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What Are the Signs of Sexual Abuse?

by John Gomez | Last Updated: February 2, 2020

Sexual abuse is a heinous crime and a violation of a person’s most basic human rights. But would you know how to spot sexual abuse if it was happening to someone close to you? It may surprise you to learn that identifying the signs of sexual abuse is not as straightforward as one might think. The age, gender, and life circumstances of the person being abused play a significant role in determining what signs of sexual abuse that person might display.

This blog post discusses the warning signs of sexual abuse in various populations of vulnerable Californians. If you think you see signs that someone was sexually abused, contact an experienced California sexual abuse attorney for guidance as soon as possible.

The Varied Signs and Symptoms of Sexual Abuse

Anyone, no matter their age, gender, sexual orientation, education level, or socio-economic status can be a victim of sexual abuse. But that does not mean that every survivor copes with or responds to sexual abuse the same way. All Californians need to develop a sensitivity to the warning signs of sexual abuse among different populations of potential victims.

Below, we describe warning signs and scenarios that could raise a red flag that someone has been sexually abused. We focus on four specific subsets of the population that have particular vulnerabilities to abuse: young children, teens and college-age adults, elderly people, and adults with disabilities. Even though symptoms of sexual abuse in adults, the elderly, and children can present in different ways, these warning signs can equally apply to anyone of any age, and can be taken as broad indicators of abuse no matter the age, gender, or circumstances of the person potentially being abused.

We draw most of the information below from the website of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, better known by its acronym RAINN, a prominent anti-sexual violence organization. We encourage our readers to explore RAINN’s website for more detailed information about spotting and preventing sexual abuse.

Signs of Sexual Abuse of Young Children

Young children fall victim to sexual abuse most often at the hands of a known, trusted adult, such as an immediate family member, relative, clergy member, coach, or babysitter. Spotting the signs of sexual abuse in young children requires close attention. Perpetrators of abuse often go to lengths to hide their actions and to normalize the abuse in the minds of their victims. Uncovering child sexual abuse often means peeling away an “innocent” veneer to reveal a heinous pattern of exploitation.

Child Sexual Abuse PreventionSigns displayed by the abused child. RAINN categories the potential signs of child sexual abuse into three categories: physical, behavioral, and emotional. Physical signs of abuse are what you might imagine: bruising around the genitals, evidence of bleeding, and having a sexually transmitted disease. Unfortunately, these are also not the sorts of signs most people who have day-to-day interaction with a child will necessarily see.

Adults who interact with children in, say, a school or daycare setting, are more likely to witness behavioral signs of abuse, such as a child engaging in sexualized behavior, wetting the bed, avoiding certain adults to whom they were once apparently close, and excessive shyness about removing or changing clothes. They may also witness a child exhibiting emotional signs of sexual abuse, such as discussing sexually-explicit topics, regressing to behaviors from earlier childhood (such as thumb sucking), having vivid nightmares, and displaying excessive anxiety or fear of certain places or people.

Signs displayed by the potential abuser. Adults and other children can be abusers, but adult abusers, in particular, take pains to hide their conduct from others. They are not always successful, however. Any of the following could signal a sexually abusive relationship with a child:

  • An adult who pursues an age-inappropriate “friendship” with a child;
  • An adult who confides in a child and asks the child to keep secrets from the child’s parents or caregivers;
  • An adult who crosses clear physical or social boundaries with a child, such as touching the child inappropriately in public or trying to communicate with a child in ways that are intrusive or secretive;
  • An adult who engages in “grooming” behavior with a child, such as by talking about sexually-explicit topics, showing the child pornography, pushing the boundaries of physical contact, or otherwise attempting to normalize inappropriate sexualized behavior.

Signs of Sexual Abuse of Teens and College Age Adults

Teens and college-age students can fall victim to sexual abuse by adults with whom they have close ties, as well as by peers. As young people age, the frequency of adult-involved sexually abusive situations tends to diminish overall, while the prevalence of sexual abuse by peer sexual/romantic partners tends to increase. But those are generalities, and exceptions always exist.

As a consequence, staying vigilant for signs of sexual abuse of teens and college-age adults means keeping watch for both suspicious relationships with adults and for signs of sexual violence in relationships with peers.

Signs of sexual abuse displayed by teens and college-age adults. Adults often find it difficult to communicate effectively with teens and young adults. This is a natural part of those young people finding independence and their own unique identities. Unfortunately, it also can complicate the task of spotting sexual abuse, and may put the onus on peers to spot abuse. Be on the lookout for the following warning signs:

  • Rapid weight loss or weight gain, possibly accompanied by disordered eating habits;
  • Unexplained or poorly-explained bruises or other evidence of physical violence;
  • Contracting a sexually transmitted illness;
  • Emotional disorders, including depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts or actions;
  • A sudden decline in grades or sudden withdrawal from or disinterest in studies;
  • Significant changes in personal hygiene and self-care, usually toward less hygiene and care;
  • Excessive drinking or drug use;
  • Confiding in a friend about discomfort over being pressured into sexual conduct; and
  • Withdrawal from close friendships and isolation, possibly in tandem with the emergence of a romantic/sexual relationship.

Signs of sexual abuse displayed by a potential abuser. As we noted above, the population of potential abusers of teens and college-age adults includes adults and peers. For younger teens, the behaviors displayed by adult sexual abusers are similar to those listed above. As teens age and develop purportedly “consensual” relationships with peers, or even with older adults, the signals sent by abusers tend to change.

Indicators that one might observe “from the outside” can include overtly aggressive or violent behavior in public, actions seemingly designed to isolate the victim from friends and family, and an emotionally-volatile relationship that swings between breakups and intense coupling.

