Get answers about sexual abuse and associated risks

Common Questions

Common Questions
There are many questions that may come to mind when discussing the topic of sexual abuse and the risk factors associated with a sex offender coming in contact with you or your family.

Listed below are common questions associated with sexual abuse. Click on the question in the list to find the answer:

01What is child sexual abuse?back to top

Child sexual abuse is any form of sexual activity imposed upon a child by an adult or other child in a position of power, authority, or influence. Child sexual abuse can involve touching the intimate parts of a child’s body, enticing or forcing the child to have sexual relations, or participating in nontouching offenses, such as obscene phone calls or taking pornographic photos.1

The child victim may be a boy or a girl; in most cases knows and trusts the abuser; may be an infant, toddler, preschooler, or school-aged child up to age 18; may come from any socioeconomic background or ethnic or religious group; is usually afraid to tell about the sexual abuse for fear of being blamed or punished; and rarely is abused by a stranger.

02What are the different types of sexual abuse?2back to top

Legal definitions of sexual violence and misconduct vary from state to state. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) Web site provides general definitions about the types of sexual abuse.

03Who sexually abuses children3back to top

The people who sexually abuse can be immediate or extended family members (fathers, mothers, stepparents, grandparents, siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.). They can be neighbors, babysitters, religious leaders, teachers, coaches, or anyone else who has close contact with children.

Fact: In as many as 93 percent of child sexual abuse cases, the child knows the person that commits the abuse.4

04If 93 percent of sexual abuse cases involve someone the child knows, is “stranger danger”—i.e., dangers to kids come from strangers—really a myth?5back to top

Yes. In the majority of cases, the perpetrator is someone the parents or child knows, and that person may be in a position of trust or responsibility to the child and family.

For decades, parents, guardians, and teachers have told children to “stay away from strangers” in an effort to keep them safe. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) suggests that children do not have the same understanding of who a stranger is as an adult might; therefore, it is a difficult concept for the child to grasp. It is much more beneficial to children to help them build the confidence and self-esteem they need to stay as safe as possible in any potentially dangerous situation they encounter rather than teaching them to be “on the lookout” for a particular type of person.

05What is grooming?6back to top

Grooming is a method of building trust with a child and adults around the child in an effort to gain access to and time alone with her/him. However, in extreme cases, offenders may use threats and physical force to sexually assault or abuse a child. More common, though, are subtle approaches designed to build relationships with families. The offender may assume a caring role, befriend the child, or even exploit their position of trust and authority to groom the child and/or the child’s family. These individuals intentionally build relationships with the adults around a child or seek out a child who may have fewer adults in her/his life. This increases the likelihood that the offender’s time with the child is welcomed and encouraged.

The purpose of grooming is:

  • To reduce the likelihood of a disclosure.
  • To reduce the likelihood of the child being believed.
  • To reduce the likelihood of being detected.
  • To manipulate the perceptions of other adults around the child.
  • To manipulate the child into becoming a cooperating participant which reduces the likelihood of a disclosure and increases the likelihood that the child will repeatedly return to the offender.

06What are adult and institutional grooming?back to top

The grooming process does not just occur with the intended victim. Offenders may groom not only the child but also their family and even the local community, who may act as the gatekeepers of access. Additionally, sex offenders may groom criminal justice and other institutions into believing that they present no risk to children, which can be termed “institutional grooming.”

07What behaviors are used as part of a grooming process?back to top

Although not all child sexual abuse involves grooming, it is a common process used by offenders. It usually begins with subtle behavior that may not initially appear to be inappropriate, such as paying a lot of attention to the child or being very affectionate. Many victims of grooming and sexual abuse do not recognize they are being manipulated, nor do they realize how grooming is a part of the abuse process.

  • An adult seems overly interested in a child.
  • An adult frequently initiates or creates opportunities to be alone with a child (or multiple children).
  • An adult becomes fixated on a child.
  • An adult gives special privileges to a child (e.g., rides to and from practices, etc.).
  • An adult befriends a family and shows more interest in building a relationship with the child than with the adults
  • An adult displays favoritism towards one child within a family.
  • An adult finds opportunities to buy a child gifts.
  • An adult caters to the interests of the child, so a child or the parent may initiate contact with the offender.
  • An adult who displays age and gender preferences.

Activities that can be sexually arousing to adults who have a sexual interest in children or that are used as part of a grooming process may include:

  • Bathing a child
  • Walking in on a child changing
  • Deliberately walking in on a child toileting
  • Asking a child to watch the adult toileting
  • Tickling and “accidentally” touching genitalia
  • Activities that involve removing clothes (massage, swimming)
  • Wrestling in underwear
  • Playing games that include touching genitalia (playing doctor)
  • Telling a child sexually explicit jokes
  • Teasing a child about breast and genital development
  • Discussing sexually explicit information under the guise of education
  • Showing the child sexually explicit images
  • Taking pictures of children in underwear, bathing suits, dance wear, etc.

08What are grooming behaviors online?8 back to top

Girl looking at a computer screen and using a Webcam
  • Pose as someone needing help or in distress.
  • Keep part, if not all, of the relationship secret.
  • Conversations might often focus on the meaning of true love, involve talking about sexual issues, or include requests for photos and Webcam sex.
  • Extend beyond one conversation and will often mean rescheduling online meetings and communications via e-mail and mobile phone.
  • May become confused when the groomer, whom they begin to trust, begins to do things that make them feel uncomfortable.
  • Watch Julie’s Journey from online “friend” to in-person encounter.

