12 Questions and Answers about Sexual Violence against Children and Youngsters

See here the answer to some questions on the phenomenon of sexual violence against children and youngsters.

1. Is Sexual Violence against Children and Youngsters uncommon?

It is usual that society tends to assume that the existing cases are uncommon, being restricted only to those which are publicised by the media.

However, when there are highly publicised cases, which are widely spread and explored, it might be assumed that, in the contexts where they occur, they are very frequent (ex. shelters for children and young people).

In reality, many children all over the world are frequently victims of sexual violence.

Even so, statistical data is always a brief reflection of the global reality, the "tip of the iceberg”.

In other words, they only reveal a tiny part of the total number of children who are victims, showing only the numbers of those who have asked someone for help or of those who have been found out, as can be verified by the inverted pyramid of existing crimes versus convictions.

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2. Sexual Violence only takes place within underprivileged places?

All children and young people can be targets of sexual violence, regardless of their socioeconomic background.

In fact, children and youngsters with different types of needs can be the target of these acts, whether these needs are socioeconomic, affective, of supervision or of sexual education - which can happen in families from any social class.

3. When the child or youngster suffers from such a crime, they tell somebody right away?

There are several factors that might have an impact on the child's propensity to disclose the situation of which she/he has been victim:

  • The offender's strategies;
  • The relationship between the offender and the victim;
  • The anticipation of the possible consequences of disclosure (e.g. realising that disclosure may lead to the condemnation of the offender, which may restrain the willingness to disclose, especially if the offender is someone close to them)
  • The personality traits of the victim;
  • The victim's stage of development;
  • The way the victim deals with the situation;
  • The feelings of guilt, shame and fear;
  • The type, severity and consequences of the victimisation.

Those can influence the time elapsed between the event(s) and the disclosure, as well as the moment when it happens, the way it is done and to whom the victim turns to for this purpose.

It is important to remember that disclosure may not be made verbally, but also through drawings or manifestation of symptoms, and that it may not convey clear information, since it depends on the victim's understanding of what happened.

In some cases it is later, when the victim begins their sexual life, or when another event makes them relive those memories, that some symptoms emerge or it happens the need to disclose the situation of sexual violence in childhood or adolescence.

4. When the child or youngster does not show resistance, it is because they want or enjoy the sexual act?

In general, three possible reactions of children or young people in the course of victimisation can be pointed out:

  • passivity;
  • aggressiveness;
  • activity.

The fact that the victim does not resist the actions perpetrated against them, does not mean that they are enjoying them.

The way they are going to react to the sexual violence situation will largely depend on the adaptation strategies the children have, regardless of whether they are more or less adaptable.

As previously mentioned, there are several factors, which may influence the way the victim reacts to the situation and not show any resistance, even though the situation may not be pleasant for him/her:

  • the offender's strategies to control the child;
  • the personality traits of each of the intervening parties (offender and victim);
  • the type of relationship existing between the offender and the victim;
  • the child's perception of the event;
  • the associated feelings of guilt and fear.

The child may still feel pleasure in the sexual intercourse with the adult, once she/he has the capacity to feel sexually stimulated, particularly if she/he has already gone through the puberty.

However, the victim may not be prepared, neither physically nor psychologically, to have sexual intercourse, mainly with someone at a very different stage of development from them.

On the other hand, sexual pleasure in the child is often associated with the perception of affection, especially if the offender's interpretation of the sexual behaviour is distorted in that sense - that is, if the offender convinces the child that the act he/she is performing is only an expression of affection.

5. There are some children or youngsters that are seductive which, in a way, may provoke sexual behaviour from the adult?

Even if it is taken into account that an attitude of curiosity regarding sexuality is part of the normal developmental process of a child, this does not mean that the child has a clear and conscious intention to become sexually involved with an adult or older person.

Sometimes, even if they verbalize this desire, it may be based on unrealistic expectations about the sexual relationship or consist in the mere reproduction of observed behaviours.

This way, it is up to the adult or older person to refuse the child's sexualized behaviour, taking into account that the child might not yet be fully aware of the content and consequences of his/her actions.

On the other hand, this is an argument frequently used by the offenders to justify their acts, in order to discredit the victim, share the eventual feeling of guilt with the latter or even because, in some cases, they interpret the children's behaviour in a distorted way, perceiving a gesture of affection or search for affection, as an attitude of insinuation and desire for sexual stimulation.

6. Sexual Crimes against children always involve physical violence, threats or blackmail?

The perpetration of sexual crimes is not always associated to physical violence, threats or coercion, and the offender may adopt strategies of seduction and manipulation, and sometimes take advantage of the inexperience of children or young people to make them cooperate in sexual practices or to camouflage sexualised behaviours, which may make it difficult to collect physical traces of the acts.

Furthermore, there is another countless number of behaviours which configure sexual violence and which do not involve physical contact between victim and author or, when they do, they are acts which hardly ever leave any kind of physical trace which may be collected and used as evidence, which does not mean that the sexually abusive act has not happened.

7. Sexual Assault always mean the existence vaginal or anal penetration?

For some people, sexual intercourse is conceptualized only within the concept of vaginal or anal penetration, and they may see the possibility of sexual crimes against children in the same way.

