Breaking Stereotypes: Challenging Sexual Abuse Misconceptions

Challenging misconceptions about sexual abuse is crucial for helping people to become better informed and more empathetic.  The following are some of the more common misconceptions surrounding sexual abuse, and the facts that debunk them.

Myth: "Sexual abuse only happens to children."

Reality: Sexual abuse can happen to individuals of all ages, including adults. It is essential to recognize that sexual abuse affects people across the lifespan and can occur in various contexts.

Myth: "Only 'at risk' children are vulnerable to sexual abuse."

Reality: Any child can suffer sexual abuse.  It is wrong to assume any child is not at risk.  However, some children are at higher risk than others.

Age is no barrier to perpetrators of sexual abuse.  Infants in diapers are at risk, however, the peak vulnerability is between ages 7 and 13.  Girls are at a higher risk than boys.

Children who are disabled are four to ten times more likely to be victims of sexual abuse.  Reasons include that disabled children are less likely to be able to defend themselves, know that the abuse is occurring, or be able to communicate to others about their abuse.

Other categories of children at high risk are children who live apart from their parents or whose parents abuse drugs or alcohol.

Myth: "Most sexual abuse is committed by strangers."

Reality: Contrary to popular belief, 90% of sexual abuse cases involve individuals known to the survivor, such as family members, friends, acquaintances, or trusted individuals in positions of authority.  Parents commit 80% of sexual abuse but 75% of sexual abuse complaints are about acquaintances, friends, and neighbors.  Less than 3% of complaints are made against relatives.

Despite a tradition of ‘stranger danger‘, strangers commit less than 10% of sexual abuse.  Strangers pose less risk than someone known or trusted, which is not to say caution around strangers is bad advice for children, as long as caution around acquaintances, neighbors, and relatives who want to touch them inappropriately is also observed.

Myth: "Most sexual abusers are pedophiles."

Reality:  Most sexual offenders are not pedophiles but regressed offenders, also known as situational offenders.  An example would be a stepfather who abuses his wife’s daughter when the mother is away, but would not abuse his own children. In such a situation, the mother’s absence allows the stepfather the opportunity to abuse her child without a witness.

In contrast, a pedophile is someone with a sexual attraction to and/or is sexually aroused by pre­ pubertal children (13 years or younger). Pedophiles are estimated to commit less than ten percent of abuse. Although pedophiles commit less abuse, one pedophile can abuse many different children during his or her lifetime.

A hebephile is an adult, usually male, who has a sexual attraction to and/or is sexually aroused by post-pubertal children (13 years or older).

An ephebophile has a sexual preference (versus a sexual attraction) for post-pubescent adolescents. It is often associated with the criminal behavior of sexual abuse of pubescent or post­ pubescent adolescents.

There is an extremely rare third category of offender; sadistic offenders.  Sadistic offenders are inherently violent criminals. For them, sex is a tool of sadistic oppression.  A child that is kidnapped, raped, and killed is often the victim of a sadistic offender.

For most of us, it is important only to remember not to be fixated on the actions of pedophiles because this can prevent us from identifying sexual abuse by situational offenders who commit more abuse but rarely show overt signs of obsession like a pedophile.  They also tend to lead normal everyday lives, have a wife or husband, and have children they do not abuse.

Myth: "Men commit almost all sexual abuse."

Reality:  Females are reported to have committed 60% of all forms of child abuse, whereas males are estimated to commit over 80% of sexual abuse.  Some experts argue these statistics do not adequately reflect the number of women that commit sexual but, evidently, this sexual abuse misconception is closer to the truth than some others.

Some studies suggest the high rate of male offenders is the result of adults and prosecutors being less willing to report and prosecute women for sexual abuse.  The reasons suggested are many, including that most people struggle to believe women, especially mothers, could sexually abuse a child.

Myth: "Homosexuality is a major cause of sexual abuse"

Reality:  Over 90% of child abusers are heterosexual.  Despite overwhelming evidence to this effect, many try to argue homosexuality is a root cause of sexual abuse, pointing to the few high-profile cases of homosexual pedophiles.  But, even if most pedophiles were homosexual, as some suggest, less than 10% of abuse is committed by pedophiles.

Myth: "Survivors of sexual abuse are to blame for the abuse."

Reality: It is important to emphasize that the responsibility for sexual abuse lies solely with the perpetrator. No survivor is to blame or should be blamed for the abuse they have endured. The focus should be on supporting survivors and holding perpetrators accountable.

Myth: "Sexual abuse is always accompanied by physical force."

Reality: Sexual abuse can occur without physical force or violence. Coercion, manipulation, and emotional pressure can be used to exert control over the survivor. Recognizing the various forms that sexual abuse can take is crucial for a comprehensive understanding.

Myth: "It's easy to spot a sexual predator."

Reality: If only.  It would make prevention much easier but this sexual abuse misconception is easily debunked by noting that sexual abuse by adults of children has doubled in the last ten years.

Myth: "Survivors of sexual abuse will always exhibit certain behaviors or symptoms."

Reality: The response of survivors to sexual abuse can vary significantly. Some survivors may exhibit immediate behavioral or emotional changes, while others may not display obvious symptoms for an extended period. Each survivor’s experience is unique.

Myth: "Talking about sexual abuse will only retraumatize survivors."

Reality: Open and supportive conversations about sexual abuse can be empowering for survivors. Providing a safe space for survivors to share their experiences and concerns promotes healing, raises awareness, and reduces the stigma surrounding sexual abuse.


By challenging sexual abuse misconceptions, we foster a more informed and safer environment.  By debunking myths, promoting accurate information, and encouraging open dialogue, we will create an environment where there are fewer victims, and survivors are supported, understood, and empowered. 

Please contact us if you would like to learn how we help organizations develop the information, empathy, and sensitivity needed to manage sexual abuse risk.

Creating and Maintaining a Sexual Abuse Risk-Aware Culture: A Free Ten-Step Guide

Developing a sexual abuse risk-aware culture is the single most valuable thing you can do to protect the children and vulnerable adults in your care from sexual abuse.

Our free Ten-Step Guide is a practical introduction to the system that enables any organization to establish and maintain a sexual abuse risk-aware culture. 

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Post Author

Tim Jaggs

I am a Brit who now lives just outside San Francisco.  Though I have given up arguing for “football,” not “soccer,” I am still trying to decide whether football is better to watch than rugby – it’s a very close call – and if it’s OK to admit I enjoy baseball almost as much as cricket.

I have worked with organizations managing sexual abuse risk for over 15 years. 

I created BOKRIM to help people working with children, who often have little risk management experience, to use risk management best practices to protect children from sexual abuse and protect themselves from the consequences of failing to prevent sexual abuse.