Child Sexual Abuse: An Overview

Child sexual abuse, sometimes referred to as CSA, can be defined as “a sexual act or communication that results in harm to a child of 15 years or younger,” but that definition can make you wonder what an act or communication is, what can be considered abuse, and if someone who is 16 or 17 can be considered a child. The part that makes it sexual is the intent of the perpetrator, and the nature of what is occurring: If it is sexual in nature, or can be considered such, it likely is sexual. The part that makes it abuse is how the act is felt by the child, and legally, anyone under the age of 18 is typically considered a child by most societies.

What follows is an overview of significant statistics. For a discussion of why these statistics matter, see here. Child sexual abuse is a serious public health issue that affects approximately 7.9% of men and 19.7% of women by the time they reach 18 years of age[1] according to one major study, while another found a global rate of 7.6% of men and 18% of women[2]. That figure does not account for underreporting: Some sources state that less than 50% of abuse is reported to the police[3], while other studies state that only 38% of victims disclose their abuse[4]. The actual reporting and prosecution rate is unknown and difficult to estimate, however.

Despite underreporting and the issues involved with identifying how prevalent child sexual abuse is, it is commonly accepted by advocates that around 4-8% of sexual abuse reports are false, which means that at least 92% of children making allegations of abuse are telling the truth[5]. The Wikipedia article discussing false allegations indicates that the overall rate of false accusations is under 10%, and many of these false allegations did not originate with children, but with adults making the accusation on the child’s behalf[6].

While some of the lingering conventional wisdom might indicate that strangers are responsible for most child sexual abuse, the opposite is true: 90% of abuse is perpetrated by those known to the victim[7]. Most abusers are men, though women account for some abusers. About two-thirds of sexual abusers are attracted to adults, and the remaining third are pedophilic, though sexual attraction does not appear to be a significant factor in the motivations of child sexual abuse: Homosexual and pedophilic men are less likely to sexually abuse children than heterosexual, adult-attracted men.

There is no profile for those who sexually abuse children: Most are men, but a small minority of abusers are women. Sexual abusers do not belong to a particular profession, race, belief system, height, weight, age, nationality, or sexual orientation. The only reliable indication that someone may be sexually abusing a child are the behaviors they display, the behaviors a child displays, or an allegation of abuse by a child against another person.

Child sexual abuse often occurs in specific situations during specific time periods of the day[8]. 77% of child sexual abuse and 70% of sexual assault occurs in a residence, usually of the victim or perpetrator, and when the physical context is not a residence, it is generally a roadway, outdoor field or wooded area, schools, or a hotel/motel. For most victims, the peak time that sexual abuse occurs is around 3 pm and for younger victims, during meal times.

It is a commonly accepted fact that sexual abuse victims can suffer a wide variety of psychological effects from their abuse, though there have also been victims who report minimal effects. One famous but controversial study, Rind et al, a meta-analysis of 35,703 college students, stated in its abstract that “Self-reported reactions to and effects from CSA indicated that negative effects were neither pervasive nor typically intense, and that men reacted much less negatively than women.” In addition to the psychological effects found in many victims, the financial costs of sexual abuse on victims, along with other child maltreatment not resulting in death, are $210,012 per victim [9].

Child sexual abuse is a preventable and serious public health epidemic that warrants all our attention: Not only for societies, cultures, and economies, but for the would-be victims who can avoid experiencing sexual abuse due to prevention efforts. We owe it to the children who can be spared the pain of sexual abuse to give this issue our attention.


[ 1] The prevalence of child sexual abuse in community and student samples: a meta-analysis, Pereda et al, 2009, Clinical Psychology Review Volume 29, Issue 4, p. 328-338 DOI:

[ 2] A Global Perspective on Child Sexual Abuse: Meta-Analysis of Prevalence Around the World, Stoltenborgh et al, 2011, Child Maltreatment Volume 16, Issue 2, p. 79-101 DOI: 10.1177/1077559511403920

[ 3] Break the Silence: End child sexual abuse, Unicef

[ 4] Delay in disclosure of childhood rape: Results from a national survey, Smith et al, 2000, Child Abuse and Neglect Volume 24, Issue 2, p. 273-287

[ 5] False allegations of sexual abuse by children and adolescents, Everson and Boat, 1989, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Volume 28, Issue 2, P. 230-235

[ 6] False allegation of child sexual abuse, Wikipedia, Retrieved 2/5/2017

[ 7] Characteristics of Crimes Against Juveniles, Finkelhor and Shattuck, 2012

[ 8] Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics, Snyder, Howard N, 2000

[ 9] The economic burden of child maltreatment in the United States and implications for prevention, Fang et al, 2012, Child Abuse and Neglect, Volume 36, Issue 2, p. 156-165