Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse and assault currently affect 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 20 boys in the United States.1 The effects of child sexual abuse and assault are traumatic, long-lasting, and costly. Although rates of sexual abuse declined during the 1990s, they have plateaued in recent years,2 suggesting a renewed effort is needed to protect children. New policies that result in smart investments in prevention programs, research, and education are needed to ensure that our children are safe, healthy, and successful in school and have productive and rewarding futures.

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According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, “Child sexual abuse involves inducing or coercing a child to engage in sexual acts. It includes behaviors such as fondling, penetration, and exposing a child to other sexual activities”3 (such as flashing, masturbation, peeping, or pornography).

Who Is Affected?

The number of reported cases of child sexual abuse can vary widely, depending on the definition of abuse used and the system collecting and reporting the data. However, the most recent data suggest that 26.6% of girls and 5.1% of boys in the U.S. experience sexual abuse or assault before age 18.1 Overall, it is estimated that a child is sexually abused every 8 minutes in the U.S.4

Child sexual abuse affects children from all socioeconomic levels. However, research suggests that several subgroups of children are at heightened risk of victimization, including LGBTQ youth,5 youth in foster care,6 children with physical and mental disabilities,7,8 and homeless and runaway youth.9,10

Perpetrators of child sexual abuse and assault are most typically:

  • Male (more than 90%)11
  • A person known to the child (approximately 50%)11
  • A member of the child’s family (approximately 25–33%)11
  • Over age 18 (76.8%), although it is important to note that nearly 20% of perpetrators are between ages 12 and 1712

Impact of Abuse

Children who experience sexual abuse suffer the effects throughout their lives. Children and youth who are sexually abused are more likely to feel powerless and unable to control their lives; exhibit behaviors such as depression, bulimia, obesity, and anorexia, as well as delinquency and heavy drinking; and experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) like anxiety and violent behavior.13 They are also more likely to need special education services.14

For children who are victims of substantiated or indicated child abuse of any kind, there is an average lifetime cost per victim of $210,012.15

Prevention Efforts

Research shows that the two most effective ways to prevent abuse are education and training of adults and skills training in children.16 When school-based programs are used in conjunction with parental involvement, they produce more benefits than either approach does individually.16

When training adults, the goals are to give them the knowledge and skills to identify the signs of abuse, make appropriate referrals, and create strong bonds that encourage communication with children. Research shows that when parents or other caring adults teach children about sexual abuse, they decrease the likelihood that the child will be victimized.16

When focusing on children, the goals are to increase their knowledge and use of strategies that prevent victimization and to create an empowering atmosphere that leads to increased disclosure rates.16 Studies indicate that the likelihood of a child reporting abuse is a significant deterrent to perpetrators,17 and perpetrators may be less likely to victimize a child with high self-esteem who appears less vulnerable.18

Policy Recommendations

The most cost-effective policies that reduce child sexual abuse are prevention efforts, and the most effective prevention efforts occur when children receive a school-based prevention program in conjunction with the involvement of a caring adult.

The National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation has developed six pillars of prevention19 to guide policymakers toward effective policies. Integrating these pillars with our broad understanding of the research on child sexual abuse, Committee for Children recommends the following policy efforts:

  • Advocate for funding to support both proven prevention strategies and research to evaluate promising prevention practices.
  • Support research into targeted cultural messaging and outreach to at-risk populations. Also, implement culturally appropriate reporting mechanisms that would empower those in communities at risk to recognize and report abuse and seek help.
  • Develop a broad, national education program identifying the signs of child sexual abuse and the steps to prevent it. Incorporate a two-generational approach that targets the child and the child’s parents/caregivers.
  • Develop a national Technical Assistance Center that, at a minimum, provides information on evidence-based programs and practices.


  1. Finkelhor, D., Shattuck, A., Turner, H. A., & Hamby, S. L. (2014). The lifetime prevalence of child sexual abuse and sexual assault assessed in late adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Health, 55(3), 329–333.
  2. Child Trends DataBank. (2016). Child maltreatment: Indicators on children and youth. Retrieved from
  3. Fortson, B. L., Klevens, J., Merrick, M. T., Gilbert, L. K., & Alexander, S. P. (2016). Preventing child abuse and neglect: A technical package for policy, norm, and programmatic activities. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from
  4. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. (2016). Statistics. Retrieved from
  5. Institute of Medicine and National Research Council of the National Academies. (2013). Confronting commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors in the United States. DOI: 10.17226/18358
  6. Gluck, E., & Mathur, R. (2014). Child sex trafficking and the child welfare system. State Policy Advocacy and Reform Center. Retrieved from
  7. Wilczynski, S. M., Connolly, S., Dubard, M., Henderson, A., & Mcintosh, D. (2015). Assessment, prevention, and interventions for abuse among individuals with disabilities. Psychology in the Schools, 52(1), 9–21.
  8. Smith, N., & Harrell, S. (2013). Sexual abuse of children with disabilities: A national snapshot. VERA Institute of Justice, Center on Victimization and Safety. Retrieved from
  9. Rew, L., Taylor-Seehafer, T., & Fitzgerald, M. L. (2001). Sexual abuse, alcohol and other drug use, and suicidal behaviors in homeless adolescents. Issues in Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing, 24(4), 225–240.
  10. Able-Peterson, T., & Meuleners, M. J. (2009). Homeless youth and sexual exploitation: Research findings and practice implications. National Alliance to End Homelessness. Retrieved from
  11. Douglas, E. M., & Finkelhor, D. (n.d.). Childhood sexual abuse fact sheet. Retrieved from
  12. Snyder, H. N. (2000). Sexual assault of young children as reported to law enforcement: Victim, incident, and offender characteristics—A statistical report using data from the National Incident-Based Reporting System. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  13. Hornor, G. (2010). Child sexual abuse: Consequences and implications. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 26(6), 358–364.
  14. Mullen, P. E., Martin, J. L., Anderson, J. C., Romans, S. E., & Herbison, G. P. (1996). The long-term impact of the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of children: A community study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 20(1), 7–21.
  15. Fang, X., Brown, D. S., Florence, C. S., & Mercy, J. A. (2012). The economic burden of child maltreatment in the United States and implications for prevention. Child Abuse & Neglect, 36(2), 156–165.
  16. Finkelhor, D., & Dziuba-Leatherman, J. (1995). Victimization prevention programs: A national survey of children’s exposure and reactions. Child Abuse & Neglect, 19(2), 129–139.
  17. Daro, D., & McCurdy, K. (1994). Preventing child abuse and neglect: Programmatic interventions. Child Welfare, 73(5), 405–430.
  18. Gibson, L. E., & Leitenberg, H. (2000). Child sexual abuse prevention programs: Do they decrease the occurrence of child sexual abuse? Child Abuse & Neglect, 24(9), 1115–1125.
  19. National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse & Exploitation. (2015). Six pillars for prevention. Retrieved from