Most common misconceptions / Frequently asked questions about children's sexuality and sexual abuse

Would it have been possible to notice the sexual abuse at an earlier stage?
After sexual abuse has been revealed, parents and professionals too often ponder whether they could have noticed any signs of sexual abuse at an earlier stage. However, both research and experiences from practical health care work indicate that sexual abuse is very difficult to notice. It is not possible to identify or draw conclusions about sexual abuse based on behaviour or symptoms. Each child or adolescent has a distinct reaction, influenced by several factors, to the experience of being sexually abused. Not all symptoms or behaviour shown by the child necessarily have their roots in sexual abuse.
In addition, studies indicate that children do not always talk about the experience. There are many reasons for this, such as that the child wants to avoid the possible negative consequences of revealing the matter. The offender might have also forbidden the child to talk about the event, or the child might not have understood the nature of what had happened. In any case, it is important to look to the future: while understandable, feelings of guilt or shame over not having noticed the abuse earlier are unnecessary. It is also good to tell the child that the offender is always guilty for what happened – not the victim or the victim's family.
My child is behaving in a sexual way - should I be worried?
Rather than being evidence of sexual abuse, it is far more likely that sexual behaviour shown by children is a part of their normal sexual development or a reaction to other changes in their lives. Similarly to linguistic development, the child develops as a sexual being. Examining and touching one's own body, "playing doctor" with other children, becoming interested in gender differences and asking related questions, and drawing human figures with genitals are a part of such development. In addition, modern children can easily access adult entertainment on the Internet and might acquire vocabulary related to sex and sexuality that would otherwise not be age-appropriate. Children might also react to changes and crises in their lives, such as the divorce of their parents, beginning school, moving home, losing a close relative or other traumatic event, through sexual behaviour. From early on, children will notice that touching oneself is a source of pleasure and helps to calm oneself down. Because of this, they might behave in this way to help themselves to calm down, for example when going to sleep.
My child is talking about sex. Can children make up stories about sex?
Yes, they can. Taking an interest in the human body and sexuality is a part of a child's growth. Children are sensitive to how adults react to what they say, and their interest in sexuality and sexual talk might be increased by an awkwardness sensed in adults when the topic is brought up. In addition, research indicates that even small children become exposed to sexual material. Many children attending primary school have seen pornographic material, and the likelihood of this happening increases significantly when the children get older. According to a study conducted in the Nordic countries, it is more likely that 11-year-olds have seen pornography than that they have not.
Children are quick to mimic words that they do not understand, used by adults and other children. Small children might have heard matters even in detail and then talk about these matters without necessarily understanding the real meaning of the words. The older the children, the more likely they are to have concrete knowledge about sexuality. When considering whether the child's talk gives any reason for concern, it should be evaluated against the child's age, individual development and what the child might already know. If the child talks about personal and concrete matters that raise concerns in adults, you can contact the authorities about the matter.
What to do if my child has seen pornographic material?
Talk with your child about what he or she has experienced on the Internet. Do not put pressure on the child – suspicions and accusations are not the right way to address the issue. Remember that it is good if the child dares to talk to you about what he or she has seen. You should appreciate this and tell the child that he or she did the right thing by telling you about it. Stay calm and be aware of your own attitudes, as exposure to pornographic material does not equal traumatisation. Stay at the child's level and answer the child's questions. Explain that pornography is not the same thing as sex, but instead it is imaginary, acted and scripted sex that lacks the feeling of love, affection, caring about one another and intimacy. In addition, it is good to discuss that pornography does not give a realistic picture of how one's body changes in puberty and adulthood.
How to guide my child to use the Internet safely?
On average, Finnish children have good Internet safety skills. It is important to talk about the negative aspects of the Internet with children and adolescents, directly and honestly without unnecessary intimidation. Knowledge of what to do in suspicious or weird situations provides them with the confidence to act safely. Negative attitude towards the Internet and setting too strict limits for Internet use – and using the threat of this as a punishment – easily leads to a situation where the child does not want or dare to tell his or her parents about things when this would be necessary. Children should be able to talk about bad experiences they have had on the Internet without being punished or made to feel guilty.
Show your child that you are interested in what the child does on the Internet. Make Internet use and talking about it an ordinary matter, such as talking about what happened at school. It is good to discuss with children that they should not share their photos, phone numbers or addresses with strangers or new acquaintances.
Can children tell false stories about abuse?
Children do not assign the same meaning to sexual matters as adults, and might talk about them without realising what they mean from an adult perspective. A small child might accidentally, without understanding this him- or herself, fabricate a story that sounds like abuse to adults. Children rarely lie on purpose in the same way as adults. With children, it is more a case of them having difficulty in understanding the consequences and meaning of what they say when talking about something they find funny. School-age children who have done something forbidden might tell a white lie involving another person to cover up for themselves. Studies and practical work have come across several cases where further investigation has revealed suspicions based on a child's claim to have been false. Usually, however, it is considered rare that a child would knowingly lie about abuse. Teenagers, on the other hand, are able to lie as well as adults, despite the possible consequences of lying being more difficult to understand for adolescents.
