4.8 Sexual Abuse


child covering their eyes
Photo by Caleb Woods, Unsplash License

Sexual abuse is when a person uses his or her power over a child and involves the child in any sexual act. It can include fondling, genital stimulation, mutual masturbation, oral sex, using fingers, penis or objects for oral, vaginal and/or anal penetration, inappropriate sexual language, sexual harassment, voyeurism, exposing oneself, sexual exploitation, as well as technology-assisted sexual abuse. This can involve exposing the child to sexual abuse images and/or videos or involving a child in the making of sexual abuse images and/or videos commonly known as child pornography or involvement in the sex trade (prostitution) or human trafficking (Crosson-Tower, 2020; Tufford, 2020; Jonson-Reid & Drake, 2018; Rimer & Prager, 2016).

Signs of sexual abuse may include (but are not limited to):

  • Re-enactment of abuse using dolls, drawings or friends
  • Clinging
  • Thumb-sucking
  • Sudden fear of the dark
  • Change in behaviour
  • Behaviour extremism—aggressiveness or withdrawal
  • Recurrent nightmares or disturbed sleep patterns
  • Perfectionism
  • Loss of appetite for no apparent reason or excessive appetite
  • Bedwetting
  • Avoidance of undressing or wearing extra layers of clothes
  • Abrupt decline in school performance
  • Request to change something. E.g., Child, “I want to take baseball now, not swimming lessons. I don’t like swimming lessons anymore.”
  • Frequent sore throats or urinary infections
  • Soreness in the genitals
  • Constant sadness
  • New possessions that are unexplained (gifts from the perpetrator)
  • Young child overly focused on private parts
  • Publicly masturbates
  • Imitates sexual acts
  • Sexualized interactions
  • Graphically imitates or re-enacts adult sexual acts
  • Unexplained stomach aches/headaches
  • Encopresis, Enuresis
  • Breaches personal boundaries
  • Draws sexually explicit behaviour
  • Hates their gender
  • Tells sexualized jokes
  • Preoccupied with pornography
  • Coerces others to engage in sexual activity without their consent
  • Sends naked provocative pictures of oneself or others with malicious intent

(“Child Abuse and Neglect,” n.d.; Crosson-Tower, 2020; Durrant et al., 2006; Fallon et al., 2020; Jonson-Reid & Drake, 2018; Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, 2022; Fallon et al., 2020; Public Health Agency of Canada, 2012; Rimer & Prager 2016; Sedlak et al., 2010; Toronto Children’s Aid Society, n.d.; Tufford 2020).


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Child Maltreatment: An Introductory Guide With Case Studies Copyright © 2023 by Susan Loosley and Jen Johnson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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