Child Molestation versus Child Sexual Abuse – Why is Language Important?

Categories: General News, Home, Our Perspective

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 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
1signs of molestation3,374
2child molestation1,704
3signs a child is being molested1,408
4child molestation statistics1,346
5signs a child is being molested by father1,255
6signs of child molestation1,056
7signs of a child being molested1,010
8signs a child has been molested991
9sexual molestation985
10molestation statistics958
11molestation 942
12signs that a child has been molested942
13molestation symptoms835
14signs of molestation696
15molested as a child628
16child molesters591
17signs of a child molester589
18molestation stories573
19child molesters statistics562
20repressed memories of molestation symptoms516

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 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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7 responses to “Child Molestation versus Child Sexual Abuse – Why is Language Important?

  1. I just went through this and I found it particularly interesting.. I recently started a movement against child molestation ( choice of word is because we don’t only advocate for sexually molested kids but also physically abused kid) we are barely a month old and have a long way to go.. The organization is “your voice is strength” our angle is to give the children a voice, encouraging them to be brave and speak up when faced with such experiences.. I am really looking forward to a sort of partnership and support that will help us grow and reach out to many children. I am also open to your resources(knowledge) if you have any that can help. Thank you

  2. Thanks for this article.

    It’s often hard to talk about my experience with friends because I just don’t think they’ll get it, I don’t know what words to use, and I don’t want to make them uncomfortable.

    I guess my experience would fall under child sexual abuse, but many people assume this means it was a family member. It wasn’t, it was my neighbor next door. There was no force or threats involved, just years of grooming, done so well that I thought I was willingly initiating sex acts with him when I was just 10 years old. I was convinced I was the sick and disgusting one for wanting to do that, and as a girl, I wasn’t supposed to have “those feelings.” There were two occasions that he did hold me down and force me to do things I didn’t want to do, and he apologized afterwards. The rest of the time it was generally initiated by me and wasn’t terrifying. I think many people who’ve been victims of adults using force, or adults that have never been abused wouldn’t be able to understand this since this just isn’t a typical description of sexual abuse.

    Thank you for bring light to talk about this.

  3. “usually its not an assault which is defined as a physical attack but instead a subtle grooming process overtime to disarm the victim”…its becoming more and more clear to me of what exactly to label my experience with my relationship to my father .. i just feel like i never have a word that holds importance to what i went thru as a child … so i often would just brush it under the rug in attempts 2 ignore these feelings and live in a constant state of denial to the subject … it feels like the reclaiming of power to be able to define my experiences

  4. Hi Shae – thanks for your comment! I’m glad this was helpful and we have a ton of resources if you need anything. You can call 1-866-FOR-LIGHT or text LIGHT to 741741. Thanks!

  5. By all means use Google Ads/Search if you can create more awareness this way.

    This is the fastest growing criminal enterprise ever and we need to do what ever we can to stop the abuse of children (and women) no matter if it is for labor, sex or organs.

    Thanks for this article!

  6. Great job! As one of the.few surviving great, great grand children of Noah Webster the lexicographer, I am deeply passionate about words and their meanings. The use of the internet as a means if communication
    has created many changes in the words we use to communicate.
    My great great grandfather would , I dare say applaud your efforts at creating clarity and understanding for us all. After all, It is the reason he wrote his dictionary in the first place…because of the great regional discrepancies in our use and understanding (interpretation) of the words we use.
    I was adopted at 2.5 mos of age and was groomed by my adopted father for sex. I never told anyone till I was much older.
    Now, almost 76 I see how much the world has changed and conversations involving this subject MUST take place. The whole world is waking up…Thank you for helping them do so in N atmosphere of understanding and acceptance.

  7. I belong to a newly found organisation; Roof Outreach; and our first outing was last Sunday in a church, while the next one is today, to mark IWS. I was only reading just to prepare a good sensitisation speech today while I’m getting set to orientate teenagers and adolescents (High School Pupils) about Child Molestation. I must say, this article will go a long way in helping me form a better perspective and understanding to sensitise the pupils more today and beyond. Looking forward to partnering (ideas, knowledge and strategies) with Darkness to Light.

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