Questions and answers

We answer your most frequently asked questions about sexual abuse: What is it about and how does it happen? What can you do if you have a hunch or a suspicion? What help is available for people affected by it? You can find answers to these and other questions here. We also provide information on sexual assault among children and adolescents and on sexual violence on the internet.

This is what it's about

Sexual abuse or sexual violence against children or adolescents is any sexual act performed on or in front of children and adolescents against their will or to which they cannot knowingly consent due to physical, emotional, mental or linguistic immaturity. The perpetrator takes advantage of their position of power and authority to satisfy their own needs at the expense of the child.

This sociological definition refers to all minors. In the case of children under the age of 14, it must generally be assumed that they are unable to consent to sexual acts. They are therefore always considered to be sexual violence, even if the child appears to give consent.

Given the available data, it is difficult to estimate how often sexual abuse of children and adolescents occurs in Germany. The current state of knowledge on the frequency of sexual abuse is summarised on the website of the Independent Commissioner for Child Sexual Abuse Issues.

Would you like to find out more? For useful information on the law and when sexual abuse is punishable by law, click here.

Sexual or sexualised violence against children and adolescents are other terms for sexual abuse. In Germany, the terms "sexual abuse" (sexueller Missbrauch) or "child abuse" (Kindesmissbrauch) are used by the general public, in the media and in politics.
The German penal code also uses the term "sexual abuse" (sexueller Missbrauch). In this case, the term only refers to punishable forms of sexual violence, in contrast to how the term is used in general speech.

Professionals and scientists often talk about sexual violence against children and adolescents. This wording highlights the fact that this is about violence perpetrated by sexual means. The term sexualised violence, which is also used, goes one step further. It underlines the fact that sexuality is used by the perpetrator to commit violence.

There are many acts that are classified and experienced as sexualised violation of boundaries or violence. Not all such acts are punishable by law. However, whether children or adolescents experience a situation as abusive and suffer from its consequences does not depend on whether the act is punishable by law.

Sexual violence begins with sexual harassment. This is not generally punishable by law. Examples of sexual harassment are:

  • A person bothers or offends a child using sexualised words.
  • A person observes a child very closely and specifically looks at the child's genital area, buttocks or breast.
  • A person touches a child's clothing, for example, in the genital area or on the breast.

If a person does this by accident, then this is a violation of boundaries. In this case it is important that the person apologises to the child.

We talk about criminal abuse when a sexual act involving the child's body is committed by an adult or young person. Examples are when the person gets the child to sexually gratify them, touches the child's genitals or kisses the child using the tongue. Serious sexual abuse involves vaginal, oral or anal penetration. This means that the perpetrator penetrates the child's body.

There are also criminal acts of abuse that do not directly involve the child's body. For example, masturbating in front of a child, undressing, deliberately showing pornographic images to the child or asking the child to perform sexual acts in front of a webcam. A specific form of sexual abuse involves photographing or filming acts of abuse.

Sexual violence most often occurs when the child and the perpetrator know each other, i.e., in the immediate social environment of the child and adolescent. This includes the family's circle of friends and acquaintances, neighbours and the family itself. Children and adolescents also experience sexual violence in educational, sports and leisure facilities.

In real life, sexual violence committed by third-party perpetrators tends to be the exception, but this is not the case on the internet. It can be assumed that the number of perpetrators who are strangers is increasing online. Intense and often very personal chats can give children and adolescents the impression that the people they are talking to are not strangers. This makes it difficult for them to perceive the situation as dangerous.

Organised sexualised violence refers to a particularly serious form of child sexual abuse. Organised violence is committed by several perpetrators or even networks of perpetrators who, for example, often exploit children for commercial gain.

Organised violence can also be ideologically motivated, which can include Satanism, a religious ideology or right-wing extremism. The ideology in this case serves to justify the violence, create an attachment to the group and to intensify the criminal acts. If such criminal acts are ideologically motivated, we call this ritual violence.

Would you like to find out more? For useful information on organised sexualised and ritual violence as well as support services, click here.

 

This is how it happens

Sexual violence can affect all children and adolescents, regardless of gender, age, social or cultural background. Of those affected, two thirds are girls and one third are boys.