However, there is another set of behaviours the offender may use, in order to get pleasure from the contact with the victim, which may include penetration with other parts of the body or objects, touching, caressing, masturbation, exhibitionism, the use of photographs or videos, or any other behaviours that promote sexual arousal.

The offenders may also use this type of acts in order to leave no traces, so as to reduce the probability of being discovered.

8. Can Babies be victims?

Statistically, most of the officially reported sexual crimes concern children between the ages of 8 to 13.

However, younger children may also be targets of these acts, for different reasons, ranging from the offenders' preference for these age groups, or because the victims are more accessible to them, or even because it is easier to maintain the perpetration of the acts continuously.

In fact, children between 0 and 7 years of age have a lower capacity to express themselves verbally, to be completely understood and to ask for help, and may be more easily involved in the acts through the collaboration strategies presented by the offenders.

9. Do those who know of a sexual violence situation always report it?

Sexual crimes against children and youngsters, due to their nature, tend to generate more sensibility among those who are aware of them.

However, this does not mean that there is a greater propensity for them to be reported, for different reasons: shame, fear of reprisals, or not believing that the revelation made is true.

Even when the disclosure of the crime by the child is made to the child's parents, legal representatives or a trusted adult (e.g. family member, teacher), the official report may be delayed or never take place, because of shame, guilt, fear of the implications within the justice and protection system the child is part of (e.g. family, foster institution, school, society in general), or even the belief that the criminal process may be harmful for the victim.

It is also important to remember that some crimes happen with the connivance of the victim's caregivers, who may even benefit from the abusive situation.

Also, the child may be the target of neglect, when the caregivers do not take into account the impact that victimisation can have on the child's development.

It is absolutely fundamental, however, that any acts which come to adults’ knowledge, are immediately reported to the competent police/judicial authorities, since only these have the competence to ascertain the veracity of any suspicions, which may have been raised.

10. The offender is always a stranger that look suspicious?

Several studies and statistics indicate that sexual crimes against children and young people are mostly committed by people known to them, who have a greater or lesser proximity to the victim.

Even if the offenders of the crimes are unknown to the victims, they tend to be integrated in society and within a normative family structure, and may be known for their affection towards the children or young people, this being a potential strategy for a successful approach to the victims and consequent perpetration of the acts of sexual violence.

11. Do children lie?

ÉIt is unusual for children and youngsters to lie deliberately and to be able to consistently maintain a story with details, especially younger children.

Still, it should be mentioned that children can sometimes confuse reality with the fantasies they create, through the way they integrate the various stimuli that come to them (e.g. television, magazines, events they see happening to other people).

Furthermore, it is possible that, by influence of other people, children verbalise false memories, which may be formed with a voluntary purpose, by someone, who might intend to use the child/young person to trigger a false accusation against the alleged offender (e.g.: conflicts in parental responsibility regulation processes, personal revenge).

However, the introduction of false memories may also be triggered by other people, who, by misinterpreting a certain situation, might ask the child suggestive questions or give him/her suggestive clues to remember something they believe to have happened, leading the child to believe he/she experienced what has been described to him/her.

Furthermore, in older children, namely adolescents, there are cases in which they may create stories of sexual violence with secondary purposes (e.g. justify absences from home, attempts to manipulate the adults' attention).

The investigation about the veracity and validity of the victim's testimonies is the exclusive competence of the National Police and Judiciary Authorities, and the remaining parties (e.g. family members, experts) should protect the victim and their testimony, namely by avoiding questioning the child about the facts, under the risk of jeopardising the production of evidence in the criminal proceedings.

12. When a child has doubts, doesn’t remember some details, or refuses to speak, it is because they’re lying?

Children are not always able to verbalise the victimisation they have suffered accurately, not because they are lying, but for other reasons, such as the normal wearing out of memory, caused by the time elapsed between the moment of abuse and the one when the victim reveals it.

Younger children may experience difficulties in verbalising or expressing what happened, especially because their vocabulary is usually very reduced.

Other reasons underlying possible gaps, insecurities and inconsistencies in some reports may arise from the circumstances of the crime and the way the victim integrates such information.

In fact, the threats, subjugation, manipulation or distortion of the facts caused by the offender may make the victim feel guilty or believe the facts happened differently, generating doubts, fear or shame, which may be reflected in the child's speech.

On the other hand, the child's own defence mechanisms may trigger a cleavage or the repressing of the information, which the mind will find difficult to process, making the memories diffuse and difficult to recover.

At the same time, the intimate specificity of the victimisation may cause the children to retract when telling them about the facts, taking into account the contexts where they may be asked to do so (e.g. in front of strangers, at the National Police Services, in Court), making them feel anxious, ashamed or afraid, which may have an impact on their speech and the way they will be able to access their memories.


Some of the information on this website has been simplified so that it can be understood by everyone. This simplification does not, however, put in question the accuracy and correctness of the contents. The content of this website was created by APAV as part of the CARE plus project, funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. The content reflects the point of view of APAV, which cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained herein.