The sexual (and physical and emotional) abuse of children in U. S. society and through­out the world is a problem of staggering proportions. Child sexual abuse can have long – lasting, painful effects. Consider the following:

When I was 10, my mother remarried, and we moved into my stepfather’s house. When I was 11 he started coming upstairs to say goodnight to me. The touch­ing began soon after and lasted for years. I used to just lie there and pray that he would go away, but he never did. For a long time I thought it was my fault. I had trouble being in a sexual relationship because I felt so guilty, so dirty. I thought that if I didn’t exist this never would have happened. I think my mother may have known, but she never did anything. She didn’t want to upset things, because she was afraid of being alone again, of being poor. (Authors’ files)

In this section, we look at the prevalence of child sexual abuse, the effects it has on many of its victims, what can be done to reduce the incidence of such abuse, and how to help those who have been abused. Child sexual abuse is defined as engagement by an adult in sexual contact of any kind with a child (inappropriate touching, oral-genital stimulation, coitus, etc.). Even if no overt violence or threats of violence occur, such interaction is considered coercive and illegal because a child is not considered mature enough to provide informed consent to sexual involvement. Informed consent implies the possession of adequate intellectual and emotional maturity to understand fully both the meaning and possible consequences of a particular action. Adults’ exploitation of the naivete of unsuspecting victims has become a serious problem for children who use the Internet, as discussed later in this chapter.

Mothers’ fears about the vulnerability of their female children to sexual victimiza­tion can lead to extreme protective measures, as described in the following Sexuality and Diversity discussion.