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Child Sexual Abuse

Contrary to popular belief, sexual abuse of children and teens is not rare and can happen regardless of income level, ethnicity, gender, ability, sexual orientation, culture or religion. It can happen to any family, to children and youth of any gender, and occurs more often than we would like to think.

Children and youth have the resiliency and strength to overcome the effects of sexual abuse, and with the support of their family, friends, and community, they can go on to live happy, healthy lives.

What is child sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse is the improper exposure of a child to sexual content, activity, or behaviour. A child is typically understood to be anyone under the age of 16.

Child sexual abuse may involve:

  • All forms of sexual contact or touch, including forced oral contact ("kissing"), fondling, grabbing, sexual rubbing, oral genital contact ("oral sex"), vaginal penetration, and anal penetration.
  • Exhibitionism, which occurs when an adult exposes his or her genitals to a child.
  • Exposure to pornography, such as a pornographic film or magazine.
  • Inviting or asking a child to sexually touch another person or child, even if the contact or touch does not occur.
  • An adult engaging in online communication with an individual under the age of 18 to solicit sexual content, activity, or behaviour.
  • The production, possession, and/or distribution of child pornography.

Offenders of child sexual abuse are usually individuals older than the child, or someone in a position of trust or power, who may use tricks, bribes, threats, or physical force. The strategy that offenders' often use during sexual abuse against children is called grooming.

What is the age of consent in Canada?

The age of consent in Canada is 16 years old, meaning that anyone who is 16 years of age or older can consent to sexual activity. In other words, it is recognized that when people are 16 years of age or older, they can make an informed choice about whether or not they want to engage in sexual activity.

When children and youth are under the age of 16, they cannot consent to sexual activity, except in the following two situations when the individuals are close in age:

The Criminal Code of Canada states 14 and 15 year olds can consent to sexual activity with people who are less than 5 years older than they are. In other words, a 14 year old can consent to sexual activity with someone who is up to and including 18 years old, but not 19 years old. A 15 year old can consent to sexual activity with someone who is up to and including 19 years old, but not 20 years old.

The Criminal Code of Canada states 12 and 13 year olds can consent to sexual activity with people who are less than 2 years older than them. In other words, a 12 year old can consent to sexual activity with someone who is up to and including 13 years old, but not 14 years old. A 13 year old can consent to sexual activity with someone who is up to and including 14 years old, but not 15 years old.


11 or younger

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20 & up

11 or younger

12

13

14

15

16

 

Age of Consent Chart

Sometimes people ask, "What if the older person thought the younger person was old enough to give consent?" or, "What if the younger person lied about their age?" In these situations, there is a good chance the two individuals are not part of the same peer environment – they do not go to the same school or hang out with the same people, and are not in the same grade. There is a good chance the older person may be too old to engage in sexual contact with the younger person.

According to the Criminal Code of Canada, it is the older person's obligation and legal responsibility to take all reasonable steps to ascertain the age of the younger person and to make sure that person is old enough to give consent (Criminal Code Section 150.1(4)).

People may also ask, "What if the younger person seduced the older person?" There is no such thing as a 12 year old or a 15 year old, or anyone in between, seducing someone in their twenties or older. It is up to the older person, the adult, to realize the sexual contact is inappropriate and assert necessary boundaries.

There is one more exception to the age of consent in Canada. We have a law referring to Sexual Exploitation, which states:

Anyone...

  • in a position of trust or authority towards a person under the age of 18;
  • or who is a person with whom the individual under the age of 18 is in a relationship of dependency;
  • or who is in a relationship with the individual under the age of 18 that is exploitative cannot engage in sexual contact with the person under the age of 18. This included sexual touching that is either direct or indirect, and invitation to touch (Criminal Code Section 153(1)).

This may refer to, but is not limited to, parents, guardians, babysitters, coaches, teachers, counsellors, principals, doctors, religious leaders, etc.

In other words, people in positions of power or trust towards youth under the age of 18 cannot engage in sexual contact with those youth.

