Child Sexual Abuse" fact sheet, reveals the scope of child sexual abuse in the United States and its devastating long-term impact on a child's life.


Perhaps the most troublesome aspect regarding child sexual abuse is that it's a significantly under-reported crime that's difficult to prove or prosecute. Most perpetrators of child molestation, incest, and child rape are rarely identified or brought to justice.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), almost 80,000 cases of child sexual abuse reported each year fall far short of the actual number. Abuse frequently goes unreported because child victims are afraid to tell anyone what happened and the legal procedure for validating an episode is difficult.

Child Sex Abuse Percentages by Gender and Age

Children are most vulnerable to sexual abuse between the ages of 7 and 13. In the May 1997 issue of Pediatric Annual, Dr. Ann Botash estimated that 25% of girls and 16% of boys experience sexual abuse before they turn 18. Statistics for boys may be falsely low because of reporting techniques.

  • 67% were under age 18
  • 34% were under age 12
  • 14% were under age 6

Offenders are Often People Children Know and Trust

Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2000 revealed that all victims of sexual assault reported to law enforcement agencies, of offenders who victimized children under age 6, 40% were under age 18.

  • 96% were known to their victims
  • 50% were acquaintances or friends
  • 20% were fathers
  • 16% were relatives
  • 4% were strangers

How Poor Parenting Affects Child Sex Abuse

Sociologist and researcher Dr. David Finkelhor, who specializes in child sexual abuse and related topics, notes that it's often "a parent's connection (or lack thereof) to his/her child puts that child at greater risk of being sexually abused."

Despite what children are taught about "stranger danger," most child victims are abused by someone they know and trust. When the abuser is not a family member, the victim is more often a boy than a girl. The results of a three-state study of reported rape survivors under age 12 revealed the following about offenders:

  • Parental inadequacy
  • Parental unavailability
  • Parent-child conflict
  • A poor parent-child relationship

Psychological Ramifications of Early Sex Abuse

AACAP findings indicate that "a child of five or older who knows and cares for the abuser becomes trapped between affection or loyalty for the person and the sense that the sexual activities are terribly wrong.

"If the child tries to break away from the sexual relationship, the abuser may threaten the child with violence or loss of love. When sexual abuse occurs within the family, the child may fear the anger, jealousy or shame of other family members, or be afraid the family will break up if the secret is told."

How Perpetrators Influence or Intimidate Their Victims

Child sexual abuse involves coercion and occasionally violence. Perpetrators offer attention and gifts, manipulate or threaten the child, behave aggressively or use a combination of these tactics. In one study of child victims, half were subjected to a physical force such as being held down, struck, or violently shaken.

The Impact of Incest

Girls are the victims of incest and/or intrafamily sexual abuse much more frequently than boys. Between 33-50% of perpetrators who sexually abuse girls are family members, while only 10-20% of those who sexually abuse boys are intrafamily perpetrators.

Intrafamily abuse continues over a longer period of time than sexual abuse outside the family, and some forms—such as parent-child abuse—have more serious and lasting consequences.

Recognizing Signs of Child Sex Abuse

Behavioral changes are often the first signs of sexual abuse. These can include nervous or aggressive behavior toward adults, early and age-inappropriate sexual provocativeness, alcohol consumption and the use of other drugs. Boys are more likely than girls to act out or behave in aggressive and antisocial ways.

  • Chronic depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Multiple personalities
  • Dissociative responses and other signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome
  • Chronic states of arousal
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Venereal disease
  • Anxiety over sex
  • Fear of exposing the body during medical exams

When Kids Abuse Kids

According to research commissioned by the Justice Department from the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, more than one-third of all sex crimes against juveniles are perpetrated by other juveniles.

  • Juvenile offenders make up 36% of sex offenders who victimize minors.
  • Seven out of eight of these offenders are at least 12 years old
  • 93% are male.

Steps Parents Can Take to Stop Child Sex Abuse

Keeping open lines of communication with kids is crucial in order to prevent or curtail child sexual abuse. Children must understand that sexual abuse is never the victim's fault. First, children should be taught what behavior is appropriate affection—and what is not. Next, children must be made to understand that if someone—even someone they know, including a family member—is behaving toward them in an inappropriate manner, they should tell their parents immediately.

The AACAP says that while children should be taught to respect adults, that does not mean adhering to "blind obedience to adults and to authority." For example, telling children to "always do everything the teacher or babysitter tells you to do" is not good advice. Children should be taught to trust their instincts. "If someone tries to touch your body and do things that make you feel funny, say NO to that person and tell me right away."


  • "Medline Plus: Child Sexual Abuse." U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. 
  • "Child Sexual Abuse Statistics." National Center for Victims of Crime.
  • Finkelhor, David; Shattuck, Anne; Turner, Heather A.; Hamby, Sherry L. "The Lifetime Prevalence of Child Sexual Abuse and Sexual Assault Assessed in Late Adolescence." Journal of Adolescent Health—55. pp. 329, 329-333. 2014
  • Koch, Wendy. "Study: Many Sex Offenders are Kids Themselves." USA Today. January 4, 2009.
  • "Sex Abuse." , No. 9. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. November 2014.Facts for Family's Guide
  • Finkelhor, David. "Current Information on the Scope and Nature of Child Sexual Abuse." The Future of Children. 1994
  • Becker, Judith. "Offenders: Characteristics and Treatment." The Future of Children. 1994
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Lowen, Linda. "The Cold Hard Facts on Child Sexual Abuse." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Lowen, Linda. (2021, February 16). The Cold Hard Facts on Child Sexual Abuse. Retrieved from Lowen, Linda. "The Cold Hard Facts on Child Sexual Abuse." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 8, 2021).