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Child Molestation vs. Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse is a complicated topic. There are several different definitions of what constitutes child sexual abuse, leading to issues gathering accurate statistics.

Child sexual abuse is a complicated topic. There are several different definitions of what constitutes child sexual abuse, leading to issues gathering accurate statistics. The terms and definitions used are important on a legal level, however, as they describe separate crimes and come with different consequences for perpetrators. It is also important to understand the difference if you are discussing abuse with a child sexual abuse survivor. With a topic as sensitive as sex crimes against children, language matters.

What Is the Difference Between Child Molestation and Sexual Abuse?

Although you may hear child molestation and child sexual abuse used interchangeably, they have two different meanings. Child molestation generally refers to a single or isolated act of sexual assault against a child. Child sexual abuse, on the other hand, refers to a pattern of sexual abuse that persists over a period of time. Child molestation is also only used to describe a sex crime against a small child, such as an infant, while child sexual abuse is more commonly used to describe sex crimes against older children and adolescents.

Both terms refer to illegal sexual acts committed with, against or around a minor under the age of 18. Examples of crimes that can constitute both child molestation and child sexual abuse in California are:

  • Touching a child’s genital area or a female child’s breasts
  • Fondling a child
  • Forcing a child to perform oral sex
  • Penetration, rape or attempted rape
  • Sodomy
  • Child pornography
  • Nontouching offenses, such as indecent exposure
  • Exposing a child to pornography
  • Masturbating in front of a child

The legal definition of child sexual abuse in California includes molestation as a potential type of abuse. The definition of molestation, however, does not necessarily encompass sexual abuse. Many cases of sexual abuse start as child molestation, then develop into child sexual abuse when a perpetrator commits persistent sex crimes against a victim over time. Child sexual abuse is also often used to refer to institutionalized abuse, such as years of sex crimes covered up by an organization.

How To Prevent Child Molestation and Child Sexual Abuse

Both child molestation and child sexual abuse may be preventable if a parent or guardian understands the risks of these crimes, as well as how to identify perpetrators and signs of sexual abuse. It is often up to an adult to detect child sexual abuse, as the victim may not be able or willing to come forward. The following are signs, symptoms and red flags that could point to a child who is suffering sexual abuse:

  • Physical signs, such as genital injuries or bloody undergarments
  • Sexually transmitted diseases or teen pregnancy
  • Unusual or inappropriate knowledge of sexual subjects for the child’s age
  • Emotional or behavioral problems, such as anxiety, nightmares or depression
  • Outbursts or aggression
  • Regression, mainly in small children
  • Fear of being alone with a certain adult
  • Reduced performance in school or bullying
  • Grooming behaviors by an adult who has access to the child, such as special gifts or outings for the child
  • An adult finding reasons to be alone with the child

In the majority of child molestation and abuse cases, the child knows his or her abuser, such as a family member or family friend. If you suspect child molestation or child sexual abuse, contact the authorities immediately. Reassure the child that he or she isn’t in trouble and is safe. Call 911 if you suspect immediate danger. Report the crime to Child Protective Services, as well. If the child is injured, take him or her to a hospital for professional medical care. Then, contact a Los Angeles child sexual abuse attorney for legal assistance with a child sexual abuse lawsuit in Los Angeles.

Where To Get Help

If you are a survivor of child molestation, child sexual abuse or sexual assault or believe a child you know is a victim, contact a lawyer who specializes in child sexual abuse right away. A lawyer can help you understand and defend your legal rights in California, as well as go up against an individual, corporation or institution in pursuit of justice and financial compensation for childhood sexual abuse. A San Diego sexual abuse lawyer can also define legal terms that apply to your particular case in more detail.

Manly, Stewart & Finaldi is regarded as America's leading law firm for sexual abuse cases. As a firm that exclusively handles sexual abuse cases, our California law firm offers experienced representation to obtain justice for sexual abuse survivors, harassment, and discrimination.

Learn more about Manly, Stewart & Finaldi.