Sexual abuse includes many different behaviors. For adults, it includes any sexual act committed against someone without that person’s freely given consent. For adults incapable of giving consent and children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention definition includes “any completed or attempted (non-completed) sexual act, sexual contact with or exploitation (i.e., noncontact sexual interaction) of a child” by an adult or an older youth. Sexual abuse includes both touching (e.g., forced sexual intercourse, child molestation, groping and attempted rape) and nontouching offenses (e.g., downloading or distributing child pornography, exhibitionism), and it impacts people of all ages. Learning the facts about sexual abuse is one way to raise awareness and identify prevention strategies to increase safety.
Compared to other crimes, sexual violence is the most underreported violent crime in the United States (Bureau of Justice Statistics, “National Crime Victimization Survey: Victimizations Not Reported to the Police, 2006-2010,” 2012). Approximately 2 out of 3 or 65% of adult sexual assaults were not reported to the police between 2006-2010 and 68% of violent victimizations of youth aged 12-17 (includes rape/sexual assault, robbery and aggravated and simple assault) were not reported to police. The National Crime Victimization Survey 2016 found that only 23% of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to police (BJS, 2016).
People who sexually abuse vary in the reasons they offend, who they offend against and the various sexual behaviors and crimes they commit. Although our understanding of the causes and origins of sexually abusive behavior is still developing, research clearly shows that in many cases sexual abuse is a learned behavior. There are a number of contributing factors, including negative or adverse conditions in early development. In addition, many sex offenders rationalize their sexually abusive behavior, and many have problems with self-regulation and impulse control. (Visit www.smart.gov/SOMAPI for more information on the causes of sexually abusive behavior.)
If you or someone you know has been sexually abused, help and support is available. The national contacts below are available for anyone seeking information and resources about sexual abuse; there are also many local resources available worth exploring. In an emergency, dial 9-1-1 for immediate local assistance or, if it involves a child, call your local child protective services to report the sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse affects everyone: all ages, all races and ethnicities, in all areas of the country. As many as 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 20 boys experience sexual abuse before age 18. Individuals 18-24 have among the highest rates of sexual abuse. And even individuals later in life may be vulnerable to sexual abuse. Among all ages, the adult, teen or child who is harmed often knows their abuser, which can include family members, intimate partners, fellow residents or care providers. Over their lifetime, nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men reported experiencing rape at some time in their lives. Approximately 45% of women and 22% of men reported experiencing sexual violence other than rape, such as being made to penetrate someone else, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact or noncontact unwanted sexual experiences, in their lifetime.
As noted, sexual abuse is the most underreported crime, and much of what happens is hidden from public view. Since we don’t see the majority of sexual abuse, we also don’t see the full picture of the people who sexually abuse. Research establishes that registered sex offenders are a small percentage of those who have committed some form of sexual abuse. What we have learned from known sex offenders is that not all people who sexually abuse are the same, and adolescents are very different from adults who sexually offend. When one looks at child sexual abuse through this broader lens, we see that 30-50 percent of youth are sexually abused by other juveniles. We know that most people who sexually abuse are known to the victim. It’s important to recognize both the complexity of the issue and how common it can be so that we have the urgency and the ability to develop a comprehensive, effective response.
Sex crimes are one of the most underreported crimes and are often unseen by anyone other than the victim and perpetrator. Because of underreporting, reoffense rates found in studies likely do not reflect actual reoffense rates. Despite this, studies have produced useful results. Studies that have tracked adult sex offenders for longer periods of time show that the likelihood of reoffense for another sex crime ranges from 5 percent after 3 years to 24 percent after 15 years. Sex offenders — regardless of type — are much more likely to commit a general, nonsexual crime than another sex crime. However, not all people who commit sex crimes are the same and different “types” of offenders have significantly different reoffense rates. For example, research has found that the highest reoffense rates are by child abusers who sexually offend against boys outside of their family.
Individuals who have committed a sexual offense are a diverse group of people, varying in age and gender, and may have committed different forms of sexual abuse (e.g., touching, nontouching, violent, coercive, nonforcible). When answering this question, it is helpful to know if the individual is a child, teen or adult; what crime they committed; their criminal behavior history (if any), their cognitive level of understanding, and many other considerations. If someone has committed a sexual crime, then a detailed psychosocial assessment can help to determine both their level of risk and how they might (or might not) benefit from treatment. Research shows that with effective intervention, most children and teens can learn to live safely in the community. For more information about sex offender treatment and management strategies, visit the Sex Offender Management and Assessment Planning Initiative.
The majority of individuals convicted of a sex offense eventually return to their communities. With specialized treatment and community supervision, many will be able to live safe, productive and stable lives. Sex offender treatment and supervision is a significant tool for promoting offender accountability, reducing recidivism and enhancing public safety. However, if sex offenders violate their release and supervision conditions, they can be returned to confinement.
Sexual abuse can be prevented, both before any harm is caused and by preventing future harm. There are many different types of prevention approaches, ranging from individual bystander intervention to family safety plans, from community situational prevention to systemic policies. Learn more about prevention strategies and different approaches in schools, communities and youth-serving organizations.