Children's stories might be shaped in interaction with adults. Very young children already understand that a question requires an answer. When a concerned adult asks them questions, they might also give untrue answers. Especially small children are not able to differentiate between things they have experienced and things that have only been talked about, and might think the latter have really happened. In addition, the child might have gained a great deal of attention from the adult when talking of sexual matters, equating to a positive experience for the child. This might encourage the child to talk more about such matters, while also sending a message that fabricating stories is desirable.
When children tell about abuse, it is essential that parents do not pressure or question the child; investigation of the matter should be left to the authorities. Parents must not "grill" the child about whether what he or she says is true. Research has shown that a fear of negative consequences, either to oneself or others, can motivate a child to lie or leave things untold.
Can you tell from a child's behaviour if the child is telling the truth?
There are no reliable means of judging by a child's or adult's behaviour (gestures, expressions, expression of emotions) whether they are telling the truth. Even professionals whose work involves the evaluation of their customers' reliability are unable to do this.
There can be several different explanations as to why the child might seem reluctant, anxious or tearful. The child might be recalling the experience, or the situation of telling about it causes anxiety in itself. The child might not feel good about saying bad things about a person close to him or her. It might also be difficult for the child to answer complex questions. The child might also react to strong responses from adults or their emphatic questions. On the other hand, the child's anxiety about the discussion might arise from having fabricated a story, owing to pressure from adults, or from covering up for their wrongdoings and to avoid punishment.
Has child sexual abuse become more common year by year?
Extensive studies conducted in Finland and abroad indicate that child sexual abuse has not become more common when measured by the number of cases. A Finnish study published in 2011 reported even a slight decrease in sexual abuse. The majority of children who had experienced sexual abuse were over 14 years of age. Abuse of preschool children and cases of abuse within families were quite rare.
The phenomenon has received more media coverage, however. Similarly, the number of cases reported to authorities has increased in recent years, but some of these are so-called 'false alarms'. The police will investigate whether an offence took place or if there is another explanation for the suspicions.
I am being suspected of sexually abusing a child. What do I do?
It is important to leave the investigations to the authorities. Do not talk about the suspicions with the child or in front of the child. Try to stay calm as the police investigate the matter. During the pre-trial investigation, it will be examined, as carefully as possible, how the suspicions came about and what gave rise to them. You will have a chance to tell your own view of the matters during a hearing. During the investigation and legal process, you have a right to an attorney who will ensure your legal protection throughout the process.
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What constitutes child sexual abuse? For example, if a child accidentally sees me naked or having sex, does that make me an abuser?

In legislation, punishable acts include sexual acts performed on a child or adolescent younger than 16 years of age (in some cases, younger than 18 years of age). Sexual abuse includes for example stroking, touching, licking of genitals, intercourse or attempted intercourse, and penetration of genitals with an object. Abuse also includes deceiving a child into performing such acts or into touching him- or herself. Sexual abuse does not require physical contact, as it might take place via the Internet or a mobile phone. Showing children pornographic materials or otherwise deliberately exposing them to adult sexuality, enticing children for sexual purposes and buying sexual services from a child or an adolescent are also included in the definition of sexual abuse. An attempt of all the aforementioned acts is also punishable.
If a child accidentally sees an adult naked or accidentally witnesses sex between adults, this is not sexual abuse. Adult nudity without sexual connotations does not constitute abuse – examples of such situations are the sauna or going swimming at the summer cottage. On the contrary, if a child sees members of his or her family naked, it might make it easier for the child to ask about sexual matters and give them a more realistic idea of the human body (in contrast to what one sees in pornographic material on the Internet, for example). Deliberately exposing a child to adult sexuality does count as sexual abuse.
Is a typical abuser a stranger to the child?
No, this is not the case. The younger the child, the more often the child knows the abuser. It is rare, however, that the offender would be the child's biological parent, and in general sexual abuse of small children is extremely rare.
The most typical situation of sexual abuse involves a young adult man abusing a young teenage girl. Adolescents can also face situations where unfamiliar adults offer to buy them alcohol if they agree to sexual acts. The Internet also offers a forum for unfamiliar adults to contact young people and send sexual messages anonymously. Young people can experience the relationship established on the Internet with an unfamiliar older person as confidential and safe, which increases the risk of their interaction becoming sexual.
Do all paedophiles sexually abuse children and are all abusers paedophiles?
Paedophilia is defined as continuing sexual attraction to prepubescent children. Sexual interest towards pubescent children or minors who have just passed puberty is called hebephilia. Research has shown that not all adults who are sexually attracted to children or adolescents commit any sexual acts against children or become guilty of other offences, such as possession of child pornography. On the other hand, the offender in cases of child sexual abuse often cannot be diagnosed as a paedophile or hebephile; instead, there are several reasons explaining the person's weakened ability to control his or her behaviour.
I feel sexual attraction towards children. What do I do?
Help is available and you should seek it. In Sweden and Germany, therapy has long been provided for individuals who have sexual fantasies about children or feel a sexual attraction to children. Experiences of such therapies have been positive and many have received help that has prevented them from committing a child sex offence. (For more information, visit
In Finland too, we have professionals who are competent and able to support individuals with paedophilic interests. Their contact information can be requested from the Sexpo Foundation.
