Sexual Abuse

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Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse came out of the closet in the 1980s. Since then, there have been references in novels, on television, in films and of course, in news stories. Nevertheless, accurate and dispassionate information for those affected, as well as for the general public, is hard to come by. The following may be difficult for survivors in particular to read, but we hope it will be useful. 

People use the terms sexual abuse and sexual assault interchangeably. Is there a difference?

There are two broad categories of sexual crimes in Canadian law for which people can be charged. Our FAQ on sexual assault (between adults), can be read here: FAQ: Sexual Assault. That FAQ explains the age of consent to sexual activity and under what circumstances there is no consent. This FAQ will use the term “sexual abuse” to describe sexual crimes against children under the age of 18. The legal age of consent to sexual activity is 16. However, youth who are in child protection care are a special case and are not able to give legal consent to sexual activity until age 18.

It is important to mention some “close-in-age” exceptions to the legal age of consent. For 13 and 14 year olds, if there is less than a three year age difference between them, consensual activity is not considered an offense. For 15 and 16 year olds, it is not considered an offense as long as the older partner is no more than five years older and not in a position of authority or trust, like a camp counsellor or tutor.

What do the statistics tell us about child sexual abuse?

The sexual abuse of children is, sadly, too common a crime.

What we know:

Although in 2011, there were nearly 4,000 incidents of police-reported sexual crimes against children, since most abusers are known to and trusted by the child, it is safe to assume that this crime is under-reported.

  • More than half (58%) of all victims were 17 or younger.
  • Most (89%) children and youth know the offender and the vast majority (93%) of offenders are family members or others related to the child.
  • Both male and female children and youth are victims of sexual abuse; but there are more girls than boys (69% girls; 31% boys).
  • Girls are more likely than boys to experience sexual offending by a family member; female children and youth were the victims of 79% of all sexual offences committed by a family member in 2009.

For more information on statistics related to sexual abuse in Canada, see and


  • Children with disabilities are at higher risk.
  • Children of incest survivors are at higher risk.
  • It is estimated that up to 75% of Aboriginal girls under the age of 18 have experienced sexual abuse (50% under 14 and almost 25% younger than 7).

Why don’t kids just say no?

According to the Criminal Code, child sexual abuse occurs when a person uses power over a child to involve the child in any sexual act. This power may stem from the abuser’s age, intellectual or physical development, relationship of authority over the child, and/or the child’s need to be taken care of (dependency).

 It can be difficult for a child to resist. This is the crux of the damage to the child: he or she feels they are to blame because they did not say no and they did not tell. Although an offender may use threats, bribes, force or lies, they essentially take advantage of – and abuse - the child’s trust.

The offender often makes it extremely difficult for the child to tell. No matter how often and for how long the abuse goes on, the child often feels shame and blame: keeping the abuser’s secret is a terrible burden.

Abusers’ tactics sometimes include physical coercion, but they may also use psychological manipulation, such as telling the child it’s a special secret, just between them and the perpetrator. Gradual exposure to pornographic material is an example of “grooming”, (preparing the child for sexual activity). It can be used to desensitize the child. Abusers may refer to the activities as something “normal”, describing it as a form of sex education or love.

An offender may slowly and gradually move toward more sophisticated activities after engaging the child’s trust. This is the way they entangle the child, until the child feels it is too late to stop it. An offender may say things like:

  • No one will believe you.
  • You like this game, don’t you?
  • It feels good, doesn’t it?
  • You don’t want me to get into trouble do you?

What kinds of sexual activities are considered a crime against a child?

Sexual abuse includes involving the child in acts such as:

  • allowing a child to watch pornography
  • touching the child in a sexual way
  • getting the child to touch the abuser inappropriately
  • oral sex
  • inserting fingers, penis, or objects in the vagina or anus
  • involving a child in pornography or prostitution
  • sexual exploitation over the Internet
  • exposing oneself

What’s the difference between “exposing” yourself and being naked in front of your child?

Sometimes parents and caregivers wonder if it is OK to be naked in front of their children. At issue is: “what is the intent” and “is there secrecy involved”? Abusers always insist on secrecy. There is a difference between running naked from the shower to the bedroom - and sitting on a couch dressed in a bathrobe with one’s genitals intentionally exposed. So if there is no secrecy and no deliberate ill intent, it is not abusive.

It is common for children to give their parents cues when they no longer wish to see a parent naked, or if they no longer wish to be seen naked. Parents should pick up on these cues and respect their children’s privacy. However, in some homes where sexual abuse takes place, a key problem can be that there are no personal boundaries. Children may be deprived of their fundamental right to privacy.

Why is sexual abuse so damaging?

Some children who are sexually abused manage to heal without therapy. Others disclose and enter into therapy with good results. Still others endure a lifetime of re-victimization or a variety of negative consequences, like:

  • early sexual activity
  • risky sexual behaviour
  • alcohol or other substance abuse
  • inability to trust
  • difficulty maintaining intimate relationships
  • suicide attempts
  • physical symptoms, like pain
  • difficulties with sexual enjoyment
  • memories of abuse that are difficult to retrieve  ( 
  • a higher risk of developing psychiatric illness, especially mood disorders, self-harming, and eating disorders

What do we know about abusers?

The sexual abuse of a child is intended to gratify the needs of the abuser. That said, there is no one profile of a person who abuses children. Abusers are found in all age groups, ethno-cultural communities and social and economic backgrounds. A male offender may even be a respected member of his community, married with children. Although all statistics on sexual abuse point to a majority of acts committed by men, it is believed that the number of female offenders is under-reported.

Sometimes, sexual abuse is a crime of opportunity and may only happen once. In other cases, it may continue for years.

Some offenders are true pedophiles and only attracted to children. One perpetrator had abused more than 70 children before anyone listened and/or recognized the signs and symptoms of abuse.

At the other end of the spectrum are people who physically harm or even kill a child after sexually abusing them. It is more common for an abuser to groom a child for their ongoing sexual needs, avoiding physical harm to the child so that the abuse can continue.

Can parents prevent sexual abuse?

Parents and caregivers can teach children some valuable basic information; but in reality, if someone wants to abuse a child, they will often find a way to do it. That is why it is crucial to tell a child they can tell a parent anything. If they disclose an abuse, they can begin their healing immediately. It is critical that children be taught from a young age that:

  • Most people want to keep kids safe.
  • All touch can be talked about.
  • There are touches that can make you feel good and touches that can make you feel bad.
  • Only you can decide how touch makes you feel.
  • Listen to that “uh oh” feeling. You have the right to say no.
  • Tell someone you trust if someone doesn’t respect your “no”.

What about reporting child sexual abuse?

Under Canadian child welfare laws, everyone has a duty to report child abuse and neglect. Professionals who work with children and youth have an added responsibility to report. This obligation applies if you know or even suspect it is occurring.

For more information, see:

Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal: Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect  

Child Abuse Prevention and Intervention: Boost for Kids

Non-Profit Legal Aid Clinic: Justice for Youth and Children

CWHN FAQ: Getting Through Medical Examinations - A Resource for Women Survivors of Abuse and Their Health Care Providers


This FAQ may provide medical information, but is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice. When you have questions about your health, it is always advisable to ask a health care practitioner.

Created January 2014.

Ellen or susan
Examinations - A Resource for Women Survivors of Abuse and Their Health Care Providers