Because Canada's age of consent laws are complex and vary depending on a person's age, it is a good idea to teach youth when they are young what our consent laws entail.

What is grooming?

Grooming is a process offenders of child sexual abuse use to slowly gain children's trust before and during child sexual abuse.

Grooming often involves increasing the dependency of the child towards the offender, and increasing the amount of time the offender spends with the child. The offender will gain the child's trust by treating them special, showing an interest in what the child is passionate about, taking them on special outings, or buying them unique gifts.

Over time, the offender will begin to engage in sexual activities with the child. The offender may expose the child to pornography as a way to sexualize the child, or test to see the child's reactions. When the offender introduces sexual contact, they may lie to the child about what the sexual contact means or tell the child that he or she will be blamed for the sexual abuse. They may bribe the child with presents, alcohol or drugs, or special treatment as long as the child goes along with the sexual contact. They may threaten to hurt the child's family, pets, or friends if he or she tells anyone about it.

Sometimes people blame the child for what happened. For example, if a 12 year old accepted alcohol as a bribe for sexual contact, adults in that child's life may blame the child for accepting the alcohol, and inevitably blame the child for the sexual abuse. However, it is important to realize that everything the offender says or does is to manipulate the child, and offering a child alcohol for sexual activity is always inappropriate behavior for an adult. A child is not responsible for an adult offering alcohol for sexual activity. Children are not responsible for what offenders do to groom and manipulate them. In all cases of child sexual abuse, it is never the child's fault.

What is the motivation for child sexual abuse?

For anyone who supports and loves children, it can be difficult to understand why child sexual abuse happens. Many people believe offenders are psychotic or have a mental problem – they believe offenders are the outcasts of society who do not understand or live by social norms. However, many offenders of child sexual abuse are not diagnosed with mental illnesses. They are often familiar to the child and can be charming, friendly people who easily gain the trust of those close to them. Offenders of sexual abuse against children can be anyone, of any ethnic background, financial status, religion, or occupation, and are often family members or authority figures in a child's life.

The motivation behind child sexual abuse is power and control. The offender uses sexual abuse to assert dominance.

Tools for Children - What can we do to prevent sexual abuse of children?

Often, our instinct to protect children is to tell them, "don't talk to strangers." While this is a helpful message, it often reinforces an incorrect stereotype about who a dangerous person is – a stranger.

The reality is that most offenders of sexual abuse against children are people the children know.

In 2011, 85% of police-reported cases of child sexual abuse involved offenders the children knew (ex. a parent or guardian, older siblings, external family members, a friend or acquaintance, a babysitter, teacher, coach) (Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile 2011).

In addition, sometimes to prevent child sexual abuse the only step adults take is to teach children to say "no" and run away. When that is the only message children receive, it can sometimes communicate to them that it is up to the children to prevent sexual abuse by protecting themselves from unwanted attacks. They may then blame themselves if they are ever sexually abused, for example if they did not say no, or tried to run but were still sexually abused. It is important to have balanced discussions that reinforce the message – it is never the child's fault.

The following are a few suggestions for adults who are parents or guardians, or who work with children, or for anyone who has a child in their life. You may not be able to prevent an initial instance of sexual abuse against a child – but you do have the power to prevent further, on-going abuse.

    Talking to Children about Abuse

Sometimes children who are abused do not tell anyone about what is happening because they are not sure it is wrong. In cases when the offender is known to the child, children may be confused because they might trust and even love the person who is sexually abusing them. They may not know that adults they trust can hurt them. The offender may have even convinced them that the sexual abuse is their fault. Sometimes, the touch itself feels physically good and emotionally "bad," which can confuse children. Their bodies are responding in a natural way to touch that they do not want.

