Child sexual abuse is a vast and complex issue, that overlaps with many other issues, like sexual assault, educating children, criminal justice policy, and more. Simplifying child sexual abuse into a list of facts can make the issue seem simple, but all too often, it means we form opinions based on incomplete information and then tout those opinions as good policy. What follows is an attempt to answer some basic questions about child sexual abuse, and the other arenas with which it overlaps.
Child sexual abuse, or CSA, is a behavior done to a child that is intended to be sexual in nature, involves some sort of power difference between the child and the perpetrator, be it with age, social status, or otherwise, and results in harm to the child. Behaviors that are more/less normative in children certainly need to be thought of when defining what is abusive and what is not, however, each situation is unique and needs to be understood from a child’s viewpoint.
Child sexual abuse is known to affect 8% of boys and 19% of girls worldwide, and it is thought that in reality, boys are abused just as often as girls, but do not report it as frequently due to gender stereotypes. The actual rate of sexual abuse is unknown because of low reporting, both by victims in surveys, and in disclosures to law enforcement. It is common knowledge among researchers that rates of sexual abuse seem to be going down while reporting is going up, which is a good trend we want to continue.
For the most part no, and in very rare cases, yes. However, these cases are not the norm, and motivations for child sexual abuse are numerous and complex, often individualized to the abuser in question. Even abusers who have an attraction to children (see here for details) may not be motivated by that attraction to abuse the child, it may be the result of the stigma or depression they feel from having the attraction and the flawed beliefs they may have about what a child is capable of handling.
It is more accurate to say that abuse is motivated by an unmet mental health need or by a desire for control than it is by a sexual attraction. For that reason, focusing on sexual attraction is not helpful to preventing abuse, because it does not truly address motivation where focusing on adequate mental health resources is more helpful. Because of that, driving those with a sexual attraction to children away from support or resources can inadvertently contribute to child sexual abuse, rather than preventing it.
In short, most sex offenders do not commit another offense once convicted. This is true of 90% and upwards of sex offenders, and the research shows that recidivism is not a large issue with sex crimes, because when sex offenders reoffend, it is usually with a probation/parole violation. These violations can be anything from looking at pornography (of any kind) to possessing a firearm or being arrested for something, even if they are never charged. Also, half of sex offenders are children themselves at the time of the offense. Sex offender recidivism is a vast and complex subject by itself, but it is usually a measure of offenders who have gone to prison, and because not all sex offenders go to prison, this measure is an incomplete picture of sex crime as a whole, and not the main focus of most programs that seek to end sexual abuse.
Knowing where registered sex offenders live, according to the facts, means that you know where people unlikely to harm others is residing. A better prevention tactic is to know the facts and know what you can do to prevent abuse before it occurs. You can form safety plans for your family, like not keeping secrets (only surprises where the person will know eventually), modeling and respecting boundaries, and not allowing adults or older children to be alone with a child.
There is no profile for someone who might or has sexually abused a child. Though the majority are male, some are female. In other words, they can come from any background, profession, age, sexual orientation, political position, or religious belief. A little less than half of abusers are older children who know the victim, and 93% of perpetrators are people we know and trust: They are the people we care about.
Most abusers do not have sexual abuse in their backgrounds and most victim/survivors never go on to harm children, the answer is no. While most abusers do have some sort of trauma in their childhood, this does not tell us that traumatized people are then an automatic risk to the community. Many receive help and support to move past their abuse, and how each victim handles their abuse is unique.
Researchers estimate that the reporting rate for child sexual abuse is around 38%. While that number is a ballpark figure, and refers to a victim/survivor who tells anyone about the abuse, not just a disclosure to law enforcement, and around 40% of disclosures are not to an adult or law enforcement, meaning that law enforcement is only aware of about 22.8% of abuse, presuming the adult reports to the police. In other words, the real reporting rate for child sexual abuse when it comes to those that law enforcement knows about is difficult to estimate.
It is common for victim/survivors and their families to not report for a variety of reasons, including not wanting to get the person they care about in trouble. Driving the reporting rate up is counter-intuitive: In order for more victim/survivors to report, there need to be restorative options in place that focus on rehabilitation and community engagement.
Going only by the statistics, a situation involving an older child/adult male (and sometimes female) perpetrator who is alone with a child in a residence is the most likely scenario. It is also likely that the child/adult perpetrator has spent time getting to know the child, and is a trusted person in their life. It is likely that the perpetrator is facing some sort of difficulty or mental health issue that results in stress. It is slightly more likely that the child is female, but boys are also abused.
False allegations of child sexual abuse are typically between 4-8% (visit the child sexual abuse fact page for more information). Of that 4-8%, false reports usually originate with an adult saying a child was abused, not a child initiating a disclosure, so if your child said someone touched their private area, believe them. False allegations of sexual assault overall are also below 10%. We need to believe victim/survivors, and investigate the allegations. This does not mean that the presumption of innocence until a guilty verdict takes a backseat to statistics, it means that we need to avoid voicing disbelief to victims who disclose their abuse.