Labels, Myths, & Reality
Words matter, especially when we use them to label people. The words below all refer to ugly actions. They carry a great deal of stigma. So it is important to use them carefully and accurately.
Child sexual abuse: Sexual behavior, for the purpose of sexual gratification, with a child too young to give consent, by a person with greater power or authority. Child sexual abuse may include physical contact (sexual assault) but could also include other sexually-oriented behavior, such as taking or sharing images, viewing pornography, nudity, sexual speech or teasing.
Most people think of sexual predators in the public as the main drivers of child sexual abuse. Media coverage reinforces this myth by highlighting abuse at the hands of an individual or organization outside the family. This awareness is important, but it can leave a false impression that children are safe at home and with family.
The most common place for children to be sexually abused is in a home. Children are most at risk with people they know. According to Darkness to Light, 90% of the time a child already knows the person who is sexually abusive toward them, and in 30% of incidents that are reported, the abuse is caused by a family member. The actual percentage is probably higher, since sexual abuse by a family member is less likely to be reported.
Incest: Sexual activity between members of the same family, including genetic relatives, step-relatives, adoptive or foster relatives. The meaning of the term “incest” has evolved over time, and there is no universal legal or common definition.
1. Some people assume that incest refers to intercourse.
2. Many people use the word incest to describe abuse between generations, usually fathers molesting daughters.
3. Another common fallacy is that much incest, particularly between siblings, is consensual.
1. Some states have a legal definition of incest that may or may not include penetration in the definition.
3. Incest is virtually never consensual. It almost always begins in childhood, and children cannot give true consent to sexual activity. In addition, family relationships involve an imbalance of power. This is easier to see between adults and children. But sibling relationships also include differences in age, physical size, desire for approval, and status within the family. These lead to an element of coercion in sibling sexual trauma, even when it is subtle or implied or not even recognized by the child who was traumatized.
Intra-Familial Child Sexual Abuse: Harmful, non-consensual sexual activity between family members who are related biologically and/or live in the same household. This is a more precise term that is becoming preferred, due to the difficulties with the word “incest” cited above.
Sexual Assault: A broad term encompassing any sexual contact or behavior that happens without consent.
Rape: Sexual assault that includes penetration (including vaginal, oral, or anal sex) and violence, coercion, or exploitation of an individual who is does not consent, or is unable to give consent due to age or mental state.
1. Rape and sexual assault are interchangeable terms.
2. The people at highest risk of rape are females walking alone at night, at risk of being raped by a stranger at knifepoint.
1. Rape is a type of sexual assault, but sexual assault is not necessarily rape. Non-rape sexual assault may involve touching under or over clothing, kissing, rubbing, etc. It may be coerced by words, emotions, manipulation, intoxication, etc.
2. According to RAINN, forced sexual activity is most often committed by someone who knows the victim. There is usually not a weapon involved. Males can be raped, and transgender or nonbinary individuals are at especially high risk.
Sex Offender: An individual who has been convicted of a sexual offense and is required to register publicly.
Sex offenders are all pedophiles who have sexually assaulted children. The primary way to protect your child from sexual abuse is to check your neighborhood for the presence of sex offenders.
A huge range of offenses require registering as a sex offender. A complex web of state and federal laws around the sex offender registry has led to a registry that includes many individuals who have been judged low risk, whose offense did not involve children, who committed a single offense as a teen, or who have gone many years without re-offending. Unfortunately this diminishes the usefulness of the registry at warning the public against those who actually are at high risk to reoffend. The vast majority of child sexual abuse is committed by people with no prior convictions and who are known to the child.
Pedophile: An adult who is sexually attracted to prepubescent children
The word pedophile often conjures images of man driving a run-down van enticing children with candy in order to to molest them.
The term pedophile refers to sexual attraction, not sexual activity. Some pedophiles have committed sexual offenses against children but some have not. Many other adults who sexually abuse teens or children are not pedophiles–they choose child victims for reasons of convenience or power. The vast majority of teens who act out sexually with younger children will not be attracted to children when they become adults.
The Mama Bear Effect: Think All Child Molesters are Pedophiles? Think Again.
Dear Stop It Now! Webinar: Is My Child a Pedophile?
Darkness to Light: Child Sexual Abuse Statistics
Warning: the video below contains descriptions of both sibling sexual abuse and violence against a child.