Disability is considered a particular risk: Children and adolescents with cognitive and/or physical disabilities are at much greater risk of abuse and of having to cope with it on their own. Children and adolescents who live without parents or permanent caregivers in inpatient children, youth and disabled persons facilities or in psychiatric clinics are also particularly affected by sexual abuse.

The same applies to children and adolescents with a refugee background, children and adolescents whose parents or caregivers are impaired in their ability to provide protection, and children and adolescents from families with very pronounced traditional gender roles and authoritarian parenting styles. Children who are well, are emotionally and physically cared for, receive parental care and are informed about sexual matters in an age-appropriate way are better protected.

It is often men and male adolescents who sexually abuse children. But women and female adolescents also commit sexual violence against children.

There is no single perpetrator profile. Men who commit abuse come from all social classes. They can be heterosexual or homosexual and there is nothing externally that distinguishes them from men who do not commit abuse.

In Germany, not been much research has been done on women who commit abuse. Sexual abuse committed by women harms those affected by it just as much as such acts committed by men, and the acts are very similar. However, it is likely that sexual abuse committed by women is discovered less frequently, because it is generally assumed that women rarely commit such acts.

Sexual violence against children and adolescents does not happen by accident or because an opportunity presents itself. Most perpetrators act more or less deliberately and with a plan – we call this the "perpetrator strategy". The strategy refers to preparing the ground for the crime, its execution, and to concealing it after the fact.

The perpetrators manipulate both the victim to make them compliant and to prevent them from confiding in someone, as well as their protective environment. Only if the perpetrator succeeds in sufficiently manipulating the perception of this environment, the parents or the teaching staff in institutions, is it possible for the act to be committed without anyone becoming suspicious. Things are different when perpetrators search the internet for victims: Online they can just focus on the child or adolescent and do not need to worry that a victim's caregiver discovers them.

Most perpetrators do not act spontaneously but, rather, they have a plan and are calculating – we call this the "perpetrator strategy". They choose the children and adolescents deliberately by trying to find points of contact and weaknesses. Or they focus on children and adolescents who already have their trust and affection or can easily obtain it.

There are various reasons why perpetrators commit sexual abuse against children or adolescents. A major motive is the desire to exercise power and experience a sense of superiority through the act.

Some male perpetrators and a small number of female perpetrators have a sexual fixation on children – this is called "paedosexuality". This means that, unlike most perpetrators, they feel little or no sexual attraction to adults. The popular assumption that "these people are all sick!" is wrong. It can be interpreted by children and adolescents to mean that the perpetrator is not really responsible for their actions. Even if in some exceptional cases the sexual assault is committed as a result of a disorder, the perpetrators are always responsible for their behaviour.

The perpetrators do not want anyone to notice the abuse. In order for this to succeed, they not only take advantage of the trust of the child, but also of the social environment. They make sure that no one can imagine that they could do such things, and might act in a particularly caring, attentive or helpful way.

Often, the perpetrators are in a position of power. This might lead people in the social environment to look the other way, play down whatever they have observed or fail to act – even if the abuse is known to have taken place. It is difficult for people in the child's environment to recognise and stop the abuse, especially when it happens within the family: Family members have an emotional attachment with the perpetrator and worry that the family will be destroyed and socially ostracised.

Many perpetrators work in jobs that mean they are naturally in proximity to children. They benefit from the good reputation of the recognised educational, sporting or religious institutions in which they work, and from the trust parents place in them. They are often educationally skilled and are popular with the children, with co-workers and within their team. As a result, nobody initially believes any rumours of wrongdoing.

This is something many people ask themselves. The situation is particularly stressful if the person seeking advice knows the potential perpetrator well.

But in any case: stay calm and do not immediately talk about your suspicion to the person in question and get support instead. Before a potential perpetrator finds out that they are under suspicion, the child or adolescent should be protected. If not, there is a high risk that the perpetrator will put the child or adolescent under pressure and force them to keep silent. Unfortunately, these are sometimes family members, friends or acquaintances, co-workers or anyone else in the general social environment.

