Child sexual abuse is a complex issue. You’ve probably heard a lot of headlines in the news recently about child sexual abuse even though it may be referred to as ‘molestation,’ ‘assault,’ or ‘rape.’
For a topic that is beginning to be talked about more openly, you may not know what words and language to use around the subject of sexual abuse. But does it matter?
Depending on the context, yes, words do matter. Some words have a specific meaning, as in a legal case or clinical context involving abuse, while other words may be viewed as insensitive by survivors depending on their personal experience.
You won’t always know the context or background of the situation, and that’s ok. It will be different depending on whether it’s an adult or a child disclosing, and there will be different emotions present in each situation. Though it may feel indelicate or uncomfortable, using the phrase ‘child sexual abuse’ is a protective measure, as it leaves no room for misunderstanding. Terms like ‘sexual assault’ or ‘molestation’ can invoke visceral reactions and may imply physical force. However, physical force is not present in most sex offenses involving adults who are sexually interested in children, due to the grooming process. The term ‘child sexual abuse’ is more useful and accurate because it can refer to a variety of inappropriate acts against a child.
Words can also mean different things to different people, depending on their culture, age, or experience. Some communities and individuals may use a specific word or phrase for sexual abuse that does not carry the same meaning for other communities. For example, individuals in Bermuda use the word “bothered” instead of molested, raped, or sexually abused. In the US, the meaning of this word for that individual would most likely be missed if they said, “My uncle bothered me when I was a child.”
When reporting the facts of an abuse case or telling a survivor story, it is crucial to use the correct vocabulary and be respectful of their experience.
Even if you do not know the most appropriate word to use, it is important to have the conversation and listen. You may not always get it right, but having an open dialogue is an important step to preventing child sexual abuse.
Why Does Darkness to Light Use the Phrase “Child Sexual Abuse” Instead of “Child Molestation?”
The phrase “child sexual abuse” is as straightforward as it gets. It tells you know who the victim is, a child, and that the abuse is sexual in nature. There is no room for misinterpretation or confusion. If someone says to you: “My uncle sexually abused me as a child,” you can quickly understand what the individual means. We also know that people who sexually abuse children are often someone the family knows and trusts. Most of the time the victim and the victim’s family are groomed, and lines are crossed over a span of time. Usually there is not an assault, which is defined as a physical attack, but instead a subtle grooming process over time to disarm the victim and their family.
At Darkness to Light, two of our core values are to honor the voice of victims and survivors and to demand accountability. Using the phrase ‘child sexual abuse’ directly exemplifies these values. By referring to it in this way, we identify it clearly and recognize the experience many victims and survivors have gone through. As the world begins to talk more openly about the issue, we continue to move in a more positive direction, letting victims and survivors know it is safe to speak out and that they will be believed. We will continue to hold offenders, as well as individuals and organizations who knowingly protect offenders, accountable. We do all of this by being clear on the issue – child sexual abuse – and by addressing it as adults who are responsible for protecting children.
How the Public Uses Terminology: “Child Molestation” is a Frequently Searched Term.
Darkness to Light has been fortunate to be part of Google’s grants program for the past five years, which provides funding for running search ads on the Google Ads platform. We have learned that the words we are using don’t always match what is being searched. But it’s important to remember that word choice is important, from the conversations we have to the way we search for information.
Our ads (to help people with information on statistics, how to recognize the signs of abuse, how to report abuse, and so forth) have been displayed over four million times, for over 80,000 unique queries, so we have a wealth of data about how the public seeks information on these topics.
Terms with “molest” or its word stems (“molestation”, “molested”, etc.) appeared 7.5% of the time in queries, roughly 300,000 searches – that is a lot of searches!
Based on the data we’ve accumulated from these Google searches, these are the most frequently search queries that include the phrase “molest”. Many of them pertain to wanting to understand what the signs of molestation are:
|Rank||Query||# of Searches|
|1||signs of molestation||3,374|
|3||signs a child is being molested||1,408|
|4||child molestation statistics||1,346|
|5||signs a child is being molested by father||1,255|
|6||signs of child molestation||1,056|
|7||signs of a child being molested||1,010|
|8||signs a child has been molested||991|
|12||signs that a child has been molested||942|
|14||signs of molestation||696|
|15||molested as a child||628|
|17||signs of a child molester||589|
|19||child molesters statistics||562|
|20||repressed memories of molestation symptoms||516|
The Public’s Use of Language Evolves Over Time
The public’s use of words often changes over time. For example, it’s been noted that for many years, “stewardess” search volume outstripped “flight attendant” search volume until the public caught up with the industry’s terminology (“flight attendant” now has the lion’s share of search volume).
Similarly, “molestation” can be thought, in a sense, as an earlier-era way of referring to the issue, where we believe “child sexual abuse” is slowly becoming the preferred moniker. However, data shows that transition is proving a very slow one.
Google Trends (at trends.google.com) allows you to research search volume over the years. It’s interesting to note that there was a surge in “child molestation” searches from 2009-2013, we believe due to coverage of incidents in the Catholic Church, as well as the Boy Scouts. Interestingly though, it still has a similar volume to “child sexual abuse”:
Ultimately, We Can’t Ignore How the Public Searches, Because of How Search Engines Work
Although the bulk of our writing, education, and resources use the term “child sexual abuse,” we want to make sure people who are looking for information on this topic can find it, and we need to be cognizant that individuals use the above terms in their online searches. True to our core values, we honor the voices of victims and survivors and make deliberate decisions. So, as we create content, we work to make it easily accessible and hold it to the highest standards.
Whatever You Call It…The Important Thing is to Talk About It
Regardless of whether we refer to it as “child molestation” or anything else, the main thing is it’s important for people to talk about it, be educated on it, and work to combat child sexual abuse itself. At the end of the day, the fact that so many people search on many of these terms is encouraging, and that’s all part of why we’re so passionate at Darkness to Light about working to prevent child sexual abuse.
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