Sexual Abuse and Assault: Definitions and Statistics

It’s important to teach people of all ages about sexual abuse and assault, as knowledge is the best way to prevent sexual assault from occurring.  It also teaches individuals what behaviors are okay and not okay – and that they should tell someone they trust if they ever feel uncomfortable.

What is Sexual Abuse or Assault and How to Reduce Risk

What is sexual abuse or assault?

Sexual abuse is the term used when referring to children under the age of 18 years old. It is also sometimes used when talking about individuals with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities who are adults.

Sexual assault is the term that is used when talking about adults.

Examples of sexual abuse and/or assault:

  • Someone looks at your private parts (parts covered by a bathing suit), or asks to look at your private parts.
  • Someone wants you to look at their private parts, or shows you their private parts.
  • Someone wants to take pictures or videos of you without your clothes on, or shows you pictures or videos of other people without their clothes on, or people engaging in sexual acts.
  • Someone wants to touch or kiss you on your private parts, or they touch or kiss your private parts.
  • Someone wants you to touch or kiss their private parts, or they make you touch or kiss their private parts.

When discussing sexual abuse and assault, it’s also important to define consent. The acts and behaviors above are not considered illegal when performed between two legally consenting individuals. But what is consent and who can consent to sexual activities?


Consent is a complicated and often confusing part of sexual activity. In the simplest terms, consent is an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity.

In Pennsylvania, children less than 13 years old cannot give consent to sexual activity. Additionally, teens ages 13-15 years old cannot consent to sexual activities with anyone who is 4 or more years older than them. People ages 16 years and older can legally consent to sexual activity.

Additionally, Pennsylvania recognizes that depending on the relationship between people, there may be power imbalances that make consent impossible, no matter how old the individuals are. For example:

It’s considered felony institutional sexual assault when an employee of a school, state/county jail, personal care/group home, or other licensed residential facility serving youth engages in sexual activity with anyone receiving services. Institutional abuse will be covered in greater detail in later resources.

For adults with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities, consent can be even more complicated. Adults with disabilities have the right to develop relationships and engage in consensual sexual activities just as any other adult. However, it’s important that the individuals have a solid understanding of sexual behaviors and are able to provide informed consent.

How often does sexual abuse happen?

It can be hard to get accurate statistics about sexual abuse and assault. For individuals with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities it can be even harder. The information below provided by RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) gives a broad overview of statistics:

  • Every 73 seconds another American is sexually assaulted.
  • 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted).
  • About 3% of American men—or 1 in 33—have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.
  • From 2009-2013, Child Protective Services agencies substantiated, or found strong evidence to indicate that, 63,000 children a year were victims of sexual abuse.
  • A majority of child victims are 12-17. Of victims under the age of 18: 34% of victims of sexual assault and rape are under age 12, and 66% of victims of sexual assault and rape are age 12-17.

According to a report done by NPR, people with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate seven times higher than those without disabilities. That number comes from data run for NPR by the Justice Department from unpublished federal crime data. Sadly, the true rates of sexual abuse for individuals with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities is likely much higher.

For the full NPR series visit:

Sexual Assault Epidemic: NPR

For the full series by NPR visit:

Abused and Betrayed: NPR

Who sexually abuses or assaults other people?

There is no typical profile of someone who commits sexual abuse or assault. People who sexually offend cross all socioeconomic, educational, gender, age, and cultural lines.

Although 90-95% of abusers are males, females also commit sexual abuse. However, female abusers are more likely than males to abuse younger children.

Sometimes people are abused or assaulted by strangers but most times the abuser knows the victim. This could mean the perpetrator may be:

  • Family members (including parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc)
  • Neighbors
  • Friends
  • Friends of the family
  • Caregivers
  • Someone who works or volunteers at a place you visit

Why do people sexually abuse or assault others?

There is no single reason people sexually abuse or assault others.

Some reasons may include:

  • General delinquency and criminal attitudes,
  • anger and antisocial attitudes,
  • intimacy deficits and loneliness,
  • sexual preferences,
  • sexual arousal to violence,
  • hypersexuality,
  • and/or a desire for power and control.

Regardless of the reasons why someone sexually abuses or assaults another person, it is never the victims fault. Helping victims to understand that they did nothing wrong is an important part of the treatment process.

How do I reduce my risk?

Education is one of the most important things that can be done to  help individuals with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities reduce their risk of sexual abuse or assault. Specifically education in the following areas:

  • Sex education including anatomy, sexuality, and sexual acts.
  • Relationships including friendships and romantic relationships.
  • Body autonomy and understanding they have control of their bodies and who touches them, including with any personal care.
  • Self-advocacy skills that can help them speak up for themselves and their needs.

Some individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities need assistance with personal care, and most have received little to no sexual education in their lives. These are just two factors that increase the risk for individuals to be sexually abused or assaulted. Teaching individuals basic skills, including what is considered sexual abuse or assault, is an important first step in helping reduce this risk.

Educating About Sexual Abuse and Assault

Sexual abuse and assault is higher among people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD)

Individuals with ID/DD are seven times more likely to experience sexual abuse or assault than the general population. However, this is likely an underestimate of true prevalence as some individuals with ID/DD have limited communication abilities.

Many providers, families, and caregivers don't ask about abuse or assault

They may assume they can tell if an individual has been abused, they don’t know how to ask, or might be nervous to ask. It’s important to become comfortable asking specific questions about abuse and assault, especially if you notice warning signs of abuse or assault.

Create a safe place where people with ID/DD can talk openly about sexual abuse and assault

Ways to create a safe place include: encouraging conversations about body safety, creating an environment where there is open communication about sexual health, allowing individuals to ask questions without judgment, and listen and believe individuals when they talk about situations that made them uncomfortable.

Teach individuals with ID/DD how to identify sexual abuse and assault

For individuals with ID/DD there may be confusion about what sexual abuse or assault is, and this often keeps the trend continuing. It’s also important for these individuals to identify trusted adults who they can turn to for help if they ever experience abuse or assault.

Listen and believe someone who says they might have been abused or assaulted

Allow the individual to share their experience without judging or asking questions. Ask what you can do to help, and let them know they did the right thing by talking about what happened. Finish the conversation by letting them know you will help keep them safe and get them help.

Rate this resource

Thank you for rating this resource!

Other downloads

Name Description Type File
Educating About Sexual Abuse and Assault Rates of sexual abuse and assault among ID/DD populations and reasons abuse/assault is more common. pdf Download file: Educating About Sexual Abuse and Assault
What is Sexual Abuse/Assault and Consent? Definitions of sexual abuse/assault and consent. pdf Download file: What is Sexual Abuse/Assault and Consent?
Perpetrators of Sexual Abuse and Assault Information on who abuses/assaults individuals, why they abuse/assault and how to reduce risk of victimization. pdf Download file: Perpetrators of Sexual Abuse and Assault

This information was developed by the Autism Services, Education, Resources, and Training Collaborative (ASERT). For more information, please contact ASERT at 877-231-4244 or ASERT is funded by the Bureau of Supports for Autism and Special Populations, PA Department of Human Services.