Hunch or suspicion?

It is difficult to recognise when sexual abuse takes place. It is rare for children or adolescents to have injuries that clearly suggest sexual abuse. Similarly, there are no other indications that are always present and unambiguously suggest abuse. However, when the behaviour of a child or adolescent suddenly changes a lot, adults should always be vigilant.

ESome children and adolescents become very anxious and even aggressive. Others find it difficult to concentrate and have problems at school. Some try to always do the right thing and act very inconspicuously. Often, these children and adolescents withdraw from others. Many get sick. They might suddenly develop headaches or abdominal pain. They might sleep poorly or develop skin disorders. Some inflict pain on themselves and hurt themselves. Others eat very little or far too much. Some adolescents start taking drugs, drink alcohol or develop other addictions.

Sexualised behaviour can also be an indication of sexual abuse. Sexualised behaviour means acting in an age-inappropriate way in this regard and/or violating others' boundaries. Any one of these things can also have other causes. It is important that adults take it seriously when children and adolescents change and address these changes.

Try to gain the child's trust. Take your time. Do something together, and ask the child how they feel. Offer to talk to the child about any problems they might have. You can also tell the child that you are worried, for example, because the child looks sad or has changed. Give the child plenty of time to volunteer such information. Do not push the child to talk; instead, talk to the child more often. Say to the child that sometimes there are secrets that feel bad and that it is okay to talk about them.

Don't be judgemental; be open to other explanations for your observations or feelings of unease. Abuse is just one possible explanation. Keep an open mind, which means not asking closed questions. Closed questions are questions to which the answer is yes or no. This is an example of a closed question: "Did the person hurt you?" Such questions already presume a certain type of answer and can influence the child and lead it to fulfil an expectation.

It is very important that the child is not influenced at all in case it goes to trial. Another possibility is that the child gives you a different answer at different points in time, which can make you, as the person trying to help, feel unsure. Open-ended questions ("How are you feeling?" "What did you do together?" "What happened next?"), on the other hand, allow the child to talk about the situation in their own words and open up possibilities and starting points for help.

Even when you ask open-ended questions, do not push the child to talk about something if they do not want to. This can easily put the child under pressure. Often, they will stop saying anything at all and keep silent about the abuse. Or they say what the adult wants to hear to meet their expectations.

When the child does talk about abuse, do not ask for any details. Such questions should be asked by a qualified professional. Make it clear to the child that you are there for them and that your intention is not to punish the perpetrator.

The same applies when talking to adolescents: As with children, the individual development and life experience of the adolescent must be taken into account.

Tell the child that you believe them and praise them for their courage. Make it clear that you are on their side. Keep calm and do not act hastily. Understand that you yourself feel under pressure to act, but that the child has already taken the first step: They are no longer alone with their experience. Take the time to properly consider what to do next. Tell the child that you now need to think about what is the right way to help them. Tell the child when the time is right about what the next steps are. Try to convince the child that your approach is the right one. Do not promise that you will keep everything a secret. Because you would then not be able to help the child. It is important that you write down all observations and statements made by the child.

Adolescents involve themselves more in the process. It allows them to be self-determined.

No, you never have to report a suspicion to the police. Whether or not a suspicion is reported to the police is up to the child or adolescent or their legal guardians (provided they are not the ones under suspicion) themselves. However, if you think that the child might be in acute physical danger, please do inform the police.

Do not do anything without professional support. The best course of action is to contact a local professional counselling centre that specialises in sexual abuse. The staff at such counselling centres are experienced and knowledgeable and will guide you through the next steps. You can find the addresses of professional counselling centres in your area in the section "Finding help".

To talk through the situation and get a general idea about what to do, you can also contact the Sexual Abuse Help Line for confidential advice. The professionals on the phone will listen to you, give you tips and tell you about the points of contact in your area.

If there is a suspicion that sexual abuse is taking place within the family, the youth welfare office and, if applicable, the family court must also step in at the right time. They can provide the right support and measures to protect the child. Contact the local youth welfare office, the family court or the police directly if you believe that a child is currently in acute danger of being a victim of (sexual) violence. You can do this anonymously.