09How do I protect my child from being groomed?6 back to top

Some offenders will test a child’s personal safety awareness and whether or not there is a risk that the child will tell an adult. Offenders are less likely to victimize a child if they think the child will tell. Teach your children about personal safety strategies.

View the 7 Safety Root Strategies on the Kids in the Know Web site for more information.

10What can I do to protect my family from sexual abuse?9 back to top

The best way to protect children and teens from being victims of sexual abuse is to help them understand and be aware of the issues of sexual abuse. Stop It Now! provides tips for creating a family safety plan:

Mother and father having a serious conversation with daughter at a table
  • Educate everyone in the family.
  • Start talking with your family about sexual abuse.
  • Set clear family boundaries.
  • Get safe adults involved.
  • Know your local resources and how to use them.
  • Care enough to reach out for help.

Additional information about creating a family safety plan is available on the Stop It Now! Web site.

11What does it mean to live, work, or attend a school near a sex offender’s residence?back to top

A boy and a girl child in a residential area standing looking down the road

Laws regarding residency of convicted sex offenders vary from state to state. The information on this Website is intended for awareness purposes only. If you are concerned about a sex offender in your neighborhood, there are several courses of action. The Stop It Now! Web site provides tips about what you can do if a sex offender resides in your neighborhood.

Anyone who uses the information contained in or accessed through this Website to threaten, intimidate, or harass any individual, including registrants or family members, or who otherwise misuses this information may be subject to criminal prosecution or civil liability under federal and/or state law.

12Are convicted sex offenders allowed to live near a school or day care?back to top

Many states have laws that restrict residency within a certain number of feet of a school or day care; however, these laws vary from state to state.

Most states’ sex offender registries provide information regarding state registry laws. NSOPW provides a list of state public registry sites.

13What are the real threats to you or your children’s safety?back to top

The threat to children’s safety, when a sex offender moves into your area, cannot be accurately assessed by using the information on this Website.

The Stop It Now! Web site provides tips about what you can do if a sex offender resides in your neighborhood.

Report incidents to law enforcement, as you would any suspicious activity, if you feel it threatens you or your family’s safety.

14What should I do if I suspect abuse is occurring or has occurred?back to top

Mother on the phone looking at her daughter who is holding a teddy bear

Document any information that is involved with the suspected abuse. Contact law enforcement as soon as it is safe for you and/or the victim. Avoid harm to yourself and/or the victim: Do not confront the abuser yourself.

See the warning sign for parents for both the children and teens sections of this Website.

Should sexual assault be suspected or occur, use RAINN’s Preserving and Collecting Forensic Evidence information page.

15Do victims of sexual abuse have specific rights?10back to top

Upset woman sitting on the floor of a kitchen looking at a cell phone

Under the Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005, states may not “require a victim of sexual assault to participate in the criminal justice system or cooperate with law enforcement in order to be provided with a forensic medical exam, reimbursement for charges incurred on account of such an exam, or both.” Under this law, a state must ensure that victims have access to an exam free of charge or with a full reimbursement, even if the victim decides not to cooperate with law enforcement investigators.

Previously, states were required to ensure access to exams free of charge but could put conditions on the exam, such as cooperating with law enforcement officials.

Visit the RAINN Web site for additional information regarding specific state laws about victims’ rights.

16Does Facebook allow registered sex offenders to have an account?back to top

Facebook has a specific policy and reporting system to address issues such as sex offenders having profiles, terrorism, bullying, scams, and other criminal activity.

See Facebook’s Help Center for Report Abuse or Policy Violations page for more information.

RReferencesback to top

  1. Kings County Sexual Assault Resource Center, “Keeping Communities Safe–Talking to a 3- to 9-year-old About Child Sexual Abuse.” Definition of child sexual abuse. (http://www.k12.wa.us/safetycenter/Offenders/pubdocs/3-9formatted.pdf) (November 1, 2012)
  2. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. “Types of Sexual Violence.” (http://www.rainn.org/get-information/types-of-sexual-assault) (November 1, 2012)
  3. Stop It Now!, “Who Sexually Abuses Children?” (http://www.stopitnow.org/csa_fact_who_abuse) (November 1, 2012)
  4. Douglas, Emily, and D. Finkelhor, Childhood Sexual Abuse Fact Sheet. Crimes Against Children Research Center, May 2005. (http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/factsheet/pdf/childhoodSexualAbuseFactSheet.pdf) (November 1, 2012)
  5. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, “FAQ: Child Safety.” (http://www.missingkids.com/missingkids/servlet/PageServlet?LanguageCountry=en_US&PageId=2814#3) (November 1, 2012)
  6. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection, Kids in the Know Education Program, “Child Sexual Abuse–It is Your Business.” (https://www.cybertip.ca/pdfs/C3P_ChildSexualAbuse_ItIsYourBusiness_en.pdf) pages 6-7, 10. (October 23, 2012)
  7. Mcalinden, Anne-Marie, “‘Setting ‘Em Up’: Personal, Familial and Institutional Grooming in the Sexual Abuse of Children.” (http://sls.sagepub.com/content/15/3/339.abstract) (November 1, 2012)
  8. My Secure Cyberspace, Carnegie Mellon CyLab Information Networking Institute, “Online Grooming.” (http://www.mysecurecyberspace.com/encyclopedia/index/online-grooming.html) (November 1, 2012)
  9. Stop It Now!, “Create Your Family Safety Plan.” (http://www.stopitnow.org/family_safety_plan) (November 1, 2012)
  10. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, “Preserving and Collecting Forensic Evidence.” (http://www.rainn.org/get-information/aftermath-of-sexual-assault/preserving-and-collecting-forensic-evidence) (November 1, 2012)