Can memories of abuse be submerged in the subconscious and resurface years later?
There is no scientific evidence of so-called 'unconsciously repressed' memories. On the contrary, we know that key aspects of traumatic events are usually remembered better than other situations. In addition, there is plenty of scientific evidence to show that it is relatively easy to instil false memories in both children and adults. Our memories can easily be shaped by external information, received in a conversation, for example, and small children are especially susceptible to this effect.
It is also known that for various reasons, many children do not tell at all about the sexual abuse experienced, or only do so several years after the event. In such cases, the child usually remembers what happened but may not have understood what it meant, or wanted to protect the perpetrator and has therefore not told anyone. Another possibility is that the child or adolescent consciously wishes to avoid thinking about what happened, and in so doing manages to 'forget' about it for a long time. Some cue might cause the memory to be recalled, giving rise to a feeling of not having remembered it earlier.
Differentiating between so-called 'false' memories and real memories is challenging. However, a typical feature of false memories is that the individual has no previous recollection of the matter at all. Instead, the memory might have arisen even in highly detailed form, for example during therapy.
My child is drawing pictures of genitals. What does this mean?
From a very early age, children take an interest in the differences between the sexes. This is normal and a natural part of the child's sexual development. If the child expresses his or her interest to you, answer the child's questions honestly, taking account of the child's age and level of understanding (Tips and material for this are available in Finnish from e.g.Väestöliitto, the Family Federation of Finland. There are also plenty of books aimed at children which you can use as an aid when discussing where children come from).
Drawings made by children, as their play in general, incorporate elements of both imagination and experience. You should be very careful in drawing any conclusions about the possible meanings of a child's drawings or play, or what the child might have experienced. Be careful not to overinterpret the child's drawings or play. You can ask the child, for example, what made the child think of drawing such a picture.
My child has become a victim of sexual abuse. Will this leave permanent physical injury, or in other words, will this become apparent later on (for example to a future partner, or to a doctor)?
Abuse can take many forms and result in many different types of injury. In many cases, abuse leaves no physical signs. Injuries around the genitals and anus usually heal fast. If there are injuries to the hymen, for example, these are often so minor that their detection requires a specialist and the use of a microscope. It is therefore nearly always impossible for any outsider to say afterwards whether a child/adolescent has become a victim of sexual abuse.
Our daughter has become a victim of sexual abuse. Is she still a virgin? In our culture, a woman cannot marry if she is not a virgin.
The hymen can be of varying shapes and sizes. It is a common misconception that the hymen is an unperforated membrane that is then broken during the woman's first intercourse. There is often a hole, even in a child's hymen, through which for example menstrual blood can flow out. Individuals vary greatly in their anatomy, and there are no unambiguous "virginity tests". It is impossible to draw conclusions on previous acts of intercourse or sexual experiences based on whether the woman bleeds during intercourse or not.
There is always redness around my child's genital area when the child returns from staying with the other parent. Is this a sign of abuse?
No, mere redness around the genital area is not a sign of abuse. Redness around small children's genitals can be for several reasons, such as lack of hygiene, irritation of the skin (for example from wearing diapers/nappies), abrasion, inflammation, skin disease, and so on. These are far more common reasons for explaining the redness than sexual abuse. When suspecting sexual abuse, one should always look at the big picture: are there any other signs of abuse besides redness around the genital area?
My child is 17 and is in a relationship with a 15-year-old. Is my child guilty of an offence?
According to chapter 20, section 6 of the Criminal Code no one is allowed to enter into sexual relations with or perform sexual acts on a child younger sixteen years of age. An exception to this is laid down in chapter 20, section 7a of the Criminal Code, according to which an act that does not violate the sexual autonomy of the subject and where there is no great difference in the mental and physical maturity of the parties shall not be deemed sexual abuse of a child. The legislation sets no clear limit as to what is an acceptable age difference between young people. A relationship between a 17- and 15-year-old does not necessarily fit the definition of child sexual abuse when both parties are in the relationship of their free will, are equals, and there are no great differences between their levels of maturity.
How can I protect my child from sexual abuse?
Research shows that the presence of (a) safe adult(s) in the child's life, and an atmosphere that allows the child to talk at home about their problems and experiences, are factors that act to protect children from abuse. This applies to children and adolescents of all ages. A healthy self-esteem also protects them from going along with proposals made to them on the Internet, for example. When the child is small, you can show the child during bathing which parts of the body are private and must not be touched by any other person.
Intimidation of children does not protect them. Talking to strangers, for example, may be necessary if the child gets lost when out on his or her own. In this case, it is wiser to advise the child to ask help from adults, such as someone who has children of their own, instead of categorically forbidding that they talk to strangers. It is extremely rare for a stranger to be violent or perform sexual acts on the child – although when this happens, the case is usually reported by the media and thus easily sticks in the mind.
Both research and practical experience indicates that children who have received insufficient attention from the adults taking care of them seek attention from other adults, and are therefore more prone to becoming victims of sexual abuse. As a parent, you can protect your children best simply by spending time with them and listening to whatever they have to tell you, whether the matter is large or small.