The help line professional will give you time to talk. They listen to you and ask questions if something is not clear. Such questions are important and allow them to understand and assess the situation.

During the phone call you have plenty of time to sort through all the information and think about what you want to and can do next. They will give you information and tips on how to proceed from here. If you like, the professional will name support services in your area that help you take the next steps. You will also be given an appraisal about the child's situation if you suspect sexual abuse.

The help line does not pass on any information to the police. The advice is confidential and anonymous.

Sexual assault among children and adolescents

It is not only adults who commit sexual violence against children and adolescents, very often it is committed by adolescents themselves. Even children of kindergarten and primary school age can show sexually abusive behaviour within the family, the neighbourhood, in the day care centre, at school, in the church community, in holiday camps or in sports clubs.

The sexual assaults vary greatly in their intensity: They range from one-off or minor assaults, such as pulling down someone's gym shorts during physical education class, to serious assaults, such as forcing a child to lick a boy's penis. Sometimes, such sexual assaults are in fact similar to those committed by adults with regard to their strategic execution. In the case of children under the age of 14, the term "children who commit sexual assault" ("sexuell übergriffige Kinder") has become the accepted term, in order to avoid criminalising them as "perpetrators" and their actions as "abuse."

The consequences suffered by the affected children and adolescents differ a lot. They depend on many factors – for example:

  • The intensity of the assault and the age difference;
  • The extent to which the person affected feels powerless and helpless in the situation;
  • The nature of the relationship between the child or adolescent committing the assault and the child or adolescent being assaulted.

In some cases the consequences are quite similar to the consequences of sexual abuse committed by adults. Whether a child or adolescent can deal with an assault committed by another child or adolescent without suffering long-term consequences depends to a large extent on how early adults notice the assault, intervene and provide support and help.

Children and adolescents affected by sexually abusive behaviour committed by other children or adolescents have a right to protection and help. In some cases, this can be achieved through educationally appropriate responses on the part of the professionals – where applicable, following consultation with a specialist counselling centre. Sometimes the affected children and adolescents need to attend a counselling session on their own at a specialist counselling centre, as well as therapeutic support, if necessary.

Children and adolescents commit sexual assault for a variety of reasons. Their own experiences of (sexual) violence committed against them by children, adolescents or adults can be a factor, but does not have to be. Some children and adolescents have been inappropriately exposed to adult sexuality within the family or through pornographic material.

There are also quite a few girls and especially boys who commit such assaults because they want to dominate others and struggle with respecting boundaries. Others try to compensate for their own feelings of powerlessness or helplessness with sexually abusive behaviour. Some very young children are not yet able to properly control their impulses.

Serious and repeated sexual assaults committed by adolescents and children that cannot be stopped through educational measures alone may be an indication that the child or adolescent's welfare is at risk. In such cases, educational professionals are obliged to seek professional support in accordance with Section 8a of the German Social Code (Sozialgesetzbuch, SGB, VIII). Professional groups who are in contact with children and adolescents in their professional capacity are entitled to this support (Section 8b of SGB VIII).

Children and adolescents who commit sexual assault have a right to receive help. In order to put an end to their assaultive behaviour and to deal with the underlying causes, they need educational professionals as well as specialist counselling and treatment.

No, sexual curiosity and exploring one's own body and the bodies of other children are part of the healthy sexual development of children and adolescents.

It is advisable to talk to children about boundaries and rules to prevent sexual assault as well as unintentional injuries. Banning playing doctors and nurses increases the risk that children who have suffered assault suffer in silence.

It is advisable to talk to children about boundaries and rules to prevent sexual assault as well as unintentional injuries. Banning playing doctors and nurses increases the risk that children who have suffered assault suffer in silence.

For example, peer pressure may lead them to agree to actions that they are not actually comfortable with.

