Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: Sexual Abuse of Children Volume 4 Number 2 Summer/Fall 1994

Current Information on the Scope and Nature of Child Sexual Abuse
David Finkelhor

Incidence: Measuring Sexual Abuse That Comes to the Attention of Professionals Each Year

The term child sexual abuse covers a wide range of acts. In general, legal and research definitions of child sexual abuse require two elements: (1) sexual activities involving a child and (2) an "abusive condition" such as coercion or a large age gap between the participants, indicating lack of consensuality. (See Box 1 for a discussion of the elements of child sexual abuse and some examples of definitional controversies.)

Because sexual abuse is usually a hidden offense, there are no statistics on how many cases actually occur each year. Statistics cover only the cases that are disclosed to child protection agencies or to law enforcement.

There are three official sources of data on the incidence of child sexual abuse cases coming to professional attention: (1) the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS), a federally funded research project, (2) state child protection agencies, and (3) law enforcement agencies. (See Box 2 for further discussion of these three official data sources.) Although official statistics do not provide an accurate count of all instances of child sexual abuse, they do indicate the burden of cases falling on agencies and professionals.


  • NIS data. Possibly the most reliable figures for annual incidence come from the National Incidence Study. The NIS figure is an important one because it includes an estimate of cases known to professionals but not reported to child protection agencies. (See Box 2.) Unfortunately, the most recent NIS figures1—133,600 cases of sexual abuse known to professionals in the course of a year, or a rate of about 2.1 cases for every 1,000 American children—are for 1986, and updated figures will not be available until late 1994. Because reported cases of sexual abuse were growing very quickly prior to 1986, these 1986 numbers are seriously out of date.
  • Child protection data. There are two quasi-official sources for national statistics based on compilations of reports made to state child protection agencies. One is the Fifty-State Survey of Child Abuse and Neglect,2 an aggregation of state data collected by the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse from interviews with state child protection administrators. The data in that report for 1993 suggest that about 11% of all child abuse and neglect reports concerned sexual abuse, representing approximately 330,000 children. About 15% of all substantiated cases concerned sexual abuse, representing approximately 150,000 children. Typically, substantiation means that the child protective investigation found sufficient evidence to conclude that abuse occurred. Reports without substantiation are not necessarily false or groundless (evidence may simply be insufficient to judge), but the estimate of substantiated cases—150,000 cases or 2.4 cases per 1,000 children—is the more appropriate and conservative one to cite as a measure of the number of actual cases coming to the attention of child abuse authorities.

Another estimate for substantiated cases of sexual abuse known to child protection agencies—130,000 for 1992—comes from a separate official source, the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System.3 Unfortunately, it is based on incomplete data that omit the states of California, Maryland, and West Virginia. Thus, the most current and relatively accurate estimate of sexual abuse cases coming to the attention of child protection authorities in the United States is the 150,000 figure from the Fifty-State Survey.

In spite of some perceptions, sexual abuse is not the most frequent kind of child abuse that is reported or substantiated. Neglect is the most common, making up about 47% of substantiated cases, followed by physical abuse, which makes up 25%, and sexual abuse at 15%.2 Compared with other forms of child abuse and neglect, however, a higher percentage of sexual abuse reports are substantiated.2 This is probably because sexual abuse is such a serious allegation that reporters wait until they have a high level of confidence before they report. Sexual abuse may also receive more intensive investigation from child protection officials.4

The number of reported cases of sexual abuse has risen faster in recent years than the number of reported cases of other forms of child abuse and neglect. Between 1980 and 1986, according to the National Incidence Study, sexual abuse cases known to professionals grew approximately 166%, or more than 17% per year, a much higher rate of growth than child maltreatment as a whole, which grew about 10% per year.1 The rate of growth of overall child abuse and neglect reports slowed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, down to about 6% per year.2 But in 1990, the number of sexual abuse reports increased at a rate greater than that of the overall child abuse rate.5


  • Criminal justice system data. The two current national crime data systems are not capable of tracking sexual abuse because the National Crime Survey collects no data on children under 12, and the Uniform Crime Report does not break down crimes by age of victim. (See Box 2.)
  • Cases outside official statistics. Of course, the most serious problem in determining the scope of child sexual abuse concerns cases that do not come to the attention of agencies or professionals. This is a problem that cannot be easily resolved with current methodologies for collecting either child protection or criminal justice data. Because of the secrecy and shame that surround sexual abuse, many instances are never disclosed.6 As the next section of this article describes, surveys of adults concerning their experiences as children (prevalence statistics) probably provide the most complete estimates of the actual extent of child sexual abuse. (See Table 1 for a comparison of incidence and prevalence statistics.)

If rates of sexual abuse among children today are as great as what is reported by adults in retrospective surveys, approximately 500,000 new cases occur each year. (See Box 3.) The incidence figure of 150,000 cited earlier means that less than one-third of all occurring cases are currently being identified and substantiated by child protection authorities, in spite of ongoing efforts. Of course, some unknown number of additional cases is being handled exclusively in the criminal justice system. Nevertheless, the large discrepancy between prevalence and child protection numbers suggests that much abuse is not being addressed by authorities.