It is a good idea to teach children the difference between positive physical touch (Ex. hugs and kisses that make the child feel safe, from caring adults such as parents or grandparents; a doctor checking their body with their permission and another caring adult in the room; a pat on the back from a friend when the child is feeling sad) and inappropriate physical touch (touch involving a child or adult's private parts, including penis, vagina, buttocks, or breasts, which is not medically necessary for hygiene or heath). When having this discussion, it is important to clarify that children who are touched inappropriately have done nothing wrong. Sometimes, children who are abused think they are bad or ruined because something "bad" happened to them, which reinforces feelings of shame. Consistently send the message that if any adult or older child, known or unknown, physically touches them inappropriately, the adult or older person is doing something wrong, not the child. The child has a right to tell a caring adult about it.

Talking to children about abuse helps them learn that they have the right to grow up without violence. It also encourages them to share if they are feeling uncomfortable or are being abused.

     Respecting Children's' Rights to their Boundaries

Young children are often taught to obey adults and are reprimanded when they say "No." While this may be appropriate sometimes, when a child's physical boundaries are not being respected, they may learn they do not have a right to assert their boundaries, or that they should expect their boundaries will not be respected. For example, at a family gathering a young child is told they must hug all their aunts and uncles, even after they have said no. This inadvertently teaches the child that they do not have the right to assert physical boundaries.

Children need to know they have a right to decide who touches their bodies and when, that they can speak out when they feel uncomfortable about physical touch, and that they have a right to say "No" to touch. If the adult does not respect their right to their boundaries, children need to know they can speak up against that adult, even if he or she is a person who is in a position of authority, power, or trust.

Note that "the right to say no" is different than "must say no." Sometimes, children who are abused do not use the word "No," maybe because they are afraid, they communicate "No" in another way (ex. through body language or other verbal and non-verbal cues for "No"), or are confused about what is happening. Regardless of what the child does or does not do, says or does not say, the abuse is not their fault.

     Appropriately Naming Genitals

Often children who are sexually abused do not know the proper names for their genitalia. When they disclose the abuse to adults, the adults may get confused about what the child is telling them. For example, if a child went to an adult and said, "Uncle keeps touching my flower," would the adult guess the child was talking about sexual abuse? Teaching children the proper names for their private parts, including penis, vagina, buttocks, and breasts, takes away some of the power the offender has to keep the abuse a secret, and gives the child the power and language to tell a caring adult about the sexual abuse.

   Explaining the Difference between "Secrets" and "Surprises"

Offenders of child sexual abuse often tell a child to keep it a secret. One way to increase the likelihood that a child will tell another adult about the abuse, even if the offender tells them it is a secret, is to clarify the difference between secrets and surprises. Explain that surprises are fun because the child gets to share them with other people in the end. For example, surprise birthday parties or presents. Teach children that adults should not ask them to keep secrets that they are never allowed to tell, especially secrets about touching.

What can I do when a child discloses they have been sexually abused?

It takes courage for a child to tell an adult about sexual abuse. Any time a child does disclose sexual abuse to an adult, the adult must report it. According to the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act of Alberta, adults must report "if there are reasonable and probable grounds to believe that the survival, security or development of the child is endangered because... (e) the guardian of the child is unable or unwilling to protect the child from physical injury or sexual abuse" (Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act, pg. 10).

    Reporting Disclosures

When a child discloses sexual abuse, once the conversation with the child is finished, write down detailed notes of what he or she said. Then, call Alberta Children and Youth Services at 1-800-387-KIDS (5437) or the police to make a report. They will ask you questions about the incident, and you are only required to give information that you know. Once you have made the report, you have fulfilled your legal obligation.

Remember to document the conversation you had when making the report, including content, time, and the name of the person you spoke with. This way, if you need to check in at a later date and ask what steps Alberta Children and Youth Services or the police are taking, you can reference the initial report of the sexual abuse.

   What Helps Children Tell?