Sexual violence and assault on the internet

An increasing number of perpetrators are using digital media to sexually abuse children. This is also called sexual abuse via digital media. Sexual abuse via digital media can happen in very different ways, for example:

  • A person photographs or films sexual acts with children. The technical term for this is abusive imagery. Some people (as well as the criminal code) call this child pornography; this, however, downplays the seriousness of the offence.
  • A person disseminates abusive images of children on the internet
  • A person uses the internet to influence a child with the aim of sexually abusing the child (this is called online grooming).
  • A person posts sexually explicit photos or videos on the internet without the consent of the person depicted. Or the person threatens to post the pictures and blackmails the person this way.
  • A person sends pornographic images or videos to children against their will.

Anyone who encounters abusive imagery on the internet should report this to the online complaints office of jugendschutz.net or the joint complaints office of the "Verband der Internetwirtschaft e. V." association and the "Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle Multimedia-Diensteanbieter e.V." association. It can also be directly reported to the police or the responsible State Office of Criminal Investigation ("Landeskriminalamt"). Many of them have specific departments for cybercrime.

In social networks such as Facebook and Instagram, abusive posts, comments or people sending abusive imagery can be directly reported to the provider via the network's integrated reporting function.

Parents should explore the internet together with their children. They should guide them through their first steps and agree on rules for using the internet. One way to do this is to register primary school age children with safe sites. The older the children, the greater the need to negotiate which sites they can and cannot visit. How long are they allowed to use their laptop, smartphone or computer for? What are they allowed to do? Who are they allowed to make friends with online? All these things must be agreed on.

Generally speaking, don't be overprotective, but be cautious. Banning children from using the internet altogether can lead to children and adolescents surfing the net without the knowledge of their guardians and not confiding in them when they have negative experiences. Mothers and fathers should take an interest in what websites or social networks their children use. They should ask them if they get the feeling that something is wrong. You can find useful materials on this topic on the "Wissen hilft schützen" (knowledge helps to protect) portal.

What help is available for the people affected by it?

The consequences for people who have experienced sexualised violence during childhood and adolescents can differ significantly. They range from psychological stress and disorders to physical illnesses and economic hardship, and quite often existential distress. Experience shows that the right professional help can alleviate the consequences of the violence and provide support for those affected by it. It involves counselling, therapy and help in crises as well as support in everyday life as well as financial aid. Legal help is also available.

A counselling centre helps people in need. You can contact a counselling centre if you have experienced abuse or suspect someone else might experience it and would like specific and practical support or more information.

The professionals at the counselling centre take their time to listen to you. Tell them about your situation. Ask them any questions you may have – even if you are unsure. The counsellors will discuss your options with you and how to proceed from here – so that you can make a decision that is right for you.

The counselling sessions are usually free, and in some rare cases you will be asked for a voluntary donation. The counselling is of course confidential and, if you like, anonymous. Visiting a counselling centre is not binding in any way and certainly does not constitute taking legal action.

  • How do counselling centres work? You can find out more about counselling centres and their work here.
  • Where can I find help in my area? You can find counselling centres in your area under "Hilfe finden" (finding help).
  • How does the help line provide support? Counsellor Tanja von Bodelschwingh talks about this in this interview.

In a crisis situation in particular, professional support can be very important. For example, if you find it difficult to cope with the situation on your own or with the support of people close to you, and if you simply don't know what to do. Everyone has the right to professional help – at any time.

The help services for people in crisis differ both in how accessible they are and with regard to the type of support they provide. The main services include:

  • Crisis services and social psychiatric services
  • Advice over the phone and crisis services
  • Online advice
  • Psychosocial contact and counselling centres
  • Doctors and psychotherapists
  • Trauma, violence protection, child protection or psychiatric outpatient clinics
  • Places of refuge

     

If the crisis comes to a head and you have a mental breakdown, you need help immediately. Call the emergency service on 112. You can also call them if you have suicidal thoughts and need help urgently. The social psychiatric services and the police also help in an emergency. The number for the police is 110.

You can also be admitted to a clinic at any time in an emergency. The medical and therapeutic professionals knows what to do in an emergency and will support you with therapy sessions and medication if necessary. Never hesitate to seek help.

  • Identifying a crisis and finding help: Find out how you identify whether a situation is a crisis and where to find help here.

