“What is sexual abuse?” It may seem like a simple question at face value, but understanding the nuance in defining this term can help victims proceed with their fight for justice down the road.

In a very general sense, sexual abuse is sexual contact that is unwanted and is non-consensual. Adults can consent to sexual contact. In Missouri, the age of consent for sexual contact is 17 years old. At 17, a person can legally consent to sexual acts with someone else who is also 17, or older. Anyone younger than 17 is a minor and deemed to lack the maturity and discretion to make a rational decision to consent to sexual contact. Therefore, whenever a person under the age of 17 is the recipient of sexual contact, it is by law, non-consensual.

Many have heard the term “statutory rape.”  This is the term used to describe sexual contact between an adult and a minor. By law even when a minor agrees to sex, he or she did not truly do so. Due to their age, he or she lacked the legal capacity to give consent.

Sexual abuse can happen to boys and girls, men and women, and at any age. In short, sexual abuse takes many forms. It finds many victims and can be perpetrated by some of the most trusted and outwardly law-abiding people any of us will ever know.

Sexual abuse against all victims, irrespective of age or sex, is a demeaning, anxiety-provoking, life-altering event that is all too common. Sexual abuse occurs whenever someone is manipulated or forced into unwelcome and unwanted sexual contact.

What Acts Constitute Abuse?

Virtually any unwelcome, unwanted, sexual touching of a child can be legitimately characterized as abuse. Physical injury does not have to be involved. As stated before, the child may seem to consent to the sexual contact, but a minor lacks the legal capacity to consent, rendering any sexual contact actionable. However, only on very rare occasions is consensual sex between two minors, such as two 16–year olds, the subject of any criminal prosecution.

Neither does sexual abuse always involve penetration between a penis and a vagina. Clearly, it is among the most reprehensible of examples. But oral sex, fondling, and manipulation of the victim into any sexual acts by the abuser are actionable. Oftentimes, sexually tinged touching can become the focus of action. Sexual abuse of minors is not limited to acts perpetrated by males on females.

A good starting point to any analysis of what is abuse is, did the victim consent? “No” can be by “operation of law” (i.e. the minor lacks the capacity to consent), or an expressed rejection of any contact.

It is the exercise of power over an individual under circumstances that have an unwelcome sexual component that is the key to distinguishing sexual abuse or contact from innocent, welcome touching.

Why Does Sexual Abuse Go Unreported?

In most instances of sexual abuse there is a common component: trust. The victim is manipulated by someone in a position of trust. Usually victims of sexual abuse know their abuser. Reportedly, upwards of 86% of all victims of child sexual abuse were abused by someone they knew. Most involve situations when the victim is manipulated into sexual contact, rather than being forced or threatened with physical harm. Occasionally, threats to others is used to manipulate the victim, such as threats to sabotage school records or performance or actions that will be taken against loved ones.

Frequently Known by the Victim

Because the perpetrators are frequently someone known to both the victim and the victim’s family, seeking help from parents, siblings or other family members is difficult. Parents may simply refuse to believe that Billy is being sexually assaulted by his base- ball coach at out-of-town tournaments.

Belinda’s grandparents love having her over for the weekend. Grandpa Joe has a history of sexual abuse. Ten years ago, he had charges filed against him for fondling a 10-year old neighbor girl. The facts were a little disputed, and Joe took a plea. Unknown to Belinda’s parents, Grandpa Joe is a registered sex-offender, and Grandma Nancy, while aware of the past charges, after 25 years of marriage, decided to stay with Joe. It was a tough time, but he claims the incident was isolated and will never happen again. As far as she knows, it hasn’t, until now. Nancy went shopping on Saturday, and Belinda, age 11, was left with Grandpa. He convinced her she needed to shower, and stepped into the shower with her, whereupon he fondled her as he “washed” her private areas. Belinda returned home on Sunday evening and told her parents, including her mother Samantha, Joe’s daughter.

Organization Coverups

Many organizations cover up an abuser’s prior history of abuse. The history of abuse within the Catholic Church has only recently come fully into the light, and along with it, the history of concealment. These such efforts are not unique.

Most allegations are made by children with perceived limitations in perception and perhaps honesty. Therefore, organizations are seldom fully confident that a report of sexual abuse is legitimate. Accordingly, abusers can frequently get away with multiple incidents, even if reported.

Churches, rather than acknowledge the incidents, may simply transfer a pastor to a new, unsuspecting congregation with a stern warning to the pastor of, “Don’t let this happen again.”

Amanda, a church-going teenager, accompanies her mother to church for a youth meeting. While at the church and while separated from her mother, the young lady is taken into the church janitorial closet and fondled by Bill, the youth minister. The youth minister has always been kind, funny and attentive to Amanda. He is outwardly a God-fearing man, and the congregation seems to universally like and trust him. He is married, and the father of two young boys. How could he possibly undertake any action so heinous and reprehensible? He is in his mid-40’s, but unknown to everyone, he was at a church in Oklahoma several years before when he was caught in the middle of a sexual act with a 14-year old girl. He was asked to leave the church, no charges were pressed, and the entire matter was swept under the carpet. He now uses his age (an outwardly credible, likeable adult), his position (a trusted man of God) and credible and likeable history to manipulate the young lady into sexual contact.

Least Likely to Suspect

Sexual abuse is nearly always committed by the last person one would expect. Sexual predators look like everyone else. They coach little league, teach, operate day care centers, act as youth pastors and serve as leaders in youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America. In fact, no one looks like a sexual predator. As a result, children fall victim to people who look and seem trustworthy and credible. This is how the wrongdoer gets away with it. None of us willingly leave our children with someone we suspect is a sexual abuser.

Steven is a 13–year old 1st Class Boy Scout, dutifully climbing the ladder all the way from Cub Scouts. Harry, the assistant scout master, has been at Steven’s side throughout his progress. While on a camping trip, Steven is alone one night in his tent, as his expected companion was home with the flu. Harry crawls quietly into Steven’s tent, snuggles up next to him, and silently starts to fondle him. This progresses to future campouts, and although Steven now shows an increasing distaste for such trips and continually asks his parents if he can quit scouting, his parents keep reinforcing the benefits of scouting. Harry now manipulates the other scouts so that Steven consistently has a tent of his own at campouts.

Associated Stigma

It is the stigma that attaches to even allegations of abuse that becomes one of the very barriers to reporting. Once someone is called a “rapist”, can he/she ever escape such an allegation even if innocent? Righteous anger of the alleged abuser plays into this recognized stigma. In short, it is this very stigma and the potential that an allegation is false, that stands in the way of protecting children and punishing the truly guilty.

Emotional Barriers

Victims are scared and rarely report abuse themselves. They are afraid of reprisal from a host of sources, most of whom may be difficult for outsiders to understand. Victims fear their abusers but may even have an unhealthy and hard-to-understand affection for their abuser. Hence, it may be difficult for a victim to ever report abuse. Attempts to report to parents, school administrators, and the like, may be dismissed as unbelievable. Why, Coach Smith is such a fine and upstanding fellow, how dare you impugn his character?