There are many reasons why children often do not tell. They might:

  • Be afraid they will not be believed, or fear the consequences of telling. If the offender has threatened the child, or told him or her that if he or she tells they will get in trouble, they may believe the threat.
  • Think it was their fault, especially if the offender has been giving the message that something is wrong with them or that they deserve the abuse.
  • Be dependent on the abuser(s), and are afraid of what might happen to them if they tell.Not know how to describe what has happened to them. For example, if they do not have proper language to describe genitals.
  • Have conflicting emotions about the abuser and are feeling confused about the sexual abuse.
  • Be protecting the offender.
  • Be afraid that if they tell, it will break up the family.

We can do a few things to help children tell. Because children often fear punishment, or feel like the abuse is their fault, it helps them tell if they have a confident person in their life who consistently has a non-judgmental attitude towards the child. Be a person in their life who will not blame them, or be angry at them, for the abuse.

Also, provide abuse education and awareness information that is developmentally appropriate for the child. When a child understands what abuse is, that they deserve to live free from abuse, and that they can tell a caring adult about abuse and will not get in trouble, it increases the likelihood they will disclose sexual abuse if it occurs.

    What can we do to Help a Child During a Disclosure?

If a child does tell, here are some tips for responding to the disclosure.

  Do:

  • Believe children who disclose to you.

It is rare for children to lie about sexual abuse. Children do not have enough knowledge about sexual acts to describe something that did not happen. If children do lie about sexual abuse, it is usually to deny that it occurred when it in fact did, to protect the family unit and/or the offender. If they build the courage to tell, believe them right away.

  • Listen to the child / Let children talk.

Refrain from interrupting the child while he or she talks. Let them say what they want and what is on their mind. Let the child express their feelings. Be willing to talk about the abuse so the child knows there is nothing to be ashamed of. Ask open questions like, "How are you feeling?" or "What would you like to tell me?"

  • Stay calm and remain non-judgemental.

It is important the child understand that they did nothing wrong. Remaining calm and non-judgemental while the child discloses communicates to the child they are safe, and that they will not get in trouble for telling.

  • Respect the child's privacy.

If a child has been sexually abused, their boundaries have been crossed. To support the child after a disclosure of sexual abuse, it is important to reaffirm and respect their right to their boundaries and privacy. Avoid talking about the abuse in front of others. Let the child know what you plan to do about the sexual abuse and who you will be telling. Say something like, "Thank you for telling me. You did the right thing. Because I care about you, I will tell someone whose job is to keep children safe. How do you feel about that?" However they are feeling let them know it is okay and explain that what the offender did was wrong and you need to tell someone about it. If you need to tell anyone else in the child's life, explain to them why, and let them know that you will only tell the people who need to know. It is a good idea to ask the child who they do not want to know about the abuse. If possible, respect the child's choice. If you cannot respect this choice and must tell those people, let the child know why.

  • Address the child's feelings and acknowledge their courage.

Let the child know that however they are feeling is okay. They may even express love or affection towards the offender. You can acknowledge that the child may feel love towards the offender, maybe because the offender treated them really special, did lots of fun things with them, and gave them attention. However, because the offender did something wrong, they need to be held responsible for their behaviour. Also, acknowledge the child's courage in telling, by saying something like, "Thank you for telling me. That was a good thing." Or "It was very brave of you to tell me about what happened. You did the right thing."

  • Be honest about what will happen next.

Knowing what will happen next gives children a sense of control over a situation that in many ways is out of their control. As much as you can, let them know what will happen at each new stage after a disclosure. For example, right after a disclosure say, "Thank you for telling me. Now, I am going to tell someone at the police station because I care about your safety." Later, if the child will be providing testimony, let them know what will happen. Say something like, "We are going to a place to talk about what the offender did. You will be safe and I will be there with you. How do you feel about that?"

  • Emphasize the abuse is NOT the child's fault.

Because it is likely the child may be feeling like they did something wrong, consistently reassure them that they did nothing wrong. Say something like, "It's not your fault he/she did that to you" or "I'm sorry this happened to you."

  • Give options.

As much as you can, give the child options about what they would like to do about the abuse. This affirms their right to their body and boundaries, and their right to choose how to cope with what happened.

  • Take care of yourself.