Signs of Sexual Abuse in Adults and the Elderly

Elderly adults are vulnerable to sexual abuse by caregivers and, in nursing home settings, by other elderly adults. This form of sexual abuse raises a host of troubling issues for family members who have entrusted others with the care of an aging loved one, including whether and when an elderly person loses the ability to consent to sexual activity.

Signs of sexual abuse displayed by elderly adults. One might imagine that, at least until an elderly person’s health and cognition decline badly, they would report or complain about sexual abuse. Sadly, this is not necessarily the case. Sexual abuse of elderly people who still retain their cognitive and social awareness still goes underreported because its victims fear their abusers, or feel dependent on their abusers for day-to-day care, or feel ashamed to admit the abuse has occurred. And of course, elderly people with diminished faculties may not have the ability to understand or communicate that abuse has occurred. Learn more about more reasons why sexual abuse goes unreported to understand where you can make a difference.

Accordingly, family, friends, and caregivers of elderly adults should stay vigilant for:

  • Any mention of sexual activity by the elderly adult, no matter the context, which must be assessed against the elderly adult’s ability to give consent;
  • Physical signs of abuse such as bruising or blood-stained bedding;
  • An elderly person contracting a sexually transmitted illness; and
  • Displaying fear of a particular caregiver or fellow-resident of a nursing facility.

Signs of sexual abuse displayed by a potential abuser of elderly adults. A caregiver who sexually abuses an elderly adult will often tend to try to hide their actions by isolating the elderly adult from family and friends. The caregiver may also offer unusual excuses for the elderly person’s physical injuries, and may pass off the elderly adult’s troubling comments or moods as “just getting old.”

In contrast, an abuser who is a fellow resident of a nursing facility may not take as many pains to conceal sexual misconduct. For example, the abuser may claim to be the elderly adult’s “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” even though the elderly person lacks the capacity to consent to that sort of relationship.

Signs of Sexual Abuse of Adults with Disabilities

An adult with disabilities may fall victim to abusers of a wide range of ages, and in a wide range of contexts, depending upon the nature of the adult’s disabilities. Adults with physical disabilities are, on the whole, more likely to be sexually abused by caregivers, whereas adults with cognitive or emotional disabilities are vulnerable to both caregivers and anyone who might seek to exploit them. As with elderly adults, identifying circumstances of sexual abuse of adults with disabilities often (but by no means always) involves discerning and assessing the adult’s ability to consent to sexual contact.

Signs of sexual abuse displayed by adults with disabilities. The warnings signs of sexual abuse of an adult with disabilities vary widely based upon the nature of the disability. Developmentally-impaired adults may exhibit the sorts of warning signs more typical of children and teens. Physically-impaired adults dependent upon caregivers may show signals more akin to those displayed by elderly adults. In every case of suspected sexual abuse of an adult with disabilities, an understanding of the adult’s living situation and needs is critical.

Signs of sexual abuse displayed by a potential abuser of adults with disabilities. Here, too, context is crucial. Look for warning signs from caregivers akin to those that would apply in the context of the sexual abuse of an elderly adult. In the context of other potential abusers, the disabled adult’s ability to consent may become the measuring stick for determining whether sexual abuse has occurred. For an adult with disabilities who has the ability to consent to sexual conduct, look for conduct by abusers akin to those that may affect teens and college-age students. For an adult with disabilities who cannot consent, watch for conduct on a potential abuser’s part more akin to that of an abuser of children.

Personality Traits of Sexually Abused Adults

Aside from vulnerable populations like the disabled and the elderly, adults who have been victims of sexual abuse as children have very specific markers in their behavior and their personalities. The life-long impact to survivors of sexual abuse and assault are often catastrophic.

Social emotional issues and disorders can include severe depression, anxiety, and anger that commonly impact a person’s ability to do relatively simple things such as maintaining healthy relationships or even holding down a job. Survivors may also be less likely to seek out medical care related to pregnancy or sexual health leaving them more at risk for diseases, disorders, and health risks associated with lack of medical care in these areas.

If You See Signs of Sexual Abuse, What Next?

Anyone who knows of, or has a reasonable suspicion of, sexual abuse should report it, no matter the personal characteristics of the person being abused or of the abuser. In California, many people have a legal obligation to report abuse.

These people are known as “mandatory reporters” and have duties under various California laws to report sexual abuse to law enforcement and/or other appropriate authorities. But even if you are not a “mandatory reporter” under California law, you have a moral obligation to report sexual abuse if you know of it or reasonably suspect it.

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How do you report sexual abuse? In some cases, the circumstances are so dire and immediate that your only choice is to call 911. If the only way to keep the person you know or reasonably suspect of being victimized safe is to call law enforcement now, then that is what you should do.

If the situation is not so immediately dire, then the person you suspect of being abused will likely benefit significantly by you calling an experienced California sexual abuse attorney right away. That is because the act of reporting known or suspected sexual abuse impacts the victim’s legal rights and interests in ways that, once the report occurs, could leave the victim’s control.

In other words, when, how, and to whom you report sexual abuse matters. An attorney with experience guiding clients through the reporting process and its aftermath can help you make those decisions in a manner that protects the abuse victim’s best interests. Specifically, an attorney can help ensure that you make the report to the appropriate person, at a time and in a manner that protects the sexual abuse survivor’s legal rights to seek both civil and criminal justice.

If you know of or reasonably suspect that someone you know has been sexually abused, act now. If immediate action is necessary, call the authorities. In all other cases, contact an experienced California sexual abuse injury attorney for guidance.

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San Diego, CA 92101
Phone: (619)-237-3490
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