Child molestation vs. child sexual abuse

What is child molestation? People have a difficult time talking about child molestation. Other common terms include child sexual abuse and child sexual assault. There are various legal definitions and connotations behind each term. Ultimately, they all refer to any sexual activity between an adult and child or adolescent, which is abusive and illegal.

Child molestation or child sexual abuse is an exploitation of power, and usually of trust. This is especially true when you consider that 90% of child molestation or child sexual abuse is committed by someone the child knows and trusts.

Children engaged in problematic sexual behaviors also sometimes sexually abuse other children. This abuse often involves a child of unequal power or development to them. In fact, recent research shows that over 70% of children or youth who report they were sexually abused, either in person or online, were abused by a peer or older child.  

Examples of Child Molestation

The term child molestation includes touching offenses that can include:

  • penetration,
  • groping,
  • making a child or teen touch another person’s anus, penis, or vagina, or
  • coercing a child or teen to touch him/herself, the offender or another child.

Child sexual abuse can also include non-touching offenses, such as:

  • Exposing oneself to a child or teen,
  • Viewing and violating the private behaviors of a child or teen, such as dressing, showering, etc.
  • Taking sexually explicit or provocative photographs of them,
  • Encouraging them to send sexually explicit or provocative photos of themselves,
  • Showing pornography to them, or
  • Talking with children about sexually explicit fantasies or experiences (in person, by phone, or online.)

Age of consent issues

Issues related to the age of consent can also complicate what is legally considered child molestation or child sexual abuse. Adults in positions of authority over children should never have sexual relationships with them, even when the child or youth  is over the age of consent.  These adults include teachers, coaches, principals, counselors, etc.

For example, in Massachusetts, the age of consent is 16. This law makes it difficult to prosecute sexual abuse by adults in positions of authority or trust. The abusers often “groom” children and youth, building their trust over a period of time, and then sexually abuse them. That is why we are working to Criminalize Educator Sexual Misconduct, in Massachusetts and other states. Check out our interactive map to see if your state outlaws sexual relationships between adults in positions of authority and trust and children or youth. Visit our Citizens to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse page to learn about the bills we are supporting in Massachusetts and how you can help introduce them in your state.

Signs of child molestation

Mother comforting child

The Enough Abuse Campaign works to break the silence around child sexual abuse in order to prevent it. Part of that involves educating parents, school employees and youth-serving professionals about the signs of child molestation and child sexual abuse. This helps identify abusers early on and protect children.

Many instances of child molestation or child sexual abuse do not leave any physical signs, so we cannot always tell when a child is being sexually abused. While some of the physical and behavior changes listed below can be present in cases of sexual abuse, sexual abuse may or may not be the source of those changes. For the most part, these changes are signs that a child or teen may be under stress (parents divorcing, poor school grades, etc.) or may have has experienced some sort of trauma (bullying, sexual abuse, online exploitation, etc.). In any case, when you spot any of these changes, take them seriously and try to understand what is causing them by gently asking your child if something is wrong and encouraging them to tell you how you can help.

Some physical signs that a child may have been molested or sexually abused can include:

  1. Any irritation, abrasions, swelling, skin tears, bleeding or infection of the child’s genitals or anus;
  2. Trouble walking or sitting;
  3. Complaints of pain upon urination;
  4. Any unexplained injuries around the mouth;
  5. Confirmation of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) in a child;
  6. Chronic headaches, stomach aches, or pain;
  7. Loss of appetite;
  8. Overeating or gaining an unusual amount of weight;
  9. Nightmares;
  10. Bedwetting.

Some behavioral signs that a child may have been sexually molested or abused can include:

  1. Child not paying attention or sleeping in class;
  2. Failing grades when grades were previously good;
  3. Not sleeping well or wanting to sleep all the time;
  4. Acting withdrawn when previously outgoing;
  5. Acting angry or aggressive when previously easygoing;
  6. Changes in personal hygiene; 
  7. Regressive behaviors, bedwetting, thumb sucking, clinging behaviors;
  8. Vague symptoms of illness; or
  9. Sexual behavior or knowledge that’s inappropriate for their age.

To learn more, check out our What is Child Sexual Abuse page.

Resources for child molestation survivors

Enough Abuse’s Survivor Support page includes links to over 60 organizations that offer crisis counseling, support groups, and other support for survivors and their loved ones.

Whether you identify as a victim, survivor, or someone working through the trauma of sexual abuse, know that you are not alone. You are not to blame for what happened. Support is available to help you on your journey to healing. 

If you are not sure where to begin, you can call the National Sexual Assault hotline operated by RAINN at 800.656.HOPE (4673).

Reporting child molestation

If you suspect or know that a child is being physically or sexually abused or neglected, report the abuse. Reporting is important for the child’s safety, and to stop the person from abusing. If the person is someone you care about, the most caring thing you can do is stop them from abusing a child.

You do not need to be a mandated reporter to report abuse. If you or someone else is in immediate and serious danger, call 911. Otherwise, call your local child protective services office or law enforcement agency in your state to report abuse.

You can also call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1.800.4.A.CHILD (1.800.422.4453). Professional crisis counselors are available 24/7, in over 170 languages. All calls are confidential. The hotline offers crisis intervention, information, and referrals to thousands of emergency, social service, and support resources.

If you are a parent/caregiver and you find out that your child has been sexually assaulted within the past several days, you can take your child to your local emergency room.  Many hospitals have pediatric Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (pedi-SANEs) who can examine the child. Pedi SANE exams provide official documentation of the assault, which provides vital evidence for DCF and law-enforcement. This increases the likelihood of possible charges being filed.

Pledge to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse

Enough Abuse is a citizen education and community mobilization initiative. Our goal is to prevent child sexual abuse by building state and local partnerships, educating parents and concerned adults, training professionals, and promoting prevention policies in schools and youth organizations. We advocate for legislation to prevent sexual abuse, ensure justice for survivors, and hold abusers accountable.

The goal of Enough Abuse is to put an end to the silence, shame and denial that has allowed child sexual abuse to go unchallenged for so long. In support of this goal, we created the Pledge to Prevent™ online action campaign. It helps citizens take specific actions to prevent child sexual abuse in their homes and communities. Take the Pledge to Prevent today and get involved in breaking the silence and helping prevent child sexual abuse.