Five Myths About Child Sexual Abuse

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Most of what we know about sexual offending comes from the media. However, it is often the most extreme and atypical cases that garner press attention. Further, when sexual abuse is portrayed in movies and television shows, it is often sensationalized. Thus, in order to properly protect our children, we must know the facts. Following are five myths about sexual abuse and their realities. It is important that parents are aware of the facts because knowledge is power.

Myth 1: Sex offenses are committed by strangers.

Reality: Most sexual offenses against children are committed by a family member or acquaintance.

This is known as the stranger danger myth, and this is perhaps the most dangerous myth as it causes us to protect our children against the wrong people. Many parents believe that sex offenses are committed by a stranger, thus they do not allow their children to walk home alone or play in the park unsupervised. The reality is that fewer than 10% of sexual abuse against children is committed by a stranger. One study found that:

  • 34% of children were sexually abused by a family member.
  • 59% were sexually abused by an acquaintance (someone known to them).
  • 7% were sexually abused by a stranger.

This reality tells us that we must be careful about who is around our child. As most cases of sexual abuse involve someone in your family or an acquaintance, we need to monitor how those in our children’s lives interact with them and intervene when we notice something is not right.

Explain to your kids why values are important. The simple answer: When you're kind, generous, honest, and respectful, you make the people around you feel good. More important, you feel good about yourself.

Myth 2: Only adults commit sexual offenses.

Reality: Approximately one-third of all sex crimes against children are committed by someone under the age of 18.

It may be a surprising fact that a significant amount of sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by other children and youth. Sexual abuse committed by those under the age of 18 generally follows two pathways. The first pathway of abuse is when a teenager (or group of teenagers) forces another teenager to engage in sexual behavior against their will. The second pathway mirrors the behavior of child molesters, where an older child will molest a child under the age of 12. Importantly, even younger children can engage in abuse, as one in eight minors who commit sexual abuse are under the age of 12. This means that parents also need to be cautious when leaving their children unsupervised in the company of other minors.

Myth 3: Only males commit sexual offenses.

Reality: Approximately 4-10% of all sexual offenses are committed by females.

While most sexual offending (both by adults and juveniles) is committed by males, there is a small proportion of sex crimes committed by females. It is also believed that this number may actually be higher as much of the female-perpetrated abuse takes place in the context of caregiving activities and the child may be unsure about whether abuse has actually occurred or scared to report it. In addition, we are seeing increasing media coverage of adult females who are abusing teenage boys under the guise of being in a romantic relationship. While this type of teacher-student abuse has been romanticized by Hollywood, the long-term consequences of the abuse of teenage boys by adult women are currently unknown.

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Myth 4: All sex offenders re-offend.

Reality: The majority of those who have committed a sexual offense will not re-offend sexually.

Sex offenders are generally the most feared and reviled of all types of offenders, and many believe that they are at high risk for reoffending. However, the majority of sex offenders do not re-offend sexually. A recent meta-analysis (which is a big study that combines the findings of many smaller studies) – looked at reoffending rates of over 20,000 sex offenders and found that over a 5-6 year period:

13.7% of all those who committed sexual crimes reoffended sexually

12.4% of those who offended against children reoffended sexually

Further, fewer than 10% of juvenile sex offender will re-offend sexually as adults and reported rates of female sexual reoffending is 3%. While these rates are not zero, they are far from 100%. While it may make sense to target those who have already offended with restrictive laws such as the sex offender registry and residency restrictions, the reality is that only 5% of sex crimes are committed by someone on the sex offender registry – 95% of sex offenses are committed by someone without a previous sex offender conviction. Further, there is considerable evidence that these laws do not work and actually may increase an offender’s risk of reoffending as it makes it hard for them to reintegrate back into society. In addition, these laws are very costly, and only target a small number of individuals that may be at risk, thus experts have been arguing that the bulk of these resources may be better spent on prevention efforts.

Myth 5: Most sex offenders meet and assault their victims in public places.

Reality: The majority of child sexual abuse takes place in private residences.

In recent decades, parents have become afraid of letting their children play unsupervised in the park, walk to school alone, or hand out in the neighborhood for fear, among other dangers, of their children being sexually assaulted. A recent study from our lab found that only 0.5% of sexual abuse of children took place in public area such a park. Most sexual abuse takes place in residential settings (private homes). We also found that less than one-quarter of all sex offenders met their victims in a public area, with most of the children meeting the perpetrator of the abuse in a residential setting – such as their own home. This also ties into the first myth – as most of those who abuse children are family and friends and thus the abuse takes place in the home. This suggests that parents may want to set up cameras in the home so they can monitor what takes place when they are not there to supervise.

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While there no foolproof way of protecting your children from sexual abuse, knowledge is power. If parents and guardians do have the correct information about how and by whom sexual abuse is perpetrated, prevention efforts may not be properly targeted. By knowing the facts about sexual abuse, we are all better prepared to send our children into the world, where we are aware of the risks and what we can do to mitigate them.