What is Sexual Abuse?


Sexual exploration between young children (in general, younger than 12) is natural when children are exploring their bodies mutually, looking, touching (for example, playing ‘doctor’) and exploring the difference between boys and girls. “These behaviors may include exploration with other children of similar power or stature – by virtue of age, size, ability, or social status” (Stop It Now! 2007, The Safer Society Press. Do Children Sexually Abuse Other Children?) However, children can participate in sexual exploration activities that harm other children without understanding that the action is abusive.  This type of sexual abuse is difficult to deal with as it blurs the lines between normal exploration and sexual abuse.


Sexual abuse of children is any interaction between a child and an adult (or other child) in which the child is utilized for sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or an observer. Sexual abuse may occur between male to female, male to male, female to make, and female to female. It can occur at any age level.


Inappropriate touching is touching the private parts – the vagina, penis, breasts/chest, or buttocks. It includes oral-genital touching and sexual intercourse.


Violence against women includes physical, sexual, and/or psychological violence that may include, among others, rape, battery, sexual abuse, torture, enslavement, forced prostitution, sex trafficking, kidnapping, or sexual assault or demanding sexual favors in the work place, schools, medical institutions, or other organizations; especially when it is perpetrated by or tolerated by the government or its agents wherever it occurs.


Can boys be sexually abused?  Yes, boys and men can be raped and abused. Some estimate that at least 20% of boys have been raped. The rape has no relation to their sexual orientation or their physical appearance. Male rapists, like female rapists, are seeking abusive power and control. Boys and men can be raped by members of their own family, friends, and strangers.  Women and girls, however, are exposed to a greater risk of sexual abuse, and domestic violence affects women disproportionately to men.



Prevalence of sexual abuse


Sexual abuse occurs in all countries, all cultures, and all socioeconomic levels. Approximately 1 in 3 girls and 1 in five boys are abused before they are 18 years old. And 75% of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows.

                30% of abusers are members of the family

                60% of abusers are friends of the family

                40% of child abusers are older or bigger children


A study in Zimbabwe found that girls were subjected on a routine basis to aggressive sexual advances from older male pupils and male teachers within the school and from ‘sugar daddies’ in the vicinity of the school, who prey on girls for sex in exchange for money or gifts. We are not aware of any studies in Chiapas showing how many teachers sexually abuse girls in their schools, but many young women that we have met report that they were abused by a teacher or know a friend who has been abused.


In all the world, some religious groups permit young girls to be forced into marriage. In the United States, it is legal in most of the states for girls younger than 18 to be married if their parents’ consent.


Invisible Women: The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has found that more women than men (in Central and South America) were the victims of numerous serious crimes: rape (82%), human trafficking (82%), human smuggling (81%), sexual abuse (79%), domestic violence (79%), statutory rape (71%), crimes against the family (56%), and crimes against freedom (83%).  By 2015, 7,185 women were reported missing in Mexico, half of them under the age of 18.



What are the underlying causes of sexual violence?


History: The world’s history is dominated by gender violence. Men dominated women and abuse was common. Women had no access to money, and they had no say in how their bodies were treated. They were slaves who were sold or stolen to benefit the man. The community shamed a woman who did not endure abuse; who did not bear children; and who did accept the slave labor conditions. The community that hosted this violence had weak, if any, legal sanctions against sexual violence. Being raped was part of a woman’s role in society.


Common Characteristics in Societies where Men Often Abuse Women:  The act of rape is less an act of sex and more an act of the rapists need to control or have power over someone. The rapist feels inferior to others and is searching for power and control. Some men who abuse women may do so because they have grown up in a society that accepts violence and gender inequality. As a child, he may have been abused himself or he may have witnessed family violence. Psychologists who work with sexual abusers find that these men often abuse alcohol or drugs, and they have sex with multiple women, usually in unhealthy and also unjust settings.


Pedophilia: And, unfortunately, the abuser may be a pedophile, suffering from a brain dysfunction that results in a compulsion (addiction) that often cannot be controlled. Sadly, pedophiles tend to have been molested, themselves, as children, and the sexual urges for children are ingrained within their nervous system. There are few treatment options for pedophilia other than trying to prevent further abuses. 


No excuse!  However, there is no excuse for this violence. Men and women working together; communities working together can take a stand against this violence. We can expose the violence, and provide support for the abuser and the survivors. We can build alliances to improve education, women’s health, human rights, and to enforce legal actions to protect women and children from domestic abuse. Our families will be happier and stronger and our communities will be safer and more prosperous if sexual abuse is eliminated.



Causes of Gender Based Violence from Women against Violence Europe available at

From Victim to Survivor: An Informational Brochure for Victims of Rape. New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, Inc.

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Leach F and Machakanja P (2000). A Preliminary Investigation into the Abuse of Girls in Zimbabwean Junior Secondary Schools. DFID Education Research No. 39. London: DFID.

The Conversation, available at

World Health Organization Media Center. Violence against Women

Male Victims of Rape Information Brochure developed by Martha Klein for the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, Inc.

Child Sexual Abuse Fact Sheet. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.



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