Yes. If you would like to have your injuries examined and documented by a forensic medicine specialist, you can contact a violence protection outpatient clinic. This is especially important if the crime only occurred a few hours or days ago. The examination and documentation can be carried out without reporting the crime to the police and are free of charge. This means that you can have the evidence secured and then take your time to decide whether you would like to press charges or not.

Most hospitals perform this type of examination. You will then be issued with an assessment report. The report can serve as evidence in a later trial, and you can bring it with you when you go to the police. However, you do not have to have such an assessment report to press charges. You can find an overview of the places that offer anonymous securing of evidence here.

Child protection outpatient clinics focus on the medical protection of children. They investigate (suspected) cases of physical or mental abuse, neglect and sexualised violence against children and initiate further help where necessary.

Many sufferers say that it has helped them a lot to talk to other people with similar experiences. It means that they do not feel alone with their experiences. A good and safe framework for this are self-help groups.

These meetings are often not about the specific experiences of violence, but about tips for everyday life and mutual support. There are also online forums where people can talk about their experiences of sexualised violence.

  • This is what a self-help group can do: "Find out "here" what you should pay attention to and how to find the right group or internet forum.
  • It encourages others who had similar experiences: Max Ciolek talks about his experiences in a self-help group. Nicolas Haaf talks about how he came to terms with what he experienced.

Psychotherapy can help those affected, but also the people close to them, to come to terms with their experience of violence and its consequences. Psychotherapy is the treatment of mental or psychologically caused physical illnesses using scientifically recognised methods. It involves personal conversations between the person affected and a therapist, exercises and, in the case of children, playing.

If you are considering psychotherapy, these questions may help you decide:

  • Do I feel different than I normally do? Is something worrying me?
  • Do I keep thinking about the experience of violence?
  • Do I have more worries and fears than usual?
  • Is there something wrong with me physically?
  • Am I not sleeping well? Do I sleep more than usual?
  • Am I aggressive or irritable?
  • Do I find it difficult to carry out everyday chores or go to work?
  • Is talking to friends no longer helping me? Is there no-one I can talk to about how I'm feeling right now?
  • Are my friends worried about me?
  • Do I need help?

     

Would you like to find out more? You can find useful information about psychotherapy and how to find the right help for you here.

If you want the perpetrator to be prosecuted and convicted, you can file a criminal complaint with the police. An investigation will then be initiated, with the police and the public prosecutor's office trying to find out what happened. If there is sufficient evidence, there may be a court trial and the perpetrator may be convicted. You also have the option of taking civil action against the perpetrator. A civil lawsuit means you can sue for damages or compensation for pain and suffering.

However, many people find it difficult at first to navigate the legal side of things. Because there are many rules and formalities. Some of the questions the affected children and adolescents, or their legal guardians, ask themselves include: "Should I press charges?" "What can I expect then?" "What do the police do?" "What happens in court?" "What steps do I want to take?" What's more, it can be very stressful to be a witness at a trial or to file charges yourself.

  • This information will help you: You can read about the options available to you for taking legal action as well as additional information about legal matters here.

  • What can you expect? Get advice in advance from a counselling centre or a lawyer. This will allow you to make well-informed decisions about what to do next.

  • What do criminal proceedings involve for the people affected? Lawyer Petra Ladenburger talks in an interview about the motives of those affected and how they manage to restore their confidence.

Victims of sexual violence in childhood and adolescence can apply for financial assistance. The financial assistance cannot undo the suffering of those who experienced sexual abuse. However, in order to cope better with its consequences, many sufferers need psychological and medical support over a long period of time. The financial support can go some way towards helping to cover these costs and returning to a better life. Obtaining such financial assistance can take a lot of time and energy. Many judicial and administrative requirements must be met to be awarded compensation. If you decide to apply for financial assistance, we recommend that you seek advice from the relevant counselling centres.

Would you like to find out more? You can find useful information about financial assistance and what specific assistance you can expect here.

Sexual Abuse – we support you if you are looking for help and information.

anonymously, free of charge and across Germany

Give us a call – even if you're unsure

Talk to the advisors of the Sexual Abuse Help Line. Your call is anonymous and free of charge.

0800 22 55 530

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The Sexual Abuse Help Line also offers advice by email. By registering, the advice service remains confidential.