It can be difficult to receive a disclosure about child sexual abuse. Recognize that a child disclosing to you speaks to the trust and safety they feel in their relationship with you. Taking care of yourself during this time will directly benefit the child because it will help you emotionally cope with their disclosure.

You can seek support for yourself by contacting the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton's 24-Hour Sexual Assault Crisis line at 780-423-4121.

  Do not:

  • Do not probe for details.

When children are asked to share details about sexual abuse, it can further traumatize the child by causing them to relive the experience. If the offender of the sexual abuse will be charged and the case goes to court, instances when adults "probed" the child for details may be seen as contaminating the evidence or putting ideas into the child's head. Adults do not need to know exactly what happened to support a child. Instead of asking for details, let children tell you what they want to, in their own words.

  • Do not allow the child to see your anger or shock.

Children often internalize the emotional reactions of adults. Responding to disclosures with anger, or showing shock and disgust, may send the message to the child that they did something wrong, or that they are "bad" or "disgusting." Remember to remain calm during the disclosure, and if you are feeling angry or disgusted by the sexual abuse, express those emotions in settings where the child is not present.

  • Do not make promises you cannot keep.

It is often our instinct when children disclose to make promises like, "You'll never have to see the offender again," or "they're going to jail, I promise." These are things that are often out of our control. Maybe the offender is a family member, and it is likely the child will end up seeing him or her at future family gatherings. Maybe the offender is charged but never convicted, and they do not spend any time in jail. Instead of making promises you cannot keep, raise hope in the child by saying things like, "I am here for you no matter what" or "Whatever happens, I believe you and I'm here for you."

What are signs that a child is being sexually abused?

The only sure way to know if a child is being sexually abused is if that child discloses or someone witnesses the abuse. However, there are signs that adults can look for. It is important to not look for individual signs. Adults can pay attention to the following shifts in behavior:

  • Clusters of Behaviours – There are several signs indicating a child may be going through a trauma.
  • Patterns over time – Behaviours that consistently change according to a pattern. For example, a five year old child, who has been trained to use the washroom, consistently wetting the bed after every visit with a specific extended family member.
  • Sudden changes – Behaviours that suddenly change. For example, a five year old child who is typically outgoing and excited to play outside, is all of a sudden withdrawn and wants to be in the house all the time.

Many of the possible signs/behaviours to be aware of listed below may be a response to other forms of trauma. Many children, who have not experienced trauma, will exhibit these behaviours from time to time. It is important to watch for clusters of behaviours, patterns over time, or sudden changes. Some signs of child sexual abuse are:

  • Sleeping problems, nightmares, refusal to stay in their own bed or bedroom
  • Regression to an earlier stage of development (thumb-sucking, bed wetting, etc)
  • Withdrawal, unhappiness, anxiety, excessive crying, loss of appetite
  • Fear of a particular adult, or fear of being left alone with a particular person
  • Fear of being touched, shrinking away from physical contact
  • Attempting specific sexual behavior with people or "sexual acting out"
  • Sexually transmitted diseases, yeast infections, soreness in the genital areas
  • Pregnancy in girls who have reached puberty

What are the sections in the Criminal Code of Canada that refer to child sexual abuse?

  • Section 150.1 pg. 167 – Age of Consent
  • Section 151 pg. 169 – Sexual interference – engaging in sexual contact with an individual under the age of consent
  • Section 152 pg. 170 – Inviting a child to touch another child's body parts, or another adults'
  • Section 153 pg. 170 – Sexual Exploitation
  • Section 155 pg. 173 – IncestSection 163.1 pg. 179 – Child pornography
  • Section 170 pg. 188 – A parent or guardian asking a child under the age of 18 to engage in sexual acts prohibited by Canadian law with individuals other than the parent or guardian
  • Section 172.1 pg. 189 – communicating with a child under the age of 18 online to engage in sexual contact, activity, or behaviour with the child
  • Section 173(2) pg. 191 – An adult exposing his or her genitals to a child under 16 years old

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